The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. In this special PEN World Voices Festival edition, Ari Zatlin interviews Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian poet and journalist who has been detained by the Australian government for more than four years on the remote Manus Island. Boochani’s work will be read aloud tonight for the opening night of the PEN World Voices Festival. Purchase tickets here.

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as a “writer’s identity”?

I have been living in a prison for near five years and I have been under systematic torture for years. This system is created to humiliate people and destroy their personality. In other words, the system has been trying to take people’s identities by humiliating them. For instance, they have been calling us by numbers for years. This way of addressing people reveals that the system does not want to recognize us as human beings. Living in a situation like this, where every single element of the system is trying to take your identity, it is very essential to retain your identity. It is the key factor to survival, to feel that you are more than a set of numbers and that, importantly, you are human. It also reminds you that you are still alive.

To answer this question, I won’t consider other writers living out of this remote island; but for me, living in a prison like Manus prison gave me a unique setting to create some of my artwork. So this situation had an important impact on my work. Writing always helps me to redefine myself as a kind of human who makes a stand against a system that has constantly been trying to humiliate me to take my identity.

Thinking about identity and understanding is one of the main challenges in my life. I was born in Kurdistan and started to explore and understand the world through Kurdish language, but when I went to school, I had to learn Persian. I can say it was the beginning of this challenge when the system was trying to force me to forget everything about Kurdish culture and language. I was living in Iran, the country was trying to take my identity, and it is still denying that there is a Kurdish nation. I have been living my whole life under a system that wants to define my identity in a certain way and to dictate “who I am.” Definitely, being a Kurd has a deep impact on my works in Manus; and there is no doubt that nature and also Kurdish culture feed my works. It’s a very complicated matter >>>