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Apartheid in Literary Criticism – By Alfred Birney

Apartheid in Literary Criticism 

By: Alfred Birney, author of De Tolk van Java (The Interpreter from Java) of which the English translation will be released in September 2020.
This article was originally published in Dutch in Yournael van Cyberney (2001) pp. 149-161,
Translated in English by Wanda Boeke, published in Writers on Writing, Edited by Maurice A Lee (2005) pp. 91-98

If someone were to ask me about setting records, I’d look at how long it took me to write a short story or a novel. My speed record for the sprint lies at three days, for the distance run nine months. So, not unusual. My records for slowness are more interesting. I worked for twelve years on my longest novel and needed just as much time to write one of my short stories. It’s somewhere in the middle of my only collection of short stories, one of my finest books and also the only one that was really hard for me to get published. My publisher was impressed by the style and the variety, but didn’t publish it without reluctance. Why? Because short stories barely sell in the Netherlands. Is that true?

Short stories have their history. If you wanted to become a writer in the mid-seventies, the rules were set. It was ideal to start with poetry, consequently to devote yourself to the short story, and then make the jump to the novel. Almost all of the current arrives, they said, had taken that route. Poetry as an exercise in style, the short story as a finger exercise. In this context, poetry was of course dutifully considered the highest form of literary art, but it was particularly novels that were talked about in the literary salon. Between these genres lay the no-man’s land of the short story.


If a positive aspect did cling to the writer’s traditional route, it would be that particular attention was paid to style. Unfortunately, style was primarily understood to be an erudite way of writing. If you could manage to suggest that you knew your classics well, in playful references for instance, you were sitting pretty. In any case you proved you weren’t just somebody off the street. Of course with the Western classics as your stock-in-trade, the rest of the world didn’t count.

It was a time during which people no longer spoke of short stories, but of texts. Thus you submitted a text to a literary journal. The editors of these journals, usually writers themselves, reviewed the text and returned it to you with a comment about your style, and, in the best case scenario, the invitation to submit something else sometime. A short story in which something was related was called anecdotal, was a shame and a sin, and went straight to hell, the waste basket. Only with a short story in which nothing happened did you prove you were able to write, precisely by having nothing happen.

Making a debut in one of the literary journals was important. After all they were published by the big publishers in Amsterdam. There they could keep close track of your evolution as a writer and see whether something had already been written about you in the papers, whether the most influential reviewers already had you in their sights. If that were the case, then you could come by to talk sometime. Quick to publish they were not. You were the wine that had to age in their cellars. And then in such a way as to evolve somewhat along their norms. After all: you were destined for their stable, awaiting you was the seal of approval of their label, your passport to the literary press.

At that time you saw no writers from minority groups making their debut among the established publishers. Those writers spoke another kind of Dutch, and, what was worse: they really had something to relate, particularly stories that people in the Netherlands preferred not to hear or that simply left them indifferent. These writers could go to the smaller, idealistic publishers who would later see them leave in turn for the wealthier publishers, once these last started smelling money.

In the seventies a novel or a collection of short stories could wait around on the bookstore shelf for seven years to be discovered by the public. At the moment, it’s seven weeks. The process was first reduced to two years during the eighties when literary publishing was starting to become big business. Writers were no longer judged on their work alone, their image began to be seriously taken into account. Images have faces and, if necessary, can get by with even less content than a literary finger exercise. So the barrels in the cellars of the literary journals began to rot. People had to come out from behind their editing desks and go out to cast their nets. From now on, the fish had to be brought ashore right after the catch, salted and ready to eat.

This was a hard blow for poetry. From now on people would be flipping through the literary journals in search of short stories. Was the short story reevaluated because of this? No. Just the opposite, since you only had to write one, as a kind of test. One good short story had to carry an entire collection full of hackwork and crap. More than ever before the short story was a jump to the novel: the genre it was ultimately all about and is nowadays practically exclusively about.

As such, it is strange that precisely now in this day and age, when information is increasing by the day and people want to consume more and more information through various channels, that the short story is not being taken very seriously. It wouldn’t surprise me that all the buyers of those fleshy megasellers and all the reviewers who discuss those books also watch television in the evening, surf the Net for an hour or so, go down to the local bar, and go to concerts, or museums, exhibits, and whatever belongs to a so-called cultural life. With such a way of life, it would appear the short story genre would fit in excellently.

It seems strange, but a fleshy novel lets itself be read faster, for the purposes of interpretation that is, allows for flipping through the pages that are not as convincing. A short story collection presents a much tougher conquest: the reader has to start a new book, as it were, with every story. Plus, a good story has no sentences and certainly no pages that can be skipped. It doesn’t allow itself to be easily consumed, if it’s good it demands rereading. A collection of short stories by one writer requires more time and attention from the reader as well as from the reviewer’s capacity to say something sensible about it. Evidence of this is the greater attention paid to anthologies. The reviewer plucks out a couple of writers and leaves the rest for what it is. My short story collection, after reading by a reviewer, even yielded a pretty good story. More about this later.

When I started writing seriously, which means to say, writing with an eye to publishing, I had a problem. This may sound a bit ambiguous, but I had a pretty large arsenal into which I could delve. Complex too. My father was born in the former Dutch East Indies, my mother in the Netherlands. They met each other in the Netherlands after the Second World War and there gave me life, or life me, an unspoken question that resonates all through my work.

Let me touch on my parents for a moment. In most cases involving an interracial marriage, the relationship was as follows: the husband was Dutch, the wife, of mixed descent or not, was from the Dutch East Indies. With my parents, it was the other way around. My mother, as a white woman, was regarded with suspicion whenever she went down the street with her brown brood. And my father, an Indo, was thought of as an exotic creature that had better beat it, back to his country of origin, and best keep his paws off a white woman. That in the Dutch East Indies he, a man of mixed Eurasian descent, already had a European passport and had fought in that patriotic capacity on the side of the Dutch during the Indonesians’ struggle for freedom, is something about which people here in Holland knew nothing. They had had the German occupation and anybody with a different history wasn’t listened to, certainly not if something “colonial” clung to that history. That the Netherlands owed its prosperity in large part precisely to that former East Indies colony, they simply neglected, for the sake of convenience, to teach in the schools.

The war in the Dutch East Indies—first the Japanese occupation, then the Indonesian fight for liberation, and finally the exodus of 300,000 Eurasians who took refuge in the Netherlands—had traumatized my father to such an extent that it was no longer in the cards for him to lead something like a normal family life. Problems with the social life in Holland, so different in the country where he was born, the communication problems with his wife, even though they spoke the same language, the racism that his children also had to undergo, and particularly the persecution complex, of which he suffered spells, made him impossible to live with from time to time. He persisted too much in the idea that raising his children with a hard hand would make them tougher later on. His rigid physical punishments hardly fit in with the culture in which he had ended up. And his craziness didn’t at all. I was thirteen when our family fell apart. We, the children, had to spend the rest of our youth in homes.

A new life, far away from the stories about the war that my father had slapped on our plates for dessert after dinner every day. Another noise replaced it: the toughness inside the home’s walls, where unwritten laws had more weight than written ones, where you had to fight for your place among twelve boys in a section, all of whom were supposed to be kept in line by a single group leader. Another existence, no less other-worldly than the life in the previous, culturally mixed family, where culture clashes and veiled racism between spouses were beyond a child’s comprehension. Thus at eighteen I was weighed down by my own youth-home past while I also carried the baggage of my parents’ former home and of my father’s war in the Dutch East Indies along with me. And then the world looked pretty nasty to boot. At some point I had at least developed a liking for the trees and fields around the walls of the home. Now I roamed from city to city and loathed every place I ended up. It would take another ten years before I found the peace of mind to live somewhere for longer than a season. And so I also found the peace of mind to start writing. By then I had turned thirty, it was getting to be time. But what was I supposed to start writing about?

A bad childhood is a gold mine for a writer, they say. This doesn’t mean that you can just wipe your hands on the paper, though. People who want to tell their life story can, possibly without much love of the writer’s craft, casually toss that story off on paper and enter the top ten book lottery with it. The novel is an excellent vehicle for this. Certainly these days when a book primarily has to be fat, not to mention fleshy. Lots of words about a catchy issue for an attractive sales price. Such books will get even the foremost critics off on the wrong foot. You tend to find these books a lot among the current bestsellers. Some of these fortunately come from immigrants and second-generation immigrants and are applauded not so much for their literary value, about which they otherwise can’t say enough, but presumably for the counter-propaganda that such books implicitly contain. Dutch critics are pretty much all white and I can hear them quietly cheering: you see what a beautifully democratic and open-minded country we are? They devote entire pages of newspapers to one book like that, profiling themselves as progressive or at least culturally correct, and the next day they get back to producing their drivel with their traditional Western thinking and, in particular, feeling.

Of course stories do still get published. But then primarily by novelists who want to keep their fingers warmed up in between enterprises and callously slap their collections of metroprose on the market, stories that, like a hamburger, you consume between stops 1 and 3. Stories that are bland, but at any rate have a famous name printed at the top. If writers themselves don’t take the short story seriously, then reviewers could hardly be expected to be lagging behind.

I am not jumping to rally behind the overworked, mostly wooden exercises in style that once made the literary journals all but unreadable. Linguistic art without a clear story line can be fascinating, but then particularly to those who want to learn how to write or to those who have read so much by now that virtuosity is the only thing that can still enchant them. When I started writing my first stories, I was very preoccupied with form and style. This way of working offered me the great advantage of not having to busy myself with the past, my own, my mother’s, or that of my father and his Dutch East Indies plantation owner’s family, and certainly not with something like the color of my skin. So, I, too, learned to write a text with a disdain for the narrative element. I didn’t make a habit of this because I wanted to tell tales, they had to come out. So I began to look for a balance between form and content. Was I looking for something akin to the literary golden mean? No, I try to unite talent and baggage, and in essence I’m talking about something completely different.

Reviewers seem to have at their disposal a left eye for form and a right eye for content. With the left eye they view the stories of “autochtone” writers. With the right eye stories by writers referred to as “allochtones” in the Netherlands (in order not to have to use the word “immigrant” or “second-generation immigrant,” which is evidently not done and as far as I’m concerned is pretty hypocritical). Now that right eye is pretty lazy. It has no trouble seeing the works of immigrants from non-Western cultures. It sees, but this is different from recognizing. Still, both eyes have difficulty with the work of writers who harbor a mixed Western and Caribbean or Western and Asian culture. Indo writers fall under this last group of mixed-bloods. So I do too.

Stories in Dutch literature that take place in the low countries are usually boring. The themes hardly differ from those in other European literatures. Interesting in itself, but many Dutch stories miss brille, have no schwung. Colonial and postcolonial literature is far less boring, and stronger: stories from this quarter can oftentimes be described as spectacular. It is not by chance that the Dutch masterpieces wholly or in part take place in the Dutch East Indies. These are the pilings on which all of Dutch literature rests.

Ultimately, content always rates. Life was simply less boring on the other side of the ocean. The colony tempted the Dutch to excesses that would have been unacceptable back home. You only need to read a few stories from colonial literature to run into lawlessness, immorality, corruption, misogyny, murderousness, hunger for power, the practice of magic, racism, sexism, linguistic conflict, ridicule, and slander. Are these then also the motives they expect of a postwar, postcolonial Indo author? I’m afraid so. I believe people at any rate want to see a sequel, although preferably one captured by a problematic perspective. If you have a mixed-race background, then you must have a problem. If not, you’re not playing the game. So a familiar dilemma arises: do you represent your father’s group, your mother’s, or both? And: if you represent both groups, does it naturally follow that you are doing the most right by yourself and your craft? I’d rather turn it around and say that I somehow represent both groups, as long as I remain true to myself. This seems to me, at any rate, to follow naturally.

Why didn’t you give your story a Eurasian setting? I was asked this question when I published my first story in a particular journal that had space for stories in which something could be related. My answer was that for me there was no reason to decorate the story with Indisch wallpaper, because the story didn’t need it and didn’t demand it. When I later published a story about a roots-trip to Indonesia in a newspaper, the question ran: Why are you writing about your being Indo now? That’s not what you started out doing. In short: staying quiet about my background raised questions and the opposite did as well.

Every reader is acquainted with the phenomenon of wanting to resist when starting to read a story. This is the reader’s normal challenge to the story: Come on, just try to win me over. The issue here concerns another kind of resistance, though. They don’t want to be won over, they just want to read what they want of yours.

Before my first collection of short stories came out I had published only novels. Going on how my novels were received, one thing had become clear: there were reviewers who only discussed the novels I wrote with an obviously contemporary “Dutch” orientation and there were those who were interested only in the novels with a clearly “Indisch” or postcolonial orientation. Exceptions to this apartheid were not to be found in the Netherlands, but in Belgium, where people speak the same language but are at any rate not saddled with a colonial past in Asia, putting aside their own colonial past in Congo for a moment. Thus the reviewers who managed to put their finger on one overall theme that recurs in all my stories and novels, were living abroad. They called it simply “alienation,” a theme that can be found in the whole of world literature. This theme can be linked to issues surrounding someone’s origins, past, sex, sexual preference, neuroses, fantasies, or craziness, in short everything you could possibly imagine. Alienation knows no mainland, alienation seeks it. And as long as one hasn’t been found, alienation itself is the mainland.

Of course the reader does have the right to be able to place the alienation that dominates my protagonists. At least I give the reader the mainland of language and story. However, reviewers, professional readers, want more. They in turn want to show the reader that they totally understand if not see through the writer whom they are discussing. This is why writers who clearly profile themselves, in whatever way, are easier for reviewers to discuss than those whose work breathes a personal synthesis of the diverse cultural influences they have undergone.

When I write a story without an explicitly Indisch accent, then this story will still always have been written by someone who carries Indisch accents inside. Coming from my background, I naturally place different accents, even without bringing that background explicitly to bear. And this is precisely what people do not have or do not wish to have eyes for. I don’t think that I have to place a ghost story or whatever against an Indisch background in order to make it more believable for a Dutch reader. A ghost story is not unusual in Indo circles, but in Dutch circles it still is. This is why ghost stories preferably have to come from abroad. Or from a writer like myself, but then in fact situated in an Indisch framework. Then they can give you a place and you pose no threat to the “autochtone” authors, who have their own themes that people evidently wish to reserve for that group. We get magic, they get love.

In the Netherlands of today, where people are brimming with “multicultural remarks,” a separatism is utilized that goes way back in the country’s colonial history. It is not something like a mutual influence that people here wish to arrive at. No, they want everybody to keep their own cultures behind closed doors. You can tell from the books by, here we go again, “autochtone” writers who, during the time when the discipline of “philosophy” was in vogue, were bursting with references to the most far-flung Western philosophers. The stuff of Asian thought, in the best scenario, has been considered to be a nice expression of another culture, befitting “allochtone” writers. They can go ahead and write fairy tales, divert Dutch rivers, and have spirits floating around over the Amsterdam canals. The “autochtone” writer who does that is punished or else excessively applauded, particularly if he or she has actually experienced those “good old Dutch East Indies” as a white person, and is once more, the umpteenth in four centuries of literary enterprise, illumining it with his or her Eurocentric gaze. I wonder what the reviewers would do with a love story situated in the Dutch polder country, written by a Moroccan. Perhaps very loud applause because now at last that long-awaited multicultural dream has taken shape in the literature of the Netherlands? They will most certainly want to convene a symposium on this first. Briefly sniff at one another to see whether there’s a whiff of shame lingering around their seat.

As a writer of Indisch background, born and raised in the Netherlands, in fact neither “autochtone” nor “allochtone,” I am burdened with both my father’s as well as my mother’s heritage: an Indo from the former Dutch East Indies and a cobbler’s daughter from the southern Netherlands. I remember that my Dutch grandfather let me weigh nails in his shoe repair shop as a child. They were sold in little paper sacks for 5 cents to poor people who had to fix their shoes themselves. After twelve and a half years of being a practicing writer, I still see no need for a boy who’s weighing nails in his grandfather’s shoe shop to be given an explicitly Indisch background. I do have the choice, it’s true, depending on what I want to show. However, in this day and age each choice entails a disqualifying factor. If I give the boy a brown face, I no longer rate with Dutch letters. If I give the boy a white face, I don’t rate with Indisch or postcolonial letters.

Until now I have usually gone about it this way: I give my protagonists no face. What I do give them is a certain feeling of alienation, with the underlying question: What am I doing here? As a writer I want to be judged by my craft and not by my background, which gets printed in big bold letters on the jacket text of my books. White writers aren’t treated this way when they feel like situating a story in the former Dutch East Indies. Sure, they are permitted that kind of thing no questions asked and afterward they can cross back to the order of the day. Yes, why don’t you read those last four words one more time.

© Copyright Alfred Birney

On September 3, 2020, the London-based publishing house ‘Head of Zeus‘ released the hardcover edition of Alfred Birney’s most famous book, ‘The Interpreter from Java’, translated by David Doherty: