They have variously invoked compassion, shame, exposure and a liberal humanist tradition centered on the concept of storytelling. Storytelling promotes empathy, our country’s most celebrated artists insist. It shines a light. It transmits truth.

Except after more than 20 years of mandatory detention, on- and offshore, and the speeches, plays, books, performances, artworks and protests arrayed against it, the situation has not budged. Art and artists can hardly be blamed for this state of affairs, but it is difficult to square crowd-pleasing writers’ festival speeches about how much writing matters with how little it has achieved so far.

“Over the almost six years we have been exiled here, I have seen many artists, writers and journalists make work based around attempts to grow empathy among non-refugees in Australia,” Mr. Boochani said. “Nothing changes because in the end the complexities of the structures of domination and oppression remain unchallenged.” Empathy trips over an “unacknowledged layer of power.”

His book is a kind of counterproposal to this method, a form that is liberated in itself. What he calls “curiosity for a new life” — building relationships with the local Manusian people; cultivating his freedom of mind even as his body is captive — has helped him survive. Something similar has happened to the other refugees. “They have changed so much — they have transfigured into different beings,“ he said in an interview included in the book. “This has occurred for everyone. The process has been unsettling and vexed, and some have become totally cynical and pessimistic of the world and life. But in any case, all of them are unique in their own special way; they have become distinctly creative, they have unprecedented creative capacities. And in my view, this is incredible, it is phenomenal to witness.”

“On its own, the award will do nothing, absolutely nothing,” Mr. Tofighian said. “But it has opened a crack. There is a collective movement, and we can use that crack to tear things apart. I think something can happen. Hope remains with this kind of event.” Perhaps. So far the Australian government has acknowledged Mr. Boochani’s win with only an embarrassed silence.

Richard Cooke (@rgcooke) is the author of a forthcomingbook about America, “Tired of Winning.”