Books “saved my life”

Books “saved my life”

Jailed author’s tale of reading to survive

When Sean Turnell says he owes his survival to books he does not do so lightly.

“Books literally saved my life,” the economist and author told Trinity’s latest Books At Breakfast event.

“My whole life was dominated by books, being an academic, so they sort of returned the favour and saved my life, I think, in prison. So it’s particularly resonant to be at this event celebrating books.”

Dr Turnell told an audience of teachers, students, and parents that reading was central to his survival while imprisoned for 650 days on trumped-up spying charges by Myanmar’s military government before his release in 2022.

Books sent from home by his family and supporters kept him going.

He read 119 of them, many a number of times, everything from high literature to, ironically, spy novels, and the Enid Blyton kid’s adventures he read as a 10-year-old and which “hooked” him on reading.

The worst part of his incarceration was the first two months in a shipping container-style “box” because he had no books.

When books were later allowed, then withdrawn for five days, he lost the plot.

“I put on a full-on tantrum … just shoot me now … because I can’t survive without books.

“Books are just everything, I can’t emphasise that enough.”

While in jail he recalled the prisoner-of-war stories he read when he was younger, and wondered whether he shouldn’t be attempting to escape “Steve McQueen-style”.

Books, in a sense, gave him that freedom, too, if only temporarily.

“Books allowed me to escape. Sometimes I’d look up and think, ‘Where am I?’ And then I’d realise, ‘Oh yes, I’m in prison’.

“I would encourage everyone to start reading.”

Books also enabled him to establish a rapport with two-time Burmese election winner and 1991 Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, who he served as an economics adviser and who remains in jail to this day.

“She is very much a book person, and we bonded over Sherlock Holmes stories, so it was through books that I really got to know her.”

Dr Turnell, an honorary professor of economics at Macquarie University and a former staff member of the Reserve Bank of Australia, named his own book An Unlikely Prisoner because he was “the last person in the world you could imagine would end up in a prison in Asia”.

“I was straight down the line. I never even got a parking ticket.

“But in countries like Burma, once charged you will be found guilty; there’s no question.”

His sham trial took evidence from people he had supposedly confessed to but had never met, including one who didn’t even speak English.

His favourite prison reading, the book he read 10 times, was Cultural Amnesia by Clive James.

“Throughout it there’s an incredible sense of humanity and a deep sense of learning.

“I thought it was all a bit pretentious when I first read it years earlier but frankly my judgement was incorrect. I was too immature for the book.

“When I read it in prison I realised just what a work of genius it was.”

The book, ironically, was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi. The copy he received in prison, via Australian embassy diplomatic pouch, had the dedication page excised by his wife so it would not be stopped by the Burmese junta censors.

The Arthur Holt Library copy was intact, and he signed it for staff: “The book that saved me.”




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