Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 340 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The Australian Government’s shameful policy on immigration detention has been chronicled from the refugee’s point of view (see here and here), but what of the person on the “right” side of the wire — the prison guard?
Avan Judd Stallard’s novel Spinifex & Sunflowers tells the story of a young man who takes a job as a guard at an immigration detention centre in Western Australia.
Nick is a drifter, who has a troubled relationship with his family and needs a job to pay off a debt. Despite a lack of formal qualifications and little enthusiasm, he accepts a job with a contractor as a “refugee-prison guard” for which he is paid handsomely.
The book charts his so-called training (“Skippy could take my place at training and I doubt I’d miss much”), the relationships he develops with his colleagues — all poorly educated, with little to no passion for the task at hand and certainly no empathy for the people they’re “guarding” — and his long, monotonous 12-hour shifts at the “refugee prison”, where everything is reduced to preposterous levels of control. One of his tasks, for instance, is guarding a cordial machine to ensure prisoners don’t drink more than their allotted amount of liquid.
The tale reads like something Kafka might have dreamt up, but it’s rooted in reality, for Spinifex & Sunflowers is based on the author’s own experience working at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia for several months. (Somewhat ironically, this is where Dr Munjed Al Muderis, one of the refugees who has written a book about his experience, was held.)
What Avan Judd Stallard presents in this book is an eye-opening account of a hidden world filled with petty cruelties, stupid rules and a cold-hearted attitude to real people.
It’s graphic and confronting in places, written in a blunt, choppy prose style using crude language designed to reflect the narrator’s machismo. Female colleagues are sexually objectified, there are brawls in pubs and a lot of hard drinking; everything, including the desert landscape, is harsh and confronting.
But for all its crudity, the book has an empathetic heart, for Nick has a conscience, a strong moral compass and sees the refugees in his care as human beings rather than numbers. He befriends them and learns about their lives and cultures in ways that are forbidden by the powers that be.
He also begins to see that he shouldn’t judge all his colleagues by appearances alone; some are good people who have simply become trapped by bad decisions or circumstances beyond their control.
We are all human
The overriding message of the novel is that we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect; it is the system and the policies that strip away dignity and pit people against each other.
It asks important questions about the ways in which we treat people fleeing persecution from their homelands, people who have every right to safe asylum but who have become caught up in a system that treats them inhumanely and strips them of their dignity. There but for the grace of God go I.
Spinifex & Sunflowers is grunge literature at its best. It might make for uncomfortable reading, but it deserves to be read by a wide audience. It was longlisted for the 2019 Colin Roderick Literary Award. You can read a sample chapter here.
I read this as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page.