Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Canary in the Coalmine [April 16]

It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night and I’m doing laps at the Melbourne City Baths with a polystyrene model of an island strapped to my head. There are a dozen island-wearers in the other lanes, being cheered on by an audience up in the bleachers.

We’re taking part in a Festival of Live Art project called ‘Landing’. The volunteer lappers are aiming to swim the equivalent distance from Manus Island to the Australian mainland. ‘Landing’ is just the latest in a wave of cultural events focusing on the fate of asylum-seekers.

On SBS, for example, there’s a new drama series called ‘Safe Harbour’. A group of Australians on a yacht cruise discover a broken-down boat full of refugees. They have to decide whether to help these people or leave them adrift in the sea.

Over on Netflix there’s a British crime series called ‘Collateral’. A pregnant cop finds some Syrian refugees hiding in a lock-up. She must decide whether to help them stay in England or send them back to a country riven by civil war.

In the cinemas there’s a film made by exiled Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. ‘Human Flow’ follows some of the 65 million refugees who’ve been forced to flee their homes in recent years. In an interview about the film Ai Wei Wei says ‘their home should be humanity’.

But wait, there’s more. At La Mama theatre there’s a show coming up in which actor David Joseph explores his family’s connection to Australia’s asylum-seeker debate. In the bookshop there’s a novel by Jock Serong about some Australian surf tourists who encounter a refugee boat wrecked on an Indonesian reef. There’s also a book called ‘45 Days’, co-written by an asylum-seeker on Manus Island and an Australian grandmother.

This cultural wave feels somehow familiar. About eight years ago our anxieties about child abuse were bubbling up everywhere in the arts, and I wrote about this trend in an Age column. A couple of years later the Prime Minister established a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.

Art can sometimes be the ‘canary in the coalmine’, warning us that something is amiss and something needs to be done about it.* Perhaps all these refugee stories in our theatres, bookshops, cinemas and swimming pools are prophetic. Perhaps, some time soon, our humanity will make a home for those in need.

* (Jock Serong’s last novel was about cheating in cricket.)


This column as first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in April 2018.