Under the Wire: Detainee Activism in Australian Children's Literature

By Dudek, Debra | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Under the Wire: Detainee Activism in Australian Children's Literature


Dudek, Debra, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


  [T]he responsibility that owes nothing to my freedom is my
  responsibility for the freedom of others. There where I could have
  remained spectator, I am responsible, that is to say again, speaking.
  (Levinas 2003, p. 55)

One of the emerging sub-genres of multicultural children's literature in Australia is a body of texts that deals with detention centre narratives. Advocating for the rights of people imprisoned in Australian detention centres continues to be one of the foremost sites of political activism in Australia, and representations of such activism are finding their way into literature for children in a variety of ways, including in non-fiction texts and anthologies such as From Nothing to Zero: Letters from Refugees in Australian Detention Centres (2003), Dark Dreams: Australian Refugee Stories by Young Writers Aged 11-20 Years (2004), and No Place Like Home: Australian Stories by Young Writers Aged 8-21 Years (2005). Furthermore, novels such as Anna Fienberg's Number 8 (2006), Isobelle Carmody's Alyzon Whitestarr(2005),Alwyn Evans's Walk in my Shoes (2004), Rosanne Hawke's Soraya the Storyteller (2004), and Morris Gleitzman's Girl Underground (2004) and Boy Overboard (2002) represent characters who are or have been imprisoned in detention centres and/or are engaged in activism to protest against such imprisonment. In this paper, I shall analyse this figure of the activist protesting on behalf of detainees via the notion of cultural citizenship, looking specifically at Gleitzman's Girl Underground. I argue that an ethics of compassion must give way to an ethics of responsibility in representations of this relationship between activist and detainee in order for texts to challenge current detention centre policy and to posit a new version of multiculturalism, which relies on an ethical cultural citizenship. (1)

In his article entitled 'Globalization, National Cultures and Cultural Citizenship', Nick Stevenson argues that cultural citizenship is fulfilled when social life becomes meaningful, when practices of domination are criticised, and when 'the recognition of difference under conditions of tolerance and mutual respect' is allowed (Stevenson 1997, p.42, italics in original). He points to the need to reconcile differences within constituencies against the desire for a homogeneous national identity in order to achieve 'genuinely multicultural spaces'. For me, the most interesting aspect of his argument about cultural citizenship acknowledges the 'sense of duty and obligation we have for others, which cannot be legislated into existence', and he gestures to Jurgen Habermas's 'ethics of compassion' as a model for this duty and obligation, although he does not elaborate on this stance (Stevenson 1997, p.63). I proceed where Stevenson stops by examining how this ethics of compassion might be put to work when analysing detention centre narratives, and I argue that an ethics of compassion does not go far enough towards creating a multicultural space in which difference is respected under conditions of tolerance. Rather, an ethics of responsibility allows for such a recognition of difference that opens into responsibility for the other.

This idea of cultural citizenship is complicated in detention centre narratives, because the refugees being represented are not Australian citizens, although they are seeking to become permanent residents, if not citizens. Given that detainees have limited or no access to the rights of Australian political and cultural citizenship, it falls upon Australian citizens and permanent residents (which I shall shorten to the term 'Australians' in this paper) to protest against such conditions and to agitate for at least the respect of the human rights of asylum seekers without neglecting the potential agency of detainees. Girl Underground represents various manifestations of how Australians might protest on behalf of detainees, and, because the novel is focalised through the figure of an ethically responsible activist, readers are challenged to occupy this position, too. …

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