They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention

Michael Green, Angelica Neville, André Dao, Dana Affleck, Sienna Merope

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention
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They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention

Michael Green, Angelica Neville, André Dao, Dana Affleck, Sienna Merope

For more than two decades, Australia has locked up people who arrive here fleeing persecution - sometimes briefly, sometimes for years. In They Cannot Take the Sky those people tell their stories, in their own words. Speaking from inside immigration detention on Manus Island and Nauru, or from within the Australian community after their release, the narrators reveal not only their extraordinary journeys and their daily struggles but also their meditations on love, death, hope and injustice. Their candid testimonies are at times shocking and hilarious, surprising and devastating. They are witnesses from the edge of human experience.

The first-person narratives in They Cannot Take the Sky range from epic life stories to heartbreaking vignettes. The narrators who have shared their stories have done so despite the culture of silence surrounding immigration detention, and the real risks faced by those who speak out. Once you have heard their voices, you will never forget them.

Behind the Wire is an oral history project about Australian immigration detention. See more at: behindthewire.org.au

Review

Australia’s immigration policy for asylum seekers is frequently debated in our media and homes, and yet, something crucial is too often passed over during these discussions. In his foreword to They Cannot Take the Sky, author Christos Tsiolkas writes: ‘…we forget that the asylum seeker and the refugee is a real person, with a real body and a real consciousness, that they are has human as we are.’ They Cannot Take the Sky is an antidote to this omission.

The book has been created by Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting the stories of those who have been detained by the Australian government after seeking asylum in Australia. They Cannot Take the Sky brings together a collection of first-person accounts from detainees, and the meticulous process for compiling these accounts (detailed in the final pages of the book) demonstrates Behind the Wire’s commitment to allowing narrators as much control over their stories as possible. This freedom of expression is clear in the diversity and rawness of these stories, which are all the more shocking – given the way in which asylum seekers are often depicted – for their lack of guile. Common themes emerge from the cacophony of voices, and I was particularly moved by the number of stories that clearly showed how the detention process also functions as an erasure of identity. They Cannot Take the Sky is a powerful act of resistance against this process.

The polyphonic nature of this work brings to mind the writings of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich; They Cannot Take the Sky too is an urgent and necessary oral history that rejects the ‘official narrative’ for a different truth. The narrators’ stories are a form of bearing witness, and we are being asked to do the same in turn. Because despite the admirable work of journalists and organisations to expose the institutional abuse and neglect that takes place in mandatory detention (the Guardian’s Nauru files being one such example), Australia’s centres endure, and so too does the silence that surrounds them. In the book’s afterword, the editors from Behind the Wire write that some narrators withdrew their consent for their stories to be published out of fear of retribution. This fact highlights the very real risk the contributors have taken to share their stories in this essential book. I urge every Australian to read it.


Bronte Coates is the digital content coordinator and the Readings Prizes manager.

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