Our Spotlight On featured writer for November is Adele Dumont, a French born Sydney writer. Adele’s first book was published in July this year and deals with a topic in the forefront of public conversation, yet paradoxically, one that is also carefully hidden from public view: immigration detention centres. Through Adele’s unique perspective as English language teacher, No Man is an Island offers readers a rare glimpse inside the world of detention.
After graduating from Sydney University, Adele’s journey began when she volunteered to teach English to detainees on Christmas Island. Finding the work so rewarding, she decided to take on a permanent position at Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. During her time there Adele wrote consistently in journals, recording every detail of her daily life. After two years, Adele left with dozens of journals, which ultimately became the beginnings of her memoir.
In an environment defined by isolation, Adele describes many moments of connection and shared understanding with her students. The result is a fresh and above all human account of an often misunderstood world. We asked Adele to give us a little more insight into the creation of her memoir and her approach to writing about such a divisive issue.
Tell us a bit more about your book
When people find out I’ve written a book about asylum seekers, I think they assume they know what kind of a book it is – either some kind of political exposé, or else something with a sombre tone filled with harrowing stories… in short, something that they should read. So I guess from the outset my intention was to talk about asylum seekers in quite a different tone, the Hazara men I taught were very unassuming and very hospitable, and so I wanted my book to capture some of that warmth. I wanted to gently invite the reader into the story, rather than alienate them or shock them or preach to them.
You’ve said in other interviews that you wrote journals during your time at Curtin. What made you decide to turn them into a memoir?
I guess I felt very privileged having access to such a secretive world, and one that a lot of Australian journalists would probably kill to have access to, so it felt remiss of me not to do something with all the material I’d compiled in my journals. I also felt lucky to have been one of the very first Australians that a lot of asylum seekers had contact with; I felt like a conduit between the surreal detention world and the outside Australian world, and this struck me as an ideal place for a narrator to write from, poised between two distinct worlds.
Was it difficult to find a balance between the truth of your experiences and the politically contentious and sensitive nature of detention?
I don’t know that I’d conceive of it as a balancing act. Like any writer I was concerned to convey my experiences and feelings as authentically as I could. I didn’t feel I needed to compromise anything to be able to do that. Material that might have been deemed contentious or confidential – like details of Serco policies, or accounts of self-harm – didn’t really appeal to me, since there have already been so many inquiries into these aspects of the detention world I didn’t see the point in adding to that body of knowledge. I was much more interested in writing about the tenderness with which my students treated me, and their enthusiasm to learn English, and the process of learning about one another’s cultures, which is not particularly sensational stuff.
Do you have any plans for your next writing project? Will it be similar to No Man is an Island, or are you interested in moving in a new direction?
Well I can’t say I have any major plans, I’m working on different bits and pieces, but mainly just writing in my diary for myself. When it comes to bigger projects, you know part of me wants to write about something completely unconnected to asylum seeker issues, just because it’s been a preoccupation of mine for so long. But then part of me feels that this is one of the most urgent and important issues of our time, and that I should therefore keep on writing about it.
Do you have a regular writing routine?
Not really, though I’d like to. It just depends on what else is happening in my life. At the moment I’m working full time so I try to write on the train to work.
What advice would you give to emerging writers?
Get a mentor! I’d heard about the NSWWC mentorship program, but kept on working alone, thinking that my work wasn’t nearly ready enough to show anyone. Anyway, I eventually swallowed my pride and made contact with Emily Maguire. It was terrifying having a real-life writer read my work, but it was definitely the most valuable thing I could have done, and I’d highly recommend the experience to anyone serious about developing their craft. I’d also add that when choosing a mentor, it’s wise do some research into the different mentors (some specialise in particular genres; some really love working with emerging writers etc) and make sure that you’re working with someone whose own work you admire, that way, you will implicitly trust their advice.
Who/ What is your most inspiring:
I have to say I feel inspired by the many many writers out there whose work has not been accepted for publication, but who keep on writing. Of course I worked extremely hard to create my book, but I also know there was a good deal of good fortune involved, and that many many writers far more skillful than me aren’t as fortunate to find a readership.
Anything by Helen Garner.
Storms, especially tropical ones.
Time of day?
I’d have to say dawn and dusk (clichéd I know).
Central Australian desert.
The following is an excerpt from No Man is an Island
‘So first thing, we don’t call them detainees. They’re clients.’
Ryan is half shouting to be heard above the rain that is falling heavy as cement. He swerves and points out a blue, extraterrestrial- looking creature the size of a football, inching its way along the road. ‘Gotta watch out for robber crabs here. If you run over one it’s a five-thousand-bucks fine.’
I was expecting my manager here to be older than me, but Ryan looks like he’s in his early twenties. He has gelled hair, a wiry build, and the casual good looks of a surfer. The car is grubby and smells of wet swimmers. Despite his unexceptional appearance, I can’t help but think of Ryan as special. He has ventured out of bounds ahead of me, and he has already laid eyes on those who are – to other Australians- invisible.
‘Yeah, so like I was saying, everyone working at the centre calls them clients. It’s just a neutral term for everybody – Immigration, interpreters, officers. Oh yeah, that’s the second thing to remember. They’re not guards. They’re CSOs – client service officers. Or, just officers is fine. But yeah, not guards.’
The fact that asylum seekers are so shielded from public view means that my being given the opportunity to even glimpse them feels somehow voyeuristic. I feel privileged, and at the same time, that I am doing something illicit.
Ryan’s eye track ahead for crabs while I drink in my surroundings. It’s only four in the afternoon but the sky is almost black. The road is hemmed in either side by Jurassic- looking jungle: vines as thick as limbs strangle trees whose giant leaves are splayed out in invitation to the heavens. I can’t believe I am actually here – Christmas Island – a place so far from the mainland it is off the edge of most maps of Australia.
‘You’ll be in the high-security centre.’
‘How do they decide who goes into the high-security section?’ I ask, not sure if I should betray just how little I have been told about the centre, or about the organisation I will be working for.
‘Oh, any single adult male arrivals go to high security. Only the families and UAMs go to low security.’
‘Unaccompanied minors. Look, don’t worry if half of what I’m saying is going in one ear and out the other. I know it’s information overload. Now, the next thing is I need all you girls to look like boys. It’s really for your own protection. And for the organisation’s reputation. T-shirts are best, a couple of sizes too big. And nothing above your knees. If you haven’t got anything suitable we’ve got a basket of old stuff in the laundry. What else… no makeup, no jewellery. And nothing white either, because it’ll go see-through in the rain.’
My intense desire to gain access to the centre means that I swallow without too much thought all these rules that I might otherwise have found a little cultish. I don’t so much mind the idea of being banned from makeup, as I don’t usually wear it anyway.
We take a left, and the asphalt turns to mud. ‘The group’s got a no-nattering policy,’ Ryan continues. ‘That means we try not to say anything negative about anyone else in the group. If you have a problem, then you bring it straight to me. We’re here to keep up the clients’ spirits, so it’s really important we all stay part of the one team.’
I guess this must be the spiel Ryan gives all his new recruits, but I can’t help noticing how he emphasises the words ‘positive’ and ‘team’. Maybe he can detect my discomfort at the thought of having to slot into a group of strangers. I try to think of something to say, but am scared to come across as too inquisitive or too opinionated or too serious, or too something I can’t quite put my finger on, but which I feel is going to mark me as different from the other volunteers.
You can follow Adele on Twitter here.