Literary highlights from the Dutch East and West Indies
Three Modern Classics Of Dutch (Post-)Colonial
Wilma Scheffers – 1 July 2020
Dutch literature is as varied as the Netherlands’ complex history. Wilma Scheffers, advisor of Writers Unlimited festival in The Hague and literary festival Woordnacht Rotterdam, offers a brief overview of the former Dutch colonies and takes a look at three important classics from the Dutch Antilles, Surinam and Indonesia respectively.
A little context to start with, two aspects: language and geography. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dutch East-Indies was an enormous colony consisting of a large number of islands. If you placed a map of the Dutch East-Indies over a map of Europe it would have covered most of the continent. Dutch Surinam (1667-1954/1975) to the west, was much smaller and situated on the north coast of South America. Aside from a small coastal region and some plantations around it, the Surinamese colony consisted of a massive rain forest. The Dutch Antillean colony was just six small islands in the Caribbean. Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire are situated off the coast of Venezuela and the other three islands, Saint Martin, Statia (Sint Eustatius) and Saba, are east of the Virgin Islands. Because of their disparity in natural resources and differing geographical positions, the countries were colonized and governed differently, especially in terms of slavery and trade.
Language and identity
Already in the 1920s, Indonesian nationalists developed and promoted a national Indonesian language. With the independence of Indonesia, this language, Bahasa Indonesia, was implemented across the whole country. It required a huge effort in a country with so many widespread islands (more than 16,000) and so many indigenous languages. However, it was achieved, and even though Bahasa Indonesia is the mother tongue of less than 10% of today’s population, everybody speaks it and it is the official language at school. It unites people and allows them to communicate with each other.
Dutch is still the official language of Surinam. After the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Dutch colonizers needed other people to do the work on the plantations. Workers were imported from British India and later from Indonesia (mostly from Java). Many of them settled there and kept their own languages alive. Sranan Tongo is the language used by the largest population in Surinam: descendants of black slaves from Africa. Most people in Surinam speak Sranan Tongo. But this doesn’t mean that it is accepted as the only national language. The other ethnic groups don’t want their languages to be crowded out. So the ‘easiest’ solution so far has been to keep using Dutch as the official language and as the most ‘neutral’ one, if that is the right word to use… The upshot is that many Surinamese still come to the Netherlands to study, having been brought up using Dutch at school in Surinam. In this way, Dutch remains important to Surinamese society and, consequently, to its literature too.
The issue of language in the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean is even more complex: none of the six islands is either a colony or completely independent. Officially the Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of four countries: the Netherlands, Curaçao, Aruba and Saint Martin. The other small islands: Bonaire, Statia and Saba are called ‘the Caribbean Netherlands’. They have more or less the same status as cities in the Netherlands. And finally, the six islands together form ‘the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.’ It is quite a ridiculous situation and no one knows how to get out of this unworkable stranglehold. On the Windward islands most people speak English. On the Leeward islands of Antilles, Curaçao and Bonaire most people speak Papiamentu and Dutch. The languages used on Aruba are Papiamento and English, though a minority speaks Dutch. So in a nutshell, it is a complex language situation.
Finally, before I introduce three writers, Frank Martinus Arion, Astrid H. Roemer and Hella S. Haasse, I want to mention a couple of issues concerning the former colonies’ self-image which we should bear in mind.
- Indonesia fought for independence and has a national language. This creates pride, confidence, and strengthens its sense of its own identity;
- Independence was given to Surinam (or even forced upon Surinam as some say) in 1975, and Dutch is still the official language;
- The Antilles are divided into the three Windward Islands and the three Leeward Antilles located approximately 950 km apart from each other. They all have ties with the Netherlands in one way or another and the language issue is very complicated.
Dubbelspel by Frank Martinus Arion
Frank Martinus Arion was born in Curaçao in 1936 and died there in 2015. His debut novel Dubbelspel (Double play) was published in 1973 in the Netherlands. Arion studied in Holland and worked for a couple of years at different Dutch Universities. (I use “the Netherlands” and “Holland” interchangeably because “Holland” is often used to refer to the Netherlands on the Antilles and in Surinam.) Arion spent some time as a teacher in Surinam and returned to Curaçao in 1981. From that point on, he became a major advocate for implementing Papiamentu as an official language.
Dubbelspel was an instant hit in the 1970s and won several prizes. In 2006, the annual reading campaign (“The Netherlands read!”) kicked off with Dubbelspel and thousands of free copies were distributed through public libraries. This important modern classic has been reprinted many times, and is now available in Dutch paperback, e-book and audio editions.
Dubbelspel (Double play) is a social and political novel set against the background of the colonial period. Although the storyline encompasses just six hours on a Sunday afternoon, the novel’s suspense and the pace are incredible. ‘Double play’ is a term used in dominoes, Curaçao’s national sport and favourite pastime. You win the game by using up all your tiles; a ‘double play’ win is when your last tile fits into both sides of the row of tiles on the table. In the novel, the winning team is able to ‘double play’ ten times, which is an amazing world record (the novel’s subtitle refers to this: ‘The story of an amazing world record’). Soon after the game is finished in the novel, lots of people and even local television crews arrive to congratulate the team.
The main characters are four black men playing dominoes and two black women, all from the lower class and lower middle class.
Manchi: a self-centered man from the lower middle class. He is secretly blackmailing his wife Solema. He enjoys the power he has over her, but at the same time he envies her because of the higher education she received in the Netherlands.
Boeboe Fiel: a lazy, poor, irresponsible man who spends all his money on drinking and women instead of taking care of his wife Nora and their children. He is having an affair with a prostitute.
Janchi: a clever hustler who grows into a serious man inspired by his love for Solema.
Chamon: arrived from Saba twenty years ago. He owns a couple of houses and lives off the rent, which he keeps a secret. He is having an affair with Nora, the wife of Boeboe Fiel.
Solema: the clever, highly-educated wife of Manchi and the lover of Janchi.
Nora: must prostitute herself to earn some money, because Boeboe Fiel can’t provide for his family. Of course, she tries to keep it a secret. She is having an affair with Chamon.
During the game, the men talk about women and make fun of them. They talk about Curaçao and about politics, and through the many flashbacks you really get to know them. They also talk about the black population of Curaçao and describe the stereotypes and clichés about black people (so about themselves, too). Manchi says that black people are equal to white people and have the same capabilities, but blacks don’t achieve as much as whites because they lead carefree lives and lack willpower. The other three agree with him: black men love to have fun, they don’t take life and family too seriously, they don’t demonstrate much willpower and are always fighting each other. Chamon thinks that “negroes harbour a destructive hatred”. And black men who realize this would rather look away, because realizing it means doing something about it, and they’d rather not.
At first glance this seems very odd. But when Arion was asked why he let his black characters articulate these negative clichés and stereotypes, the author explained that it was a strategy to lure the reader (mostly highly-educated white people) into the story with commonplace clichés and stereotypes about lower class (black) people. His technique is to then surprise the reader with new insights: poor people too can be intelligent and develop a mature emotional inner life.
So first stressing stereotypes and then invalidating them: this is Arion’s ‘double play’ with the reader. Arion invalidates the stereotypes through two characters. Solema personifies one main theme in the novel: the position of women in Curaçao. And Janchi and Solema together represent the other theme: Arion’s ideal of a cooperative social society. What unites these two themes is love. It makes the novel a plea for equality between the sexes, and a call for emancipation. This also explains the book’s motto, dedicated ‘to women with courage’. Solema symbolizes this. Together with Janchi, Solema wants to build the ideal cooperative society. She upholds an ideology that combines individual and personal freedom with a strong sense of caring for each other. According to Solema this ideology was African originally and has been kept alive in the slave communities. The last page of the novel quotes her saying ‘[…] with a meaningful wink: “so it is something of ourselves!”’
Slavery isn’t often mentioned explicitly in the novel but it is a significant theme throughout the book, especially in the omnipresent shoes. In colonial times, slaves were not allowed to wear shoes. And even nowadays, not having shoes is a symbol of humiliation. The men use ten pair of shoes as chits for the game. The loser gets shoes from the winner, which emphasizes the loser’s humiliation. All the shoes belong to Solema and it means a lot to Manchi that he can show off how many shoes she has. In a minor but equally important episode, shoes also play a role when Nora urgently needs money to buy shoes for her son so he can go to school the next morning.
Over de gekte van een vrouw by Astrid H. Roemer
The second classic I would like to introduce is from Surinam and was published in Holland in 1982. The title alone makes me realize how difficult the art of translation is! Over de gekte van een vrouw literally means About the madness of a woman, but I prefer On A Woman’s Madness. Astrid H. Roemer was born in 1947 in Paramaribo in Dutch Surinam and received her education as a teacher there. In 1966, she travelled to the Netherlands, and went back and forth between Surinam and the Netherlands until the 1970s. In 1970, she published her first book of poetry, Sasa mijn actuele zijn, under the Swahili pseudonym Zamani – at the time she was part of the Black Panther movement. Her first novel, Neem mij terug Suriname (Take me back Surinam, 1974), was very successful in Surinam, and later republished in an new form as Nergens ergens (Nowhere somewhere, 1983). She took up residence permanently in the Netherlands in 1975, after being fired from her teaching job for refusing to take part in Sinterklaas celebrations because of his blackface helper, Zwarte Piet. However she has never stayed in one place for long and also spent time living in Rome, Ghent, Edinburgh and on the Scottish isle of Skye.
Here’s a quote from Astrid Heligonda Roemer:
“To Surinam I am married, Holland is my lover, I have a homosexual relationship with Africa, and I am inclined to have affairs with any other country.”
Astrid H. Roemer positions herself as a cosmopolitan, which stems from being a migrant in the first place. She is interested in how the individual manifests themself in different environments. Many of her characters have love affairs, hetero- and homosexual, sometimes at the same time. Race, racism, class, cultural background, colonialism, freedom, feminism: all of these topics are to be found in Roemer’s work.
Over de gekte van een vrouw was her second novel and her first major success: soon after its publication 40,000 copies were sold. Roemer fitted well with the wave of feminist writing (and black feminist writing) at the beginning of the 1980s. Her most ambitious project was a trilogy published between 1996 and 1998, and reprinted together in 2001 under the title Roemers drieling (Roemer’s Triplets). In this novel, she describes the dreams and the reality of the Surinamese people in the last three decades of the 20th century. During this period, Surinam gained independence, democratic elections were held, presidents were chosen, but Surinam also suffered a military coup.
The difficulties of the Republic of Surinam are rooted in the past. The metaphorical use of abortion, suicide and mental illness or weakness may refer to its difficult, complex history and to the bumpy road to true decolonization. Although the critics differed in their appreciation of the novel, they all agreed on the fact that Roemer was the first writer to describe at length the traumatic years of military rule in fictional form.
In 2016, Astrid H. Roemer was awarded the P.C. Hooft prize, the most prestigious literary prize for a body of work in the Netherlands. The jury praised her political engagement and literary experimentation. Roemer is convinced that chronological writing can never reflect real life adequately; she considers linearity and clarity male. The free form, the female form, reflects real life in a better way. This is a point of view that Roemer shares with female black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Back to ‘On A Woman’s Madness’. It is not exactly a stream of consciousness novel but the composition, with its many fragments, imaginative scenes and flashbacks, along with the variations in typography, do not make it easy to summarize this novel, which opens with the end. The story is about Noenka, a young woman who fights the traditions and taboos in the cultures around her and tries to break free through different (sexual) relationships. In this respect, the novel resembles The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which Roemer herself adapted into a theatre monologue in 1985.
The main character, Noenka, is in search of her own (sexual) identity, and she tries to find a bearable way of living in the crisscross of cultures, traditions and religions in Surinam. Raised as a Christian by her mother of mixed descent, she has also learned about old African traditions from her black father. Near the end of the novel, Noenka says, ‘I am a woman, although I don’t know where that starts and where being a woman ends, and others look at me as black and each time I wonder what that means.’ Most of all, Noenka is searching for love, as egalitarian and harmonious as it can be.
I would summarize the story as follows: Noenka leaves her black husband Louis after only nine days of marriage. He is violent and has raped her. She moves to another city where her childhood friend Ramses lives. He is a Hindu, his ancestors were brought to Surinam from British India. Ramses grows orchids, flowers that represent softness and female love. Ramses is the opposite of Louis, and he and Noenka fall in love. But after she aborts his baby, he becomes very angry and disappointed in Noenka. He tries to get over it, but he can’t and he commits suicide, leaving all his possessions to her.
Then Noenka gets to know Gabrielle, a Dutch woman with indigenous Indian roots. They become lovers. Noenka is so torn between Christianity, the African Winti religion and the indigenous Indian traditions, and between hetero- and homosexuality, that she loses her grip on reality and must seek help in a psychiatric clinic. There, her husband Louis comes to claim her as his wedded wife and Noenka returns home with him. Intending to free Noenka forever from the violent Louis, Gabrielle kills him. She is sentenced to life imprisonment. Just when Noenka has finally found harmonious, egalitarian love, she and her lover are separated for life.
And this brings us back to the first page of the novel which tells the end of the story. This first page is a letter Noenka writes to Gabrielle twelve years after she is imprisoned. Noenka is now a successful grower of orchids in Surinam. She writes that she will go on growing them until “the whole country cries for orchids: our time bears orchids, Gabrielle!”
To end this section, I will quote the answer Roemer gave when asked whether the novel is autobiographical:
‘The story is not my story, the facts are not mine, but the emotions are mine. It is the story of my emotional process.’
Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse
Hella S. Haasse, the doyenne of Dutch literature, was born in 1918 in the Dutch East Indies and died in 2011 in Amsterdam. She is famous for her novels set in the Dutch East Indies and for her historical novels. Her works on French history made her well known in France. Hella Haasse was awarded many literary prizes such as the P.C. Hooftprijs. Her career began in 1948 with the publication of the short novel Oeroeg. Oeroeg was translated into several languages at the time, into English into 2012 (as The Black Lake), and there is a recent translation into German (Der schwarze See).
Oeroeg is set against the backdrop of colonial society in the East Indies during the final decades of Dutch rule, when the Indonesian nationalist movement was growing fast, especially among young people. Oeroeg was written and published after the Second World War had ended in Asia in August 1945. Soekarno immediately declared the independence of the Republic of Indonesia with him as its first president. The Dutch government didn’t accept the declaration, which led to the 1947-1949 War of Independence (euphemistically referred to as ‘Police Actions’ by the Dutch), in which the Dutch tried to restore the pre-war colonial situation. In December 1949, just one year after the publication of Oeroeg, the Dutch government recognized Indonesian sovereignty. Their hand was forced by other Western countries, especially the US, who threatened to take the Netherlands out of the Marshall Plan (the financial and material help for European countries recovering from the devastating war).
Oeroeg (The Black Lake) is the story of a deep friendship between two boys and how they end up becoming complete strangers to each other. It is told by a first-person narrator, whose name the reader never learns. He is a Dutch young man looking back on his youth in Java, the only child of a high-up employee on a remote tea plantation. Oeroeg is the same age and the son of a Javanese worker on the plantation. They grow up together and are inseparable at first.
The novel opens in the present and ends in the present and in between the narrator tells the story of his and Oeroeg’s friendship and of their childhood. He feels the need to write it down in the hope that he will gain a better understanding of what happened later. The narrator never felt any difference between him and Oeroeg as a child and spent most of his time with Oeroeg’s family and other indigenous people. His Dutch father, who lived alone after his divorce, didn’t approve of this closeness. He feared that his son would become too ‘native’. So, he sent him to a Dutch primary school in a nearby town. But the narrator wants to see Oeroeg. His father gives in because he feels guilty about the death of Oeroeg’s father, who drowned in an attempt to save the narrator from drowning. Both boys are clever but the highest level of secondary education in the capital Batavia is out of Oeroeg’s reach. Oeroeg attends a lower level school, also in Batavia.
During these years, their friendship begins to change; the differences between the boys grow. Oeroeg develops political awareness and becomes an active nationalist. Before the narrator travels to the Netherlands to study engineering, Oeroeg tells him, ‘I have a lot of contact with like-minded people. There is much to do.’ The narrator doesn’t understand who these like-minded people are, but he senses that Oeroeg is shutting him out of his life.
In just a few lines, the narrator recounts his years in Holland, World War Two and his studies. After graduating as an engineer, he decides to return home, but home has changed irrevocably. His father was killed in the war and the plantation is ruined. The narrator arrives in Batavia just after the first Dutch military action. Indonesian soldiers have damaged the local infrastructure and as an engineer he gets a job repairing bridges near the old tea plantation.
He walks to the lake near the plantation where Oeroeg’s father drowned. Suddenly he hears a sound and he sees a young Indonesian revolutionary pointing his rifle at him. In a split second he recognizes Oeroeg. For some time, they look at each other and the man shouts, with deep hatred in his voice, ‘Go away or I will shoot. You have no business being here.’ A few seconds later he is gone and the narrator realizes that he will never see Oeroeg again. He looks at the landscape that is so familiar to him, then he looks at the lake and the novel ends. I quote:
‘I do not pretend to have understood him. I knew him, just as I knew Telaga Hideung, as a reflecting surface – I never fathomed the depths. Is it too late? Am I forever to be a stranger in the land of my birth, to the soil from which I am loath to be uprooted? Time will tell.’ (English translation: Ina Rilke, 2012).
[This blog is a reworked version of a talk Wilma Scheffers gave for the first Schwob Fellowship, introducing Dutch classics and the literary industry to international publishers. The talk was kindly hosted by the Multatuli Museum in Amsterdam.]
• Michiel van Kempen. Een geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur, De Geus, Breda 2003, Volume II.
• Jos de Roo. Antilliaans literair logboek. De Walburg Pers, Zutphen 1980.
• Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde 1974. Brill, Leiden 1975.