Poetry can help build nations. It is doing so today in Timor-Leste (East Timor), where themes of resistance to foreign rule, Indigenous re-assertion, language and the shape of the new nation intertwine. One of the country’s leading poets, Abé Barreto Soares, embodies the way these themes come together.
Although it declared its independence from Portugal in 1975, Timor-Leste (East Timor) only regained that independence in 2002, following a brutal Indonesian invasion, 24 years of military occupation, a referendum that opted for self-rule, and a three-year United Nations interim administration.
Barreto Soares’ personal history mirrors that of his country: a young boy when Indonesia invaded, his family suffered deaths and other losses. He was educated in the Indonesian school system and at an Indonesian university, writing his first poems in Indonesian before coming to Canada as an exchange student. There he obtained refugee status and spent most of the 1990s as a Canada-based campaigner for Timorese independence, all the while continuing to write poems in Indonesian, Portuguese, English, and increasingly in Timor-Leste’s national language, Tetum. He returned to Timor-Leste in 2000 and worked as a translator for the United Nations, interpreting between English and other languages for internationals, then became official interpreter to a president. Through all this, he never ceased writing. He is a leader in Timorese poetry and music, which are helping to write and sing a new nation into being.
“My contribution since the resistance era is something that I look back on that was worthwhile in the sense of using poetry and music as a tool for the freedom of Timor–Leste,” Barreto Soares says in an interview. “That spirit remains alive within me and that spirit is what keeps me going.”
Barreto Soares exemplifies Edward Said’s notion of reinscription, a post-colonial desire among writers for “the rediscovery and repatriation of what has been suppressed … by the process of imperialism.”2 The Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste (1975-1999) saw the deaths of as many as 200,000 people, over a quarter of the population. It was accompanied by an attempt to eliminate or “museumize” indigenous Timorese traditions, assimilating Timor-Leste into Indonesia culturally as well as physically. Timorese writers such as Abé Barreto Soares strove during the occupation to preserve the idea and the Indigenous traditions of Timor-Leste in words and song.3 Since the restoration of independence, they have tried to connect the nation being built to a longstanding Timorese poetic tradition, to reinscribe and revive what colonial occupation tried to destroy.
This essay examines the work of Abé Barreto Soares through the poet’s own words, under three headings: his years in exile, where he developed a poetic voice evoking love for the far-off Timorese homeland and a determination to maintain its identity even under conditions of near-genocide; the post-2002 development of a literary and cultural identity in independent Timor-Leste; and the current role of poetry in language and national identity.