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Fixing Australia

Australia is broken. Democracy has holes in it, cracks in it, and it needs fixing. Since the 2004 Federal election we know that our government is not going to fix it. I think we need to do that fixing, and this blog is a start of getting some ideas together.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Tony Kevin: "Another Country: Writing from Exile"

By Tony Kevin
Melbourne Writers' Festival panel
22 August 2004

Chaired by Arnold Zable

Tony Kevin spoke around this prepared text, later published in Issue No. 4, October 2004, of the newsletter of the Melbourne Centre of International PEN. It is reproduced here by permission of Melbourne PEN. Other panellists were Eva Sallis, Cheikh Kone and Xiaolu Guo.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!
...and so on!

Many of the people I have tried to engage with the SIEV X story over the past two years may have felt like Coleridge's wedding guest being importuned by The Ancient Mariner. They didn't want to hear but, fascinated in spite of themselves, they were unwillingly forced to...

Another example, taken from Samantha Power's book on genocide: Jan Karski, a young Polish diplomat and Holocaust eyewitness who escaped to the United States during WW2. He met with Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who graciously heard his account of the horrors he had seen in Nazi-occupied Poland. Frankfurter then replied, "I don't believe you." He then clarified "I do not mean that I think you are lying. I simply said I cannot believe in the possibility of what you are telling me." The judge could not conceive of the atrocities Karski was describing.

Like Karski and The Ancient Mariner, I have been trying for the past two years to tell an important but unwelcome story to my fellow Australians about ourselves: a task that has made me into a kind of "internal exile", a species familiar from Russian literature.

For we are talking about societies reluctant to hear bad news about how they operate. One could argue that serious writing, if it challenges society, is always written from a kind of exile. This is not a literary conceit - because I have lived through this now.

SIEV X has been so big and confronting a story that the natural instinct of many has been to push it away. And that instinct has also pushed me away, into a kind of internal exile.

The Ancient Mariner was a man with a message from exile. He had to be urgent, insistent, even rude: he held them with his glittering eye: "there was a ship, said he" ... Finally, he got their reluctant attention.

Today, he would have had to write a book. The attention span of our newspaper and television media, the three-day news cycle, is too brief to handle a story of this strength.

A feeling akin to helpless rage has so often come over me in the past two years - why won't you engage with this story? Because this story is about our Australian Government quite possibly implicated as a criminal accessory in, and certainly covering up through misleading and false evidence about, the deaths of 353 innocent people.

My urgency, my rage, could in the end only be assuaged by writing my book [A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X, Scribe Books, August 2004]. Finally I can enjoy some peace, a sense of a necessary job having been done, of a sacred trust to the victim families having been fulfilled to the best of my ability. It is a burden lifted at last.

The interesting question now is what effect this book will have. Will it reach the mainstream Australian reading public? To this point [22 August 2004] there have been no reviews in any major newspaper or magazine. I suspect the book will be a slow burner. Its significance will gradually creep up on us. [The book has since been widely reviewed - TK 23.10.2004].

In the hope of getting some kind of attention for the book, I went outside Australia - to Noam Chomsky, who wrote the powerful tribute that appears on the back cover:

"With impressive courage and determination, Tony Kevin has unearthed the grim and deeply moving story he recounts in this remarkable book".

There have been similarly generous tributes by book-launchers Julian Burnside, Margo Kingston and William Maley.

Writers trying to tell society something it is not keen to hear have to try to write well. I think of some examples: Orwell's and Dickens' exposes of working-class poverty in England, Zola's condemnation of French anti-Semitism in J'Accuse, Harriet Beecher Stowe's indictment of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Such writers broke out from internal exile because their work was so good. They built bridges between what they believed about human dignity, and the prevailing values of the more complacent societies they were living and working in. It was harder for the C19 Russians. Many failed to bridge the gap, and wrote unpublished work "for the drawer", but some of them - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoeyevsky - succeeded.

That is what I tried to do in writing A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X. I knew it would be an unpalatable message to many in the mainstream: I tried to write it well. I tried to convey a message to and about the people who died on SIEV X, the survivors, and those who waited for them in Australia in vain: that their lives are worth something, that they have important meaning.

And I tried to say to my fellow Australians that we must never again try to deter so-called 'people smuggler' voyages of unauthorised boat people to Australia by such murderous means: setting up covert Government disruption programs under which people died, and by instructing our ADF to set aside their humanitarian obligations to strive to protect life in the case of such people.

That is a big message. In our society it is easier to get across small messages than big ones. Talk about government-falsified Navy photographs of a sea rescue, and you will be heard. Talk about drowned children in Australia's maritime area of duty of care, and it is a lot harder to be heard.

This is because stories of such magnitude challenge our presumption of ourselves. They force us to look over the edge and down into the abyss.

This has been my story over the past two years: trying to tell an important Australian story, about the sinking of a boat in waters our government was responsible for at the time under a proclaimed border security operation.

I try in my book to give an account, based firmly in the existing public record, that raises disturbing questions: were Australian government, defence and police agencies implicated in actions that contributed to the deaths of 353 asylum-seekers on the boat that I named SIEV X?

In writing this book, whatever its literary merit may be, I think I have become part of the tradition of books written from internal exile. For I did not write this book only for human rights campaigners and refugee rights activists. I also wanted - hoped - to reach the unconvinced middle ground of Australia.

Like the recent Group of 43 statement calling for a restoration of truth in Australian governance, my book advances a "revolutionary" proposition: that if Australia had anything to do with the deaths of these 353 people who had committed no crime in trying to come here to seek asylum as refugees, this needs to be fully investigated in a judicial inquiry.

Saying that has made me a kind of internal exile in my own city Canberra and in my own country. I now understand better what it felt like for dissident writers in the softer, late Communist period in Eastern Europe. They were no longer in gulags, but their integrity was abused, they were socially shunned, and they were denied work for which they were qualified. They were in internal exile. That has to some degree also happened to me.

Why the anger, why the exclusion? Because writers in internal exile are telling stories that most people involved in their countries' state apparatus do not want to hear - cannot stand to hear, if they are to remain comfortable in their jobs. They need to hold onto the belief that their government is basically decent, that police and government officials and military service professionals would not do bad things, that if they were given such orders they would defy them. People need to keep those blinkers on, because if they do not, they look down into the abyss. That is why the Abu Ghraib torture disclosures in US-occupied Iraq were so frightening, more so than the course of the Iraq invasion itself.

Am I overstating this? I don't think so. All my experience over the past two years has been that most Australians are really frightened of big stories about official misconduct or evildoing. We try to trivialise them, to turn them into stories about more minor transgressions - misrepresented official photographs, alleged "intelligence failures". Or we ignore them.

We cannot confront the really big questions: Why HMAS Adelaide risked over 200 human lives at sea during 24 hours of illegal towing of the stricken SIEV 4, why our Foreign Minister did nothing to tell us the public about intelligence warnings given to him that had obvious relevance to Australian holiday-makers in Bali, why our ADF forces invaded Iraq 30 hours before the Prime Minister told our Parliament that our ADF was now at war in Iraq?

All these stories are so big that we push them away. And the sinking of SIEV X was the biggest story of them all.

Tony Kevin



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