We here at the Brow have an enviable archive of pieces from incredible writers, some of whom have gone on to publish books. One such book is No Man Is an Island by Brow alumna Adele Dumont. Here we revisit the Brow essay that evolved into this important and challenging book.
I was employed by Serco, the monolithic company that had a duty of care over the ‘clients’, but the longer I stayed in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, the more I felt that it was the asylum seekers who were looking after me. From Sydney, the prospect of working in the Kimberley had appealed to me immensely. In my job interview over the phone, I was warned about the heat, the dust, and the fact there was 'shit-all’ to do in Derby, the nearest town to the military base on which the centre was constructed, and where I would be living. But I was lured there by a sense of adventure and an intense desire to see who exactly was being so fiercely guarded from our view.
The men detained in Curtin treated me with an immense, growing tenderness; they were protective of me in the way that I imagined older brothers would be of a younger sister. I was surprised when I first arrived to the centre that even before I had commenced lessons, the men would address me as 'my teacher’ and every day men who never attended class at all would still express thanks. But this was not some feigned deference to authority. It felt from the start something authentic and precious. If someone was talking during class when he was not supposed to, then those around would flap their hands, tut their tongues and tell him abruptly to be quiet. Sometimes when I was exhausted and needed a two-minute pause before the onslaught of the next class, I would appoint someone to be the 'officer’ and he would check everyone’s identity cards as they filed into the room so that I didn’t have to do it. Someone else would leap to clean the board, and the older men would delegate a younger one to make me some tea. At the end of the day someone would always offer to be my 'bodyguard’ and walk me to the gate.
At the same time, I felt increasingly distanced from the officers. They were on average at least twice my size. I didn’t like to meet their eyes, because I felt like I could always see something greedy flickering there. I was shy and awkward around them. I could sense their shifting when they spoke to me, trying to sound polite by omitting the swear words that their conversations were usually strewn with. The women working there seemed hardened by this work, and they were often attached to male officers. The older ones seemed instinctively suspicious of my youth and apparent naivety. I felt everyone could sense I was somehow different.
My friends had always treasured my non-conformity and my slight dreaminess, but among officers I think these qualities marked me as cold and stuck-up. One officer told me that as a young female who lacked any kind of security training, my very presence in the centre represented a security threat. Yet the very qualities that meant I was incapable of becoming close to most of my colleagues—my reserved nature, my girlishness, my not being 'loud’ or 'fun'—these were things that the men who attended my classes seemed to cherish.
Over my first few months in Curtin, I was completely consumed with trying to meet my students’ needs. I was overwhelmed by the task of teaching without any resources, by the total lack of direction provided by my managers and by the unrelenting heat. My students’ enthusiasm and thirst for learning astounded me, but at the same time their lack of education was daunting. The men, who all belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority, generally only had limited formal education: some had never attended school, many had only had a few years of primary schooling, and many (despite being multilingual) were completely illiterate in their mother tongue, Hazaragi.
But after several months of teaching the men day in and out, I realise we are making progress. Some men who are unable to read in their own languages are now able to sound out words in English in the simple stories I have created for them. They fill their notebooks with sentences, copied out over and over again: My name is Mohamed. I come from Jaghori in Afghanistan. I like English class. I don’t like fighting. They carry their notebooks with them everywhere, rolled up in their pockets. Their achievement is impossible to exaggerate: adult men learning to read with these resources, in these conditions, in this frame of mind. Others who arrived with some of the basics have built the confidence to speak. This progress felt precious. I knew that I had taught some of the men every single English word they knew. When they started to fill their mouths with new sounds and string new words together—and looked to me for approval or praise—part of me swelled with pride.
It’s Australia Day, and I have to explain to the men what this day is for. Given the language barrier, it seemed an improbable task. But still I feel obliged to avoid a version of “Australia was discovered in the year seventeen eighty-ei…” and conveniently omit anything preceding. I draw a picture of the flag on the whiteboard. I show that the corner is in fact the English flag, that the big star has seven points – one for each state, and that the other stars depict the Southern Cross.
“At night, you can see this, in the south” I say. “Which way do you pray? Okay, so that is west, so south must be that way”.
I explain how this day commemorates the first Europeans who came here, from England and Ireland. Everyone is incredulous that this journey was made by boat. The reading passage I am using for class mentions the First Fleet, Captain Arthur Phillip, convicts. We establish that a 'captain’ is the 'boat driver’, who in their experience is Indonesian, but I explain that Arthur Phillip was not Indonesian. They are curious about why prisoners came all the way to Australia. “Because England was full, so they sent them here”. I mention the nature of their crimes – maybe stealing one chicken or some bread.
“Sorry, Reza. What do you mean?”
“They were not tourists?” His friend makes an exploding sound.
“Ah! Terrorists! No, they were not terrorists,” I reply, slow to get the joke.
“Okay, next question: who were the first Australians?”
“From England and Ireland”, they answer in unison.
“Ah, but before them, who was in Australia?”
Someone knows the word 'Aborigines’. I’m surprised. Next I ask how many years Aborigines lived in Australia.
“Two hundred years”.
“No, much longer”. I prod them.
“Three hundred? … Four hundred? … Five hundred? …”
“No, no. Much longer”.
One man calls out, “10,000!” and everyone giggles.
Some turn to each other as if they have stopped understanding. I write 40,000 on the board. They tut their tongues. One of them asks why—I guess he wants to know how we have determined this information. I draw a picture of a skeleton, then trace along the inside of my arm with my finger and then point to the ground. It clicks. Someone asks, “before the dinosaurs?”
“No, after the dinosaurs, but long before white people came here. Before Mohammad, before Jesus”.
“Teacher, where they were living? In Sydney? Melbourne?”
“No, before there were no cities, not even villages. But Aboriginal people lived everywhere in Australia, in the north, on the beaches, in the forest, in Tasmania. Here too, in Curtin”. I gesture towards the window of our metal shipping container classroom. Through it, beyond the fenceline, we can see the bush. The towering gums, and the boabs, with their gnarled and swollen trunks. Everything shimmering in the dazzling light.
The men are all gazing across to the horizon, all wearing the same expressions, of something bordering on reverence. I too look out. Out of the trees some cockatoos lift like a plume of smoke. I feel in sudden awe of the fact that for thousands upon thousands of years, people not only survived here, but actually sustained a culture here. Hunted here, raised children here, dreamed here, grieved here.
As an Australian, I have become accustomed to thinking of indigenous issues as fraught with complexity. But have I been denied a different, more instinctive response? That this country’s ancient history is something wondrous? This place right here, which can feel like a forgotten place, a no-man’s land upon which we have clumsily plonked shipping containers and erected electric fences, was at one point somebody’s land, somebody’s home.
Serco has set up a sound system in one of the smaller marquees. Five or six officers are stationed around its edges, the chatter of their radios constant above the hum of the air-con: “Alpha Five, this is Alpha One, please report to Bravo Office in five mikes, over. Alpha One, this is…” Guitars lean against a microphone stand. Gradually clients enter through the zipped flap of canvas, which we keep closed in an attempt to trap the less hot air. They shake hands with each of the officers and say: “Congratulations, Happy Australia Day” and then stand beside them. The centre of the tent remains empty.
On other occasions, clients would often try to make some sort of speech, or find someone to play the damburra, and then drag one another into the middle to dance and cheer each other on. But today I sense their hesitation, because (I suspect) they think they shouldn’t intrude on ‘our’ day. They seem to be approaching it with a kind of solemnity that I don’t think it normally has among Australians, who usually spend the day relaxing at the beach, or having a barbecue.
I don’t usually celebrate Australia Day. I don’t feel a need to wave a flag or paint my face, and mostly I feel uneasy with the notion of national pride. But how can I explain this to them in such a way that they will not think I am saying, “my country is bad”, or, “Australia Day is stupid”. I don’t want them to think I take my freedom and my safety for granted, things that have caused them to cross oceans.
One of the sisters at the centre, Maria, comes over me to tell me that some visitors from Derby church are coming today. I grab some guys and tell them to come. They go via their rooms to fetch poppers and cans of drink before meeting me there.
“G’day” offers one of the visitors, a large, friendly-looking man.
Ahmad looks at me quizzically. I whisper to him: “Say hello!”
He responds: “Good afternoon sir. Welcome, welcome. You are very welcome here sir.”
Some others echo his words, their heads lowered. One of the visitors at the end of the table is only half sitting in the shade. Some of the men disappear and return shortly after carrying another whole table and place it in the shade. They beckon for the woman to sit there. Bill, the friendly looking man from the church, balances a guitar on a roll of the white beer belly that protrudes beneath his T-shirt.
We ask him to sing.
“There once was a farmer called Bold Tommy Payne/who grew some sweet Pindar and Q. 50 cane…”.
The skinny, pasty-faced man beside him takes a gum leaf and attempts to ‘play’ it by pressing it between his lips but it doesn’t really work.
The clients stand around with fixed solemn expressions on their faces. These people are guests; they have come here especially to entertain the clients, they are older men, and they are from the church. Maybe the clients assume their presence warrants the deference that might be conferred upon religious leaders in their own culture.
“Up stepped Bold Tommy six feet in the air/As he straddled that grunter he heard his pants tear…”.
More clients arrive, piling more apple juice and Coke onto the table as offerings for the visitors. They concentrate hard on the song, trying to catch any words they might recognise. Bill carries on strumming.
I wonder what the men make of this. Their own songs are haunting. Even though I can’t appreciate the lyrics, I can tell if the story is romantic or tragic. Bill’s nasal voice is grating, and I know the words are meant to be funny, but I don’t really appreciate his sense of humour. Alishah, an inquisitive young man, asks me earnestly: “What means this poem?”
I say that I haven’t heard this song before. Someone asks Bill to explain it, and he repeats the lyrics in a more drawn-out drawl: “As – he – stra – ddled – that – grun – ter – he – heard – his – pants – tear”. The clients, unable to understand anything what he says, nod appreciatively.
Back in Sydney I found it hard to talk about Curtin to other people. Like any kind of travel, it is always difficult to convey in a simple conversation the experience of being somewhere else; the process of strangers becoming friends. People can come back from trips halfway around the world and relay information about the quality of the airline meals, or the baggage allowance, or hotel rooms. They sum up months of experiences in a few words: Yeah, it was beautiful. Yeah, we had such an amazing time. Now I found myself mentioning the storms, the jetty, the flight here. People ask me questions conducive to easy answers: Where do you sleep? How many people are you teaching? What’s the temperature there now?
Some people would recount something they had seen on the news and then turn to me searchingly, as though to ask: is it really that bad? They seemed to be looking for confirmation of just how terrible the policy was, or maybe for relief – that it wasn’t so bad after all. Others would imply that the government must have its reasons for housing people in high security prisons in isolated areas. If I described something negative, then people would shake their heads in disapproval, their foreheads buckled into frowns. Many praised me for my efforts, as if working there had entailed a great personal sacrifice.
I thought about this gap between the Curtin in the media, and ‘my’ Curtin. It seemed to me this had become such a politicised and controversial issue that people were unable even to contemplate talking about the men simply as people, and not as detainees or as victims or as boatpeople.
When I thought about Curtin, I pictured the men who had become my friends. Amir, and the poems he would bring to me for marking: poems about the ocean, about longing, about homesickness. I thought about Aman, and smiled to myself when I imagined him sitting under the shadiest gums, copying out the alphabet in neat rows. Hussein, and his talent for storytelling, so that he ended up with the nickname ‘Love Story’. And young Esmatullah, who would catch grasshoppers and put them in my hair to make me scream.
Yes, this place happened to be at the intersection of enormous debates, ideas and opinions. But I was there. Curtin was also a place, and asylum seekers were my friends. Sometimes I thought this preoccupation was naïve, single-minded, or immature; that the bigger picture needed to be considered. But I also wondered whether the government and the media’s unremitting focus on sovereignty and security was blinding us to the individual and human stories; deadening our curiosity about who asylum seekers really were and why they had come here.
Whenever I heard the word 'solution’, I cringed, because these so-called solutions seemed to be aimed squarely at how 'we’ could keep 'them’ from crossing into our territory. The discourse reminded me of how people had talked about rabbits at the turn of the twentieth century; the solution back then involved constructing a fenceline that stretched from the northern to the southern edge of the continent.
I had come to cherish my life in Curtin. It is not that it was by any measure an easy place to work, or that I had grown fond of the cameras, or the fences, or that I had come to the conclusion that mandatory indefinite detention was actually okay after all. But when I walked around the camp, it was like I couldn’t see the fenceline anymore. All I could see were the men – their goodness and their sadness and their hope.
Adele Dumont was born in France and moved to Australia before her first birthday. After studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, she spent two years teaching English at the Curtin immigration detention centre. No Man Is an Island is based on her own experiences, as recorded in her personal journals. Adele lives in Sydney’s inner west.