asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A Woman of Independence
Kirsty Sword Gusmão, with Rowena Lennox
Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2003

One curse of a life of intense action is that you may not have much time for reflection, not much time to take stock. You’re too busy doing. This certainly seems to be the case for Kirsty Sword Gusmão, who plunged into activism on behalf of occupied East Timor in the 1990s and didn’t emerge for air until—well, ever. There has always been, and continues to be, just too much to do.

A Woman of Independence captures this perfectly—the rush from one thing to the next, the clamor of small matters demanding attention while momentous matters loom in the background:

My whole day had been taken up with the petty problems of the rapazes [boys]. It was a tiny job really, this passing on of information between various parties, but it felt big and time-consuming enough to prevent me from articulating and recording my own thoughts and responses to the events unfolding around me.

Those events being, in this case, her impending visit (in 1995), on behalf of the imprisoned independence leader Xanana, to guerrilla commanders out in the field. And very soon she’s on her way to attempt that meeting, stopping to give a letter from Xanana to the wife of one of the guerrilla commanders:

[Olinda] wore the years of physical hardship and the pain of separation from her husband on her face. Nevertheless, as I handed her the envelope from Xanana, I noticed that her eyes gleamed with satisfaction, a tear threatening to escape down her bony cheeks. She had spent many years in the bush herself, having given birth to her son, Benvindo, in a guerrilla encampment in 1986. The food shortages and absence of medical attention led her and [her husband] Aluc to decide to place the infant in the care of Aluc’s father in Los Palos town. But the child was kidnapped en route by an Indonesian lieutenant-colonel who no doubt wished to use Aluc’s boy as a bargaining chip in the effort to force the Falintil to surrender. Olinda had not seen the boy since.

devotion to the cause )

Kirsty on education )

Overall, though, what’s best about A Woman of Independence are the hundreds of dramatic encounters and interactions that Kirsty describes—a revolution seen from the inside, recounted in vivid detail.

It's been more than ten years since the book was published, and Kirsty has continued her work. She’s been active advocating education in mother tongues (coincidentally, today is International Mother Language Day), as well as maternal and child health and welfare through a foundation she established for that purpose, the Alola Foundation. She’s spoken out against Australia for the bad faith it has shown—as evidenced by spying—in negotiations with Timor-Leste over oil reserves in the waters between the two countries, and when a vice-minister of education made a flippant remark regarding allegations that the principal of a Dili high school was preying on his female students, she turned the discussion back toward "the impact of sexual harassment and coercion on girls and their education."

Oh and one other thing? When she does find a free moment, she apparently isn’t averse to reading science fiction:

The following day I read a novel … hoping that the concepts in the book would help give some form to the thoughts and emotions clamouring for attention and expression in my tired brain. The novel was an eclectic blend of sci-fi and cyber-punk—pure, way-out escapism. The phone didn’t ring all day and I’d finished the book by early afternoon.

Any guesses what it might have been? (She doesn’t say.) The year was 1995.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A bit back I posted about spirits that live in geodes in Timor-Leste. Here's a real-life example people interacting with the spirits. It sounds like something from an old folktale--only it's from 1994. I came across it in the memoir A Woman of Independence, by Kirsty Sword Gusmão. She, you may recall, is the wife of Xanana Gusmão, the current prime minister of Timor-Leste. In 1994 Xanana was in prison in Indonesia, and Kirsty was his English teacher and liaison. They were communicating only by letters, and Xanana sent Kirsty this letter, regarding a photo she had been given to send to him, of a boy in an orphanage, a boy Kirsty had been told was Xanana's son.

My dear, thanks for the photo of my son of war )

This story entrances me, the story itself, most of all, but also the way Xanana shared it with Kirsty. It's a delicate thing, explaining about beliefs. The world is a complicated place, and how people live in it is different in more than just material ways. Some people experience a world that's thick with spirits, others a world with very few, others a world with none at all.

More on the book when I finish it--I'm nearly done.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
I enjoyed the documentary very much! There was a lot of unusual footage, like of Xanana Gusmão, revolutionary leader (and current prime minister) in prison, or of Kirsty Sword Gusmão's first visit to East Timor, back in the very early 1990s. The things I was most surprised to learn were tangential to the main story: Cipinang Prison in Indonesia was nothing like what I would have imagined, and the degree of corruptibility of the guards was amazing. Some half-dozen of them were essentially in the pay of the Timorese resistance and Xanana ended up with a cell phone and computer in prison. At one point Ramos-Horta (Nobel Peace Prize winner and East Timor's first president) remarked that at times Xanana seemed more up-to-date technologically than Ramos-Horta himself:

"What's he talking about? Does he know more Internet than me? He's in prison, and he knows more Internet than me!

Also, this prison: the prisoners cooked their own meals (Xanana filmed himself making "prison mashed potatoes") and grew their own vegetables--and apparently growing bonsai trees was part of the government's program of their rehabilitation. Consequently, Xanana was always sending Kirsty bonsai trees. She ended up with about twenty of them, it looked like.

The details of the development of their personal relationship were charming. At one point Kirsty sent him a photo of her, back to the camera so that it couldn't reveal who she was to anyone who might see/confiscate it. He then painted that photo and sent her the painting. She took a photo of herself in the same position (same hair style), looking at the painting. He then painted that. So they ended up with this recursive set of images:

Recursive Art

He sent her fish, too, and took video of himself tending fish in his own aquarium:

Fish in Aquarium

Read more... )

But I think the strength of the documentary isn't its historical focus; it's more about these two people coming together in this tumultuous circumstance.

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
A while ago I blogged about the movie Alias Ruby Blade, about the clandestine activity of Kirsty Sword Gusmão in aid of the Timorese resistance during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. The film is at the Tribeca film festival right now, and you can watch it for free! I'm watching as I type. (Well, I've paused it to type this, actually. But the first five minutes are looking excellent.)

To watch it, you have to create a Tribeca account. If you click on this link for the film, it will tell you you need to set up an account, and it'll give you the screens to do it. (And then you can look at other films too.) Then just go back to the original screen, and you're all set.

I'll share my impressions after I've finished the film.

(Here's a review: "Alias Ruby Blade: Tribeca Review")

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
So, you're growing up in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and you're taking ballet lessons, and you're pretty dang good at it, good enough to think about being a professional dancer, but you find yourself thinking, "You know . . . it's a bit narrow. And I am not sure I can live up to my bladey surname as a ballerina." You've always loved Indonesia--you learned your first words of Indonesian at four--so you study the language in college, where you also come to hear about the plight of East Timor, at that time occupied by Indonesia. Genocidally occupied: an estimated quarter of the population of East Timor were killed in the early years of the occupation.

May I present to you Kirsty Sword Gusmão

So in her twenties, Kirsty ups and goes to Jakarta as a foreign aid worker . . . annnnd then somehow manages to become an, um, "clandestine activist" is what Wikipedia calls it, code name Ruby Blade, working for the Timorese resistance.

Kirsty's daring exploits )

And now there's a movie about her: Alias Ruby Blade.

Alias Ruby Blade: a Story of Love and Revolution from Alexander Meillier on Vimeo.

She recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she's taking it all in stride, and I feel pretty sure she's going to wrestle it into submission. Chin up, Kirsty!

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 5.29.00 PM-Mar 6, 2013

2002 Interview: "Dangerous Liaison"
2005 Interview: Enough Rope"

1Xanana, who's 20 years older than Kirsty, did have a wife from his youth. This fact pained me. Throwaway wives: not good. However, two ameliorating factors. First, it seems as if the two had grown distant even before Kirsty entered the scene. The wife had fled to Australia and Xanana was in prison. And second, he's continued to be involved with his kids by his first wife. But who knows. That's their personal story, and there may be some badness and sadness in it, but who among us is without sin?

asakiyume: (Timor-Leste nia bandiera)
Linguistically, East Timor is an interesting place. Portugal was the colonial overlord for centuries, so Portuguese was the language of higher education and opportunity. Then from the mid 1970s through 1999, Indonesia occupied the country, and Indonesia was the language of classroom instruction. Meanwhile, there are several mother tongues spoken by different populations. Tetun (Tetum) is the mother tongue of a large plurality of people, but there are other first-languages spoken, too.

map of the languages of East Timor )

This being the situation in East Timor, there's apparently debate over how much to promote mother tongues and how much doing so is destructive of national unity.

From the Minister of Education:

The Ministry of Education fully supports the use of the mother tongue to serve as a bridge and facilitate the students during the initial years of scolarity, notably at the pre-school and basic education levels, thereby establishing a solid foundation for the children to pursue their studies at a higher level.

Several commenters argued against this, saying things like Mother tongue is important but not priority or maybe priority but not urgent and Nation building means exactly that; constructing with the glue that unites. Not dividing with the wedges that divide.

Then the prime minister's wife1 (who also has the title of "Goodwill Ambassador for Education") joined the conversation, saying,

The suggestion that promoting local languages and culture threatens national unity is ludicrous. The true threat to social cohesion and stability in any country lies in the promotion of practices and systems which discriminate against certain sections of the community on the basis of their socio-economic circumstances, ethnic background or home language . . . the huge body of international research and national evidence-based studies show unequivocally that giving children a chance to build a solid foundation of literacy and cognitive development in the language with which they are most familiar helps them to successfully acquire a second, third, fourth and subsequent languages.

All of which is very interesting to me as I contemplate the nation of W-- and think about its future.

1We've already established that Xanana Gusmão is super cool. Well, his wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmão, is equally cool. How could she not be, with the surname Sword? She will be getting her own entry momentarily.

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