Today it was announced Behrouz Boochani, a refugee imprisoned on Manus Island had been awarded the 2019 Victoria Prize for Literature. Is this appropriate?
Firstly let me set the trolls straight before they emerge from the darkness. I am a New Zealander, I am not an Australian citizen, while I am a permanent resident I remain in Australia so long as I dont break the law. If I break the law Peter Dutton will smile as he signs my deportation order. As a migrant, albeit a legal one, I don’t believe in the imprisonment of people seeking something better in life. I accept Australia has a right to process immigrants and deport those with undesirable backgrounds however I believe they should be processed on the mainland, and not in a prison environment.
My concern is not with Boochani’s background or whether he is an illegal immigrant. My concern is with the waiving of conditions of entry to the Victorian Prize for Literature. Boochani is not an Australian citizen nor is he a permanent resident. Why should the conditions of entry be waived?
The argument that his work was good enough to justify the award doesn’t stack up. As conditions of entry are set independent of talent. I have no doubt there are many talented writers, also not compliant with the conditions of entry. Will the rules be put aside next year to enable them to enter? Maybe, if the topic is controversial enough!
How do the other writers, that entered the awards because they met the entry conditions, feel about this? Maybe their work was not up the standard of Boochani’s, but again that wouldn’t have been known at the point the decision was made to waive the conditions of entry for Mr Boochani. If Mr Boochani hadn’t been granted an exemption then we would never have been able to compare the quality and another writer would have been granted the award. For the winner there is a lot of prize money at stake, yet in this instance that prize money will go to someone that won the award by default.
A few years ago as the organiser of an art event I made an arbitary decision to extend the entry deadline. The outcry from artists that had sent their work in by the due date was immediate, and in hindsight, understandable. When artists enter awards they do so with an expectation the winner will be judged on quality, and that until such a decision is made, all entries are equal. I feel that knowing this may not always be the case might lead to artists losing confidence in the award.
The Wheeler Centre which administers the Victorian Literary Prize has opened itself to a claim of discrimination, of selective entry, by applying an exemption that it probably would not have offered to another writer of a less controversial topic.
The Wheeler Centre have used their platform to engage in activism, which they are entitled to do however I believe in doing so they have crossed a line, from being impartial to engaging in selective bias.
I don’t know, Mr Boochani. I haven’t read his book. I wish he wasn’t imprisoned on Manus Island. I hope that one day he achieves full Australian citizenship and is awarded prizes not only because he is a talented writer, but also because exceptions were not applied to enable him to enter.
My concern is with the process. It borders on dishonesty and a lack of transparency, ironically some of the characteristics the Wheeler Centre would advocate against in their stand against immigrant imprisonment; because that is where they have moved to, away from being an unbiased arbiter of high quality writing, to being an advocate against imprisoned immigrants.
I hope Mr Boochani receives his award and the money that goes with it. He wrote the book, he was allowed to enter, it was judged worthy of the prize and he deserves to get the reward.
It’s worth remembering, that had the entry criteria not be put aside in this instance, Mr Boochani’s book would not have been judged the winner.
This article was written by John Coxon, publisher of art4u.australia and represents his personal opinion.