One Australia Day in the future, the nation will apologise to asylum seekers alongside Aboriginal people for the way in which they have been mistreated, author Thomas Keneally says.
He has co-edited an anthology of 29 works of fiction, memoirs, essays and poems from an impressive collection of Australian writers, including Geraldine Brooks, Anna Funder, Raymond Gaita, Fiona McGregor, Alex Miller, Les Murray, and Christos Tsiolkas.
In A Country Too Far, they all muse on what is arguably Australia’s biggest moral quandary: the question of asylum seekers and the experience of those dispossessed.
Keneally, who won the Booker Prize for his book Schindler’s Ark, which was adapted into the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, says Australia is failing to learn from the past.
“History has always shown that if you detain people who haven’t committed a crime under international and Australian law, if you call them names to justify the locking up, and then keep the press out, these are three signs that were associated with early sinister movements on earth, and we’re doing it,” he tells AAP on Tuesday before a public speaking event in Darwin.
“As well as locking up children, which is generally considered very un-Australian.”
He and co-editor Rosie Scott sought writers who could with truthfulness and grace get to the heart of things, rather than experts, she says.
“We wanted writers to use their imagination and creativity to humanise the asylum seekers’ fate, to allow people to step into their shoes and speak from the inside of their lives.”
She said the writers tackled the project with a remarkable degree of passion, “like they were claiming their country back”.
They both agree that since the Tampa, politicians have fallen back on demonising asylum seekers to score cheap points.
“In the old days, politicians didn’t encourage us to feel hostility, they didn’t stir up the pre-existing hostility everyone has towards the stranger; it’s been a unique level of manipulation,” Keneally says.
The book is a way of using words to fight back against years of spin, three-word slogans and twisted truths, Scott says.
And although many Australians find the issue disgraceful, and many others who won’t denounce locking up asylum seekers, there’s a large group in between whose position can be shifted, she says.
Although the vast majority of visa overstayers and asylum seekers in fact arrive in Australia by plane, boat arrivals stir up an instinctive fear, she says.
“It’s the element of the unknown, it’s a sort of weird, feral invasion from people you can’t control. They’re coming in leaky boats into our coast without any kind of warning, so it’s a very primal reaction.”
“It goes back to a sense of being isolated; there has always been this feeling that the hordes are coming,” Keneally agrees.
“We’re one of the smallest countries with one of the biggest coastlines in the world and we’d have to spend half our GDP to protect it completely. These folk might bring out in us a sense of Australia’s vulnerability and unpatrollability.”
The lack of moral fortitude on the issue from both Labor and Liberals has been disillusioning, they say.
“Any regard for the asylum seeker dare not speak its name in Australian politics, and that’s what was so sinister in seeing Labor treating them entirely as a problem and not one word of acknowledgment of their humanness, of our potential responsibility to them, and of their courage,” Keneally says.
If Labor had stepped up during the children overboard crisis and denounced it loudly enough, there would have been a swing back to much more decent attitudes, Scott says.
“I think we’ll look back on this time as really dark – it will be unbelievable,” she says.
Keneally says Australia is creating damaged future fellow citizens.
“One day we’ll have them at Australia Day and we’ll be apologising,” he says.