The tenth part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry
Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson Illustration by Curt Livingston
Xanana Gusmão, the prime minister of East Timor, is also a poet. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while fighting colonial rule by neighbouring Indonesia, he and his comrades wrote liberation poetry. The mere act of reading their work, both alone and in secret, became an act of resistance. Today, East Timorese poetry is in a post-Babel situation. Verse is composed in English, Portuguese, Tetum and minority languages such as Fataluku and Makassae. Multiple languages can sometimes occur within a single poem.
Gusmão’s “Grandfather Crocodile” is a fable that creates a sense of nationhood for modern East Timor. It is based on a popular myth that describes how the island was created by a great crocodile that turned itself into land so that its human friends could live there. The narrative voice is omniscient and kindly as a god, but the rhetorical repetition of “and who am I to disbelieve” echoes the protest chant of a political rally and grounds the mythology in politics.
These days Gusmão is too busy with state affairs to write much poetry, but a new generation of poets is working in an atmosphere of openness and freedom. These new poets also find themselves tasked with trying to process the horror endured by the nation during the 1999 crisis, when anti-independence militias began attacking civilians, killing an estimated 1,400 people. A poet known only as “Santina” wrote “Don’t!” and it is an uncomfortable read. It was created in response to the convening of the Commission of Truth and Friendship in order to investigate the violence. The poem’s tone is angry and sarcastic and reveals an anxiety that the commission would be a whitewash. The repeated “a” sounds throughout the poem create a subconscious scream, echoing the sound of those days, while the disjointed arrhythmic lines break the body of the poem to mirror violence. Santina leaves us with a final question: Will justice be compromised for the sake of reconciliation and real estate?
by Xanana Gusmão
For Marta B. Neves, Lisbon
The legend says
and who am I to disbelieve!
The sun perched atop the sea
opened its eyes
and with its rays
indicated a way
From the depths of the ocean
a crocodile in search of a destiny
spied the pool of light, and there he surfaced
Then wearily, he stretched himself out in time
and his lumpy hide was transformed
into a mountain range
where people were born
and where people died
– the legend says
and who am I to disbelieve
that he is Timor!
Don’t talk about justice
Let’s count how many
gravestones there are spread across Loro’sae
Don’t talk about
Let’s debate about how much
Real estate that we will develop
Over the gravestones of human beings
Who were sacrificed for justice
Don’t talk about facts
Let’s discuss about
Whether that slaughter was fictitious
“Even in sorrow, you never surrender” – The ninth part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry