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.”