I never expected to end up teaching creative writing in Timor, least of all in the national language, Tetun. But every Wednesday morning for the last six months, I’ve sat in a windowless room in the former Balide prison in Dili doing exactly that with a team of social researchers.
My four male and two female students have interviewed 800 Timorese women about their roles in the 25-year resistance movement. An academic book is in the pipeline. Now their boss, Nuno, a journalist, wants to share the women’s personal stories. When he discovered my oral history and writing background, he asked me to give them a hand.
Enlisting my help was a big leap of faith on Nuno’s part. I have no teaching experience, and running a class in a language I couldn’t speak 20 months ago is, frankly, a challenge. So how does it work?
Every week I trawl the internet and prepare a lesson in my wobbly Tetun. We cover the usual culprits: point of view; show, don’t tell; writing dialogue; finding your voice. As my students grapple with these notions, I’m conscious that western models may not fit the Timorese mindset. Take our linear approach to story-telling, the value we place on getting to the point. Timorese can be refreshingly blunt about some things (body features, age, money). But when it comes to spinning a yarn, they circle slowly around the subject, approaching it from all angles, a process I’ve heard described as ba-mai (lit ‘go-come’).
My students’ stories, which I decipher with the help of a large dictionary in between classes so that I have something sensible to say when we discuss them, is a window to their world. It’s not just a matter of understanding new vocab and grammar, but of seeing life through a different lens. Tetun, for example, has at least nine words for ‘carry’, depending on how you do it. You tutur goods on your head, hulan them on your shoulder, haklilin them under your arm and leba them on a pole. You kele a baby in the folds of your sarong and tula someone on your motorbike. You can also lori or hodi your shopping home from market. Carrying is a big deal in these parts.
In other ways, Tetun can be imprecise, ambiguous and long-winded. Banned for 25 years under Indonesian rule, it’s still playing catch-up with modern concepts. Having no tenses or plurals makes it easi(er) to learn but magnifies the potential for misunderstanding.
For me, the three-hour Wednesday morning class is character-building. There’s so much I want to say and so few words I can muster on the spot. Heavens knows what I come out with sometimes. A lot of things go over my head: the more animated the discussion, the less I understand. This, as Pat points out, is the definition of torture for someone who loves to be at the centre of a good yak, especially when the subject is writing.
Nuno alone speaks fluent English and will translate if I get desperate. But it slows things down and excludes the others, so mostly we box on in Tetun. Perhaps it’s good that I can’t say too much, I tell myself as I try to pluck familiar words from the torrent and respond coherently. Better they find their own way, talking to each other. My job – deep breath – is to keep the writing space open, bear witness to their efforts, cheer them on.
My students are an enthusiastic bunch, seemingly undeterred by their tongue-tied teacher. Most were too young to have actively fought for Timor’s independence; this is their chance to make a contribution. Sometimes I wonder how they joke and laugh so freely despite all the sad stories they carry in their hearts.
The trauma of revisiting the past was the hardest thing about writing his memoir, Timorese author Naldo Rei said when he came to talk to us a few weeks ago. The young rebel who was imprisoned and tortured countless times by the Indonesians – including for two months as a 17-year-old in a filthy cell on the site where our class now meets – is today a softly-spoken 40-year-old with a Masters in International Communications and a job in the UN. Even his trademark dreadlocks were neatly tied up in a bun.
Naldo started writing Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor in Bahasa, then swapped to English when he’d mastered that language. He wanted the international community – especially those who’d supported Suharto’s invasion – to understand his people’s suffering, he said. And it worked: 30,000 copies of his book have sold since it was published in 2007. But his success has come at a price. Most of his countrymen can’t read his work, my students (with the exception of Nuno) included.
They, on the other hand, are writing in Tetun for a Timorese audience. This creates its own problems. You learn to be a writer by reading. But Timorese culture is oral. For generations, people have sat around on warm evenings handing down stories of their history and ancestors by word of mouth. Until recently, this rich knowledge existed only in their heads.
Since independence in 2002, a handful of Timorese like Naldo have written memoirs, generally in Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia or English. Foreigners like Australian journalist Jill Joliffe, who risked her life to report on the Indonesian occupation, have also written about Timor: Jill’s recent memoir, Run For Your Life, is a compelling read. But books in Tetun are as scarce as Timorese writers.
It will take time for Timor to develop her own literary tradition. Problems of language and literacy aside, writing – and reading – are solitary pursuits which sit uneasily in this communal culture. One reason we read is to not feel alone. Here, people don’t need books to connect: their whole lives are intertwined.
But books do other things too: they act as our collective memory, widen our horizons, provide a safe place to explore what can’t be said aloud. Timorese writers will emerge in time. Local NGO Timor Aid is leading the charge with a range of children’s books in Tetun (though most are translations from around the world), and an annual Tetun short story competition. I hope to do my bit by leaving behind the first-ever creative writing manual in Tetun, a compilation of my lessons. As Nuno says, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be a start.’
Boas Festa do Santo Natal e Feliz do Ano Novo
Christmas greetings and a Happy New Year.