Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2016

Asylum (2015), by Channa Wickremesekera

AsylumI loved this book!  Asylum is an hilarious inversion of anything you might be expecting from the cover.

Channa Wickremesekera is a Melbourne author who came here from Sri Lanka, but his novel follows the adventures of a suburban family of Afghan origin when they are confronted by a freckled teenage gunman in their home.  The story is narrated by a bemused teenager called Khalid Khan whose commentary is droll in the way that only an adolescent view of the world can be.


Mum calls. From the kitchen.  She is always calling.  From the kitchen.  ‘Khalid, eat this!’ ‘Khalid, drink this!’ ‘Khalid, bring your plate here! Don’t think I am going to walk all over the house looking for your plate!’  And it’s always Khalid, never Aisha.  I swear, if Aisha weren’t a girl, she would have been calling her constantly too.  And they say Muslims oppress women. (p.1)

Mum is the boss of this household, and when the teenage gunman bursts into their breakfast routine, it is she who decides that it is against their religion to deliver him into the hands of the armed police outside.

‘The boy is at our mercy now,’ Mum is saying.  ‘We can’t give him to the cops.  It is not our way.  Not the Afghan way, not the Islamic way.’

Oh, I have heard all this before.  How you should look after people who take refuge with you, even if they are your worst enemies. Even if they have killed your own mother and father.  I always thought that kind of thing only happened a long time ago, and if it happened now, it was only in movies.  Never thought we will have to practise it.

‘Do we have to take it so seriously?’ I ask. I mean it.  This is the twenty-first century.  Internet, Facebook, iPods.  Do we have to go back to tribal days?  I look at Dad, and he seems to agree, at least halfway, even though he doesn’t say it.  He has a Facebook page.  Not much activity going on there; just a few friends including me and Aisha.  But he has made it to the Internet. Mum would too, I guess, if she ever gets out of the kitchen.

Mum reads my mind. ‘The Koran was written when there was no Internet,’ she says.  ‘You think we should not take it seriously because the Prophet doesn’t have a website?’ (p.46)

The street is bustling with armed police, a helicopter is circling overhead, and (much to Khalid’s chagrin) Mustafa from down the road is providing local colour for the TV news.  He’s interpreting too, despite everyone inside the house being able to speak English, although Mum resolutely refuses to speak anything other than Dari.  With sly, ironic humour, Wickremesekera pierces all kinds of assumptions from both sides of the cultural divide, creating a  satisfying parable that will appeal to young people as well as older readers.

(Actually, I shouldn’t call it a parable because it isn’t didactic in tone, not at all.  But the light-hearted way it explores intercultural exchange, socio-economic disadvantage and religion is a message for our times).

This year’s Miles Franklin award went to an author bringing us a novel that reflects the exciting diversity of our multicultural nation, and it was noted that it was published by a small indie press, Transit Lounge.  Larger publishers wouldn’t touch it; they wouldn’t take the risk.  Asylum is a book that secondary teachers are crying out for: it has likeable teenage protagonists, it’s funny, it’s short (only 143 pages) and it raises all kinds of interesting threads for discussion.  I can’t help wondering what publishing barriers led to this book being published first at Smashwords and then at Palaver…

From the website at Palaver and Goodreads, I discovered that Channa Wickremesekera has a PhD in South Asian history and has published books about South Asian military history as well as five works of fiction:

  • Walls, A Novel About A Sri Lankan Family in Australia (self-published, 2002)
  • Distant Warriors (Hussein Publishing House 2005),
  • In the Same Boat (Bay Owl Press 2010),
  • Tracks (self-published 2015), and
  • Asylum (Palaver 2015).

You may have trouble tracking these down in bricks and mortar bookshops, but a quick search found In the Same Boat at Readings.  There are also internet links below.

Author: Channa Wickremesekera
Title: Asylum
Publisher: Palaver, 2015
ISBN: 9780994343109
Review copy courtesy of the author

Available from Fishpond: Asylum; Palaver or Smashwords.


  1. Sounds like a very timely book, and something we could all do with reading. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! :)


    • I’d love to know what your teenage girls think of it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s a teenager in my family with a birthday soon. I’ll give it to her and see what she says. It’s hard to know what current affairs kids are familiar with and she and her siblings don’t watch tv.


    • I hear that most of them don’t these days… they source everything from their phones!


  3. I like the tone of the quotes.


    • Yes, they seem authentic, as if the author has spent a bit of time around young people and knows how they think.


  4. It sounds great, I will look out for it.


  5. […] Tracks has such great potential.  I have read Channa Wickremesekera’s work before (see Asylum) and liked it very much.  And that is why, against my better judgement, I broke my own rules and […]


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