Tag Archives: Timor Leste

War is over… not quite yet

You hear it everywhere as we approach this time of year – in the shopping malls, on the radio, the optimistic crooning from John and Yoko’s classic: “War is over, if you want it”. Seems like we don’t want it, or not enough anyway.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recorded history when someone, somewhere hasn’t been fighting, killing someone else. Some months ago the British Army thought 2015 might be the first year in a century when it wouldn’t be involved in a conflict somewhere. With events in Syria, Iraq and Iran unfolding as they are, that hope looks less likely by the day.

Iraqi Freedom

Image courtesy of soldiersmediac

It’s easy to get war fatigue, to throw up one’s hands in despair and tune out of it all. For me, it’s the civilians caught up in war, especially the children, who haunt me most. Here’s an extract from my novel Francesca, shortly after the heroine’s home town of Dili, capital of East Timor, was invaded by the Indonesian army just before Christmas 1975…

“Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.
She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.

Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.”

Excerpt copyright 2014 Donald Finnaeus Mayo

You can buy a copy of Francesca here

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Indonesia remains true to form over French journalists in West Papua

 

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West Papua, part of Indonesia, and the neighbouring independent Papua New Guinea

News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.

Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.

Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well known because the Indonesian government managed to shut down the province, denying access to the Western media or anyone else who might have been inclined to stir up trouble. For years Indonesia was able to engage in a cruel policy of suppression that by many estimates cost the lives of almost a third of the Timorese population. Eventually they could no longer stave off the inevitable and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.

Part of the reason I wrote  my novel Francesca, which is set around the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was that so few people had heard of this country and its struggles. It seemed evidence that the strategy of shutting down a troublesome region, denying access to outsiders and keeping a tight grip on the country’s internal media, worked. The thinking went that if no one knew, no one could complain, and no one would try to put a stop to it.

So I am curious to see how effective this policy will be in the age of social media and instant global communications. In one sense there’s no excuse for ignorance. Anyone with a search engine and the desire to know more can get an update on the fate of Dandois and Bourrat in seconds. The question then becomes, does anyone care, and is anyone going to do anything about it? Or is the information overload just too overwhelming, a couple of lone crusaders competing for our attention against vaster tragedies in Syria, Gaza and Iraq? Are there times when too much information is even more effective than too little?

My novel Francesca is available here. In the meantime you can follow the fates of the French journalists on twitter at #dandois and #bourrat

 

 

 

The gourmet art of slow fiction

 

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A feast for the senses. Image by roland

Talking to a writer acquaintance recently, I was shocked to discover that a bag of potatoes can spend longer in a supermarket’s grocery aisle before hitting it sell-by date than many new novels are allowed to linger on the shelves of your local bookstore. Unless it’s the latest Stephen King or John Grisham, there’s nothing unusual about a book being given a fortnight to sink or swim before being shoved aside by the next round of releases, to be despatched unceremoniously to the pulping machines for recycling, perhaps enjoying a new incarnation as a latte cup holder.

It’s not just the time a book has to capture the public imagination that’s shrinking. Our expectations for books themselves are changing. Fast-sellers, fast-backs, in the world of fast fiction it’s all about speed, with the emphasis on the hook. No hook, no sale – to an agent, a publisher, a distributor, a reader, anyone really.

Forget about gently easing your reader into a story, if you can’t find a way to pull them in within the first few lines, you’ve lost it. What every publisher seems to want are the compulsive reads that will be gorged in a couple of frantic sessions. It’s a world in which “I couldn’t put it down” is taken as the highest form of praise.

But when you do actually put it down, exhausted and bleary eyed at three in the morning, how much of what you’ve read can you remember a few months, or weeks, later on? Did it cause you to change the way you think, about anything? As a result of reading it do you view the world, or even a tiny part of it, differently? Will the characters remain with you as you mull over the dilemmas they faced, the choices they made?

Whether it’s on the train to work, in an airport lounge or stretched out in the sun on holiday, fast fiction is the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s value meal. Little wonder the slow food movement, created in Italy as a reaction to the global homogenization of our eating habits and spread to encompass areas as diverse as parenting, fashion, photography and yes, even ageing, should reach the world of literature.

The philosophy of the slow movement is described by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.”

Where better to practise such an approach than wrapping oneself up in a really good novel? Essentially, this is the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal, the difference between settling into your table at Manoir de Quatre Saisons for a 13 course Chef’s extravaganza and grabbing a Big Mac and large fries on the go. Both will fill your belly, both will alleviate hunger pangs. There all similarity ends, with the reward for patience and perseverance over instant gratification coming in a slow after burn, with characters and stories you find yourself thinking about long after the dénouement has been reached.

My novel Francesca is available for purchase, and can be enjoyed over several sittings.

Bon appetit!

Off on your travels? Check out Trip Fiction before you go

It’s strange how some online ideas never quite take off while others seem like naturals from the outset. The minute you hear of them you wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

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This summer really get under the skin of your holiday destination. Image by Achi Raz

There are many sites devoted to books in general and fiction in particular; hardly surprising given the task of narrowing down books you might want to read from the millions of titles that appear every year. Where does one begin?

If you’re exploring a different part of the world, either in your mind or actually going there, you could start with Trip Fiction. It’s the perfect way to prepare for any journey. Simply key in a location and it will recommend books (primarily novels) that are set in that place. You can also search by author or title to find locations where books are set.

I do have to declare an interest, for my own novel Francesca (Indonesia, Timor-Leste) is on the site, in some pretty grand company I’m pleased to say. As with Goodreads and Amazon, there’s the facility to rate titles and post reviews.

If ever a site deserves to do well, this is one.

You can order your copy of Francesca here. A trip to Indonesia is not compulsory!

Francesca reaches Tasmania

Francesca reaches Tasmania

The first copy of Francesca to reach Tasmania (unless you know different!)

The other day I received a photo purporting to be the first copy of Francesca to arrive in Tasmania. It reminded me what a rapidly moving and global business book distribution has become, how ideas can travel across continents and oceans at the click of a mouse.

It was rather different in the era when Francesca was set, the mid 1970s.  Long before the days of the internet, mobile phones and social media, it was far easier to keep people in the dark. Tyrants and dictators used this to their advantage. Hiding their shameful acts often required little more than muzzling the press, censoring the mail, closing the borders and keeping foreign journalists out of the country.

Now the problem is too much information – so much is accessible but how do you know what to look for amidst all the noise? The danger now isn’t so much something will be hidden from view, more that it will be overlooked amongst decreasing attention spans and the tsunami of information overload.

So far I’ve been blessed to have heard from readers as far afield as the United States, Canada, Asia and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where I am currently based. In the same way, I see from the stats pages that this blog is read in dozens of different countries around the world. When I look at the figures I am overawed at the power technology has to connect billions of people from all over the world.

There’s another reason I was particularly gratified to see a copy of Francesca reach the shores of Tasmania. I have a particular affection for Australia’s island state, for its rugged beauty, for the friendliness of its people, for its environment, much of which remains unspoilt. Some years ago I spent several months there, writing the first draft of a novel that will be published later this year. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

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Sea cliffs along Tasmania’s spectacular coastline. Photo by John McLaine

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Francesca, wherever you are. Please continue to pass it on to your friends; I have found that word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication, even if it comes via twitter, Facebook or any of the other burgeoning social media out there. And if you have read it, please post a review, either here in the comments section or on Amazon.

You can order your copy of Francesca here 

What’s in their cans?

Francesca is a period piece – I hesitate to call it a historical novel for fear of how that ages me. Invariably the characters were shaped by their times, and no more so than with regard to the music they liked to listen to.

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Robert Plant in full flow at the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem both Eddie and Amanda had pretty good taste, though it wouldn’t have looked that way to music critics of the day. Hard though it is to believe in an era where people will pay several grand to see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Eddie’s choice) at an O2 reunion concert, or keep a show like the Abba inspired Mamma Mia (Amanda) running for decades, both these acts were widely despised by the music establishment of the early to mid 1970s.

So far as these worthy arbiters of taste were concerned, Abba was throwaway bubblegum pop and Led Zeppelin music for adolescent retards. In a contemporary review of Led Zeppelin II Rolling Stone magazine described Robert Plant as “foppish as Rod Steward, but nowhere near as exciting” before going on to deride Jimmy Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”. Back in 1976, if you’d tried to predict who would be listened to forty years on and cited as significant influences by the top artists of the early 21st Century, you’d have got very long odds against these two.

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Abba’s Agnetha Falkskog

The self styled intellectuals who controlled the music press were more into prog rock bands that if they haven’t been forgotten, are rarely talked about or heard on the radio: Yes, Hawkwind, Rush, as well as the more durable Genesis and Pink Floyd (though I would argue that Floyd were never really prog). When the Indonesian army marched into East Timor Peter Gabriel had just left Genesis, though his avant grade theatrics were less to Eddie’s taste than artists like Hendrix, the Stones and Jim Morrison, all of whom have been treated pretty consistently by the judgement of history.

Of course Amanda knew how deeply uncool it was to admit to liking the Swedish pop quartet, and whenever asked about her preferences would instead cite David Bowie, who was in the process of shedding his glam rock skin to emerge into the Thin White Duke.

To me what’s most poignant is all the music neither Amanda nor Eddie listened to because it hadn’t been written yet. It’s hard to imagine Bowie without Heroes, China Girl or Wild as the Wind, but that’s how it was. If you’d been sitting on a bar stool alongside Eddie with a can of Tiger in the early evening Kalimantan breeze and started discussing REM, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Blondie or The Clash, he’d have wondered what on earth you were talking about. An Elvis called Costello? And as for revering that icon of global peace, the late John Lennon, back in 75 and 76 when he wasn’t feuding with Paul McCartney he was boring the world to death with hits tedious agitprop.

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Bowie during his Thin White Duke years

And of course it was all on vinyl, 8 track cartridge or cassette. But if you’d really wanted to throw both Eddie and Amanda, not to mention every other character in the book, all you’d have to do is tell them you were about to order your copy of Francesca online, and read it on a Kindle.

Character Sketches 1: Francesca, the Timorese survivor

Over the next few posts, I’ll be outlining some background to the principal characters in Francesca, starting naturally with the woman after whom the novel is named.

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Photo by Riza

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel begins, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Whilst her experience of life has hitherto been rather narrow and sheltered, she has benefited from a western style education in one of the Catholic schools run by Portuguese missionaries in Dili.

This places her amongst the small educated Timorese middle class of the time. Her father, who Francesca adores, works as a technician in Dili’s main radio station. As such, he is particularly well placed to discern which way the political winds are blowing, which makes it all the more of a let-down when his predictions turn out to be so hopelessly inaccurate.

Aside from her father, the other key influence in Francesca’s life are the nuns who educated her. They left her with a faith that is stretched to breaking point but somehow endures. More importantly, at least in the short term, they have instilled in her a love of languages. It is this passion, unusual for someone in her position, that enables her not only to stay alive but to build a new life for herself when she ends up in Indonesian Borneo.

By the time she arrives there she has seen far more than a girl her age should ever see. Her experiences have left their mark in an aloofness and a distance, which people find puzzling; they are drawn into unravelling its mysteries, with little success. She has erected a wall around herself, and whilst she has stared utter despair in the face, by nature she is neither cynical nor ruthless. Indeed, she is perplexed and on occasion dismayed by the force of her instinct to survive.

This aura, combined with her intelligence and natural good looks, attracts the attention of rich and powerful men; her saving grace is that something within her compels them to want to help her rather than exploit her.

Coming up next… Benny Surikano.