Subject: AWW: Hello Missus! (new book on Timor)
Hello Missus by Lynne Minion
I started reading this book with interest, pleased to find a book written from a woman's point of view of the bizarre situation any malae who worked in Timor-Leste in the UNTAET years will be familiar with. At first I enjoyed Lynne Minion's account of being a woman working in such a predominantly male environment. The descriptions of male behavior and her responses to it were hilariously accurate and easy to identify with. The uneasy sense of being regarded as fair game by men, whilst initially flattering, soon wore off to become tiresome and at times very threatening. The insecurity and loneliness leading to encounters such as the affair with Viktor were indeed, like sobremesas, nice to contemplate but in reality, bad for you! The story of the affair, and Viktor's duplicity, were captured very well as is the generally chaotic, intense atmosphere, which at times became utterly overwhelming.
However, reading further into the book my enjoyment stopped there. I found the portrayal of the Timorese characters in the book as mere backdrop to the personal dramas played out by foreigners, irritating. Lynne Minion's relegation of her Timorese compatriots to a set of generic Jose's and kolegas was classic stereotyping and the stories, although using the device of being told third hand, about Timorese personal habits, inefficiency, passivity, laziness and lack of initiative began to infuriate me.
Worse still was the simplification of complex political issues. The author fails to show the slightest sensitivity or understanding of the language issues in East Timor. The hostile portrayal of the Prime Minister of East Timor was also unfunny, given that there was not a shred of hard evidence in the book to back it up.
I appreciate that this is meant to be a best-seller, designed for light reading and full marks to Lynne for exposing the arrogance and self importance of many white men (and women) who move from one fat cat contract to the next, on the aid industry's gravy train. But there the fun ends. In this book the complex political and social legacies facing Timor-Leste become stereotypes of third world inefficiency and incompetence and I began to tire of the simplification of many serious issues facing Timor-Leste. Social and political satire are fine but beware of using them to confirm peoples' prejudices and misunderstandings. Lynne Minion's book will do just that. Her writing is funny, sharp and observant but the book remains in the end, self-congratulatory and, like many sobremesas, or passing love affairs, pleasant to start with but ultimately unsatisfying.
Minion, Lynne (2004) Hello Missus, Sydney: Harper Collins.
From The Australian Women's Weekly
Author: Lynne Minion
Book Format: B+ Format Paperback
No. of Pages: 416 pages Height & Width: 22.6cm x 11cm ISBN: 0732279674 Price (Aust RRP): $27.95 Publication Date: 25 August 2004
A delightful political satire filled with controversy, interwoven through one girlís hilarious attempts to adapt to a Third World nation.
Lynne Minionís debut peacekeeping mission in East Timor began with a lonely wait on the airport forecourt, lapsed accommodation plans, and the realisation that stilettos were perhaps an ill-advised addition to her luggage.
However, despite this inauspicious start, Lynne went on to work for the United Nations with unprecedented access to powerful figures in East Timor. She ended up as the only international adviser in the office of the new Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, dined at the table of the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and those stilettos proved to be among the most useful items in her wardrobe.
Lynneís keen eye for observation and the absurd is the basis for this book, which documents the extraordinary behind-the-scenes events in the first year of East Timor's democracy. Hello Missus! demystifies UN peacekeeping missions, shedding light upon the personalities involved in making history.
This is a wicked, racy and erudite tome of laughter and tears, played out in a tropical island paradise that also happens to be populated by desperately poor civilians and thousands of armed and uniformed peacekeepers. Lynneís humour, commentary and compassion provide rare and ridiculous insights into the true nature of foreign affairs. Think Action Woman meets Bridget Jones!
Selected as the Great Read in the September issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
Every now and then in life the universe conspires to lend humility. So I emerge from the arrivals area and into the humid heat to find that my worst-case scenario is, in fact, true. Other travellersí faces are lighting up in recognition, backs are being slapped, a kiss on each cheek in welcome; bemvindo! One after another they leave while I remain rooted to my spot, with no idea of where to go, as a group jostling East Timorese stare with curiosity at the white woman rigid with fear. Count to ten, suppress any desire to calculate your financial wherewithal, Lynne, and hold in the sobs; itíll be okay, just count to ten, twenty, a thousand, whatever it takes.
My impulsiveness is to blame. The job Iíd expected here had fallen through days ago but Iíd decided to take a chance. Anyway, I was already committed ≠ the furniture was in storage, accounts had been closed, mail was redirected and there was a lot of self-talk about believing strongly in realising dreams. Realising dreams comes with risk, Iím telling myself again on the forecourt of Dili International Airport. After all, thatís what makes them dreams, otherwise theyíd just be occurrences. Yes, realising dreams requires bravery Ö but at this moment Iím wondering if they also require enormous f------ stupidity. The Timorese teenagers canít contain their intrigue any longer, ĎDollar Missus?í comes the chorus as they descend on me. They are desperately poor , they are certainly filthy, and they give some perspective to my circumstances. I might be arriving in Dili in a rather foolhardy manner but I certainly wonít be going hungry tonight, unlike them. I just wish they wouldnít swarm around me as theyíre doing, and I wish they wouldnít keep asking me, ĎWhere you go Missus?í because I have absolutely no idea.
Would it be uncharitable of me to think of them as dirty urchins? ĎWhere you go Missus?í Then they try to reach into my handbag and cop a feel of my bum and Iím wondering if it would be unhumanitarian of me to just elbow them away on my first day here. Great, now is not the time to realise I have no compassion to give these desperate innocents with the big, wide brown eyes beseeching me ĎDollar Missus?í because they have none and I have a relative fortune.
Although, I am currently homeless, like them. Where do I go? I doubt they can advise me. The sun starts to set and the sky turns a shade of pink and the children continue to mob the ivory-coloured statue, scattering only when it moves and dials a mobile phone.
"Hello," I say into the receiver.
"Hello Missus!" they yell and mob me again. Damn it.
I had hoped my impulsiveness would be offset by high-level contacts in this country, an arguable benefit when they canít be contacted Iím thinking, as my white-knuckled hands grip a trolley that carries a monstrous pile of luggage. Yep, my life is contained in a trolley ≠ five pairs of shoes, only one with stiletto heels, indicating the extraordinary sacrifice Iíve made in coming here; a $300 pair of Scanlan & Theodore dry-clean-only pants, which may have been an ill-advised inclusion but after a wine-soaked goodbye lunch they seemed essential; a lace bustier, because my mum said itís too nice to languish in storage; a collection of pretty sun frocks in various tropical hues; and four handbags in a kaleidoscope of colours designed for best feats of coordination. See, I had felt that just because Iíd be living in a Third World country I didnít have to look as though I was living in a Third World country.
Right now, however, I glance at the duty-free bag holiday my new Chanel lip gloss, mascara, powder foundation (all with built-in sunscreen in deference to the context) and my frown lines deepen alarmingly as I consider that all these fundamentals could very well be heading back to the First World sooner rather than later. And to think of the energy I expended today begging at check-in counters for the 20-kilogram limit to be overlooked on the grounds of gender discrimination because men generally weigh more than me to the precise value of my additional luggage weight.
Three-hundred and fifty-four, three hundred and fifty-fiveÖIím still counting yet panic rises Ö three hundred and Ö "Hello, do you need a lift?" I turn around amid the crowd scattering again, expecting to see an angel complete with wings. "Oh, yes please."
"Where do you want to go?"
I, um, donít know?
"Well, I arranged to be met here and I havenít heard a word and I donít know where to go so I suppose I should get a hotel room."
"Okay, which one?"
"Um, donít suppose you know of one? Not too expensive would be great because I donít have very much money." Guardian angels these days travel by car, so I sink into the passenger seat and she directs us towards the capital city of East Timor. She surveys me curiously out of the corner of her eyes and I pretend to be a very Sane Person despite my apparent lack of prospects. Chattering away, I look out the window and we move into the outskirts of Dili. Why isnít she taking me on a more scenic route, Iím thinking, as we negotiate pigs and potholes beside the remnants of burned-out buildings in the dust. Knowing of the billions of dollars of aid that have made their way to this nation in the last couple of years it strikes me as peculiar that the city hasnít been rebuilt. Was I expecting shopping malls and boulevards? No. But Iím wondering why the place for the most part remains razed to the ground.
Interview with Lynne Minion
Author of Hello Missus: A Girl's Own Guide to Foreign Affairs (HarperCollins)
by Carol George
An exclusive interview with Lynne Minion, author of Hello Missus: A Girl's Own Guide to Foreign Affairs (HarperCollins), selected as The Australian Women's Weekly Great Read for September.
Q Congratulations on your book, Hello Missus, A Girlís Guide To Foreign Affairs, which is about your adventures, including those of the heart, while living in East Timor - I loved it. A Thank you, Iím very excited about it.
Q You became interested in the place while working as a journalist, was it a particular assignment that sparked your interest?
A I met Jose Ramos Horta (Nobel Prize winning Foreign Affairs Minister of East Timor) at a small pro-Timorese protest here in Sydneyís Hyde Park in 1996. There were about 20 people there. I was working for SBS World News and I was one of the few media covering it. I was very much inspired by the protest. And Iíve met a lot of Australians who have said that if they could, they would really like to chuck everything in, and go teach English or contribute in some way to countries like Cambodia or Vietnam. They were interested in these post-conflict countries, to help in a humanitarian way. And I was given notice on my beautiful harbour view apartment and by then I was working freelance and I had to put all my possessions in the back of a removal truck anyway and I thought well Ö this probably is the only time in my life Iíll be able to pursue that dream.
Q So the decision to go to East Timor was intellectual or emotional?
A Both, remembering that my family had also suffered terrible repression and pain and poverty and were refugees.
Q Where are they from?
Q Did they come out here after WWII?
A Yes, my mother and her parents. And I grew up on my grandmotherís knee, listening to these remarkable stories of war and hatred but also of survival and humanitarianism. And here was this cause that was on Australiaís doorstep and I had had my eyes opened to it and I wanted to learn more about the issues I was reporting on. And getting to know the activists, the leadership, was all very inspiring, especially as international opinion was shifting and there was a great momentum towards emancipating the East Timorese.
Q After interviewing Jose Ramos Horta at the protest, you stayed in contact with him?
A Yes through the journalism. Because he visited Australia often and had a high media profile and was very approachable. I continued to interview him on and off for years up until I was at the ABC and at that point, very interested in the Timor Gap (agreement). And I wanted to be at the Independence celebrations. To me that was history being made and it was wonderful history. This was a chance for a nation to celebrate for the first time in its history. It had taken very many decades and very many lives for it to happen. It was a great big party being thrown in Dili and whoa, that was irresistible to me.
Q How long were you at SBS TV?
A Probably around two years.
Q And after that?
A Iíve also worked as media advisor for organizations like the Red Cross and Greenpeace, so Iíve been flitting back between journalism and social change and humanitarian organizations.
Q What did you do with the ABC?
A Stories for the news and for Lateline.
Q How long were you in East Timor for, all up?
A One year.
Q I was surprised at the strict Catholicism in East Timor.
A Many people assume, particularly because Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, that East Timor is too. Or that the Timorese would not have been allowed to continue with the Catholicism that the Portugese introduced there. Itís fundamentalist Catholicism.
Q At the beginning, the strictness of it even shocks you. For example, when you think that chaste outfit you wear to a party is appropriate and Horta says itís too bare and not respectable?
A I had put a great deal of thought into cultural sensitivities, too! I had borrowed that lilac dress, knowing I needed to dress conservatively and had to be quite chaste - no bosom, below the knee, no pants. But this was considered outrageous because it had tiny straps and was exposing the shoulder blades. When you think about it there is something very feminine and seductive about that part of a woman that is very distinctive from a manís. And Iíd never thought about it before.
The first time I came back to Australia for R&R, I was on stop-over in Darwin and I found myself disapproving of the scantily clad women. How can they leave home looking like harlots, I thought to myself! To this day I find my dressing style is a little more conservative.
The Fundamentalist Catholic attitudes though has engendered some profound social problems in East Timor. The treatment of women, the multiple births in a country that is profoundly poor, no contraception in a country where a HIV epidemic is a real potential.
Q I imagine itís the poverty and lack of education that makes the Timorese more vulnerable to fundamentalism?
A Yes, people arenít educated enough to challenge or question. I donít think being able to question Catholicism makes you a bad Catholic.
Q You had two jobs, helping set up a new TV station and then working for the Prime Minister, but nothing you did worked out? It was like a black comedy.
A I would never have imagined that I would have so many experiences and achieve so little. I think that is a very common experience for people who go to these places, particularly those who work for the United Nations. Itís a very frustrating bureaucracy.
Q It was incredible what you came up against ≠ the cultural differences. Iím trying to think of some of the bizarre things that happened at the TV station. A Like the explosion of the homemade wine?
Q Or like doing a story about a guy accused of murder and your colleagueís disinterest in giving any kind of balance or fairness in reporting. You were trying to establish professional standards but they couldnít have been less interested. In fact they resented you, if anything.
A They did resent us. But it is the case that neither of my bosses, not the head of the newsroom or the Prime Minister ever spoke to me once. The disdain with which our very genuine desire to assist is treated, was my first real shock of being over there. Like: What do you mean? Iíve left my family! I have made certain sacrifices to come here and youíre saying I should just go home or whatever Ö give us your beer ration and then we might like you? I thought for a start thatís just downright impolite. And it really shattered a lot my happy idealistic notions. I thought it was all going to be so very lovely and so nice of me and it was all just going to be fabulous. I didnít realise it was going to be really hard slog and I wouldnít be appreciated.
Q And that you would be shown antipathy?
A Yes, antipathy. It was quite a shock to me.
Q It seems there is a big distance between reality and illusion, especially when it comes to western ideals and a developing country?
A Therein lies the message in the book. Itís all very nice for us in our air-conditioned offices to have our opinions about the struggles in these poorer nations. To have our philosophies and ideologies. But itís different when you go over there. Itís hard. Itís more complex. All of those stereotypes, whether left or right wing, are wrong. Every country is different. And things change. Iím sure that Timor is vastly different now in 2004 to the Timor I lived within in 2002. I think some of these ideologies and principles are not only close minded, but I think they can be harmful and damaging. And yet these are often the basis of decisions which influence whether people live or die. Where the aid is given, what it is given too. So I learned that. Itís all very different to what I imagined it would be. I thought I would go over there and give out flowers or something. Drink nice cups of tea with people who would say Ďoh thankyou for coming.
Q The other surprise in the book was the antipathy generally shown to Australians ≠ I had this idea that we were the benevolent big brother in the region and I thought weíd be at least liked?
A The Timorese PM on Four Corners recently called Australians greedy. Now I find that offensive. Over 20,000 Australians left their homes and went over and not for a holiday or trip, but to do a tour of duty of some kind, civilian police and peacekeeper. Thereís been 28 billion dollars of aid given.
We would like to think we would be liked at the very least. Aid shouldnít be a transaction it should just be a benevolent gift. However our aid has been seen as serving Australiaís own interests and the attitude is that we have been seeking to have instant repayment via proceeds from the Timor Gap (oil and gas) Agreement. However the fact is Australians do care about Timor. Australians have gone over there in droves and made sacrifices and they have given money. And Australian children have had cake stalls and given Xmas presents. We do care. And weíre not greedy.
Q Do you think many Timorese people resent the Australians there because they seem so rich compared to them?
A Thatís right, it was like we were rubbing it in their faces. They had nothing, they lived in such poor circumstances Ö educating their children was difficult, they had no filtered water, no or little electricity and we were drinking chardonnay at waterfront restaurants with almost a UN land-rover per head. Living this absolutely fine life. Certainly a life of luxury that they could never imagine. I came to understand what poverty was. I thought I was very clever and humanitarian and that I knew a lot about developing nations particularly because my family had spoken about these issues. I went over and saw poverty and I was shocked.
Q What did you set out to achieve by writing the book?
A It was really to try and teach people about poverty. To take them all on a journey, not hit them over the head with it, not alienating people but presenting it in a way a mainstream audience would come to know characters and come to learn about issues to do with poverty. And also to make people realise that from the first world we find it very difficult to be empathetic because people donít know what poverty is like. So I wanted to dispel some falsehoods. I also wanted to present some complex international political issues and get rid of some of the stereotypes. I really wanted to bring international politics to a mainstream audience. Itís always been a great fascination of mine. I think people thought it was an unusual obsession I had, yet it desperately influenced my family and I thought we should all have a fascination with it ≠ itís not as boring as people think. It can be hilarious and intriguing and emotional and there are very real people like the Timorese characters in the book. Hopefully by getting to know them, people will have some empathy for their circumstances. Like the baby that dies.
I donít think that many people really know what it's like in East Timor, beyond what weíve seen on the news reports. I was so shocked and surprised. I thought it was worthwhile telling. That UN mission in East Timor is a metaphor for every UN mission in the world. The same issues occur however I hope that by the end of the book people can see that the UN is the still the very best thing in the world. Look at whatís happening in Iraq. If the UN had not been in East Timor it could well have been chaos on a par with Iraq. Irrespective of what you think about US politics, the thing is it did choose to go into Iraq and it is not rebuilding the nation in the way the UN would. If only the UN could get rid of those ridiculous wages. What one earth are they thinking? Who do they think they attract with those outlandish amounts of money. If they get rid of some of the policies and the bureaucracy and operate more like an aid organization, then they will be more responsive and more effective. They wonít be as wasteful of money. And I think more trusted. More useful in a world in which they are desperately needed. Especially when we see the alternative right now with the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq.
Q Your description of the high ratio of men to women in Dili, might have thousands of single women swarming over there.
A At first I thought ooh! This is working out very well indeed! But it ended up being one of the reasons I left. I couldnít stand the continual attention, scrutiny, harassment. It was continual, unrelenting. Women had to black their windows as soon as they moved in. We couldnít walk down the street. We had to be extremely careful of our movements.
Q Because of the ration of men to women and because of the reaction of locals to foreign women?
A Both. The peacekeepers were terribly harassing. The wolf whistling the cat calling, the constant beautiful green eyes.Ē Thatís why I had the T-shirt made up in Portugese, ďYes I know I have green eyes.Ē
Q It sounds like every womanís dream but I imagine it would drive you mad after a while?
A Imagine it after a year? It was debilitating. And demeaning. Itís not a compliment to me, although it depends on your perspective.
Q In your book, East Timor sounds like quite a dangerous place for women?
A Ramos Horta is going to disagree with that when the book comes out, but it is. Ramos Horta says that the crime rate over there is less than it is in Sydney, but thatís because people donít report crime. Many Timorese people donít respect the police, they donít realise that they can be good. And we saw that in the book when the guy tried to attack me on the veranda - people were like ďare you nuts, going to the police?Ē
Q And then there was your affair with Viktor who wasÖ?
A The head of the Portugese special police unit.
Q And what a disappointment he turned out to be. A Yes but as you can see in the end it was all a part of the story and the experience.
Q It was a pretty big betrayal?
A Yes, thereís that scene in the book when Iím naked and sitting on the tiled floor and heís just told me the truth. I think a lot of women will identify with that, when the pain is physical and it just doubles you over. I was shocked and horrified because I had asked him so many times to be straight with me.
Q You asked a lot because your instinct was telling you something was wrong?
A Yeah, but what a horrible man. I told him that he had a duty of care, that I hadnít loved since 1998 . He still chose to lie and then turned his back on me and said that my baggage would ruin the relationship. I was sobbing. I remember thinking "heís right, heís right, Iíll never be able to love unless I can trust."
Q Thatís right, youíd had that disappointing relationship several years earlier? A It was actually a marriage. So for him to have chosen to be duplicitous when he knew that I would inevitably find out, was un-gentlemanly, unchivalrous, cowardly.
So that made it worse because he did it knowing the pain it would inevitably cause me. Just for a little romp for a little while in East Timor. Itís true that if he had told me the truth I would never have been with him. But I would hope that any man of calibre could put aside his carnal desires to save a girlís heart.
But he wasnít decent enough to do that. I was one of many. There are thousands of Australian women over there who have had their hearts broken by the Portugese. They were renowned for it. Remember Ann in the book saying the number of normally intelligent women who fall for that line, over and over again. They said what we wanted to hear. Theyíd gone to a mission that was a tropical island, where most or a lot of the women who worked there were from a sexually emancipated country. Where we donít get married until really late. We were therefore available. And they were like, woohoo! Itís not like that in Portugal. I would like to think that most Australian men donít lie in that way.
Q Do you have regrets?
A Viktor? No. It was great fun. Once I healed I was able to see it as an exciting relationship ≠ it was a little bit of sunshine in my life. One of my friends in East Timor called Portugese men, sobremesas, which are desserts ≠ good to look at but bad for you.
Q Do you think your book will be controversial?
A Umm yeah. I think people like the PM are not going to be very happy about it. The way I explained it to Ramos Horta was to compare it to John Howard maybe not always liking the cartoons they do about him in the Australian newspapers, but itís a democratic society and he has to be available for parody and satire. He certainly has to allow himself to be scrutinised and held accountable. Whether John Howard likes whatís said about him or not, thatís what he accepted when he took on public office. His conduct was something he is responsible for and it wasnít the messenger who was shot.
As I write in the book, I really came to see how essential a free media is. And I think that many Australians donít like journalists. The like to criticise the media and I think a lot of politicians and public figures feed that misconception. So one of my intentions of the book was to say I think people should respect the media a little more because there are a lot of journalists out there who are doing their very best.
Q Youíre 36?
A Yes but my mumís asked that I never say my age.
Q You got very close to some Timorese, especially to some of the women like the maid, Elsie ≠ are you optimistic that one day their life will be better. A She is such a hard worker and so trustworthy and just so kind. So poor. But maybe her kids will have a different life? It does take time.
Q Do you have siblings?
A A young brother called Brett.
Q Star sign?
A Capricorn ≠ what a great question! Iím very Capricorn although I might be a bit too impulsive as weíre supposed to be serious, sensible workers probably more than lovers, which is probably why I havenít been very successful in that regard.
Q Lynne Minion likes?
A In humanitarianism.
Q Last film you saw?
A Spiderman II and it was great!
Q Where were you born?
A In Wodonga, Victorian border town.
Q is it a big country town? A Yep.
Q Educated at?
A Wodonga Primary School then Wodonga West High.
Q First Job?
A Researcher at Channel Ten, Sydney. In news and would you believe, on Alan Jones Live. That was in1993.
Q Marital status?
A Single at the moment. The book became my single focus for a year. Itís a lonely existence.
Q How did you support yourself while writing the book?
A It went to auction. There was a bidding war.
Q Wow, fantastic for a first time author. I was shocked!
A It was on the basis of a synopsis and the first 3 chapters.
Q You had an agent?
A Yes a friend of mine in ABC Drama sent it off to the agent. It was actually a synopsis with some re-worked emails. In Timor whenever I could get email access I would write a group email. And it became popular. People would say "oh youíve got a book in you." So thatís how it all started.
Q Youíve unveiled East Timor in your book in a way no-one else has ≠ what will Ramos Horta think of it?
A He has been aware of the book since its inception. Iíve told him about certain passages and been very blunt and told him that the PM is not going to like it and that he may receive some criticism for it. But yes I do worry about it a lot. I compared the whole thing to Bill Brysonís book on Australia ≠ he didnít paint a fabulously positive picture of Australia and Downer didnít object to it.
I believe it is a realistic portrait of East Timor and itís come about from experience. Iím not someone who just blew in for five days and spent my time in a luxury hotel with a suitcase of smoked salmon. And I wrote about it, I thought, with affection.
Q Do you believe East Timor will finally find itís feet?
A Absolutely. Look at the UN contribution and the billions of dollars that have gone into the place. But you canít deny there are some terrible problems there, such as the summary abuse of women. The terribly high child mortality rate. Enormous numbers of illiteracy. Basic utilities they donít have that Australians canít imagine going without.
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