The political and social upheavals that lead people to seek refugee status in Australia, and the horrendous acts of violence and psychological terror they may have experienced before their flight, are well depicted in our media. As a result, many of us in the mainstream of Australian society have some appreciation of what kind of memories refugees might bring with them to their place of asylum. We may be tempted to think of refugees as living in the shadow of a monolith, Trauma. There may be other sources of pain and distress folded up inside their dislocation that are more subtle, complicated, enmeshing, problematic and myriad. Such problems are often by their very nature sources of ambiguity and contradiction, and may have consequence for the process and the outcome of settlement (Aristotle 1995).

In this paper I make some observations and suggestions about ambiguity and pain in a particular ‘refugee community’, and the ethical and practical problems of distance (from trauma, from ‘home’) and self-expression, safety and exposure that I have grappled with as members of the community engage in creative activity that will eventually build towards a community arts festival. The group is commonly called the East Timorese Asylum Seekers, but in fact by now, though not technically designated as refugees by the Australian government, they are permanent residents and no longer asylum seekers. While my research methodology is constantly reinventing itself, from the beginning I took the position that creative, metaphorical approaches are well suited to uncovering and exploring ambiguity and ambivalence in this kind of setting , and from within that larger community I initiated a ‘conversation club’ as a means of conducting my Phd research. The observations and suggestions that I make here derive from my participation in this group, as I build my research around the ways in which the Timorese asylum seekers construct meaning for the distress within themselves and their community, in a world of dislocations and instability. How is the act of creation experienced by the participants and the collective within the context of their traumatic circumstances?

The paper is set out in four sections. In section one I describe the participants in my research and the research design; in section two I describe some of the frameworks I have drawn from in my approach to the participants; section three details the sources of emotional pain I have observed in the course of my research; and finally, in section four I address the relevance of Victor’ Turner’s anthropological approach to performance to the construction of meaning (social, narrative, or performative) from trauma and dislocation.

1. The East Timorese Conversation Club

In midwinter of 2004, I started holding weekly meetings in a bare wooden hall in Footscray, and gradually began to recruit regular members and a wider circle of less frequent satellites from the local East Timorese community. Those who attend are for the most part elderly – some have vivid memories of being bombed by Japanese, or Allies, or both, during the invasion of Timor in World War II. They are all Hakka speaking, which means that their ethnic heritage is from the Chinese minority of Timor. Most of them lived within walking distance of the hall, but some come from further a field. All of them used to be in the group referred to as East Timorese Asylum Seekers (ETAS), which means that they had lived with the possibility of being repatriated to East Timor from any time after 1991 until late 2003, when it finally became apparent that only a very small number would in fact be told to go back.

The Conversation Club’s main activities are, unsurprisingly, eating and talking. But the talking is not just chatter. It is an exchange of knowledge, storytelling, the offering of memories. Underneath all the talk, there is the sense that there is something at stake (and the same could be said about the eating). We also go on monthly ‘outings’ that the participants acknowledge as a much desired distraction from the tedium of their stay-at-home lives. One participant humorously described outings as ‘going to look at animals so that you are brainwashed into believing you are happy’. Aside from their recreational value the outings are explorations of place and history, an acknowledgement of context and a search for connections (Hall 1995; Massey 1995). These outings obviously feed very easily into later conversations, but they also provide research for another part of the overall project, the creation of a community arts festival. We have taken some small steps towards creating art as a group and from this is emerging the importance of combining interpretive and phenomenological approaches (Herda 1999; Mulligan 2003), so that I might try to understand not just the metaphors and the possible meanings that are being created, but how the act of creation is experienced by the participants and the collective.

These three facets of the group – conversation, outings, and art-making – make apparent the different kind of distances occurring in the lives of the participants. Geographic, emotional, cultural, generational distances all manifest themselves, sometimes as a source of pain, sometimes as a way of guarding against pain. Reaching safety sometimes comes at a cost, and an awareness of this duality is crucial to understanding the ‘refugee experience’.

2. Frameworks: Safety, distance, telling and healing

A circular framework for working with traumatized refugees suggests interactions between chronological and durational time . This framework posits that in order to heal past trauma, three processes need to be engaged in by the patient (and the therapist): establishing safety (physical, emotional, cultural) in the present, reintegrating past memories, and creating connections with the future. Without this circular movement, which allows for reflection and therefore transformation, the person becomes trapped in a state where time does not flow. It is evident that the prolonged uncertainty experienced by asylum seekers and holders of temporary protection visas may disrupt this process at every step. Unable to feel secure in their present, and unable to work towards a meaningful future, the refugee with a history of trauma is therefore not free to come to terms with his or her past .

This is essentially a therapeutic framework, which emphasizes the importance of safety. Another framework arises out of a narrative research orientation, specifically from a project in which the life histories of Cambodian women were collected. Mollica lists four processes to which a researcher must attend while taking a refugee’s life history: the content (the events narrated), cultural nuances and values which are suggested in the telling, the act of ‘looking behind the curtain’, and the relationship between the teller and the listener. Gathering life histories from both patients and not-patients suggested that the narrator’s capacity to ‘tell the story’, was related to resilience and recovery. Mollica hypothesizes that clinical recovery ‘may only emerge once refugees have the capacity to step back emotionally from their life experience in order to tell others about their [trauma]…’ . Because this narrative approach so strongly invites reflection and the deepening of insight on the part of the respondent, the boundary between inquiry and intervention is blurred. ‘Looking behind the curtain’ implies that the respondent is conducting her own act of inquiry at the same time as the researcher (Herda 1999). One would expect this simultaneous double act would manifest itself also in the fourth part of the framework, the relationship between teller and listener. There is the potential for the shared creation of knowledge, and for a form of performance where the teller sees herself through the eyes of her audience, the researcher, and so reaches out for a new way of knowing herself.

3. Sources of distress within the East Timorese community

Traumatic experiences in Timor

Significant histories of trauma related to the Indonesian occupation are believed to be almost universal in this group, including the deaths of family and friends, assault or torture, sexual assault, threats, intimidation and discrimination. The intended effect of such terror is to inflict deep humiliation and to destroy trust in human nature and institutions . Although I have never tried to actually elicit stories of trauma from my participants – it is not a direct object of enquiry – the reality of this history casts a shadow even through the silence, omissions, and oblique references. It is rare that the group mention the Indonesians, for example. Instead, members might frame a story with the words, ‘after 1975, when we went to the jungle…’ They are much more direct in their description of the Japanese/Allied occupation of Timor and will describe near misses, bombings, the death of parents, and so on. When one participant described how he avoided being herded with other children onto a boat bound for Japan, for unknown purposes, I asked him if he remembered being frightened. He replied, ‘Of course not, I was just a child, back then I knew nothing.’ Despite the detail and the drama contained in them, there is the constant sense that these WW II stories are being told to me because they can be. They are surrogates for stories that are not so easily told, because not so safely distant.

Threat of repatriation: place and space

During the 2002 – 2003 campaign to support the East Timorese applications to remain in Australia, a list was assembled detailing the reasons why the applicants might fear repatriation. The list included the forced revisiting of traumatic memories, separation from close ties made in Australia, concerns about the survival of the elderly and the handicapped in a devastated Timor, fears of being discriminated against by those who stayed behind, and the fact that Australia has become home for many . These reasons can be analysed as problems of place and space. For example, when a violation or act of terror occurs in a place to which one has an attachment (home, church, the main street or a familiar part of the forest for example), one suffers, along with everything else, a loss of ones sense of place (Pollack 2003; Fullilove 1996). A place that was familiar, loved, and safe, becomes strange, treacherous and unsafe. This loss not only causes grief, but may also diminish one’s sense of identity and of personal empowerment. For the asylum seekers who are a great distance from the daily acts of memorializing and reconstruction (Winter 1995), the sites of such happenings still carry the full burden of these multiple losses. Moreover, it is uncertain what sort of social spaces would open up for them if they returned. There is a perception on both sides of the Timor Gap that the asylum seekers have been unfairly advantaged by coming to Australia while their poorer compatriots remained behind in times of bloodshed and chaos. It was an act of abandonment and they are ‘less Timorese’ because of it (Wise 2002).

Complexity and heterogeneity

The East Timorese ‘community’ in Australia is a particularly heterogeneous one, with differences playing out across class, ethnicity, language, political affiliations, as well as gender and generation . Participants in the conversation club describe with sadness how they are unable to talk with their own grandchildren because of language barriers, and I have overheard many complaints about the lack of respect shown by young adults. From the other side of the coin, outside of the conversation club younger East Timorese describe the inflexible adherence to tradition on the part of some older Timorese, and the suffocating nature of colonial Portuguese hierarchies and class-awareness. The relationship between the Hakka speaking, and the indigenous and mestizo East Timorese, is much discussed (for example, Thatcher 1992; Wise 2002). Thatcher has described them as twin communities, parallel but separate and culturally distinct. The resentment felt by the indigenous towards the Hakka speaking, who were better positioned to sustain themselves economically under both the Portuguese and the Indonesians, has been described to me by a number of informants. Their past practices of using indigenous Timorese as servants and labourers, and their use of the Chinese rather than Timorese nationality as a way of getting out of Timor, have also been mentioned as reasons for division. Implicit in the talk of the mercantile, opportunistic or insular nature of Hakka culture is the suggestion that they lack authenticity as Timorese. In times of war and struggle, identity often boils down to simple notions, so that complexity and fluidity is disallowed (Schinina 2003; Winter 1995).

On the other hand, my observations at the conversation club lead me to believe that this separation is not as deep as it might seem, for the relationship is a very layered one. There is, for instance, a shared spirituality and folklore, and in conversation there are frequent acknowledgements of the wisdom and knowledge of ‘the ancient people’, expressions of wonder and admiration, and regret that the social structure of Timor was so oppressive and unjust under the Portuguese administration. I have been told several stories about illness and healing where help was sought from, or extended to, the other ethnic group. This interdependence should not be overlooked.

Cracks and liminality

Closely tied up with the drawn out threat of repatriation are two other sources of distress that continue to have an effect even after the permanent visas have been received. One I think of as ‘papering over the cracks’. Whilst waiting for ‘ministerial discretion’ to be applied to their cases, some Timorese felt the lack of fit between the image of the ideal refugee projected in the media (smiling, humble and from a harmonious family unit), and their own messy fragmented realities. Families that were in many ways disintegrating had to stay together to put on a good face for Australia and the minister.

Tied up with this distress is that of the prolonged uncertainty itself, which I began to understand as an example of liminality, which anthropologist Victor Turner describes as involving disruptions to time place and identity. The present moment becomes unhooked from the past and the future, the person is taken away from the places in which his or her life normally unfolds, and robbed of their usual social identity. In some of the contexts which Turner explores, the liminal experience is a fruitful, liberating, perhaps anarchic process which takes a particular course – carnivals, rituals and rebellious uprisings where social order is for a time subverted, but is sure to be restored or reshaped before long. In rites of passage the subject must submit to humiliation, but will emerge with an elevated social identity . In these examples, there is a known purpose behind the disruption. There are other liminal experiences where it is not clear to those experiencing the disruption that any bearable social identity will ever be restored to them. This notion of liminality is being applied increasingly to the refugee experience. For instance, Greta Uehling describes the distress experienced by Tatar women in the Crimea who do not know where their home will be, and who feel their lives have been reduced to ‘sitting on suitcases’. The ambivalence for some of her respondents is unbearable .

Aging in isolation

In a recent report from New South Wales, elderly refugees were described as suffering from ‘multiple jeopardy’ (Bartolomei et al 2003). Not only do they suffer from cultural and geographic dislocation, but because of their greater age, they have difficulty engaging in their new society through the usual channels of education and employment. Difficulties with mobility and language and unfamiliarity with their new environment make it hard for them to use public transport, for example. This combination of staying at home and not having meaningful activities to occupy their time and connect them with new experiences and new people means that they sit at home with old memories. The traumatic past takes up a disproportionate part of their thoughts and feelings. The participants in the conversation club frequently make remarks about how awful it is to sit at home, ‘all the time thinking, thinking. Makes you crazy!’ A community worker from another ethnic group, where people were granted refugee status and all its entitlements before arriving in Australia, told me that the elderly in her group stay at home and ‘curse the day they came here’. It is not enough for people to be granted physical and political safety in the present for psychological healing to occur. Meaningful, sustainable and pleasurable engagement with their physical and social surrounds must also be provided, which is not automatically going to unfold for the elderly.

4. Exploring ambiguity, narrative and the construction of meaning

There is a growing body of work which seeks to legitimize ‘art as a means of inquiry, a means of producing knowledge and contributing to human understanding’ (Ellis and Bochner 2003, 506). Art and narrative practices enable one to simultaneously generate knowledge, to engage in self-reflexivity, and to ‘come to terms with multiple and contradictory identities’ (p510). In the words of theatre practitioner Eugenio Barba, arts based practices are capable of extracting ‘the difficult from the difficult’, and of expressing the ‘unspeakable’ . Art as an act of enquiry enables the researcher to gather a body of data that is rich and complex, where participants tell more about their experiences than they could usually articulate. And Augosto Boal theorizes that the stage is an aesthetic space which is plastic (evoking memory and imagination, dreams and feelings), dichotomous (creating a double awareness in the participants), and telemicroscopic (collapsing time and distance, enabling us to see in detail things which would otherwise remain unseen). While concerned with the therapeutic and pedagogic potential of performance, rather than its research potential, Boal’s thesis nevertheless captures the qualities of a space that is also a place of reflective, dialogic enquiry .

Drawing on the work of Turner, Barba, Boal and others, I am building my research around the ways in which the Timorese asylum seekers construct meaning for the distress within themselves and their community, in a world of dislocations and instability. Social constructionism views the self ‘as deeply penetrated by the language of one’s place and time. Like a foetus floating in an amnion of culturally available signs, symbols, practices and conversations, the ‘self’ symbiotically depends for its existence upon a living system which precedes and supports it,’ (Neimyer 1998, p 140). While in some of its incarnations, social constructionism has been criticized for its extreme relativism, there are those who argue that it does not exclude more personal constructions of knowledge and meaning, and that at its best it opens a space for reflection, transformation and emancipation (Michel and Worthin 2002; Neimyer 1998). Being able to identify how a meaning has been constructed is an invitation to surrender old constructions, old ‘repetitions’, and create new stories and meanings.

There are a number of factors, however, that impinge on this creative process. According to the circular framework described by Marotta, the East Timorese asylum seekers, having received their permanent visas, should now have a safer vantage point to look at their traumatic past. But, as the notion of ‘multiple jeopardy’ amongst the elderly illustrates, the struggle to enter the process of healing that storytelling can generate is complicated by a number of factors aside from being trapped in limbo. In addition to those already touched upon in this paper, and perhaps crucially, there is not a history of seeking help for mental distress in the Timorese community. The participants have pointed out to me the lack of mental health services in East Timor prior to Independence, except for some nuns who might bring the mentally ill new clothes (so that they at least had the appearance of getting better). For those now living in Australia, the care of the ‘mentally ill’ still takes place within the family, and the family is often overwhelmed, or not willing to acknowledge the nature or significance of the problem. Reaching out for help outside of the immediate family is unusual, and may risk bringing stigma to the sufferer and the family. I became aware of the extreme care taken by members of the conversation club in their storytelling, to frame stories of distress and disability within their family in a way that did not bring a risk of stigma. I also became aware of the great social difficulty experienced by those whose families were no longer present in their lives, for here that buffering against stigma was gone, and mental illness could be construed by the community in very injurious ways.

Similarly, debates in narrative inquiry around the relationship between the construction of narrative and life as lived, argue that acts of storytelling may be shaped by social expectations and power imbalances, and may greatly distort the events being narrated (eg . Schinina writes of the difficulties he experienced in using creative practices in a refugee camp in former Yugoslavia (2003). The refugees repeated a narrow range of expressions, all demonstrations of a strict nationalism that invests everything in a victim/persecutor ideology, and were not willing to step away from such propaganda into more creative, individual, unpredictable expressions. He suggests that such repetition, as opposed to a ‘flow’ into new constructions, is to be expected in a war torn population. Repetition of past forms and conformity to prescribed stereotypes represents to them a form of safety. Such repetitions manifest themselves in the Conversation Club, in subtle ways, and not because of an enemy outside of the community, but because of the strictures and the stigma within the community. A storyteller may be concerned about the public presentation of self, rather than an expression of life as lived. I would argue that this very concern tells us a lot about the storyteller’s inner world, and what forces might be at work there. A narrative inquiry that unfolds over time and using different processes may help in ‘thickening’ the interpretation. Mollica’s insight into the fourfold nature of the life stories collected from refugees is also helpful here. The story is more than a series of facts and events. It is a cultural, performative, psychological event, and it needs to be understood in all these dimensions (see also Conquergood 2002).

The Eel

At the time of writing (late 2004), I have another six months in which to create an arts festival with the East Timorese Conversation Club, for the purposes of my PhD. Place and distance, love and exclusion have emerged most strongly as themes to be explored. As always the choice of processes and methods loom large. Whether or not I can encourage the participants to abandon ‘repetition’ for ‘flow’ depends very much on how successfully I create safe and respectful approaches to the creative act. Privileging the workshop experience where the emphasis is on relationships, support, and the enjoyment of a collective experience, and structuring the ‘final performance’ so that it is a fluid event with small components where individuals are not highly exposed, seems to be the most realistic way to proceed. My challenge is how to maintain a balance between distance and an authentic, sincere, ethical exploration. For if our storytelling and art-making doesn’t help us to ‘look behind the curtain’, then adopting an arts-based approach for my enquiry will have been of little value.

The narrative device we are pursuing at the moment, however, is promising. On the club’s first outing, to the Melbourne Aquarium, we were told by aquarium staff about a species of eel which originated in the seas close to Timor. Some of the tiny young eel migrate down the Australian coast and up river in southeastern Australia, to mature in freshwater rivers. They live in Australia for between five to thirty years, and small numbers of them undertake the arduous two to three year swim back to Timor and the Coral Sea to continue the cycle. This factual story created great delight and humour amongst the participants of the club. They see their own journey reflected in this natural event, which suggests that perhaps it is possible to belong to two different places, to swim in different environments, without betraying your true nature. A painful story of migration can be spoken about through the prism of a familiar creature. Moreover we have been able to explore different mythologies of the eel, both Timorese and indigenous Australian, and have opened up conversations about the overlap between indigenous and Hakka Timorese mythologies. In Timor, the eel has medicinal and sacred roles. It is eaten to ensure an easy childbirth, and it is held by some to be a guardian of the underworld, a manifestation of ancestors. As the eel has been vital to the survival and culture of indigenous Australians in the area of Melbourne, it allows the participants to consider the relationship between two lands as something deep and significant. Moreover, the eel lends itself to visual art as well as to storytelling, so we have been able to work in different forms. As the story of its migration is not a pre-existing story amongst the Timorese, but something we are piecing together from a number of sources, it is an example of creative generation, and it has given us moments, not of repetition, but of flow (however fleeting!). While I am aware of the danger of overplaying the eel in working with the group, I have valued the way it speaks of distance, place, migration, belonging, survival and the deeper mysteries of life, in a safe and accessible way.



Jay Winter (1995). Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The great war in European cultural history (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press)

Amanda Wise (2002). No Longer in Exile? Shifting experiences of Home, Homeland and Identity for the East Timorese Refugee Diaspora in Australia in the Light of East Timor’s Independence (Sydney: Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney)