Of Nonas, or “Lovers”

Why is it that Angie Pires, still the only person being held in house arrest in relation to the attack on Ramos Horta in February 2008, is a “lover” in the Australian media?

It is not as if they are assigning her some kind of Bonnie-and-Clyde agency. The word is always used to stigmatize, or debase. Think of how gay partners are so often by default “lovers”. How often does the media refer to men as “lovers” of women?

I have already made my opinion of her fate clear.

One could argue that Angie is a post-colonial reincarnation of the figure of the nona. This word came to describe the concubines of European males stationed in Timor and other parts of the Portuguese empire. (In his latest book, Luis Cardoso artfully renders the character of a nona — highly recommend it.)

Osório de Castro pointed out that the use of the word in Timor came from Macau, where nonha was used. Luis Costa in his Portuguese-Tetum dictionary wrote that the word nona was used “only to designate the amante (lover) of the European or Chinese”.

Those who became nonas in Timor were sometimes mestiça, or women who were spurned by husbands or widowed, or simply women who had a curiosity and a knack for picking up European habits. Some colonial memoirs, like Paulo Braga’s (1933) Nos Antípodas, contain rather disturbing racist praises of Timorese nonas over Asian and African ones. He wrote that Timorese nonas were distinguished by their “correct facial features, without the facial excesses of the Asian and African races.”

What is clear, and what Cardoso captures so well, is that nonas were not trusted by either side, the ruling colonial elite nor the Timorese communities in which they lived. They constantly begged clearer defintion of us vs. them.

Taussig argues that in the colonial context, “Identity acquires its satisfying solidity because of the effervesence of the continuously sexualized border, because of the turbulent forces, sexual and spiritual, that the border not so much contains as emits.”

In my research of colonial violence, it is quite revealing the number of major events in Timorese history that when recounted orally seem to have transgressions of (or by) women as the spark. Take for example the story of the assassination of Governor Lacerda, which involved the illegitimate mestiça daughter of a Governor. Or Boaventura’s 1911-12 Rebellion, which is believed to have been caused by the inappropriate interest of a Portuguese military commander in Dom Boaventura’s “lighter skinned” wife (see Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing for the oral history version.) In my interviews on 1959, abuses of power in relation to Timorese women (“the voluptuousness of power”) were repeatedly raised.

When judging the Angie situation, let’s not deny the presence of ghosts of nonas past.

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