Wednesday, November 16, 2011

INTERVIEW WITH ABS ON--"pebbles and ice cream: Voice of a Timorese poet"

The Jakarta Post
Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Of pebbles and ice cream: Voice of a Timorese poet
Ati Nurbaiti, The Jakarta Post, Ubud

We all scattered / we all ran in every direction. These two lines are scrawled in the notebook of the man with the guitar, one of two books in his bag that is filled with phrases, mostly in Tetum, but also in Indonesian.

Bernabé (Abé) Barreto Soares does not know and does not care what will happen to those lines, whether they will remain as they are, all jumbled up with other notes to himself, or whether they will one day become verse.

He only knows that something came to the surface, his memory of being scattered and running together with residents of the town of Dili who were caught in a conflict that is hard to understand, not long after they gained their hard-fought independence.

More than once, he said during the annual writers' festival here, he was surrounded by people who were set on attacking him -- once because he was trying to stop them raze the family home.

"Suddenly I had the confidence to calm them down and address them," he said, recalling the moment when he told them that if they killed him, they would be killing themselves -- "for you are my brother, as we are of this same sacred soil".

This experience of the power of words reinforced his view, he said, that giving people dignity overcomes "the deprivation of having no acknowledgement, no recognition". He quotes Mother Theresa, saying that this is the worst form of poverty.

Soares, a former information officer and now translator at the United Nations office in Timor Leste, was enjoying a vacation in Ubud, Bali, listening to fellow poets and writers, and attending the launch of the anthology, Terra, which includes his poem.

Ayu Utami, Dorothea Rosa Herliany of Indonesia, and Miles Merrill of Australia, were among those at the launch and whose works are also in the collection.

Soares accompanied Dorothea on his guitar as she read her poem. He said he felt an immediate bond with his new friends at the festival, Wiratmadinata and Debra Yatim -- both of whom have written poems about Aceh, particularly following the 2004 tsunami and earthquake.

Whenever an Indonesian writer presented their work, Soares -- formerly a long-haired young man living in self-imposed exile in Canada -- expressed his support.

"I was raised on Indonesian literature," he said, citing Sapardi Djoko Damono and Ayip Rosidi as being among his favorite writers.

Tetum, which is widely spoken in Timor Leste, dominates his writing; "listen to its beautiful sound," he told the audience at the Dragonfly cafe here when reading out his poem -- I am a pebble that you throw in the pond. But he also savors Indonesian phrases, those with a rhythm lost in translation: pontang panting, scattered, malam berbulan-bintang, a night of moon (and) stars.

Soares spells out his big dream; of the contribution of the literati to Timor's character building -- again citing words of wisdom from Indonesian figures first president Sukarno and educator Ki Hadjar Dewantara.

A "cautious optimist" when it comes to his often turbulent, fragile nation, he is encouraged by the feedback to his monthly radio program, which features poetry readings and introductions to writers from around the world, interspersed with appropriate music.

Without cultural education, he says, people will end up as couch potatoes hooked on bad TV, university graduates sans sensitivity, people unable to agree to disagree -- not to mention the young men spreading fear, throwing stones and worse now and then, leading to the persistent, yearlong multitude of refugees in the dusty town of Dili.

Apart from his radio program, Soares said he had managed to visit a number of refugee camps across town, entertaining residents at night after work along with a few other artists. "We stopped because of the security condition," he said.

Across the small country, there is actually no shortage of talent, he said. Traveling around Timor Leste, he added, would help reveal talent across the regions. And building the culture, he added, would require working with Indonesians, which would help forge friendships between the two peoples.

"Let politics be ... we can light candles."

Exposure to literature, he said, helped people go beyond perceptions of black and white. Timor's history, and the former president they once shared with Indonesia, Soeharto, is not black and white, Soares said.

Understanding history is a must, he said, citing Sukarno.

It is far from clear how the cultured like Soares will perceive the upcoming report touching on the violent history of 1999, which is expected to be released in January by the Commission for Truth and Friendship set up by Indonesia and Timor Leste. While history is never black and white, critics are warning that the official version of what sent people "scattering, running in every direction" will be too vague, to say the least.

But the poet just smiles, pointing to the candles lighting up the restaurant.

Somehow he figures he will start to build his dream of contributing to Timor's culture and education, continuing where the political crisis in his country stopped him and his band of friends from going around the refugee camps, and airing the radio programs more often.

"Just like in my poem," the new father of a baby boy says, he wants to be like "a pebble dropped to the bottom of a pond", creating, hopefully many, many ripples.

He orders desert -- "I'll have my favorite" -- and gives the waitress a big smile. Soon the poet is digging into his ice cream, a perfect mix with a perfect rhythm.

It's right there in his notebook of treasured thoughts and words: "Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla."


Friday, October 7, 2011


Timorese Evoke Independence Struggle in Poetry

29-8-2009--16:32 Linda LoPresti, Radio Australia

This weekend East Timor marks ten years since Independence.
It was on August 30, 1999 that the people of East Timor decided they wanted to be free of Indonesian rule.

More than 90 percent of the island's voting population braved the threats of violence and intimidation to express their will in the UN administered referendum.

But the breakaway vote sparked violence by Indonesian troops and pro-Jakarta militias. The bloody rampage left up to a thousand people dead.

It's not been an easy road for the world's newest nation but now the people of East Timor are beginning to tell their stories, mainly through poetry, without fear and repression.

Radio Australia’s Linda LoPresti reports.

East Timor's local hani band Hacutobar playing the official song of the referendum, Please Decide.

And the people of East Timor did decide on August 30th 1999.

It was a UN sponsored act of self determination and hailed at the time by the UN's Ambassador to Dili Jamsheed Market.

“Today the eagle of liberty has landed....over the people of East Timor.”

Three years later East Timor became the world's newest nation. With political freedom came freedom of expression.

Abe Soares is one of East Timor's most well known poets.

He's lived in Indonesia, Canada and Portugal but he grew up in East Timor under Indonesian rule where he was inspired to write about what he was witnessing.

“My own voice said that I should write about Timor. I should write about my roots, where I came from."

Q. And Timor at the time was under Indonesia rule, so were you free to write about what you felt?

"No I was not free at all I had to use my pen name and did not have courage to publish my works, only showed my friends who I trusted.”

In 1999 as East Timor was preparing for historic change, Abe Soares was living in Lisbon. He proudly cast his independence vote from there.

A year later he returned to East Timor to find a new generation of young writers eager to tell their stories, especially through poetry.

“I came back to Timor in 2000 and I established a poetic circle, poets in town, and so from that event I got to know who is who and discuss literature and since then that group became my sort of baby (My project).”

During the Indonesian occupation, the common theme in the writings by Timorese intellectuals and leaders like Francisco Borgia da Costa or Xanana Gusmao was independence.

But now the theme has shifted.

Leigh Ashley Lipscomb is a senior researcher at the Berkley War Crimes Studies Centre in California.

“Prior to independence poetry was a hidden art and a political art and the politics of poetry have remained but opened up to become a more diverse form of art meaning multiple languages, multiple themes, multiple perspectives.”

Poetry is still the number one form of literary expression in East Timor.

Leigh Ashley Lipscombe says while resistance poetry has been embraced as a Timorese expression, there's a new generation of writers emerging from the violent shadows of the past with new things to say.

“The new generation embraces a much larger scope of themes, love, the environment, but politics remains the dominant theme and within that I would argue that justice has replaced the theme of independence.”

The last ten years have not been easy ones for East Timor. It's still one of the poorest nations in the Asia Pacific region; literacy rates are low and violence is an ever present threat.

In 2006, a conflict within elements of the East Timor military escalated to violent street battles throughout the country. Scores of people died and thousands were displaced, prompting a military intervention by several countries including Australia.

“I lived through this situation and as a man of letters what response should I have, so I picked up the pen and write.”

The Timorese are writing because they have stories to tell, stories about the past but also hopes about the future.

Ashley Lipscomb believes it will continue to flourish in more experimental ways.

“That is my dream to have literature as one of the elements of the mainstream. What I have been dreaming of is having Timorese literature at national university so university will have its own department of Tetum literature. That is my dream. So I hope that will come true some day.”