What was your early reading journey like?
I was born to a retired policeman of low rank and a housewife with seven other siblings. We lived very modestly in the kampung. My parents were loyal book readers, as were all my siblings, even though our access to books was extremely limited. Given my family’s limited economic condition, my experience wasn’t one of having books bought for me all the time. When I was little, I really wanted to subscribe to the children’s magazines brought by travelling newspaper sellers to our kampung, but what could I do? I wasn’t as lucky as those friends who had better access to reading material. But my siblings and I were fortunate enough. In those days, there were pastors and nuns who diligently lent us books and magazines for reading. I feel that experience played a part in strengthening my love of books, along with the reading habits illustrated by our parents (despite having secondhand books which we sometimes had to read multiple times). It was through church that I obtained wider access to books. The school library also had a lot of books, although they were far too Java-centric. As everyone knows, in the Suharto era large numbers of reading books and folktales were poured into state schools, including ours in inland Timor, but the stories were of Javanese people. I only discovered the oasis I had been missing when I began high school in Ende, Flores, at one of the missionary schools. The school had a large number of books and was where I met several pastors who were book collectors. My interest in writing grew as the scope of my reading became increasingly wide.
How about oral storytelling traditions passed down over generations – how influential were they for you?
Incredibly. I was lucky to be born into a family of very skilled narrators. My father, mother, siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts in the kampung are all skilled storytellers. I feel this is true of all Mollo people. Telling stories is a part of their daily lives. My parents would tell us stories about the same things dozens of times over, but they always seemed interesting. Later, as an adult, I came to understand that telling those stories over and over again was the best way to not forget, and thus that tradition endures. Nowadays I’m pleased and proud to talk to people about my experiences with those oral traditions. Perhaps storytelling has since become a skill of mine too, I’m always pleased and enthusiastic when I’m invited to tell stories about Mollo. What I do now is what my family often did for me in the past. They spoke with conviction and enthusiasm and were always interesting.
My childhood was filled with folktales and spoken traditions. My mother always made an impression when she told stories, my imagination working as I listened quietly. Later, when I began to write poems and short stories, a large number of them were born out of those experiences. Aside from those concerning cultural traditions and history, most of the stories we were told were strange, odd, unusual, mythic, even gossipy; but because the storytellers were so convincing, they shaped the world of my imagination–the world in all my work.
Both my grandparents and parents lived in eras with extraordinary dynamics. My grandparents lived in the Dutch and Japanese colonial eras, while my parents experienced firsthand Indonesia early in its independence, the events of 1965 and the New Order. A large number of historical, cultural and political events occurred in that decade.Often, stories about the everyday lives of ordinary people in the kampung are ultimately also linked to those major events. It was only when I grew up and began writing based on the experiences of my childhood that I understood–there was this common thread, formed but previously unseen. For example, take the extraordinary story of my great-great-grandfather, who was known as a healer and a medium, skilled at predicting the future and possessed of sorcery abilities. During his time, he still adhered to local beliefs and lived in harmony with nature. However, everything began to change when the church came, reaching a peak in 1965 when everyone had to choose one of five official state religions. His traditional home was burnt down, and many oral traditions, traditional rituals, habits/routines and so on disappeared with the burning of symbolic items in the house. Even now, I still dream that those abilities will re-emerge in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren–myself included. For Mollo’s younger generations such as myself, after reading much literature about the history and culture of Timor, and hearing (although not completely) about our ancestors, it feels as though so much good has disappeared, including moral values, philosophy and points of view. Oral storytelling traditions remain but people share them wrapped in trauma and suspicion, which is natural given so many bitter past experiences. People are more careful and keep their distance, and they speak awkwardly and exclusively. This is what I would like to gradually change. Through the Lakoat.Kujawas community, we are trying to revitalize all this, providing a space while rebuilding a sense of trust in others and a feeling of self-belief within ourselves.
Stories like your great-great-grandfather’s highlight the real implications of those grand-scale events for individuals and communities, which often go undocumented in histories. You mentioned Mollo, the sub-district in South Central Timor regency from which you hail. What is the character of your home in your work?
People call Mollo the woman of the mountain, while her male siblings lie in the lowlands and on the coast–namely, the regions of Amanuban and Amanatun. Mollo’s history is very special to me. The first people in Mollo are believed to have performed a noble task: watching over the mountains, jungle and springs because Mollo is the heart of the island of Timor. From Mollo, there are tens of large rivers which flow down to a large portion of the island of Timor and it has thick jungle and the island’s highest mountain. That task is reflected keenly in oral traditions, traditional law, farming culture, weaving motifs and more. Since the beginning, the humans of Mollo have been shaped to be close to nature, and to care for it. Nature is a reflection of their bodies even–the jungle their hair, stone their bones, water their blood, earth their skin. In Mollo, every kinship group/large clan possesses stones and springs to which they are connected by more than merely shared names. There are terms for ‘stone names’ (fatukanaf) and ‘water names’ (oekanaf). The characteristics, values and views of a clan/kinship group relate to certain stones or springs which are protected and cared for in the common interest. In the end, humans and nature are side-by-side, equal and inseparable. Every object or element in the universe is given properties or character. Interestingly, these properties are masculine and feminine in equal measure. To my knowledge, not only are the symbols equal, but gender roles in Mollo are also quite fluid. I’m aware of this because my father is from the Lio ethnic group in Flores, where men are more dominant and masculine symbols are often more prominent.
Ultimately, Mollo has greatly enriched my work. A large number of my short stories are set in Mollo, or Timor more generally, with strong elements of myth and fairy-tale.
As far as I know, little literature has been written about the people and cultures which you describe above. Why is it important to you to write about their lives and situations?
I am part of the people of Timor, so what appears in my writing are the realities which I’ve experienced throughout my life. I am not at a distance, because I am Timor, and Timor is me. Thus I have no particular intention or mission to pen, introduce and give voice to what’s in the hearts of Timorese people. Or ‘them’. What I write is about me, I am Timorese and therefore Timor emerges of its own accord. It’s true that there are still only a few writers from Timor. Living in both a society with oral traditions (internally in Mollo) and a society which writes (through my associations externally), it’s important for me to strengthen both of these practices. I am increasingly aware that oral traditions can’t be allowed to disappear or be replaced with writing traditions. Naturally, there is much positive value in both being strengthened.
Through conducting research in my home village over the last few years, I have discovered a number of elderly informants who are somewhat closed off, possibly due to past traumas. They are suspicious that intentions to maintain tradition and culture will be exploited by outsiders. There are fears that what they know and possess will be stolen and taken away. Or that the traditions they have maintained silently pose a threat to them. Christianisation, and the labelling of adherents of local beliefs as ‘kafir’, have had a strong influence post-1965. What’s more, this process was led at the time by armed military forces. Additionally, on several occasions I have encountered the following statement: ‘we don’t want to practice those traditions and culture anymore because they are prohibited and considered polytheistic and satanic in the church and the bible’. I’m dumbfounded. But this is how it is.
There are numerous factors causing the decline of tradition and culture. I voice this through my stories not as an outsider who wants to advocate, but as an insider; a Timorese who wants to return freely to that culture and ritual without being blocked or hampered by outside factors, like unconscious political, cultural and perhaps even theological forms of colonialism.
It seems you are taking positive steps through writing and community work to reverse this and revive or reclaim some of those traditions and culture, in which there lie similarities with decolonisation efforts in an Australian First Peoples context also. In your experience, what are the benefits and challenges of being a writer from Eastern Indonesia?
In this increasingly open and limitless era, there is so much space and opportunity for all to take advantage of, including those from Eastern Indonesia. With the existence of the internet, we are more and more easily connected, and can network and socialise with broader scope. However, at times I disagree with us being given opportunities solely because we’re Eastern Indonesian, without considering the quality of the work. Because while skin colour, language, dialect, culture, access and facilities may be different, what makes us equal is quality of work.
On a national level, I can’t really be bothered when faced with issues related to literary politics, the literary canon, blah blah blah. There are too many strongholds in Indonesian literature. Perhaps I don’t have much energy for discussing those issues. I choose instead to use my energy to promote literature in my kampung and in my community. My younger brothers and sisters in the kampung have greater needs, for more creative space, reading material, discussion and appreciation. On the other hand, I’m glad that a few of my works have been translated into English so that friends can read them.
Can you tell me about some of those efforts you mentioned to promote literature and literacy, in your kampung and in East Nusa Tenggara province more generally, and what motivates you to carry out this work?
I’m conscious of how I grew in the community. Since I finished university, I’ve been active in the community (mostly through culture & the arts), and I feel like I’ve grown, developed and even wholly found myself through being part of a community. Community has opened so many paths for me up until this point in time. It’s a great space for me to develop and grow organically. In the community, I don’t feel like I’m some big name, big-headed, multi-talented and so on. In the community, I’m taught to keep learning, to be humble, to always share and to mutually foster.
When I decided to stop working in the city and come home, I found the biggest problem in the kampung to be education. The limitations I experienced decades ago are still being felt by the younger ones today to an even more serious degree (at present there is no pastor providing a space for reading in our church). Access to books is limited, as is the quality of teachers and education. Everything connected to education in the kampung moves slowly, while the assault of information from outside through the internet and TV proceeds en masse. Struggling in literacy? Most definitely.
As a resident raised by the community, I had to be active and play a role. The easiest, cheapest and most probable thing for me to do in line with my passion was to become an entry way for the solution. And so, Lakoat.Kujawas was established in 2016, beginning with a library and now existing also as a social enterprise. The library is not merely a library, it’s also a creative space where kids can be themselves. The assault of information and influence from outside is in front of our eyes already and in order to catch up, we have to sprint rather than just keep walking. To do this we need to employ creative methods, unearthing once again the strength of Mollo arts and culture as not only a means of supporting literacy, but also as an attempt to revitalize the kampung and strengthen the identity of Mollo’s younger generations. The fruits of these efforts are beginning to be felt–at least testimony of teachers and parents has stated as much.
What inspiring community-minded and community-led work. So, what do you see as the importance of involving children in the world of reading and literature?
I believe that art is liberating. It sharpens the humanistic side of people. It speaks of feeling and sensitivity. And it also moves people. Through weaving, storytelling, and cultural rituals, my brothers and sisters succeeded in driving out marble mines ensconced in Mollo for dozens of years, even decades. Why are Mollo people so solid in opposing marble mining? Because it is that stone which tells the story of their lives and the birth of their ancestors. In that stone, countless narratives, songs, dances and weaving motifs are maintained and continue to be passed down to new generations. Because my ancestors have done this successfully, the forests are preserved and the springs continue to sustain people, which is why I believe that culture and arts, literature among them, can be the strength of Mollo’s current generation. Certainly, the challenges are increasingly difficult. The assault from the outside world is ever more furious, while internally the various factors which I mentioned earlier have distanced Mollo people from their roots. How does one return to their roots? Perhaps through the cultural and artistic activities we have developed, in particular the literary ones. For example, the kids’ writing class in our community has begun to write and create books of Mollo folk and fairy tales. They have just published a book of poetry, after eight months of workshops studying and writing about stone, the forest and springs.
Fantastic. What are your plans going forward as a writer and participant in Indonesian literature?
Going forward, there are still a number of projects connected with the community, whether it be with the kids or with farming groups. We just pioneered a heritage trail in the kampung which discusses and links community, ecology and food. It’s called Mnahat Fe’u or ‘new food’, a long-abandoned harvest season celebration for Mollo people. We are trying to revive it using an approach relevant to our current context and challenges. Meanwhile, with the children’s writing class, which we have named To The Lighthouse, we just released a book of poetry: My Body is Stone, My House is the Moon. A few of these poems have been chosen by the poet Khairani Barokka to be translated as part of the Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) workshop in England. In a short time, we will also launch Fairytales from Nunuh Haumeni, a collection of stories inspired by local Molla fairytales and children’s perspectives of trees (particularly banyan and sandalwood, the two trees of life for Mollo people). In terms of my own work, nothing as yet. I’m still excited to keep developing the Lakoat.Kujawas community along with my friends, through a social enterprise in which residents are active. These projects also provide a means to document and archive the various cultural, artistic and historical riches in the kampung, rebuilding awareness and attention amongst the residents.
Translated from Indonesian by Iven Manning.