Books

Emma Larking (ed.)
We Refugees

The problems of the world have become so urgent that it seems we have finally moved beyond tired arguments about whether literature should be political or apolitical. Literature and activism now go hand in glove, as evidenced by literary responses to the refugee crisis – a crisis that, in this country, has been exacerbated by Australia’s contravention of its international obligations to protect the human rights of asylum seekers. We Refugees, edited by the refugee activist Emma Larking for the activist publisher Pact Press, is a short but striking anthology of writing about the refugee crisis around the world.

One of the notable features of this anthology is its stylistic variety. The anthology opens with a stunning poem by Robbie Gamble, an American poet and nurse who provides medical support to Mexican migrants passing through the Sonoran Desert. The poem offers an unforgettable vision of refugees attempting to cross into Arizona after nightfall, venturing “across the threshold / of the unimaginable, / as darkness / scrubs the rockfaces of all / traces of afterglow”.

A piece by the Sudanese–Australian contributor Akuol Garang is less poetic but no less powerful. In “My Name Is Monica Akur”, Garang imagines her mother’s experience as a teenager, walking for months to seek refuge in an Ethiopian refugee camp. There, she gives birth to and loses her firstborn son, before facing persecution and having to flee back to Sudan. Because she is not among thousands killed, she considers herself “lucky”.

Another highlight is Kirsty Anantharajah’s “On Belonging”, an essay by a human rights lawyer who describes herself as a “Tamil member of the Australian public”. The author’s avoidance of the label Sri Lankan Australian, despite being born in this country, is pointed. She asks: “How can I be a member of the public who feels exhilarated at political calls to ‘stop the boats’?” Like many others in our society, she chooses to trade “belonging” for something “more humane”: a solidarity with asylum seekers, often based on shared histories of vulnerability.

Purchasing We Refugees will support the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, but it will also enrich readers, through individual testimony and imagination, with a greater understanding of the refugee crisis and a deeper appreciation of our common humanity.

Maria Takolander

Pact Press, 84pp, $19.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Emma Larking (ed.), We Refugees". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Maria Takolander