05 November 2008

Contested Belonging: East Timorese Youth in the Diaspora

PhD Thesis on line - Fiona Crockford 2007 Australian National University


Contested Belonging: East Timorese Youth in the Diaspora Author Crockford, Fiona Crockford
Institution The Australian National University 2007


This research explores East Timoreseness as a complex and evolving identity in which Timorese 'frontiers', both physical and psychic, have been drawn and redrawn over time and through space. It deals specifically with the sense of displacement and ambiguity that underpins the social identities of young East Timorese living in Australia during a period of intense political transformation in East Timor’s recent history (1997-1999).

Acknowledging the diversity of experience among diasporic youth, the study focuses primarily on young ‘nineties’ Timorese, that is, those who were in their teens or early twenties when they fled East Timor in the wake of the Dili Massacre in 1991. It considers the ways in which they negotiated their experiences of displacement and the immensity of a highly politicised Timorese identity, often framed by young people themselves in terms of an embodied ‘weight’ and a viscerally deep, and occasionally overwhelming, sense of moral responsibility. In the diaspora, the evocation of traumatic memory has been central to the preservation of a uniquely East Timorese identity and its reconstitution in a breached world. Memory has thus been called upon to legitimate a very specific and homogenous East Timorese identity and to reconstruct it through public ritual. Yet an over-determination of such a monological discourse threatens to subsume the heterogeneous experiences and possible alterities of young Timorese and the diversity of Timorese cultural expression. This study explores the interplay between a monological discourse that articulates a cohesive public identity that implies an ‘authentic’ East Timoreseness and a dialogical discourse through which more ambiguous and hybrid identities emerge.

I begin by tracing the strands of history, culture, myth and power that combine to produce totalising representations of East Timoreseness and youth as patriotic and self-sacrificing collectivities. I argue that the exigencies of the struggle for independence from Indonesian occupation depended upon a very specific enactment of youth within East Timor through which East Timorese youth acquired a potent and heroic role. Yet the potency of this politicised identity has always been unstable and provisional, both within and outside of East Timor. As well, such an identity is both enabling and confining for young Timorese since its performance is always infused with power structures and relations that are both socially and spatially contingent.

I then explore processes of identity formation and re-evaluation among young diasporic East Timorese in depth. Removed from the immediacy of struggle, the 'doing' of youth among young diasporic East Timorese inevitably shifts according to the different knowledge formations that frame and produce 'youth' and particularly 'migrant youth' in host countries. While young Timorese often feel caught between apparently contradictory practices and constructions of youth, and discourses that oppose 'Timoreseness' and 'Australianness' (as well as ‘Timoreseness’ and ‘Indonesianness’), there is always room for slippage. Thus, I draw upon examples of their cultural negotiations in the world of the arts to show how young East Timorese sought to engage in meaningful forms of social action and deployed various forms of testimonial as a self-affirming and identity-validating practice. Through practices of music, poetry and theatre young East Timorese, in different ways and with varying force, deploy cultural strategies that are not necessarily inimical or unsympathetic to the concerns and political imperatives of older generation Timorese. The everyday narratives of young Timorese, however, reveal that their identities are entangled in the complex interplay of a number of divergent and interdependent structuring dispositions: the personal and the collective; the global and local; difference and continuity; freedom and constraint. The management of these tensions, as well as the uncertainties of their legal status in Australia and political upheavals within East Timor itself, required the creation of strategies of identity that drew upon both existing and new cultural referents and resources. The experiences of young diasporic East Timorese thus highlight the dialectical and contingent character of intercultural experience and social identities.

Dr Fiona Crockford
East Timor Section
GPO Box 887 Canberra ACT 2601 Australia
Ph. +61 2 6206 4580
Fax. +61 2 6206 4636

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