Subject: SMH: Rev of A Woman of Independence
A Woman of Independence
By Peter Pierce November 1, 2003
A Woman of Independence
By Kirsty Sword Gusmao
Macmillan, 321pp, $30
Kirsty Sword Gusmao's A Woman of Independence begins in what may be the
middle of a long journey. It is May 19, 2002, birthday of the "newest
nation", the independent state of East Timor. Gusmao bustles us into
the confusion and celebrations of that day as she prepares for the
ceremony at which her husband, Xanana Gusmao, will be sworn in (somewhat
against his inclinations) as the first president of East Timor.
The excitement, relief and a sense of great achievement pardons such a
sentence as this: "'A luta continua [the struggle goes on],' I
whispered into his beard as finally he reached my side and the sky erupted
in colourful bursts of fireworks."
Her path to Gusmao's side had been arduous and must, at times, have
seemed a forlorn enterprise. Sword takes us back to 1990, when she made
her first trip to East Timor. Her mission was to deliver materials to
supporters of independence, to dodge through thickets of spies and
informers. At the same time, one supposes, she was beginning to take the
measure, in person, of what had until then been a cause, however
passionately espoused, rather than a place. She came to Dili in part
because Joao, her Timorese boyfriend, with whom she studied Indonesian at
Melbourne University, had "brought East Timor's sad story to life for
In 1991, Sword moved to England with Joao to work on the Refugee
Studies Program at Oxford University. A life course had been set. We are
not given much of the process of Sword's engagement with the movement for
independence, although we gather something of the cost to her in the loss
of an "ordinary" life, the denial of comforts and security.
Moreover, she had committed herself to what might have been a lost cause.
If there were doubts, they are not confided. Momentum is all. Before the
year was out, Sword secured a job with an English television documentary
team that would make a film of the struggle in East Timor.
That experience made Sword determined to move closer to the action. In
May 1992, she went to Jakarta, where she supported herself by teaching
English. That November, she learned of the arrest, in Dili, of Gusmao,
leader of Falintil, "the national liberation army" of East
Timor. Within 18 months, they began to correspond - "to 'speak' to
one another in our letters with the intimacy and trust of lifelong
friends". Soon she became his English teacher and confidante.
Now the genre of the prison letter is a sexed one. Sometimes the
correspondence is between desperado and dupe. Sometimes romance by proxy
is the consequence, as here. Sword confesses that she feared others would
"see our relationship as mere infatuation on my part and hopeless
romanticism on Xanana's".
At the same time, she believes that by falling in love, "I had put
my life on a parallel course with his and indeed that of East Timor".
Hence the subtitle of her book: "A Personal Story of Love and the
Birth of a New Nation." Yet analysis is not absent. After one
frustrating conversation, she is annoyed by Gusmao's "arrogant
selflessness". Sword stayed the course - surviving black-listing,
meeting Nelson Mandela - to be on hand when Gusmao was eventually released
Their private life is kept that way. To some degree, this is because it
was subsumed by the bloodiest stages of the fight for independence, the
depredations of the Indonesian-backed militias. Independence won, and
tasks of different sorts imposed themselves.
At this point in the narrative, for the first time Sword's prose loses
some of its edginess, its searching self-criticism: "The needs of the
people are overwhelming and Xanana and I grapple with them at a personal
level each day, as well as in our official capacity as public
figures." But this is a rare (and excusable) hollow note in a
forthright, intelligent, unsentimental book. It also suggests how, as one
battle for independence was won for a nation, the two principals of this
story sacrificed much of their own.
Peter Pierce is professor of Australian literature at James Cook
Kirsty Sword Gusmao will speak at a Herald/Dymocks literary lunch this
Wednesday at 12.30pm. Bookings: 9449 4366.
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/31/1067566068590.html
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