‘Now What? A Review of They Cannot Take the Sky’, by Shirley Le


They Cannot Take the Sky is a collection of first-hand accounts of mandatory detention. I read the stories on the way to work, sitting on the Bankstown Line train among other city-bound commuters. One morning, a suit who gets on at St Peters sits beside me. His musky cologne is so strong that I can taste it in the back of my throat. From the corner of my eye, I watch him swiping through Facebook on his iPad. Peter Dutton calling the Lebanese-Australian refugees of the 1970s a ‘mistake’. Pauline Hanson’s #prayformuslimban. Proposed changes to 18C. Suit taps the screen with a slender finger and shares the final article to his Facebook page with approval.

Meanwhile, in They Cannot Take the Sky, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist who fled Iran in 2013, relates what it’s like for him when he tries to speak his mind in Australia:

I wrote a statement for a rally in Australia and I wrote that the Australian government is a fascist government. One of the advocates sent me a message: ‘Behrouz, please if it’s possible, do you want to take out “fascist” because if we read this for people in the rally, people will feel bad.’ I was thinking for two days, How can I take out this concept? It was hard for me, because I deeply believe that the Australian government is fascist. I finally sent a message to her and said, ‘Okay, take it out.’ That was very hard for me.

Boochani’s account not only sheds light on the injustice inflicted by our government’s policies but also on that inflicted by supposed ‘refugee advocates’. This leads me back to the project of the book itself.

Collected and edited by oral history organisation Behind the Wire, They Cannot Take the Sky posits itself as a crucial voice amid the catchy tweets of the right’s elite and the armchair activism of those who kind-of-care-but-not-really. This is a collection of stories that demands readers examine the part that they play in the human rights crisis created by successive governments’ infamously cruel refugee policies. Christos Tsiolkas writes in the foreword:

I am grateful to every single one of the narrators for sharing their world with me. And of course, there is witnessing and testament. The witness to what we have done and the testament to what we could be. This is why this book is necessary.

The reviews printed on the press release and on the first two pages of the book follow the same line: that this book is necessary and the stories contained within its pages will make you feel extremely confronted as an Australian.  

With the latter I agree. I experienced guilt, shock, and shame while reading this book. Jamila Jafari, who was detained on Christmas Island recalls:

I think they gave us a piece of paper and a few coloured pencils to occupy us with. And, I mean, it should have been something enjoyable to do but what was I supposed to draw? Razor wire all around me?

Ariobarzan, a refugee who arrived on Christmas Island after 19th July 2013, a cut-off date imposed by the government for the resettlement in Australia, writes: “I faced worse mental torture compared to the intelligence prisons in Iran. We have been under severe mental torture for three years … What sort of democracy is this?” The crippling of detainees’ hope and freedom is suffocating to read. So much so that I found myself only able to read a maximum of three stories per day. As a writer, I cannot fathom being able to produce work in such dehumanising and creatively debilitating conditions. As a reviewer of the text, I find myself unable to play the part of the cool and disinterested critic questioning structure and word play. The urgency of the greater issue at hand is overwhelming.

But I do want to unpack why this collection of stories has been deemed "necessary", as Tsiolkas puts it, and whether the need for the Australian public to hear refugee stories eclipses questions of who facilitates the publication of these stories. It is interesting to note that an extract of Tsiolkas’s foreword to the book was published on The Guardian’s website in March this year as a standalone text. The Guardian has tagged the article with the following: “Nauru/Manus/Australian politics/extracts.” A click through each tag shows other articles that have also been tagged by these words or phrases. Under the tags “Nauru” and “Manus”, the articles are dominated by statements by Peter Dutton on the need to exercise a “tough stance” on immigration, or the views and activities of human rights groups advocating for refugees. Very few of the articles contain anything from the perspective of past or current detainees. Should you wish to search these topics under the Google News tab, this absence is replicated across the media’s coverage of refugee issues. Why are non-refugee voices consistently being privileged over refugee voices?

My position is as follows: I am not a refugee. I have never been at the mercy of Australia’s current immigration and detention policies. As an emerging writer, I am benefiting professionally from engaging in a hot button issue. The stories from They Cannot Take the Sky still haunt me but that does not excuse me from being implicitly involved in the current system. I point out these uncomfortable truths because I wish to highlight the surfacing tension behind the publication of refugee stories. RISE (Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees), the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, posted a message from an ex-detainee and RISE member on their website in early 2016. It read, in part:

In recent times I have witnessed there are so many non-refugees collecting and publishing our stories to ‘humanise’ our struggles. There are some underlying issues about many storytelling platforms created by non-refugees and mostly white people. One should question and thoroughly examine these issues and question those who control and transmit our stories … Finally – fellow ex-detainees and detainees, it is not only the governments; the refugee sector has polarised us and damaged us. It is about their interest rather than our lives – what have we achieved last twenty years in Australia? Nothing – because the refugee sector is headed by non-refugees last two decades. Stop letting others to dominate our lives and tell us ‘how we should live and what we should do.’ We ex-detainees and detainees should build strong solidarity within us and create our own movements and decolonise our mind.

The whole post, which can be read here, highlights the eerie power dynamic between non-refugee advocates and refugees themselves. It also rightfully questions the intentions behind the non-refugee facilitators of refugee stories. The facilitators of They Cannot Take the Sky address the above concerns in the afterword of the book (anonymity and legal advice were also afforded to interviewees when requested). Those who were interviewed consented to sharing their stories and were able to withdraw this consent at any given moment. It appears that, at the very least, the basic requirements in the process of interviewing were satisfied.

The intentions of the facilitators of the book are aligned with Behind the Wire’s broader objectives. According to the organisation’s website, their aim is to create an “oral history project” (comprising of They Cannot Take the Sky, a podcast, and an exhibition) that will “place the voices, faces and perspectives of asylum seekers, which are rarely represented in public debates on refugee issues, at the centre of the discussion.” And the book clearly does situate the lives being damaged by Australia’s immigration policies at the centre of the discussion; however, the question that RISE poses still stands: what have we achieved on this issue in the last twenty years in Australia? Nothing. Groups and writers who ‘collect’ refugee stories may continue winning awards and accruing praise for their work but the most urgent and necessary action—shutting down detention centres immediately—remains un-actioned.

Hence whether or not They Cannot Take the Sky is a ‘necessary’ book remains debatable. I would argue that the facilitation of refugee stories by non-refugees is not necessary. What is truly necessary is for Australians to take action and demand our governing bodies to listen. Contact those who represent you and demand their immediate attention to the torturing of innocent persons in our detention centres. Do not allow They Cannot Take the Sky to simply be another book you have read this year.  

Shirley Le is a member of the Sweatshop Writers Collective with a degree in Media from Macquarie University. She has worked in radio – producing youth shows for SBS Vietnamese Radio and has curated events for TEDxYouth. She won first prize in the ZineWest 2014 Writing Competition and has been published in SBS Online and The Big Black Thing. She has also performed her writing at Studio Stories, the Wollongong Writers’ Festival and the Campbelltown Arts Centre for the 2017 Sydney Festival exhibition of Another Day in Paradise.