We have been playing political word games over the bodies of asylum seekers in Australia lately. On the day I pick up A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers, the new minister for immigration and border control, Scott Morrison, ordered his department to use the word ''illegals'' rather than asylum seekers to describe those who arrive on our shores seeking refuge. It does not matter that they have broken no law.
Many Australians reject the word "illegal" that inspires antagonism and misleads. On the other hand, I also disliked the Labor government's press releases that flowed from its Department of Immigration and Citizenship's 24-hour digital newsroom. The last one, issued just before the old department was disappeared by the new government, confirmed the "transfer" of the 19th group of "irregular maritime arrivals" to Nauru. On arrival, the imprisoned were called ''clients'', a word that conveys a notion of choice, although the experience of indefinite detention is the opposite.
Now press releases have ceased in favour of weekly updates by the minister for "Operation Sovereign Borders''. Apart from that there is silence.
Words can demonise and they can sanitise. They can manipulate and they can normalise abuse. But words can also capture the essence of experience, send a message about shared humanity and express anger at injustice. This is the purpose of A Country Too Far, an anthology of short stories, book extracts, poems and essays edited by Thomas Keneally and Rosie Scott, both of whom are also among the 27 contributors to the book.
It is a powerful collective statement from a group of writers who Scott describes in her introduction as accepting invitations to participate "immediately with enthusiasm" and a "community and generosity" she found inspiring. One purpose of the book is to speak into political silence. As contributor Geraldine Brooks writes: "There is an ugly brilliance to this silencing … If the truth is silenced, lies can fill the space. And this is what has happened."
Other contributors include novelists Debra Adelaide, Kim Scott, Anna Funder, poets Judith Rodriguez and Ouyang Yu, and philosopher Raymond Gaita. There are some reprints of older pieces, such as Judith Wright's account of her failure to assist a young Jewish friend who was desperate to leave Hungary before the Second World War: "I meant no harm to Andrei. That is why he haunts me. More deliberate cruelties I have forgotten."
The strength of the book is its range of genres and depth of perspective across the past, present and even a dystopian future. There are reminders of the contradictions of Australia's history of white occupation and migration, including Sue Woolfe's story about her father who illegally left his British Navy ship – a criminal offence. He hid this secret and the truth about his poverty-stricken childhood from his family for the rest of his life.
There are pieces that remind us that fiction can bring alive intense moments where non-fiction might struggle. Rodney Hall's description of a father's night watch on a faltering boat ends with: "The cockroaches on deck are suddenly fighting uphill. The deadly clarify of space tilts its stars. A silky sheath of water folds in over the rail."
Like most anthologies, this is a book to pass on to others who don't necessarily share its perspective or those who do but need sustenance. But it's also a book for holding onto and dipping into again.
A Country Too Far bears witness to a deeply felt angry dissent among a minority of Australians about our treatment of asylum seekers. Others may wonder, and we must ask ourselves what has happened to create a nation in which many of its best authors – and many others in the literary community listed as supporting the project – are so divided from Australia's major political parties and many citizens.
In her introduction Scott asserts that the writers prove "through the power of their language" that workable and compassionate ideas about this human tragedy are possible. The ideas are there, but sadly the book cannot provide the political means or will to turn them into practice.
There is no easy political answer to Alex Miller's question about why our country, in which all of us are the beneficiaries of persisting Aboriginal generosity, can't make a few thousand desperate refugees welcome. "Why don't we feel betrayed and shamed as Australians and as human beings by the cruel and inhuman treatment our government is meting out to refugees?" he asks.
Funder writes in a short introduction to extracts from her novel All That I Am that it emerged out of the "personal disillusion, bordering on despair" that she felt about Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. This book meets disillusionment and despondency head-on, in ways that tap into hope. We cannot leave action to the future. As Keneally reminds us, later apologies such as the one given to stolen generations "will validate, not ease the pain" of those abused now.
A Country Too Far is part of a literary tradition in which authors attempt to face the social context in which they live. It is the role of literature to resist political word games with other words. As Rodriguez reminds us: if we accept the simple lie that asylum seekers are "illegals" who "chose their fate", the result is ''human waste''.
Rodriguez leaves us with a final question: if we accept the invitation to silence, what words should then be used to describe us?
Originally published in Guardian Australia, Oct 28 2013