Academic journal article Oceania

Circulating Stories: East Timorese in Australia and Questions of Post-Independence Identity

Academic journal article Oceania

Circulating Stories: East Timorese in Australia and Questions of Post-Independence Identity

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

During the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, diasporic groups played a central role in the campaign for self-determination. Throughout the occupation, East Timorese in Australia maintained a strong sense of long-distance nationalism, which drove, directly or indirectly, communal and social activities. The fight to free East Timor was at the core of the exiles' collective imagination, defining them as a largely homeland-focused community. However, in the aftermath of the independence, the role and position of the diaspora have been less clear and the exiles have struggled to redefine their relationship with their home country. Personal experiences upon return and perceptions of political, cultural, economic, and social development (or lack thereof) have led to renewed questioning of identity and belonging. This article explores the renewed questioning of identity and belonging embedded in people's 'circulating stories' of change, sacrifice and return.

Keywords: East Timor, diaspora, socio-political and cultural change, identity, narrative practice.

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Much has been written about East Timor and the challenges it faces as an independent nation, particularly with reference to the 2006-07 political crisis in the country (e.g., Kingsbury and Leach 2007; McWilliam 2007b; McWilliam and Bexley 2008; Rees 2004; Scambary 2006, 2007, 2008; Shoesmith 2007; Simonsen 2006; Traube 2007). However, relatively little attention has been paid to the situation post-independence of those who left East Timor during the civil war of 1975 and the Indonesian occupation. During the Indonesian occupation of the territory, the diaspora played a central role in the campaign for self-determination. The actions of the people living in exile maintained a level of diplomatic pressure on international power brokers and ensured that the East-Timorese people's cause was not forgotten. The exiles represented a vital resource in the struggle for independence. At the same time, the political campaign and the sense of an imagined community on which it rested provided a means by which the refugees could alleviate feelings of loss and guilt associated with their flight. In the aftermath of the independence, the role and position of the diaspora have been less clear and the exiles have struggled to redefine their relationship with their home country. Personal experiences upon return and perceptions of political, cultural, economic, and social development (or lack thereof) have led to renewed questioning of identity and belonging.

In this article, I explore this renewed questioning of identity and belonging through the concept of 'circulating stories'. 'Circulating stories' refers to a practice of storytelling that emerged within the East-Timorese diaspora in the aftermath of independence. It resembles the symbolic-interactionist approach to gossip (Haviland 1977; Heilman 1976) whereby narratives provide individuals 'with a map of their social environment and with current information about happenings, inhabitants and their dispositions', by which they 'align their actions' (Rapport and Overing 2000:154). More specifically, it refers to the ways by which the East-Timorese exiles draw on the experience of friends and family who have returned to East Timor in order to make sense of their personal and social experience of independence and renegotiate their position in relation to independent East Timor.

The article, which is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with the East-Timorese community in Melbourne, Australia, begins with a brief description of the community and, drawing on existing scholarship of exile and return, 1 explore how the notion of return has formed part of the East-Timorese refugees' exile identities. (1) This is followed by an exploration of the concept of circulating stories and a consideration of the narratives upon which they are based. The circulating stories and the exiles' post-independence experiences are underpinned by a moral discourse of sacrifice, which draws on an East-Timorese 'cultural code of reciprocity' (Traube 2007). …

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