No Man Is an Island
In 2010, Adele Dumont volunteered to teach English to the detainees in the Christmas Island detention centre. As she recounts these early experiences in her memoir No Man Is an Island, her earnestness and restrained excitement are palpable. Dumont was conscious of being about to experience something that few Australians ever will: the real-life consequences of Australia’s mandatory detention policy.
Not that she ever appears politically motivated. It becomes clear that the demands of her work on Christmas Island, and later in the Curtin detention centre, are simply too all-consuming to permit pursuing a strong agenda. Yet Dumont also manages to convey the powerful attraction of the job: the rare opportunity to perform concrete good in the lives of other people, and to be able to witness the results of her efforts, are powerful motivators. Even as her initial naive enthusiasm wears off and she becomes increasingly affected by the detainees’ despair and fatigue, her affection for the many friends she makes among them and deep regard for the work remain.
Dumont is a remarkably honest and thoughtful observer. She avoids valourising herself or her experiences. She describes being exhausted and frustrated, and becoming impatient with the detainees, whose demands on her can be overwhelming, even as she is painfully aware of her own immense privileges. She describes the many moments of joy and friendship she shares with the detainees, but approaches the negative experiences with the same candour.
Dumont’s writing is evocative but never obtrusive. The environment of Curtin, with its oppressive heat and big desert skies, backdrops the day-to-day life of the camp with a world that is both vivid and surreal. The strength of the writing is such that Dumont’s account sometimes feels more like a novel than a nonfiction memoir, and the reader might wonder whether the events and conversations that are described in detail are artistic reimagining or fact.
But it is this personal perspective that makes this book so powerful. Dumont never pretends to know more than she does, or use her experiences for political point-scoring. She doesn’t tell the reader that we are monsters for treating asylum seekers this way – she simply recounts, in honest, clear-eyed prose, what she saw and heard and did during her two years working in detention centres. It is all she needs to say. DV
Hachette, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Adele Dumont, No Man Is an Island". Subscribe here.