Literature, refugees and pumpkin pancake – Michelle Cahill on Multicultural Literature & the PNG Solution

This article was first published on Michelle Cahill’s blog Negative Capability Michelle Cahill is a poet, fiction writer and essayist. Her books include The Accidental Cage (Interactive Press, 2006), Ophelia in Harlem (Kilmog Press 2010), Vishvarūpa (5 Islands Press, 2011) and Night Birds (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series 2012). She is currently editor of Mascara Literary Review

Belawan Detention Sumatra, Indonesia: copyright Michelle Cahill
Belawan Detention Sumatra, Indonesia: copyright Michelle Cahill

About two weeks ago as editor of Mascara I was invited to meet with other arts people, the new minister for Arts and Multicultural Affairs (also Immigration) Hon Tony Burke to have some nice food and wine and, according to the invite, ‘chew the fat’ about multicultural literature, Creative Australia, and what not. Well, yes there is an election upcoming but I’m going, if for no other reason than to put a dark-skinned face to migrant writing.

So off I set on Thursday night. Over dinner I find myself quite alone as a literature nerd being completely outnumbered by producers of theatre, film, and directors of migrant arts community centres. There are several arts bureaucrats and Australia Council people there. The Minister is funny, charming, I’m enjoying the pinot noir, the chargrilled haloumi and the pumpkin pancake. A lot of issues come up about the frustrations, limitations, aesthetic considerations.

And though the public relations aspect of this can’t possibly be lost on me I make a few strident points along the lines that literature journals of cultural diversity should receive proactive support. I say that it takes too long to establish the legal entity, the creative and academic networks but when all this relies extensively on individual resources, it is destined to become exhausted. I wonder if this is what happened to Outrider, a journal of multicultural literature which Manfred Jurgensen founded and edited from 1984-1996 ( I also advocate the importance and role of books in comparison to the mainstream art forms. I suggest to the Minister that people are prepared to speak up and write about racism, that literature also needs political representation so that a discourse of resistance to the dominant narratives can inspire stories not bound by clichés, stereotypes and market agendas. I’m not going to stop believing that language too, has power.

The Minister says he likes poetry, which is nice. I drive back home. I get up next day only to read of Kevin Rudd’s PNG Solution, a signatory which is more than likely going to be bounced by the High Court should Rudd win the upcoming election. I get to thinking about the poems I’ve written about asylum.

It’s heartening to read so many writers speaking in outrage on FB and social media against the PM’s policy on asylum. The best news I’ve heard recently is that Hyat, a young Hazara refugee whom I’d met and who spent 12 months in Pontianak detention, Kalimantan and another two years in Indonesia has been resettled to New Zealand. But I fear for so many of the children and adults who are stranded and have been waiting for their cases to be processed as UNHCR struggles with internal bureaucracy and corruption. I’m aware that at the overcrowded Belawan Detention Centre where this photograph was taken, eight Myanmar Buddhist fisherman were beaten to death in April this year.

– Michelle Cahill



  1. Yes, I am not suggesting otherwise, Jal. I thought it was obvious by what I wrote. There is no decent separation or protection between Muslim and Buddhist, enemy and enemy, physically deprived men and children whose mothers are exhausted,hungry. Until a child is a registered as a refugee they may not have received food coupons so families are dividing their rations. Even as a doctor, what I witnessed there was inhumane beyond words. And I feel bad that I have not written more about it. When people are kept in limbo under these conditions violence, assault, self-harm, extreme psychological trauma takes place. Some parents told me how their children heard these beatings and of the sickness they suffered, the nightmares, the typhoid. Who knows? It may be better to be dead. And yes there were many children, even babies there.The ones who decide to take a risk cannot bear it. They let fate decide. They buy their way if they can get a loan from IMF.

    That is why quick fix solutions will not stop the boats. These people need to be treated with basic human dignity. Until governments take action to deal with the real problems of how cases are being processed I think we will continue to witness these terrible human tragedies.

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