Our friends at Affirm Press are working on a book with the children from the Hope Familia orphanage, about an hour out of Dili. Publisher Martin Hughes tells us about the inspiration behind The Boy and the Crocodile, and how you can help.
If you’re a regular reader of Killings, you could probably barely imagine a life without books. And will be as shocked I was to discover that an hour from Australia, kids of all ages who want to read books don’t know how to use them. I don’t mean they don’t know how to appreciate them; they literally don’t know how to turn the pages.
This is a glimpse of East Timor, a developing country of just over a million people and our nearest northern neighbour. Formerly a Portuguese colony, it was occupied by Indonesia and in 2002 became the world’s newest nation after a traumatic struggle for independence, the effects of which are still being keenly felt.
Nobody feels this burden more than the orphans of East Timor’s independence. I met some recently, at the Hope Familia orphanage in Gleno, about an hour into the hills outside Dili. Their stories are horrific, but they’re also in the past. These kids, like East Timor itself, are looking to a future where they’ll soon have to stand on their own two feet. Similarly, East Timor has told the UN it should prepare to leave next year.
Part of the problem, though, is that East Timor comprises 13 distinct districts, and people identify with their district before country, creating vulnerability and volatility.
Another challenge facing East Timor is educating its people. More than half the adult population is illiterate (the rate is higher among women) and there is virtually no book culture, partly because there are few materials.
We’ve got high hopes of making a difference on each of these counts.
A few years ago, we co-published a profit-for-purpose children’s book called From Little Things Big Things Grow, which was a great success and has had enduring positive impact. This time, we’re getting kids from the Hope Familia orphanage to create a book that will raise funds for themselves as well as providing benefit for disadvantaged kids throughout East Timor.
Teaming up with artists from Arte Moris, a not-for-profit art school in Dili, the kids are painting scenes from the Legend of East Timor, a parable about the kindness of strangers called The Boy and the Crocodile. And we’re calling on strangers to pre-purchase what is still essentially a notional book (albeit for half-price). In return you’ll get your name in the finished product, satisfaction that you helped make it happen, and a book in the post in November.
We also want to produce the book in Tetum – the lingua franca of East Timor – and distribute it to kids throughout the country, igniting an interest in books and pride in their own legend. I have this romantic idea of East Timorese kids receiving the book, reading the names of people who supported it, and seeing it as a gift from the people of Australia.
When I visited the orphanage recently, I got sidetracked – more like hijacked, actually – by an Australian volunteer, Dan, who was setting up a library in Gleno (which happens to be the main town of the least-educated district in a woefully under-educated country). He showed me a hugely impressive new building, the funds for which he helped raise himself through contacts in Australia (you get serious bang for your buck over there). And then he pointed out the number of books available in Tetum – often poorly produced and flimsily bound – that barely take up half a bookshelf. I could see why for the local kids books are fascinating but foreign objects. No wonder they have to be shown how to turn the page.
There are few common threads in East Timor. But Tetum, a lack of education and the legend of East Timor are three things that bind this disparate and often desperate country. And that’s why a book created by orphans of the conflict and a sympathetic, Australian book-loving public can support a fledgling nation that is learning not just to fend for itself but, perhaps more importantly, find itself.
Nothing goes smoothly in East Timor. And not much goes smoothly when a naive but well-intentioned publisher tries to produce a book from across the Timor Sea. There’ll be bumps for sure, and you can follow them all at www.theboyandthecrocodile.com.au.