At 8.40am on April 30, 2018, Safa Annour was led off a bus in the Canberra suburb of Griffith. At 1.50pm she was taken to Canberra Hospital. She died that afternoon, 19 days short of her third birthday. The cause of death was internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma. The police believe she was murdered.
Almost six years on, that remains Safa’s story, as Dan Jervis-Bardy writes in “What Happened to Safa Annour?”, one of nine pieces of long-form journalism collected in Stories That Want To Be Told.
“How can it be that a toddler is seen on a public bus in the morning, is dead that afternoon in a suspected murder and, years on, authorities cannot or will not say what happened, let alone bring a perpetrator to justice?”
Jervis-Bardy, then a journalist at The Canberra Times, started to investigate the story. He confirmed Safa’s family was from Sudan.
Members of Canberra’s Sudanese community were reluctant to talk, as were the police. The journalist persisted and when he published a story on January 9, 2023, it was “the first media reporting about Safa in 1317 days”.
“The more I learned, the more tragic the story became,” Jervis-Bardy writes. “The more I uncovered, the more I understood why there was silence.”
At the time of writing this review, that silence remains in place.
Safa’s story is sad, as are most of the articles in Stories That Want To Be Told, an anthology published under The Long Lede Initiative established by Penguin Random House, the Judith Neilson Institute and the Copyright Agency.
The initiative is an investment in long-form journalism in the X and TikTok era. The articles are written by emerging journalists under the mentorship of senior journalists, who introduce each piece. Jervis-Bardy was mentored by the ABC’s Michael Brissenden.
The treatment of refugees from war-torn countries is a common theme. In “Fighting On”, Liz Gooch speaks to two young female athletes from Afghanistan.
Zahra was a member of the national judo team and had Olympic dreams. With the Taliban back in control, she is banned from playing sport. She still trains, in secret, but “when I go outside, I cover myself from head to toe. I don’t even show an inch of skin on my body”.
Fatima was a member of the national junior taekwondo team. Unlike Zahra, she was able to leave. She now lives and trains in Melbourne but cannot represent her birth country or her adopted country at the Olympics.
Both Zahra and Fatima hold on to their dreams. Fatima plans to seek Australian citizenship; a postscript to Fatima’s story offers hope.
Hessom Razavi, a Perth-based, Iranian-born ophthalmologist who worked in Australian offshore detention centres, writes the most accomplished piece in the collection.
In “The Best Way Out Is Always Through”, a title borrowed from a Robert Frost poem, Razavi starts with a simple message: “Australia needs to lift its game on refugees and asylum seekers.”
He analyses why the present approach does not work, with a particular focus on temporary visas and offshore processing, and offers solutions. He champions Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, a version of which is being trialled in Australia.
“Australia must shift its focus away from deterrence and detention towards responsibility-sharing. The refugee crisis isn’t going away. We can’t aspire to let the whole world in, but nor can we stonewall it forever.”
Other articles include Claire Keenan on abandoning her Catholic faith; Esther Linder on the complex supply chains that bring our food from field to supermarket; Wing Kuang on the challenges of sex education in culturally and linguistically diverse communities; and Arlie Alizzi on transgender people participating in the sport of powerlifting.
Regarding gender fluidity, Sam Elkin’s “The Extraordinary Edward: A Life Stripped Bare” is a fascinating account of Edward De Lacy Evans, who was assigned female at birth and who lived as a man in 19th-century Australia, starting on the Victorian goldfields.
He married three times, the first in 1856 “now considered the first known queer Australian nuptial ceremony”, and had children. The author notes that “due to his anatomy, we can safely assume Evans was not the biological parent”.
This, too, is a sad story, one that involves headlines – “The Queerest of Cranks” – hospitals, mental institutions and cruel-mindedness towards queer relationships.
With that in mind, I’ll finish with a happy story: “On Cups”, written by Penny Craswell under the mentorship of Ceridwen Dovey. This essay, which concludes with a cheerful poem, is a mini history of cups. The writer shares her mentor’s emotional attachment to inanimate objects.
“There is something comfortingly intimate about a cup. There is perhaps no other object to which we touch our lips more often.”
The Greek philosopher Diogenes has a humorous walk-on role. The highlight, though, is a teacup that fused with a bit of a telescope when a 2003 bushfire burnt down Mount Stromlo Observatory in the ACT. That hybrid object now sits in the National Museum of Australia.
This book identifies an important need. Long-form journalism does matter; these stories should be told. All of the articles could use more work – there’s overwriting, tenuous connections, failures to make a firm point – but the fact they are being written and published at all is something worth celebrating.
Vintage, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Judith Neilson Institute".
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