PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani:

Behrooz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, who has been illegally detained by the Australian government in the Manus Island Detention Centre for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran. In his book, No Friend But The Mountains, Behrouz returns often to his memory of the chestnut oak tree. In his Kurdish homeland, the people found asylum within chestnut oak tree forests, while a devastating war was being waged upon them. In the searing heat on Manus Island, there aren’t any chestnut oak trees, but Behrouz does write of mango trees, which surround the detention centre. This piece, written for Behrouz, is based on the chestnut oak tree and the hope of refuge, which it carries. 

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It was just after four in the morning when I broke into Kew Gardens. It was my only option. The grounds were all fenced off, with high gates and uniformed security guards. Trees, it seems, are very precious things. 

Inside, using a map of the surrounds, I cautiously crept off the lighted paths, attempting to avoid the sound of kicked leaves underfoot. Near an outbuilding, I found my first object of interest: a mango tree. With my torchlight, I revealed more leaves, mango leaves, gathered on the ground beneath it. Working quickly, I began picking these up, every last one, including the sticks and the twigs. Collecting them in a thick sturdy bag, I silently set off in search of my second location. 

The English oak, also known as the common oak, is the most common tree species in the UK. But the chestnut oak is a much rarer thing. In Kew Gardens there is a particularly fine specimen, which was first introduced to Kew in 1843. Today it stands at over 36 metres, and has been crowned the ‘National Champion Chestnut Oak of the UK’. Its green leaves, unlike the longer, rounded edges of the mango leaf, are indented, almost perforated, in appearance. My torchlight soon picked out many of these, despatched onto a wide catchment of grass, from this giant of trees. Making a careful note of their arrangement, I began gathering them into a pile, which I placed just outside of the drop zone. In their place, I began loosely dropping mango leaves from the mango tree. When the bag was empty, I refilled it with the leaves of the chestnut oak, before retracing my steps, back to the mango tree. 

Attempting to closely replicate their natural, scattered arrangement from before, I began redistributing the chestnut oak tree leaves on the grass and roots beneath the branches of the mango tree. I took particular care and attention with this task, and after a few final leaves and twigs had been painstakingly shifted, upended and turned, I sat down, leaning back on the trunk. From here, surrounded by fallen chestnut oak leaves, now lit by the first rays of escaping sun, I imagined I was not beneath a mango tree, in a fenced-off area patrolled by security guards, but in a safe, welcoming place where one could feel free. 

***

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About Behrouz Boochani: An Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, Behrouz Boochani has been illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran and undertake a life-threatening boat journey, along with other asylum seekers. Behrouz has written: “We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge..” His book, No Friend But The Mountains, details the extreme oppression and hardships in the Manus Island Detention Centre, as a result of the Australian government’s inhumane refugee policy..

About Paul Ewen: Paul is a New Zealand writer based in London. His work has appeared in the British Council’s New Writing anthology, the Guardian, TES and Five Dials. Paul’s first novel, Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author, was described by the New Statesman as ‘a modern comic masterpiece’. The follow-up novel, Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, was shortlisted for the 2019 Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. British comedian Stewart Lee has called Francis Plug “the only writer that matters”.

Five Questions for... Vanessa Berry

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Interview by Sara Bellini:

We love zines, maps, psychogeography and archives, which is why we really wanted to speak to Vanessa Berry. She started making zines in the 1990s and is the creator of the long-running Disposable Camera, the last issue of which was published a few days ago. Besides making zines Vanessa writes a psychogeography blog Mirror Sydney, exploring “the marginal places and details of the city of Sydney” and in 2017 she also published a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps with the omonimous title.

Vanessa’s work is equally autobiographical and historical, exploring her personal relationship with place and memory as well as the stories that belong to a specific place. In the case of Australia where the pre-colonial memory of the island has been highly disregarded, Vanessa always writes “with acknowledgement of the Aboriginal lands”, reminding us that we should always be respectful of spaces that we share with others and that many others before us have respectfully preserved.

Vanessa’s newest project is a book of essays on place, memory and relationships with animals and the 20th anniversary issue of her other zine I am a Camera.

What does home mean to you?

My connection to the physical environment is strong and deeply-felt and always has been. I attribute this to being a quiet and introspective person, an observer who has always felt a kinship with the environment around me - its objects, creatures, details, changes, daily rhythms - as much as with other people. I do a lot of work at home, in a small and cluttered room amid piles of books and papers, and this is probably where I feel most at home. Although writing is also a kind of home for me, if you see me with a notebook open and I'm writing in it, know that this is when I feel most connected with the world. Perhaps that's what home means to me: feeling connected to where I am, wherever that be.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

My mental map of Sydney is made up of many such places I feel a special connection to. Generally they fall under the categories of anomalies, places of respite and places of solace. In the latter category there's a particular headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that I go to at times of significance or difficulty. The city's eastern edge is a long stretch of coastline, scalloped into bays and beaches between sandstone cliffs. The approach to this particular headland is a stretch of parkland which rises up to a rocky outcrop. I sit on the grass and watch the magpies which patrol it. A group of them live here, and whenever I am there I see them moving across the lawn, heads cocked, listening for insects under the soil. One time, when I was sitting on the rocks, they assembled in front of me and all started singing, which felt like a gift from them and from this place, which never fails to make my spirit feel lighter.

What is beyond your front door?

Having lived in the same house for almost a decade, this scene is now permanently established in my mind's eye and I could describe it to the utmost detail, however I will keep it brief: a low brick fence with a crooked front gate made of wrought iron shaped into hearts and curls. Beyond this, lining the street, is a row of native fig trees. Directly across from the house is an olive-green metal box a few metres long which I like to imagine holds the street's secrets, but is actually an electricity substation. At the corner of the yard is a hibiscus tree which is often in flower. People like to pick them as they walk past and I don't have the heart to tell them that once you do, the flowers close up very quickly.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I am writing this answer on a plane which is flying over a scene below where the land meets the sea in an outline of bays and rivers, and the sun has dispersed to an orange glow on the horizon. I'm listening to the new Gwenno album, Le Kov. Tucked into the seat pocket in front of me is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee and an issue of Elementum. My watching, for now, is all out the oval frame of the plane window, thinking about the ocean below, the atmosphere above, and how it feels to be suspended in between.

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