Island Encounters

Island Encounters

Timor-Leste from the outside in

Authored by: Lisa Palmer orcid

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Island Encounters is a narrative of Timor shaped by a journey from the outside in. Incorporating the author’s experiences from more than two decades of involvement with Timor-Leste and, more particularly, the months she spent travelling with her family from west to east in 2018, Palmer traces paths redolent in longing and learning, belonging and bewilderment, courage and conviction to tell of an island divided by colonialism and conflict.

The book’s themes shuttle back and forth across the island, weaving together the past, present and future in deeply felt histories and personal stories that create the shared fabric of Timorese people’s lives. Offering a counterpoint to modernising development narratives, Island Encounters tells of people’s quiet determination to maintain their relationships between their lands, waters, traditions and each other.

By foregrounding the ways in which ancestral pathways and cultural politics inform and course through everyday life on island Timor, Palmer reveals the richness of the rituals and customary practices that underpin Timorese lives and the lives of those entwined with them. And, all along the way, Island Encounters shows how Timor and its diverse peoples are working with, and re-working, confounding and being confounded by, the ever-desirous heart of development.

‘A poignant, at times heart-wrenching, honest account of life in Timor-Leste.’
— José Ramos-Horta

Island Encounters is a shimmery blend of anthropology, memoir and reportage. Palmer journeys her way across the island of Timor and uncovers human stories of pasts not yet passed and of an uncertain present. Island Encounters will be the definitive contemporary explainer of why things work the way they do on both sides of the border, in West Timor and Timor-Leste. Not only is Palmer a deeply knowledgeable scholar, she is an absolute dream of a writer.’
— Gordon Peake, author of Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste

‘Palmer is the best kind of insider-outsider to translate a culture from the inside so outsiders can understand. Living with Timorese family, Palmer has had access to levels of cultural knowledge not usually shared with outsiders and she takes readers on a journey into the Timorese psyche. Island Encounters is a great intellectual gift to everyone wanting to better understand the complex new nation of Timor-Leste.’
— Sara Niner, author of Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste


ISBN (print):
ISBN (online):
Publication date:
Jul 2021
ANU Press
Monographs in Anthropology
Arts & Humanities: Cultural Studies; Social Sciences: Anthropology
Pacific: Timor-Leste


‘Although the subtitle of the volume includes the term “outside,” the reader acquires a perspective decidedly more internal than this would suggest, since Palmer’s assessments come from an observer who is thoroughly a participant in Timorese culture and society. No previous ethnographic study of the Timorese people conveys such a feeling of cultural intimacy and sympathetic understanding. In a multitude of images crammed with ethnographic substance, Island Encounters radiates a “lived-in” feeling of how daily life in small Timorese communities is lived. With scrupulous and close attention to nuanced detail… Island Encounters is an impressive addition to this literature. We see what profound insights into a culture become possible when a perceptive ethnographer, amply endowed with empathy, resides for many years among those whose lives she so affectionately portrays.’

– David Hicks, The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 81, Issue 1, February 2022, pp. 254–255.

‘In this evocative and at times deeply personal book, Lisa Palmer takes the reader on a road journey across the island of Timor, beginning in Indonesian Kupang and ending in Jaco, the far eastern tip of independent Timor-Leste. Along the way we meet a cast of intriguing and knowledgeable characters, and learn about customary practices such as honey harvesting, earthenware pot-making, traditional healing, rice harvesting, and ancestral housebuilding. The book’s cross-island perspective – not usually appreciated by Timor-Leste scholars – enables Palmer to draw out cultural similarities and differences and document the customary arrangements and skilful negotiations that enable people living in the border regions to peacefully coexist.’

– Lia Kent (2022) ‘Island Encounters: Timor-Leste from the Outside In’, The Journal of Pacific History.

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