Read this and be smarter: Avan Judd Stallard’s novel reveals the harsh reality of life inside Australia’s refugee detention centres

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel Spinifex & Sunflowers goes behind the walls of an immigration detention centre in an honest, and at times harrowing, exploration of life as an asylum seeker in modern Australia.

In this extract, new detention guard Nick finds himself confronted by conflicting ideals that stem from the demands of his job and own personal values.


I’m tired and bored and it’s only lunch, only halfway through today’s shift. I look around the mess hall, searching for stimulus. I see a couple of Sri Lankans get up and head my way. One of them walks ahead and extends his hand. We enjoy a manly handshake and I smile at the chap, thinking what a nice gesture it is for a detainee to welcome a guard.

The man asks my name and where I’m from. I begin to respond, but out of the corner of my eye I see his mate quickly walking past, sporting a bowl of desserts — also known as contraband. I realise that my welcome is no more than a diversionary tactic. I’m being played.

I peel off and stop the contraband runner. “Mate, you know you can’t take that out.”

“What, this, but I …” he says, inching out the door.

“Oi, mate …”

And he’s off, single arm pumping, legs flailing, doing a runner. I watch him sprint away, a little shocked at the urgency of his exit, but mostly amused by the scene he’s created. A dozen of his mates have now gathered — they all knew what he was doing. I shrug. What are we going to do: suit up the Emergency Response Team and bust down his door to retrieve a piece of chocolate cake? To be honest, I don’t really get the whole contraband thing.

It’s my job, though, and cracking down on the smuggling racquet is about as much excitement as I can expect. A little later I see an unusually light-skinned detainee with a handful of sugar sachets; he’s not even trying to hide it.

“Mate, sorry, you’re not meant to take them. You’re meant to get the sugar from the office now.”

He stands there, staring at me. “No?”

“Sorry, mate. No.”

He nods toward Peter, who is in the middle of the hall.

“Yeah, go ask Peter.”

The man walks over and speaks to Peter, who is the senior officer in the compound. Peter promptly waves to me to indicate it’s fine. The man walks past, pocketing the sugar sachets. I shrug. He looks at me with what appears to be a mix of confusion and contempt.

Peter walks over. “Yeah, he’s one of our special cases.”

“Special cases?”

“His whole family died on that boat that sank off Indonesia a few days ago.”

That boat — the one on the news. I’d seen the reports. A swag of asylum seekers were loaded onto some piece-of-shit fishing boat; it lost its engines, most of the people couldn’t swim, so when it sank a few miles from the coast all but two people drowned. I thought it was unfortunate when I heard about it, but I guess unfortunate takes on a whole different meaning when it’s someone’s family.

I stand there, feeling stupid for enforcing such a petty rule. There’s no one watching over me, no one forcing me to stop contraband from going out, so why did I automatically choose to follow the letter of the law and make life that little bit harder for the sorts of people who have parents being blown up in markets and siblings drowning at sea? Because I follow rules? Because I’m bored? Because I want to be good at my job? Not only are the rules utterly immaterial to my existence, they don’t seem to have anything to do with safety.

If these are the stakes I’m dealing with — small graces to offset inestimable loss and pain — I don’t believe I’ll ever spot another detainee smuggling a goddamn thing. They could be walking out with the urn and I’m pretty sure I’d miss it. That’s just how clever they’re going to be, I guess.

Spinifex & Sunflowers by Avan Judd Stallard is available at all good bookstores and online.

Books discussed
Spinifex & Sunflowers

Share via: