Academic journal article Antipodes

Failing to Meet in the Middle: East Timor and Gail Jones's "Other Places"

Academic journal article Antipodes

Failing to Meet in the Middle: East Timor and Gail Jones's "Other Places"

Article excerpt

REVlSmNG ELEMENTS OF THE PAST OF A NATION AND THE CALIbration of the appropriate modulations of regret and pride that should be felt are often notoriously irresoluble. In the Australian context, these issues have, understandably, come to be dominated by one above all others: how to feel, express, admit, make official and learn from the relation between the nation's First Peoples and the settlers and their descendants. Gail Jones has participated in the debate through her novel Sorry (2007), but this is not the only area of regret in Australian history or in Jones's work. Concerns about processing history have occurred in various guises throughout her fiction from its earliest appearance in the short stories in House of Breathing (1992). The story I would like to examine here concerns an event that has also activated Australian shame and guilt, but one in which Australians were not the principal participants: the Indonesian invasion of East Timor on Australia's borders in 1975, and the succeeding ruthless oppression that lasted until the East Timorese people voted in a surprisinglygranted referendum in 1999 for independence.

Among national stories in Australia, that concerning East Timor possesses unique characteristics. Official actions and explanations with respect to the need for the nation to accept Indonesia's invasion and subsequent oppression of East Timor after Portugal's attempts at decolonization had been hindered by both Australia and Indonesia were never widely accepted (see Dunn, Scott, Pires, Fernandes), so that a sense of national uneasiness courses through most non-official discourses from the date of the invasion in 1975. "East Timor's a little bit different. For Australians anyway," asserts David Wenham's character in the Australian-Canadian television mini-series co-production set in East Timor, Answered by Fire (2006), summing up thirty years of Australian guilt over its country's official acquiescence in Indonesia's brutal and neo-colonial actions. Given the sense that with respect to East Timor Australia had failed to support justice and a "fair go," despite eloquent and penetrating opposition to official positions on the situation, there are aspects of the history that needs to be written that may require other resources than those available to the arguments and strategies of non-fiction. In this endeavor, writers of fiction conventionally have resources through which they may approach the catachreses of historical events in ways that may supplement non-fictional exposés of official doublespeak. Fiction can offer other satisfactions to readers' ethical priorities and their desire to see guilt and shame processed from multiple angles, without the need to establish hierarchies in the areas of either narrative pleasure or verisimilitude. Jacques Rancière goes so far as to suggest that "[t]he artistic work of memory is that which accords everyone the dignity of fiction" (9), and it is this imbrication of the constructed nature of memory with the dignity of fiction that Jones's story "Other Places" both opens up and enacts, but it does so in ways that cast doubt on the ability of some memories ever to attain "the dignity of fiction" in any uncomplicated fashion.

Robert Dixon points out that "Gail Jones's first three novels deal with Australians who travel or live abroad and engage with aspects of modern global culture" (121), and although "Other Places" (the longest story in The House of Breathing) also deals with an Australian who is traveling abroad, it is to a country that is both very near Australia and until recently very far from the globalizing flows of late modernity. The attempt to close down and control East Timorese cultures that the Indonesian colonial project entailed summons up Jones's abiding interest in what Diana Brydon terms, generalizing the centrality of the story's title to Jones's work as a whole: "the ambivalences of western encounters with the self in 'other places'" (249). …

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