The Poets Fight Back: East Timorese poetry as counterdiscourse to colonial and postcolonial identities

Lukisan Oost-Timor moet vrij! Poster by Basuki Resobowo 1977 dan penyair Fransisco Borja da Costa.
Lukisan Oost-Timor moet vrij! Poster by Basuki Resobowo 1977 dan penyair Fransisco Borja da Costa. (Ist)

By: Anthony Soares


This article examines whether the experiences of Portuguese and Indonesian colonial rule in East Timor acted as a unifying factor, creating a sense of East Timorese national identity, inspiring its poets to engage in a revolutionary and anti-colonial lyrical discourse that mirrored the aspirations of those fighting for independence. It also considers the significance of contemporary East Timorese poetry that has elements of a counterdiscourse in a postcolonial, independent East Timor, asking whether the apparent unity of anti-colonial lyric voices has fractured, and whether the disappearance of the oppressive presence of Indonesia means that there is no power that can inspire a concerted reaction amongst East Timorese poets. Finally, although the ‘other(s)’ against which the colonial and postcolonial poetic counterdiscourses of East Timor are reacting against may be different, the negative effects they are accused of become themes that are common to the poetry of both historical periods. Therefore, this article will seek to pose some questions regarding the validity of the term ‘postcolonial’ when applied to East Timorese poetry.

East Timor’s development of a sense of national identity since its formal entry as an independent state onto the international stage, in May 2002, is the continuation of a process that began under colonial rule. Constructed in opposition to an imperialist discourse that sought to silence those who wished to raise an East Timorese nationalist consciousness, cultural production became a powerful tool in this struggle. In her foreword to Luís Cardoso’s memoirs of his childhood, The Crossing: A Story of East Timor, Jill Jolliffe writes:

During their 24-year struggle for liberation the Timorese always considered their culture as one of their weapons, and Indonesia’s failure to subjugate these courageous people was as much due to their profound sense of their own cultural identity as their unrelenting military resistance.[1]

Native cultural identities survived centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, as well as the brutal Indonesian illegal occupation that followed. New forms of expression emerged in that time, including the appearance of literary texts of East Timorese authorship. However, given the conditions under which this literature has arisen, it is unsurprising to find that it has been principally concerned with the promotion of an identity that is seen as distinct from those imposed by East Timor’s oppressors.

Bacaan Lainnya

Conscious of these adverse conditions, Artur Marcos makes the following cautionary remarks in relation to the cultural landscape of the country at the time of his writing – 1995 – when it was still under Indonesia’s illegal occupation:

Os leste-timorenses apresentam dotes para artes várias e – estamos convictos disso – só a incertidão do presente vivido e as imposições de muitas urgências relativas à sobrevivência física, social e política num contexto de Diáspora ou de Resistência no Interior, cerceia o amadurecimento artístico de muitas pessoas ou obriga ao condicionamento de trabalhos para que transmitam intencional e assumidamente alguma mensagem política de aplicação imediata.[2]

A pressing need for political self-expression conditions much of East Timor’s poetry written during the final years of Portuguese colonial rule and throughout the Indonesian occupation. One of the purposes of this essay, therefore, is to demonstrate how this led to the attempt to create a sense of East Timorese national identity, where poets engaged in a revolutionary and anti-colonial lyrical discourse that mirrored the aspirations of those fighting for independence.[3] It will also consider whether contemporary East Timorese poetry continues to assist in the construction of a national consciousness since the country no longer lies under the dominion of Portuguese or Indonesian colonial rule, and as the people of this young nation are engaged in the process of building a country in every one of its fundamental aspects: political, social, economic, judicial, cultural, etc.

Informing this analysis is an overarching perspective, derived from the important theoretical work on Portugal and its former colonies by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who sees phantom centralising, colonialist or globalising discourses that present themselves as the only legitimate vehicle to a proper understanding of world realities, voiding any alternative discourse that may challenge them of value.[4] A direct consequence of this is the relative ignorance of cultures that originate in nations or territories that are positioned at the periphery by those who regard themselves as inhabiting the centre of a world-system that organises reality according to its own criteria. This leads Artur Marcos to lament that, for example:

São escassas as referências a Timor Leste entre aqueles que se interessam por Literatura. E contudo o território existe, os seus naturais têm formas de expressão próprias – umas antigas e transmitidas oralmente de acordo com a tradição étnica, outras hodiernas reveladas pela escrita.[5]

I will add here that the area of postcolonial studies itself risks mirroring the attitude that relegates the cultures of nations such as East Timor to a periphery created by a false centre, privileging the study of the effects of British imperialism – and, to a lesser extent, French imperialism – and ignoring the realities of other colonialisms and their influence on a wider postcolonial reality.

This could, of course, come as a result of linguistic factors which determine that non English-speaking cultures – therefore, cultures that are less likely to have formed part of the British empire – are inaccessible to a centre that privileges English. Such is the proposition put forward by António Sousa Ribeiro in his essay, ‘Translation as a Metaphor for our Times: Postcolonialism, Borders and Identities’, which discusses the erroneous notion of the outmoded need for translation:

It could, of course, be argued that in the era of globalization translation has become more and more superfluous and the need for translation less and less self-evident. The use of English as a lingua franca, as is the case in so many international meetings around the world, can, it is true, mean no more than the creation of a ‘neutral’ space of communication, serving the instrumental purpose that resonates in the commonplace of the English language as the Esperanto of our time. But English is the lingua franca of globalization because it is the language of empire, of the only empire that subsists on the contemporary world scene. And the logic of empire, that of an all-encompassing centre governed by the goal of total assimilation, is essentially monolingual and monologic. Under such a unifying perspective, for which difference is not to be acknowledged or simply does not exist, translation is, in fact, irrelevant.[6]

One of the characteristics of contemporary reality, therefore, is the dominance of the English language, a result of its use as the language of what Ribeiro calls ‘the only empire that subsists on the contemporary world scene’. Its global implementation as a communication tool does not, as Ribeiro rightly points out, create a ‘neutral’ space, but rather one that is marked as belonging – or aspires to belong to – the centre. Such a space makes it increasingly difficult for other discourses to be brought into it, since their difference from the dominant discourse of the self-imposed centre makes them embarrassing guests – guests who do not know how to behave at the dinner table.

Within the space of postcolonial studies it is possible that certain postcolonial discourses – including those of a theoretical nature – may be treated as similarly unwelcome guests, if the dominance of a neo-imperial or globalizing order translates itself into a focus on the study of the British empire as the prism through which the postcolonial world should be observed. This appears to be Edward Said’s approach, as identified by Ana Paula Ferreira and Margarida Calafate Ribeiro in the introduction to their volume of essays, Fantasmas e Fantasias Imperiais no Imaginário Português Contemporâneo:[7]

Seguimos a linha de reflexão essencialmente cultural que o pioneiro trabalho de Edward Said, Orientalism, lançou, como uma espécie de garrettiano pronunciamento no mundo pós-colonial, continuado em Culture and Imperialism, onde o autor previne que não irá abordar o estudo de vários impérios, entre os quais o espanhol e o português, justificando a atitude pela especificidade e distinção destes impérios relativamente aos impérios britânico e francês.[8]

The fact that Said’s works, which privilege one imperial past above all others, have been so influential in the area of postcolonial studies, raises the possibility that one centralising discourse that sees others as “too distinctive” or “too specific” has infiltrated the discipline. In this light, the history of the Portuguese colonial presence does not fit into a narrative that explains the rise and fall of the British empire and, consequently, the peoples and cultures of Portugal’s former colonies risk being analysed – if they are analysed at all – using theoretical concepts developed through a concern to understand the British, or Anglo-Saxon, colonial and postcolonial realities.

Somewhat paradoxically, the era of globalization where an Anglo-Saxon discourse appears to hold sway is, in fact, one where other discourses have – to a certain extent – flourished, countering the claim to centrality of the former. As António Sousa Ribeiro points out:

as the theory of globalization has repeatedly insisted upon, the appearance of homogeneity is, in many ways, deceptive. The new technologies and the virtually infinite ability to manipulate information that they offer allow the adjustment of global cultural products to local logics. And they allow, consequently, the increasing possibility of an active intervention by the addressees, building up a sphere where the interpenetration of the global and the local may occur in multiple, not always foreseeable ways. From this perspective, the processes of globalization are heterogeneous and fragmented (p.188).

Some contemporary East Timorese poetry could be seen to some extent as part of a ‘counter-hegemonic globalization’ which, according to Ribeiro, ‘has by definition to be critical of any centralism or universalism and cannot rely on any transcendental principal’ (p.188). However, contemporary East Timorese poetry’s critical stance is not, to my view, as inimical to ideas of universalism as Ribeiro perceives counter-hegemonic globalization to be. Its enmity is largely reserved for the application of a false centralising discourse that has been imported from – or implanted by – the centre of the world-system, which simultaneously positions East Timor at the periphery of the system, and condemns large sections of its population to an internal periphery as the country is encouraged to adopt the centre’s discourse. Yet, whilst such poetry rejects the new value-systems that are taking hold of East Timor, it does so in the knowledge that the liberation poetry of previous decades had envisioned a different nation, employing a counterdiscourse to that of the colonial powers which called for the East Timorese to unite in resistance to their oppressors. Contemporary East Timorese poetry rejects what it sees as an East Timor built in the image of false gods, but does so in the knowledge of the Timor promised by poets that are now celebrated as national icons.[9]

One of those poets is in the unusual position of having written about a free East Timor whilst it was in the hands of the Portuguese and then the Indonesians, and of now being the president of the nation he fought to liberate. The figure of Xanana Gusmão is an inescapable presence to those who interest themselves in East Timor, and a visit to the government’s website will be rewarded with plenty of information on a remarkable man who for many years led Fretilin – the East Timorese resistance – against the Indonesian occupation, even after his capture and imprisonment in 1992.[10] Following the links to the poetry of East Timor results in a page headed with the name of Xanana Gusmão, and the added soubriquet of “President Poet”, followed by excerpts of some of his poetry, translated into English.[11] One of the poems included is entitled “Maubere”, written in 1975, which appeared in its original Portuguese version in a volume of East Timorese poetry published in 1981 under the auspices of Fretilin in Mozambique.[12] The Timorese people, referred to as the ‘Maubere’, are exhorted to unite and resist their oppressors, and the concluding stanzas make a passionate call for action:

Maubere People,

clench your fists,

The hour is yours, Maubere!

And your defiance will bring down

the walls of your own enslavement!…

Maubere People,

Confront and face yourself in the long

march of liberation.

Liberate yourself!

Be strong!… Be Maubere!…[13]

The term ‘maubere’, equated in Gusmão’s poem with being strong, was reclaimed by the Timorese resistance to symbolise a collective identity in the face of the colonial presence. In the mouths of the Portuguese it had quite different connotations, as Artur Marcos explains: ‘em tempos de governação efectiva portuguesa instalada no território, seria também usada, na boca de europeus e assimilados, convencidos de uma superioridade cultural ou de inteligência, como designação desprezante de elementos da população timor, especialmente do interior, pouco ou nada habituada na sua vida comunitária e tecnologia rudimentar aos padrões e instrumental europeus’.[14] The term ‘maubere’ becomes a tool in the construction of an East Timorese identity, building the idea of a nation in opposition to a colonial presence that had begun at a time when the island of Timor was divided into several native kingdoms. The birth of an East Timorese national consciousness is, therefore, a relatively recent phenomenon, and occurs at a most unpropitious time, when others’ imperial ambitions are violently opposed to such aspirations.[15]

“Maubere”, then, becomes part of an East Timorese counterdiscourse that is evident in the country’s liberation poetry, and its significance is justified by one of East Timor’s most celebrated poets, Fernando Sylvan (1917-1993). In a 1992 essay entitled, ‘Presente e futuro da palavra maubere’,[16] Sylvan explains that the term ‘tem crescido, positivamente, de forma extraordinária e espectacular’,[17] so that:

Nenhum outro vocábulo Tétum […] teve mais rápido movimento, e isso, indesmentivelmente, pelo uso que dela fez e faz a Resistência, dentor e fora, sobretudo fora das fronteiras de Timor Maubere. É esta palavra que viaja, altaneira, na Comunicação Social de todos os países, nos Organismos de Apoio em numerosos Estados, nos areópagos internacionais, em todos os sítios, enfim, inserida na generalidade das línguas cultas.[18]

The propagation of the word “maubere” as a linguistic means of unifying the various sectors and native groupings of East Timor into a single population, is in great part due to its prominence in the discourse of the dominant resistance movement, Fretilin. As Sylvan makes clear, it is a unifying word that comes into existence because of a struggle against an enemy whose actions are shown to be affecting all Timorese: ‘É palavra usada no português e internacionalmente, em conversa de rua, discurso politico, texto poético ou erudito, porque, na verdade, a invasão indonésia e o genocídio consequente, com o trazer a questão dos Mauberes ao primeiro plano das preocupações nacionais e internacionais, fez com que a palavra maubere, tal e qual, fosse inserida, e vivesse, sem tradução, em todos os idiomas’.[19]

As the role of the poet in the East Timorese struggle against Portuguese and Indonesian occupation is defined by those who led the resistance as one of active participation in the people’s fight against their oppressors, his depiction of the values that are being fought for is highly illustrative. Thus, Xanana Gusmão’s poem, “Mauberíadas”, obeys Fretilin’s definitions of the nature of “liberation poetry” and of the poet’s relationship to his society:

In the last years before his death at the hands of the invading Indonesian troops on the 7th of December 1975, Francisco Borja da Costa, East Timor’s most celebrated poet, became actively involved in Fretilin efforts to improve the appalling levels of illiteracy that existed in his country.[20] Poetry and song expressing Timorese nationalist sentiments were central to Fretilin’s literacy drives, helping both to teach the population to read, whilst also raising a national consciousness that would ensure support for Timor’s claim to independence.[21]

We can read Borja da Costa’s poem, “O Povo Maubere não pode ser Escravo de mais ninguém”, as part of that effort to instil a desire for independence, whilst it also underlines the oppressive and destructive nature of Portuguese colonialism. It begins by calling for the birth of a new life that will come from the rejection of a colonial past:


É preciso


e sentir

p’ra esquecer-se

e o povo



É preciso


p’ra vencer

e acabar

com o medo


Each stanza begins with ‘É preciso’, emphasising an obligation, and the poem is formed by a series of actions or attitudes that must be undertaken, including the need to struggle and, in the fourth stanza, the need to gain an understanding of present circumstances: ‘É preciso/este povo/ensinar/p’ra entender/quem o quer/explorar’.[23] The concluding section makes clear the desire of the Timorese people to determine their own destinies, which will come as a result of the destruction of colonial oppression:


É preciso


e acabar

com o peso

e opressão











What Borja da Costa’s poetry typifies is the purpose of East Timorese liberation poets to awaken within Timor’s population what they regard as their undying desire for independence.

However, Borja da Costa and other poets of his generation also underline the need for unity, repeatedly pointing out the heroic sacrifices that must be made by every Timorese in order to turn that dream of independence into a reality. Thus, Oky do Amaral writes in “Memórias inesquecíveis” on the familiar belief in the coming victory of the Maubere people despite the aggression of the colonial enemy, which will be achieved through their supreme sacrifices:

Importa pois, certamente,

Fazer por valer em cada peito

Do choro ou nos ais de cada

Da simples dor contida

Do sangue e suor vertidos

Por todos quantos se valeram

No teu gérmen bem resguardado

Da ousada luta triunfante

No crescer da Poesia

Sob a decisão inquebrantável

De lutar, lutar, lutar ainda mais


In order for Timorese freedom to be achieved, the people must act as one and participate in the heroic struggle against those who are oppressing them, and the united efforts of the country’s poets will help in securing victory.

If that unity is maintained, and the people are prepared to make the sacrifices that will be asked of them, then a new nation will be born after centuries of colonial oppression, as Eugénio Salvador Pires predicts in his sonnet, “O rasgo das trevas”, where Timor

Manteve-se obscure e vexante…

No colonial jugo e uniforme

De ex-Portugal fascista e enorme

Quando dele se fez parte integrante!…

Mas de chofre a aurora dealbou.

E, então, das ilhas… e mares no meio,

Leste cresceu e grande se tornou!

Por que breve no palco vai-se estar,

Para mostrar ao Mundo, sem enleio,

O poder de o seu rumo autotraçar.[26]

The future nation of Timor is characteristically represented by Salvador Pires as one that will determine its own identity, free from the limits imposed by a colonial discourse that asserts the right to shape the territory and its inhabitants to suit its own imperial interests. Whilst Portugal claimed that it was embarked on a civilizing mission within its colonial possessions, Borja da Costa reveals in “O rasto da tua passagem” the truth that lay behind this false rhetoric, directly accusing the Portuguese that:

Silenciaste minha razão

Na razão das tuas leis

Sufocaste minha cultura

Na cultura da tua cultura

Abafaste minhas revoltas

Com a ponta da tua baioneta

Torturaste meu corpo

Nos grilhões do teu império

Subjugaste minha alma

Na fé da tua religião.[27]

Despite the violence enacted by the Portuguese against those that refuse to repeat the imperialist mantra of the Timorese destiny being inextricably entwined with that of Portugal, liberation poets serve to inspire in their fellow countrymen and women a belief in their future independence. Even as the violence increased to unimaginable proportions under the Indonesian occupation, such voices managed to keep alive the dream of an independent East Timor. They continued to call for unity in the face of Indonesia’s colonial oppression, and to ask the people to make further sacrifices in order to attain their ultimate objectives.

Until the late 1990s, however, those objectives would remain a remote aspiration, since the Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, was regarded as an ally to the West in its struggle against Communism during the cold war, and then as the ruler of a country apparently receptive to a discourse promoting the globalization of the market economy. Consequently, Fretilin’s counterdiscourse to imperialism in the 1970s, promoted by the liberation poets, was regarded as inimical to the discourse promoted by the centre of the world-system, and Timorese hopes for independence following the end of Portugal’s dictatorship and the beginning of the process of withdrawal from its former colonies were dashed following the Indonesian invasion of 1975, which had the tacit support of the West.[28] When, in the late 1990s, the Indonesian regime became a source of embarrassment to the promoters of globalization due to its rampant corruption, and the country could no longer be held up as an example to other peripheral or semi-peripheral nations even after the downfall of General Suharto in 1998, Western governments were obliged to acknowledge the truth that lay behind the discourses emanating from elements of the Timorese diaspora, or those who remained in East Timor itself. Public outrage at the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military and their local militias in East Timor, allied to the fact that the Indonesian dictatorial regime had become a hindrance to the centre’s interests, led to the holding of a referendum in the occupied territory in 1999 which was to allow its people to decide their future once and for all. However, even at this point, so close to the hour in which the Timorese people could realise the dream of and independent East Timor that had been vividly portrayed by its country’s poets, their unity was being tested.

This is what the title of João Aparício’s collection of poems written in 1999, Uma Casa e Duas Vacas,[29] attempts to convey, as an explanatory note confirms:

O título Uma Casa e Duas Vacas foi inspirado no depoimento de um timorense, a propósito da promessa de oferta de “uma casa e duas vacas”, feita pelos militares indonésios e chefes das milícias pró-integração à população civil, caso esta rejeitasse a independência.[30]

It is to that threatened unity that Aparício appeals in the collection’s opening poem, “Casa sagrada”. Inserting elements of Tetum, one of the Timorese native languages, in order to more forcefully express the nation’s unique identity that is being threatened by a false discourse, he declares:

Ao princípio vivias na úma lúlic, [31]

A morada de Maromak, [32]

Luz que liga o Povo e a brisa do mar.

E agora, irmã milícia,

Queres apagar a luz,

Essa misteriosa iluminação,

Que nunca foi apagada.


Somos os herdeiros da luz,

Porque nascemos da única úma lúlic;

A nossa vida foi feita para amar,

Não para matar um ao outro.[33]

Aparício is appealing to a member of the Indonesian-backed Timorese militia that supported integration with the occupying country. His rhetoric highlights a shared native heritage, which should act as a unifying factor against external influences that incite deadly violence against those who assert Timor’s independence.

The fractures in the Timorese people’s unity that had not been visible in the works of Borja da Costa and his generation, begin to widen as some are attracted by an external discourse that promises material rewards.[34] Aparício addresses “A casa e as vacas” to one of those that has been lured by the offers made by the Indonesian regime:

Tu, que eras da casa sagrada,

Vendeste tua alma ao monstro,

À troca de casa e vacas.

Só por isso

Voltaste as costas à nossa casa,

Correndo atrás de outra

Que se nutre de mortes humanas e

Despejando bostas na morada de Deus?[35]

The poem ends by warning those who turn their backs on what had been seen as a united house of Timor that they are abandoning a true identity for a false discourse that will only bring them misery:

Quando a promessa,

Vácua e fatal, tiver chegado,

Prepara-te para chorar tua desgraça.


Como essa promessa é o ópio!



Olha! A casa é morta, roxa e fria;

Lá vêm as duas vacas,

Estrangeiras entre os rouxinóis,

Magras e sem leite.[36]

Things represented by outsiders as enticing are ultimately devoid of value and actually detrimental to those who desire them. They are identified as being “alien”, external to Timor, a drug that will imprison the Timorese just at the point where they may be free. However, despite the violent intimidation that took place in the months and weeks leading up to the 1999 referendum, the Timorese people chose to become creators of their own destinies, suffering the deadly backlash of the Indonesian military and militias in revenge for their decision. And yet, even after the departure of the Indonesians, East Timorese poetry reveals that the country’s independence has not ensured the complete restoration of unity that had been – at least temporarily – affected by Indonesia. The free East Timor that earlier poets had portrayed, and for which the population was encouraged to unite and make sacrifices, is not yet a reality, as the nation’s independence has not guaranteed that all its citizens are brought from the periphery into the safety of the centre.

Celso Oliveira, in his 2003 collection, Timor-Leste: Chegou a Liberdade, recalls his own experiences as a member of the resistance against the Indonesian occupation, and catalogues the sacrifices he and countless others made in order to see their nation free from external oppression.[37] Discontent with the situation of the newly-independent East Timor is evident in the opening lines of “O tempo de recompensar”, which state, ‘Se eu soubesse que “era” assim o nosso destino, eu não lutava’.[38] The poem’s lyric voice goes on to catalogue some of the suffering he and his family underwent at the hands of the Indonesians: ‘Eu que chorei pelo meu pai morrendo, pela minha mãe violada, pelo meu filho perseguido, pelo meu irmão desaparecido, pelo meu íntimo amigo esfaqueado, pelo meu tio que chorou por causa da minha tia que foi violada e pelos meus bens que foram saqueados’.[39] Having listed these and other violent acts committed by the Indonesians, as well as the sacrifices the poetic subject made in order that his country should gain its independence, their value is put into question faced with a free East Timor that does not match up to what he had fought for: ‘Se eu soubesse que tu ias praticar a corrupção e o nepotismo, eu não lutava’.[40]

The present of Timorese independence is then put clearly into contrast with the past in Oliveira’s “Era uma coisa/Agora é outra coisa”, where it is important to remember that that past was one in which the East Timorese were living under the Indonesian occupation:

Era. Todos nós quisermos ser presos, sofrer e voar por todo o lado do


Agora quem tem dinheiro é que manda.

Era. Todos nós quisermos ser heróis.

Agora quem era herói é traidor, quem era traido é herói.[41]

According to this view, post-independence East Timor has not brought the genuine freedoms that had united the population in its struggle against the Indonesians and, before them, the Portuguese, and which the liberation poetry of the 1970s and 80s had envisioned. Instead, the new values that have taken hold of the country risk introducing a new form of colonialism, keeping all those that are not privileged enough to be at the centre of the system that has been imported in a state of subservience. Consequently, in the same poem Oliveira warns, ‘Se continuarmos assim, não seremos livres e independentes’,[42] as the loss of unity that had characterised the Timorese in their resistance to others’ overt colonial ambitions is now allowing them to succumb to an invasion that creates division.

To conclude, I hope to have signalled how East Timorese liberation poetry of the 1970s and 80s presented a generally common front to Portuguese and Indonesian colonial rhetoric, appealing for a united Timorese population to resist those who held power over them. However, their counterdiscourse, whilst serving to inspire the people of East Timor and energising an emerging national consciousness, did not chime with the prevalent doctrines of the West, so that their concerns were ignored by those who preferred to align themselves with a brutal dictatorship that better suited their interests. At this point East Timor was positioned at the periphery of the world-system by those who saw themselves as occupying the centre, a situation that would only change once the Indonesian regime could no longer resist the extravagances of its leadership at a time of largely self-inflicted economic turmoil, giving the East Timorese a window of opportunity to advance their cause. However, as the poetry of João Aparício served to show, the unity that had prevailed began to show signs of fracture, provoked by an Indonesian strategy that aimed to deny the former Portuguese colony’s assertion of its independence. Nevertheless, the Timorese people’s aspirations would overcome Indonesian intimidation, and come closer to becoming a reality after the 1999 referendum, especially since the leaders of the East Timorese cause, particularly Xanana Gusmão, the future president, made clear that an independent East Timor would be an East Timor welcoming the global market economy. It now remains to be seen if the divergences that Celso Oliveira points to in his poetry will prevent the consolidation of an East Timorese national identity if there is growing disillusion amongst a population that remains at the periphery of a system that benefits only a select few, or whether Oliveira’s call in “O tempo de recompensar” will be heeded:

Agora, é tempo de repensar…


De guerra civil entre nós.

De confrontações entre nós.

De manipulações e explorações entre nós.[43]


[1] Luís Cardoso, The Crossing: A Story of East Timor, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London, New York: Granta Books, 2000), p.xvii

[2] Artur Marcos, ‘Textos e versões leste-timorenses: Traços para um quadro geral’, in Timor Timorense: Com suas Línguas, Literaturas, Lusofonia… (Lisbon: Edições Colibri, 1995), pp.157-170 (pp.159-160). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of Portuguese texts are mine. [The East Timorese show an aptitude for several artistic forms of expression and – I am convinced of this – only their present uncertainty and the imposition of many urgent needs relative to their physical, social and political survival within a context of Diaspora or Internal Resistance, limits many people’s artistic development, or obliges them to restrict their work to intentionally and self-consciously transmitting political messages in response to an immediate situation].

[3] In this respect it is important to note Fretilin’s definitions of the nature of liberation poetry and of the poet’s relationship to his society: ‘Liberation Poetry is rich with profound and just human aspirations. In it, the poet abstract and subtracts himself with those of his People. In this relation of abstraction/identification, the poet finds his own self in the Struggle, through his daily and active participation in the political and socio-economic transformation of the society to which he belongs’. [A Poesia de Libertação é rica de aspirações humanas justas e profundas. Nela, o poeta abstrai-se e substrai-se dos seus próprios interesses para se identificar com os do seu Povo. Nesta relação abstracção/identificação, o poeta encontra o seu próprio EU na Luta, através da sua participação directa e quotidiana na transformação política e sócio-económica do meio humano a que pertence], R.P. Fretilin, in Timor Leste (Maputo: Insituto Nacional do Livro e do Disco, 1981), p.5.

[4] . See his essay, ‘Entre Prospero e Caliban: Colonialismo, pós-colonialismo e inter-identidade’, in Entre ser e estar: Raízes, percursos e discursos da identidade, ed. by Maria Irene Ramalho and António Sousa Ribeiro (Porto: Edições Afrontamento, 2001), 23-85.

[5]Artur Marcos, ‘Acerca de uma Literatura de Timor Leste’, in Timor Timorense, pp.91-103 (p.91). [Those who are interested in literature make scarcely any references to East Timor. And yet, the territory exists, its inhabitants have their own forms of expression – some of them ancient and transmitted orally in accordance with native tradition, others contemporary, revealed through the written word].

[6] António Sousa Ribeiro, ‘Translation as a Metaphor for our Times: Postcolonialism, Borders and Identities’, Portuguese Studies, 20 (2004), 186-194 (pp.187-8).

[7] Fantasmas e Fantasias Imperiais no Imaginário Português Contemporâneo, ed. by Margarida Calafate Ribeiro and Ana Paula Ferreira (Porto: Campo das Letras, 2003).

[8] . [We are following the essentially cultural line of thought which the pioneering work of Edward Said, Orientalism, launched […] into the postcolonial world, continued in Culture and Imperialism, where the author warns us that he will not undertake the study of several empires, the Spanish and Portuguese amongst them, justifying this attitude by the specificity and distinctiveness of these empires in relation to the British and French empires] (p.13).

[9] Benita Parry, in her essay ‘Problems in current theories of colonial discourse’ (pp.27-32), undertakes a valuable re-examination of Fanon’s theoretical propositions as part of a counter-hegemony; in Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (London and NewYork: Routledge, 2004), pp.13-36.


[11] . To date, the webiste’s content is only available in English, having yet to be translated into Tetum or Portuguese.

[12] Timor Leste (Maputo: Insituto Nacional do Livro e do Disco, 1981).

[13] These stanzas read as follows in the Portuguese version published in Timor Leste:


cerra os punhos

Grita bem alto

– A hora é TUA, MAUBERE!

E o teu desafio fará ruir

as barreiras da tua própria escravidão!…


Enfrenta-te na longa marcha libertadora,



[14] . Artur Marcos, ‘Tópicos para Um Quadro Linguístico Dialectal de Timor Leste’, in Timor Timorense, 117-125 (p.120). [since the time of the establishment of effective Portuguese rule in the territory, it was also used, in the mouths of Europeans and assimilated natives, convinced of their own superior culture or intelligence, as a demeaning label for elements of the Timorese population, especially those from the interior, used to their communal life and rudimentary tools, and with little or no familiarity of European values or technology].

[15] . Benita Parry’s essay, ‘Resistance theory / theorizing resistance or two cheers for nativism’, in her collection, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (London & New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 37-54, presents a convincing argument on the need to recognise the oppositional nature of colonial resistance movements, and not to dismiss it as a project doomed to repeat the oppressive behaviours of the colonizing powers. In her introductory remarks to the essay, Parry states: ‘proposals on how resistance is to be theorized display faultlines within the discussion that rehearse questions about subjectivity, identity, agency and the status of the reverse-discourse as an oppositional practice, posing problems about the appropriate models for contemporary counter-hegemonic work. An agenda which disdains the objective of restoring the colonized as subject of its own history does so on the grounds that a simple inversion perpetuates the colonizer/ colonized opposition within the terms defined by colonial discourse, remaining complicit with its assumptions by retaining undifferentiated identity categories, and failing to contest the conventions of that system of knowledge it supposedly challenges’ (p.37).

[16] Fernando Sylvan, ‘Presente e futuro da palavra maubere’, in Timor Timorense, 181-184. Sylvan begins by alerting us to the fact that not all East Timorese are supportive of the use of this word to describe their people: ‘Alguns timores protestam contra o uso da palavra Maubere no significado que, felizmente, hoje tem: nome de um povo e de tudo o que lhe é relativo’, (p.181). [Some Timorese protest against the use of the word Maubere with the meaning that, fortunately, it has today: the name of a people and of all that pertains to them].

[17] [has grown, positively, in an extraordinary and spectacular manner], p.181.

[18] . [No other Tetum word […] has spread more rapidly, undeniably due to its past and current employment by the Resistance, both internally and externally, above all beyond the borders of Maubere Timor. This is the word that travels, proudly, in the Media of every country, in the Aid Organisations of various States, in international courts, ultimately everywhere, inserted into the majority of cultured languages], p.181.

[19] [It is a word used in Portugal and internationally, in day-to-day conversation, political speeches, poetic or scholarly texts, because, in reality, the Maubere question became a central concern at a national and international level after the Indonesian invasion and the consequent genocide, so that the word maubere became a part of and lived, just as it is, without translation, in every language], pp.181-2.

[20] . By 1974, 93% of the population of East Timor was illiterate. In his direct involvement with such initiatives, Borja da Costa exemplifies Fretilin’s definitions of the nature of liberation poetry and the poet’s relationship to his society: ‘A Poesia de Libertação é rica de aspirações humanas justas e profundas. Nela, o poeta abstrai-se e substrai-se dos seus próprios interesses para se identificar com os do seu Povo. Nesta relação abstracção/identificação, o poeta encontra o seu próprio EU na Luta, através da sua participação directa e quotidiana na transformação política e sócio-económica do meio humano a que pertence’; R.P. Fretilin, in preface to Timor-Leste, p.5.

[21] . During this period Fretilin was competing with UDT (União Democrática Timorense) and Apodeti, parties that generally opposed Timorese independence, favouring forms of political integration with Portugal and Indonesia repectively

[22] . Unless otherwise stated, all Borja da Costa poems quoted are taken from: Francisco Borja da Costa, Revolutionary Poems in the Struggle Against Colonialism: Timorese Nationalist Verse, edited by Jill Jolliffe, translated by Mary Ireland (Sydney: Wild & Woolley, 1976). [We must/nourish/a new life/to forget/that our people/were slaves//We must/struggle/in conquest/of fear/that comes/from slavery] (pp. 24-27).

[23] [We must/teach/our people/what is/the cause/of exploitation].


[25]In Enterrem meu coração no Ramelau (Luanda: União dos Escritores Angolanos, 1982), pp. 47-48. [We surely need, then/To make count in every heart/That weeps or in each one who cries/Simply from the pain caused/From the blood and sweat spent/By all who took part/In the closely-guarded seed of your/Daring triumphal struggle/In the growth of Poetry/Under the unbreakable decision/To fight, fight, fight yet again/AND FIGHT UNTIL VICTORY].

[26] In Enterrem meu coração no Ramelau, p.35. [Kept itself obscure and vexing…/Under the uniform yoke of/Ex-Portugal, fascist and immense,/Of which it was an integral part!…//But in a flash dawn broke./And, so, from islands… and seas in their midst,/The East grew and became great!//For soon it will take the stage,/To show the World, without fear,/The power to trace its own destiny].

[27] . In Timor Leste, p.25. [You silenced my reasoning/In the reasoning of your laws/You suffocated my culture/In the culture of your culture/You put down my revolts/At the point of your bayonet/You tortured my body/In the shackles of your empire/You subjugated my soul/In the faith of your religion].

[28] John G. Taylor’s Indonesia’s Forgotten War: The Hidden History of East Timor (London: Zed, 1991) gives a useful insight into the events leading up to the Indonesian invasion, and the role played by Western governments

[29] João Aparício, Uma Casa e Duas Vacas (Lisbon: Editorial Caminho, 2000).

[30] . [The title A House and Two Cows was inspired by the account of a Timorese man, concerning the promise of a gift of “a house and two cows”, made by the Indonesian military and heads of the pro-integration militias to the civil population, in return for the latter’s rejection of independence], p.7.

[31] Úma lúlic: in Tetum means ‘sacred house’.

[32] Maromak: in Tetum menas light, splendour, day. It is the concept of God. It is the revelation of monotheism, of the God that created Humanity and the universe.

[33] . [You used to live in the úma lúlic,/The abode of Maromak,/The Light that links the People to the sea-breeze.//And now, sister militia,/You want to put out the light,/That mysterious source,/Which has never been dimmed.//…//We are the inheritors of the light,/As we were born of the only úma lúlic;/Our lives were made to love,/Not to kill one another] (p.11).

[34] . A discordant poetic voice that railed against Fretilin and its supporters, belongs to the largely ignored poet, Jorge Barros Duarte who, in his collection, Timor-Jeremíada (Odivelas: Pentaedro, 1988), repeatedly warns the Timorese against the communist and anti-Catholic propaganda of Fretilin, and evokes a divine destiny that lies in returning to Portuguese rule. Thus, in “Nada dos homens”, he writes of ‘A Fretilin, co’o seu “Maubere”/E a “Comissão” da mesma marca,/ “Paz E Justiça P’ra Timor”,/A bucinar, tudo interfere/No teu viver, com ar de hierarca’; [Fretilin, with it’s “Maubere”/And the “Commission” of the same vein,/”Peace And Justice For Timor”,/Harping on, they interfere/With your way of life, with a hierarchical air]. According to Barros Duarte, the Timorese way of life with which Fretilin is interfering is one where ‘“Explicações”, na tua aldeia,/Te dava o padre missionário/Da Lei de Deus que tudo vence’; [“Lessons”, in your village,/Were given to you by the missionary father/Of the Law of God that overcomes all], p.17.

[35] [You, who were of the sacred house,/Sold you soul to the monster,/In exchange for a house and cows.//Just for that/You turned your back on our house,/Running toward another/That feeds on human deaths and/Empties dung into the house of God?], p.12

[36] . [When the promise,/Empty and fatal, arrives,/Prepare to cry over your misfortune.//…//…/That promise is like opium!/…//…/Look! The house is dead, purple and cold;/Here come the two cows,/Aliens amongst the swallows,/Thin and milkless], p.13.

[37] . Celso Oliveira, Timor-Leste: Chegou a Liberdade (39 poesias para Timor Lorosa’e) Edição bilingue – português/ingles, translated by Maria Teresa Carrilho (Lisbon: Soroptomist International: Clube Lisboa – Sete Colinas, 2003).

[38] [If I had known that this was to be our destiny, I would not have fought].

[39] . [I, who cried for my dying father, for my raped mother, for my persecuted son, for my disappeared brother, for my close friend stabbed to death, for my uncle who wept because of my aunt who had been raped, and for my goods that were ransacked].

[40] [If I had known that you were going to practice corruption and nepotism, I would not have fought].

[41] [It used to be. All of us wanting to be imprisoned, to suffer and fly all over the world./Now those who have money are in charge./It used to be. All of us wanting to be heroes./Now those who were heroes are traitors, those who were traitors are heroes].

[42] . [If we continue like this, we will not be free and independent].

[43] [Now, it’s time to think again…/ENOUGH!!!:/Of civil war between us./Of confrontation between us./Of manipulation and exploitation between us].


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