Such are the identity politics of the mainstream in a nutshell: no mention of any geo-political consciousness about Indonesia, the genocides against East Timorese or the communists. No awareness of the great importance that art and culture have in the third world is preferable to the politicization of the Dutch celebrity’s ”capuccino skin’‘.
Multatuli was the first European author to challenge and deface the newspeak of Dutch imperial ethische politiek, (“ethical policy,” the propaganda of colonial benevolence, a political correctness of the 19th century.) Merta defended Multatuli as still bearing relevance to Indonesia, though his actual texts are no longer read in Indonesian schools. She hopes Multatuli’s vision might still have some resonance in present day Indonesia with its harsh capitalism and intolerance. But Indonesian revolutionaries of the past, and hopefully those to come, are inevitably more important in their destinies than Multatuli.
The cultuurstelsel, “cultural echelon”, the first phase of decolonization, created an awkward, colonially-ruled version of ”multicultural” ghettoes in Indonesia; it was a devastating period that followed the time of Multatuli. Dutch humanitarian elites certainly appropriated the classic as part of the traditional philanthropic defence of colonialism that remains in effect to today in the discourses on the Middle East, and on the Dutch Caribbean.
The main festival director Mathijs Ponte is a poignantly progressive opinion columnist freelancing in the ‘Volkskrant’ newspaper, and founder of the fledgling small press “Bananafish”, soon to publish much-needed Dutch translations of the St Lucian-Trinidadian author Derek Walcott.
The Absence of Aruba, Curaçao or St Martin at a Caribbean Literary Fest in Amsterdam
The third edition of “Read my World” is a follow-up to the second edition. The “Read my World” product seeks an arc or continuity in time, organised at the same place, with its directors who specialise in hiring out their curators in varying regions. The politics of first-world indebtedness to the third world is often at the forefront. Curiously, there is an incongruous gap between the second and third edition. The “Southeast Asian” festival emphasized the Dutch colonial heritage, whereas the previous edition did not feature the islands currently grouped under the Netherlands, except for a curator and artists from the mainland South American country Suriname, which had its anti-colonial revolution in 1975.
The Southeast Asian-themed collection of readings concerned mostly the Malay-speaking territories, with fascinating guests from Indonesia at the center.
It would have been equally interesting to learn about Vietnamese literature and lore; or to encounter more of the Thai poets who could have even added another layer of political depth, (Thailand recently became a junta military state, possibly comparable in its treatment of dissenting artists to Indonesia in the 1970s).
The previous year’s Caribbean edition of Read My World held in 2014, featured mostly very good programming with writers from the Francophone and Anglophone islands and the Guyanas. Haitian literature is a fascinating landscape, and it is important for Haitian authors to be present at a Caribbean festival. There was, however, a bizarre absence of any scholar, poet or lecturer from Aruba, Curaçao, Saba or St Martin, the islands that mostly still fall under the Dutch kingdom, despite Aruba and Curaçao having their own governments or even a figment of a nation-state.
“Read My World” explains its savvy formula on the website: they use local curators and experts to scout talent. Is a festival calling itself a Caribbean literary festival, active in Amsterdam, not creating a strange vacuity when it does not confront the existence of these islands?
The only Curaçaoan presence was cinematic: the excellent documentary by the Surinamese Cindy Kerseborn, Son of Curaçao (Yiu di Korsou) a film interviewing Frank Martinus Arion, the Curaçaoan poet, novelist and linguist extraordinaire, who died in September of 2015.
Kerseborn interviews and narrates in Dutch, as Surinamese do not speak Papiamento. Kerseborn is the maker of an interesting and varied series of documentaries featuring the poets of Suriname and of the island archipelago, of which Yiu di Korsou is the most well-known, because of the fame of Arion’s Dutch-language novels in the Netherlands. She has also interviewed poets such Edgar Cairo (Surinamese exile poet, journalist and performer who lived and wrote in the Netherlands), Michael Slory (from Suriname) and Roland Colastica (an actor and poet from Curaçao). She has championed the Surinamese novelist Astrid Roemer as well, one of the leading women of Dutch Caribbean literature.
There is no way that “Read My World’s” Surinamese curator, Sharda Ganga, an academic and theater-maker in Paramaribo, did not know of the existence of the islands or their having literature.
The Dutch organisers of the festival have a penchant for the kind of activistic trends that are predominant in academia in the United States and Europe: upholding the personal quests of young academics as being somehow expressions of revolutionary militancy: this is a tradition they have imitated from the United States, its academic world and its discourses through the University of Amsterdam. However, the tendency to insist that the worth of an artwork is in its capacity to serve as an illustration for the progressive opinions of the curators (or of the academic researchers) fits well within the liberal conventions of the Netherlands, requiring no such importation of American fashions.
Despite all the vanguardism, they excluded those islands presently or formerly under the colonial umbrella of the Netherlands.
There are Papiamento-language writers and scholars, many of them based partly in the Netherlands, who could have played a role in the festival had they been invited. These include the short-storyist Joe Fortín of Aruba, (currently in enrolled in a Phd program in Leiden, not far from Amsterdam) or the Aruban linguist and Papiamento-historian Ramon Todd Dandaré. The St Martin poet and publisher Lasana Sekou was born in Aruba and writes verse in English. The Papiamento translator and poet Kaitano Sarah from Curaçao edits the electronic platform ‘Literatura na Papiamentu’ (‘Literature in Papiamentu’).
Having writers and scholars from Aruba, Curaçao, St Martin and the BES islands (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba) would have made the festival more serious and consistent with its chosen theme.
This forgetfulness about the islands and their languages is nothing new in the Netherlands. The nostalgic curiosity the Dutch still have for Indonesia and Japan (the country that helped weaken the Dutch grip on its colonies) is always in stark contrast with the indifference towards the islands, which are seen as liabilities, philanthropic and unproductive projects, as superficial and over-compensated. The Netherlands has exported modern educational projects throughout the world, as far as the indigenous mountain villages of Bolivia, whereas on Aruba the school system still uses the colonial language, an archaic Dutch, undermining the Papiamento language spoken by Arubans. It is, of course, up to Arubans to wrest their education and schools back from colonialism. Post-colonial or intellectual consciousness seems relatively absent in the former Dutch archipelago compared to the rest of the Caribbean, where islands like Barbados, Trinidad, Martinique, Cuba and others have known a dynamic intellectual culture involving the islands’ youth.
Arturo Desimone‘s poetry and fiction have appeared in Hamilton Stone Review, New Orleans Review, Jewrotica, Small Axe Salon, The Missing Slate and the Acentos Review. He was born and raised on the island Aruba. At the age of 23 he emigrated to the Netherlands, and after seven years began to lead a nomadic lifestyle that brought him to live in such places as post-revolutionary Tunisia. He is currently based between Buenos Aires and the Netherlands.