New memoir released about Australia’s detention centres

“This is the book about immigration detention all Australians need to read.”

So says the press about the recently released memoir, No Man Is an Island by Adele Dumont. It tells of her time working as a young English teacher in Australia’s detention centres. It’s such an important topic in both Australia and around the world right now – and Adele’s unique insight brings a new perspective. We had a chat to Adele about the book last month, just before its release.

Hi Adele. So, for those who haven't read your book yet, can you tell us what it's about?
“My book is a true story, inspired by the many asylum seekers I met while teaching English in detention centres. I started off as a volunteer on Christmas Island, and strange as it may sound, fell in love with my life there. After a few months, Serco offered me a contract to work in Curtin (in the Kimberley, WA) and so I jumped at the chance, and ended up staying there a good two years.”

So, what kind of vibe does the book have?
“I think most people assume that a narrative set in a detention centre is going to be very dark and make for pretty harrowing reading. My own personal experience however was – for the most part – extremely rewarding, I guess because as a teacher I was able to provide a sense of purpose to people who were in otherwise pretty hopeless circumstances. After English classes I used to spend hours drinking tea with the so-called ‘clients' and a lot of the book revolves around the kinds of conversations we'd have over our tea. In the book I've tried to convey not only my unfolding understanding of my students' own Afghan Hazara culture, but also their fascination with my Australian ways.”

How did the idea for writing this book form?
“From the minute I set foot on Christmas Island, I felt incredibly privileged to have access to a world that is so shrouded in secrecy and controversy. I had this really strong impulse right from the start to capture bits and pieces of this secret world through writing. Some two and a half years later, when I eventually left Curtin, I had about a dozen full journals. Despite this wealth of material, figuring out what form a book could take was a real struggle.”

And what form did it take?
“I didn't want to write another book decrying detention centres, because I knew that there were dozens of inquiries and reports already out there, all testifying to the negative impact of Australia's policy of indefinite detention. And even though I'd spent so long in Curtin, I didn't feel like I was an authority on asylum seeker policy or that I was equipped to offer any particular ‘solutions'. Given that I was writing about people who'd been denied a voice, I was also very wary of speaking on behalf of asylum seekers. It actually took me a while to realise that the one thing I was an authority on was my own experience, and so I decided to use my own personal journey as an overarching narrative framework.”

Is there one asylum seeker story or narrative that stands out the most to you?
“Not really … I mean most asylum seekers I met could probably write an entire book about their pasts, and about their own long journeys here to Australia. When I was in Curtin, quite a few men would bring me pieces of writing so I could correct their spelling and their grammar. As a result I got to read all these fragments of their lives – so much of it was so dramatic and tragic that it really did read like the stuff of literature.

“One of the central characters in my book is a young man called Esmatullah. In the book we get glimpses into his past; he talks about his village, where the first time he heard gunfire he was shocked, but then eventually he got used to the sound. He talks about having to dismantle land mines buried around his village. He describes crossing the Iranian border at night and then being caught by police and beaten, and then crossing a second time. If you met Esmatullah, you'd probably think he was a regular, easy-going and jokey kind of a guy. I don't think you'd guess at all the stories within him…”

Can you tell us about the process of taking your personal experience and crafting it into an accessible narrative?
“In my last months in Curtin, I remember fantasising about the new bohemian writing life I'd have on my return to Sydney. I was pretty shocked by the reality – shocked by the enormous effort writing required, and the blind faith I needed to sustain in myself. To be honest, for quite a while I saw this struggle as proof that I was obviously not cut out to be a writer, and felt like a total impostor.

“A real turning point for me was getting a mentor – Emily Maguire. I was very nervous  about showing my manuscript to a writer as masterful as Emily, but from the very start she had great faith in my book. It was invaluable having such a careful reader to guide me through the writing process.”

Do you have a writing routine?
“I wouldn't say I really have a ‘typical day' or a ‘routine'… Basically I worked out early on that for me personally, trying to write from home is a mistake because my bedroom is usually a total mess and plus I get too easily distracted. Instead, I have a clutch of cafes and libraries, and I'll cycle to particular locations depending on my mood and what I'm working on. Sometimes I like to be somewhere busy and eavesdrop on people between writing. Other days I need somewhere quieter. I've now got an intimate knowledge of all the cafes in the inner west where they don't mind people taking up a table for several hours and only ordering one or two coffees. I usually have a pretty healthy diet, but if I'm struggling to write I bribe myself with cake or junk food.”

We think many aspiring writers will relate to that! So, what's next for you?
“I've just started a new primary teaching job, so that's pretty occupying. In terms of writing, I'm not really working on anything in particular. Just reading lots and really enjoying the fact that my book has finally been released into the world.”

You can read an extract of Adele’s book here.

And it’s available here.

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