Earlier this fall, I got a lovely invitation from Dr. Babs Boter to present a keynote talk for Unhinging the National Framework: Perspectives on Transnational Life Writing, an annual symposium at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Close on the heels of this invitation came another from Garjan Sterk, a colleague and friend working in the Gender & Diversity Studies program at Radboud University, Nijmegen. And thus it came to pass that I was able to spend a week in the Netherlands in early December – what an absolute treat!
Because in addition to the talks, I’ve also got extended family and friends in the Dutch NL (as opposed to the NL where I live), and because there was a Suriname exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk while I was there, every minute of that week was quickly accounted for, with stops in Purmerend (aunt and uncle), Den Bosch (cousin), Nijmegen (talk), Amsterdam (symposium and friend and uncle and museums), Diemen (aunt), and then Purmerend again. I can’t even begin to count how many trains, buses, and trams I took!
The talks were great: what a fantastic opportunity to bring work to a completely different audience (and to think through things with a different audience in mind), to share conversations and thinking, and to learn from the presentations of others! I loved every minute of my Nijmegen afternoon and the day-long symposium in Amsterdam.
At the symposium, I was particularly struck by the presentations/conversations of Esther Captain, Guno Jones, and Lizzy van Leeuwen, which revealed substantive similarities between the Netherlands and Canada/North America in terms of how the politics of race continue to structure not only the research/writing process, but also the reception of research (and, indeed, canon formation as well). Plus ça change and all that…
Also fascinating to me were two other presentations: one by Monica Soeting, about the marketing of Dutch monarchs (including the most recent marketing phenomenon – which has been around for more than half a century now – ‘monarchs on bikes’), and one by Karin Willemse, which looked at abandoned houses as sites of stories, traditions, and histories among Nubians in Sudan. Another keynote by Elleke Boehmer, on promoting transnational understanding through curriculum change, and “pitches” by Ernestine Hoegen and Barbara Henkes, were also interesting.
And on top of all of this, two extra treats: My uncle was able to come to the morning sessions (you can see the back of his head on the photo below) and I was able to meet Gloria Wekker, whose incredible work I was first introduced to by a St. John’s colleague and friend way back in 2008!). Gloria will be the keynote speaker at next year’s Unhinging the National Framework gathering and I’d love to be able to attend again.
While in Amsterdam, I also visited the Grote Suriname Tentoonstelling at the Nieuwe Kerk.
The Nieuwe Kerk has long been a venue for big exhibitions, and while we lived in the Netherlands, we went to at least two that I can remember: one on Thailand and one on Catherine the Great. Because of this, I hadn’t really considered the relevance of location.
It was only when I found myself back on Dam Square after many years that it struck me that an exhibition about one of the Netherlands’ overseas colonies, in a giant church right next to the Paleis op de Dam, a former town hall built just before Amsterdam took on a 1/3 share in the Society of Suriname, which governed the colony of Suriname for a century, was both deeply disturbing and absolutely fitting. So, too, then, was the exhibition both deeply disturbing and fitting.
The exhibition itself didn’t necessarily tell me things I didn’t already know, but it was still presented in a way that gave me much to think about. In the beginning, we were introduced to Indigenous communities deep in the rainforest. The air almost seemed tropical: that close damp and cloying sweet smell. It felt oddly warm….
After this, we moved right into the heart of the colonial period, with all the horror and violence and cruel logic that this period entailed. There was a branding iron, and the remains of a whip. There was a poem, written by an enslaver, about how the enslaved appreciated their lives. There was a vat for stirring sugar into molasses, a dangerous job that could lead to dangerous burns and a book listing the punishments meted out to those who disobeyed. There were contracts for indentured labourers .
Another section, built right into the existing structures of the church, brought people into an imagined hold of a slave ship. Random limbs reaching out: arms and feet mingling with bottles and kegs. Inside, the documents of bodies as commodities: maps, bills of sale, provisioning lists, and more. Haunting.
But next to that horror, there was also beauty: the stunning artwork of Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, a botanist who captured the insects and plants of the colony.
Equally stunning: the vibrant colours of Maroon textiles and stitchery.
The exhibition also included the work of four contemporary Surinamese artists, each of whom took on these complex histories (and their legacies) in different ways. Particularly resonant, given the very recent (November 30!) sentencing of Surinamese president Desi Bouterse for his role in the 1982 kidnapping and execution of fifteen political dissidents, was the work of Iris Kensmil. Kensmil superimposed excerpts from autopsy reports of the fifteen executed men over colonial postcards, in this way bringing longer colonial histories into direct conversation with Suriname’s fraught independence processes.
And then, at the very end, a colourful kaleidoscope of contemporary multicultural Paramaribo that so evocatively captured my own experience that I had to just stand and breathe for a while, all of my senses on high alert.
I’m hoping to return to Paramaribo sometime this spring; can’t wait!
My deepest thanks to Babs Boter and the Vrije Universiteit, Garjan Sterk and Gender & Diversity at Radboud University Nijmegen, and Wilfrid Laurier University Press for making all of this possible.
Still looking for the perfect gift for the reader in your family? What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is available online (Indigo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more). and at many local bookstores, in both hardcover and e-book format. (My suggestion? If you want to get it, go hardcover. WLU Press made a gorgeous book)
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.