The 2011 Berkeley Conference in Dutch Literature


Squeezed Between Rice and Potato: Personal reflections on a Dutch (post) colonial youth

The great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, son of  a Jewish mother and a father who collaborated with the Nazis, was wont to say: ‘I am the Second World War.’ Well, today I echo his words: I am Post-Colonialism. But at the same time, making this claim causes me qualms. Do I have the right? Did my cradle stand in the right place? Were my parents on the right side? Am I the right post-colonial colour? Questions for the experts.

The city of The Hague holds an annual literary festival, called Winternachten, or Winter nights – nowadays known in the rest of the world as Writers Unlimited.  In the early years of its existence the focus was on writers from the former Dutch colonies: Indonesia, Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles and South Africa. The idea was, and still is, to meet contemporary authors from countries with which Holland has had a long and complicated relationship.  Although not the main issue, the Dutch colonial past frequently reared its head in the debates. Descendents of African slaves took the floor, as did Indonesians whose fathers were imprisoned or killed by Dutch soldiers during the struggle for independence. The Winter Nights made us look again at our own history – perhaps with less complacency than before.

For example, returnees from the pre-Independence Indonesia, so-called Indische Nederlanders, who had settled in large numbers in the administrative heartland of The Hague, and whose descendants were keen to preserve the old East Indian atmosphere of their parents, not only had the opportunity to evoke fond memories of a lost paradise, but also got to hear the other side of the colonial saga – the indigenous side.

To everyone’s surprise, people turned out to have similar experiences. Fighting for independence and fighting to maintain the colony had more in common than anyone expected. The festival organizers called this ‘Synchronisation’ – sharing emotions in a shared period of time.

Shouldn’t we have been conducting the debate elsewhere, too? In the former colonies themselves, for instance? Winternachten decided to go on tour. For me that meant a trip to Indonesia, to join a group of visiting writers from South Africa, Surinam and the Antilles. Talks were given before large audiences of students, with the backing of a multifarious array of local performers.

One of our team was Sello Duiker, a black South African author who wore his hair in dreadlocks and whose speech was peppered with words in Afrikaans, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the many Dutch words in the Indonesian language of Bahasa Indonesia. And then there was a Hindustani poet from Suriname, Chritra  Gajadin, who caused a great stir at each venue by railing at the former colonial power. The greatest applause was reserved for the poet Changa  Hickinson. This young man from the Dutch island of Sint Maarten wrote in English, and although he had a Dutch education and a sister living in the Netherlands, during the tour he flatly refused to utter a word of Dutch either to me or to the festival organizers. His opening line was, invariably: I am the last of the slaves of the Netherlands. This was met with thunderous applause – time and again.

As for me, I was the big white man rambling on about tempo doeloe, the sweet colonial times. Tempo doeloe – I used the Malay expression deliberately, because I was talking about the East Indies of my parents, a land of hearsay as far as I was concerned. Not that I didn’t know the taste of exotic fruits and spices, or the stories behind the sepia photographs – my mother under the palm trees, my father posing as a proud pupil of the Dutch High School in Surabaya, the same school that  Soekarno attended. To my father, Soekarno was the rabble-rouser who evicted him from his homeland.  I gave an imitation of Soekarno, the way my father used to do (they spoke with the same accent) . ‘Soekarno, full-time brothel-goer, part-time president’. I even put on dark glasses: ‘Meneer ik voel mij kiplekkerrr. Ayam senang,’ I twanged, which translates as ‘I feel as happy as a chicken’ but means I feel fine. The joke was lost on the Indonesians in the audience.

During the debates that followed I was always treated like a representative of nostalgia.

Nostalgia! It was never MY colony, I would splutter in protest. My books are about ordinary folk who found themselves cast out of paradise. I grew up with them. It was their stories – and their lies – that made me the writer I am today.

And I would explain about my background,  how I grew up in a hostel for repatriates – the majority of whom were born in the East Indian archipelago and knew nothing about Holland, apart from what they had learnt at school. They could recite the names of all the main railway stations in Holland, they could reel off all the major battles of Dutch history, but the country itself was utterly foreign to them.

My father was one such repatriate – a sergeant in the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, who left the military after the war because he had no desire to take up arms against the nationalist rebels, who were his people after all. He arrived in Holland aged thirty-one, and penniless. No prospect of employment. Broken by the war. He had been captured by the Japanese, and was among the PoWs on  their way to forced labour in Sumatra when their ship, the Junyo Maru, was torpedoed by the British. Of the seven thousand five hundred men aboard -among them a majority of Javanese labourers – at least five thousand six hundred and twenty drowned. My father found a plank of wood. Fought for a bit of timber in a blood- red ocean. Survival of the fittest. After he was fished out of the sea by the Japanese, he was put to work for two- and- a- half years as a slave on the Sumatran Death Railway of  Pakan Baroe. Mortality rate: close to 40%.

Yes, my father was a man of statistics and tall tales, but Holland had no call for the war stories of a Dutchman from overseas.  Nor was there a ready ear for the other returnees trickling into the country until 1963 (about three hundred thousand in all, all but five thousand of them colonial-born). Holland was licking her wounds after the years of German occupation. Over a hundred and forty thousand Jews had been deported – with the collusion of the Dutch police and the Dutch railways – and at least one hundred thousand of them had been murdered. Stories about Japanese camps held no interest for the Dutch public. All that bleating about a lost colony on the other side of the world, about a lost war, with nothing like the casualties suffered at home? Not enough to eat? What, in the tropics? With fruit growing on every tree? We were the ones who were starving, was the average Dutch person’s reply, we had to eat tulip bulbs to survive.

Clichés, of course, but alive and kicking in my family to this day.

Besides, people from overseas were spoilt. They’d had a life  of servants, long furloughs, double wages and early retirement. And when they showed up in Holland soon after the war they were privileged all over again – top of the list for housing, help with rations. Coupon crunchers, that’s what they were.

As a result the people in our hostel clammed up to the outside world. They sulked in private. They who had seen fire-spitting volcanos, who had lived on remote tropical islands, who had travelled halfway across the globe, found themselves looked down on by people whose horizon stopped at the nearest dyke.

The men in our hostel had lost their status – the darker ones slightly more so than the light-skinned. The whiter you were the better your chance of work in Holland (and of being allocated the better rooms in the hostel). My father, ever in denial of his off-white shade – I have Mediterranean blood in me, your grandma was one hundred percent Italian! – remained unemployed on account of a heart condition sustained during years of hard labour. Other men had to content themselves with menial jobs. Our much darker neighbour at the back found work in a munitions factory (counting bullets, according to my father) , whereas back in the Indies he’d had an important position. People always had a position in the colonies, not just a job. He had been a station master: ‘very important position.’

‘Just one train a day,’ murmured  my father behind his back.  He was joking – but then his jokes were always about  class and status.

That was how everybody tried to salvage their pride They found consolation above all in the communal rijsttafel, the elaborate meal of colonial times. The Indies loomed large at their gatherings. Their status rose accordingly, as did the bravery of their wartime exploits. Not all of them had been in the prison camps. In some parts of the archipelago, having one or two native forbears was enough to escape the barbed wire. They were the ‘outsiders’ at the long table, but for those of mixed ancestry, life in the kampong had often been harder than for the Dutch internees in the camps. What they shared was their hatred of the Japanese. Hatred disguised as ridicule. God, all those tricks they had played on the Japs! What fools they’d made of them! They split their sides laughing. The war sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly have. And the dishes were washed to the accompaniment of songs mocking the Japs.

Jappen hier, Jappen daar

Vele jappen zonder haar

A nonsense rhyme:

Japs here Japs there

Japs all over without hair


Heb je wel gehoord

van de Jap die is gesmoord

in een pot met bruine bonen.

Hij liep als een gek

met een lepel in zijn bek

en de blubber

liep langs zijn konen.

Jap Jap, je petje is te klein

Je schoenen zijn te groot

Je hebt verloren de Zilvervloot

An old Dutch school song, with radically altered words, along the lines of : have you heard of the Jap drowning in the cooking pot, the Jap running around like a madman, the crazy Jap with his shoes too big and his cap so small. There was no way such a figure of fun could ever win a war.

I sang along with the best of them, at the top of my voice. Because I dearly wanted to belong, to be part of it all, of my parents’ war, of the gang of boys and girls, darker-skinned, barefoot kids with catapults who caught birds and made bonfires. These camp-children had not been to school during their three-and-a-half years of internment, but they were more mature than their Dutch classmates, more grownup, because they had seen their parents being humiliated.

The locals called the hostel the ‘ blue colony’ , after the blue-black sheen on the hair of the residents. And when in summer the orphans from Amsterdam came to the beach for a day, they would chant:

‘Glorie, glorie, glorie, gloria en de meisjes van Batavia , zijn zwart, pikzwart.’/Glory glory hallelujah, the girls from Batavia are black, pitch black.

Yes, I learnt the meaning of discrimination from an early age, and especially that it could apply to any skin-colour.

Although I had ginger hair and freckles, and at home I was the rosy piglet who was scared of a smidgen of  hot pepper sauce and whom they called totok – a Malay word meaning ‘full-blooded European ignorant of the Indies’ (‘you weren’t even born yet’ ‘you don’t know a thing) – at school I would say, boastfully: ‘ Oh, we’re from the Indies, you know.’ I had to, because who wanted to belong to the Hollanders? The Hollanders were kasar – coarse – one of the first Malay words I learnt. Hollanders – wooden shoes, wooden heads, wooden manners.

Over drinks every one of them had been a wartime hero. In the resistance to a man…. ‘with a colander on their head in the broom cupboard.’  Oh, how we jeered at the Hollanders in our house. They had a bath only once a week, whereas we had one every day. ‘Van buiten blink, van onder stink!’ (meaning ‘outside clean, inside stinky’).Their fiercest critic was my mother  – she, who was herself as Dutch as could be: a farmer’ s daughter from a Protestant enclave in Catholic Brabant.  It was love that had landed her in Sumatra at the age of twenty-two.

My mother. I seldom referred to her during our writers’  tour of Bali and Java. Nor have I written much about her since. Too complicated. But now that she has died – almost a hundred years old and sharp of mind to the last – I can no longer put it off. It is only now that I realise how enormous my mother’s influence was. We learnt to look about us with a measure of detachment, not only at Holland, but also at the Indies of the past, the East Indies of the Europeans’ sentimental tempo doeloe. Hers had never been a life of parties in colonial mansions, formal dinners or the file-past at the governor’s residence. As a young wife she lived far away in the wild. Often on her own for weeks at a time She had lived among animists, and took back to Holland the idea that there was something spiritual in all of nature. She tried to pass this on to her children in various ways, such as: always ask a flower before picking it. She also encouraged us to be open minded about different religions. Every religion contained something of value. The Indies had been an education for her – even if life there had not always been pleasant. The traces of that education were manifest in her offspring, though not all to the same degree. There were also things she glossed over and denied. But now that she is gone, all sorts of documents we believed lost have surfaced, the lies have dropped out of the photo albums, and I can write what she always forbade me to say in public: that my mother, at the age of twenty-two,  went off and married ‘a native’.

The bountiful consequences were there for all to see at her funeral seventy-seven years later. She managed to drum up hundreds of mourners. One third of them brown-skinned relatives and one third Dutch farmer stock, gathered together for the first time ever; and one third friends of her respective surviving children, a motley crowd of city folk. What united us that day transcended my mother: the new, mixed Netherlands, tinged by colony and migration, were assembled there. We played jungle sounds from Sumatra at the funeral, but we also spoke of the Protestant enclave where my mother grew up, and the wooden clogs she took off and used to clout the Catholic boys round the ears on her way to school.

How did that colour come into her life in the first place? It was her brother’s doing. As a student of economics in Rotterdam he had befriended a group of overseas students who had set up an Indonesian student society. (Back then, in the nineteen thirties, the term Indonesia had only just become popular among young nationalists).

He invited a couple of them back to his parents’ house for the weekend. His sister lapped up their stories. They came from Java and Sumatra. (I discovered later that a fair number of the economists who served under Soekarno as well as Soeharto, had studied in Rotterdam and had sat at my grandfather’s dinner table.)

They were inspired students, who stood up for the rights of the native population of the colony. They had broken with the so-called ‘association idea’ of the old generation, and found incentive in the Indian civil disobedience movement, and in the social-democratic models of the West. Wild notions, in my grandfather’s opinion, but his daughter Maria was enthralled. Not by the political ideas – she was still too naïve for that. It was the exotic that appealed to her.

When the opportunity arose to meet some more of those ‘native boys’, at a tea party hosted by the Royal Military Academy, Maria was in the forefront. She promptly fell in love with a young officer cadet. His father – as I recently discovered – was from the Banda islands(75% native blood) and his mother was Javanese (100% ). Oh yes, exact percentages were paramount in those days! He was dark and handsome, and during his training at the military academy in Holland he passed as a so-called Indo (meaning half-caste), the better to climb the ranks of the colonial army. (Incidentally, the Royal Dutch Indies Army counted over a thousand officers, only twenty of whom were indigenous to the archipelago – for the most part sons of noble families).

It was with that man, Victor Emanuel – I will refrain from mentioning the surname as it is still a sensitive issue with certain members of my family – it was with that man that Maria set out for the Indies. There was no stopping her. Victor Emanuel took her with him to the Banda islands, and later, to the Jambi sultanate in  Western Sumatra.

The farmer’s daughter who was to become my mother, married into a family who – so she claimed – never accepted her as one of their own. Too Dutch. Too white, for all that she gave birth to three dark-skinned daughters. It was no different in the remote backwaters, where her husband fulfilled his duties in the so-called ‘pacification’ and opening up of  the interior. She was ever regarded with suspicion. Whether she liked it or not, she stood for authority – an imposed, armed authority to boot. And there was always the disdain of the Hollanders she came across, in whose eyes she had married over the colour bar.

Victor Emanuel was a loyal soldier. When the Japanese invaded the colony he avoided capture as a PoW, and chose the side of resistance instead. Thanks to the colour of his skin it was easy for him to blend in with the local population. He gathered around him a group of trusted associates, and blew up a couple of  bridges – something his wife didn’t find out about until many years later. She herself was interned a few weeks after the Japanese invasion, along with her three daughters, and spent the next  three-and-a-half years in various prison camps on Sumatra.

After the Japanese capitulation she found herself in a transit camp in Palembang, having not heard from her husband for all that time. She went to the Red Cross office every day with her daughters in tow, in the hope of news. There was none. There were only rumours. At the transit camp the girls made friends with a serviceman, who, like them, had recently been released from internment, and who was searching for his wife. The girls saw him as a surrogate father, and introduced him to their mother.  He offered to help her track down her husband, Victor Emanuel, whom he knew from the old days. He had even served under him as a sergeant.

It transpired that Victor Emanuel had been beheaded by the Japanese in December 1944.

In the spring of 1946 the young widow and her children set sail for the Netherlands. She would finally be showing her three pretty girls to her Dutch farmer-relatives.  And at the same time, she would introduce them to the man who had come over on the ship with her. By coincidence, his name was also Victor. It was the search for the other Victor, Victor Emanuel, that had brought them together. Well… the outcome of that search stands here before you now.

It was not until Maria arrived in Holland and underwent a medical examination that she discovered she was several months pregnant, her swollen belly having previously been taken as a sign of edema from undernourishment. Given her present ‘blessèd circumstance’ she thought it wiser not to move in with her relatives on the farm, but to join the ranks of the impoverished repatriates. And so the newly formed family found itself quartered in the repatriates hostel among the sand dunes.

There is no end to what a child accepts without question.

– That your father can’t marry your mother because his previous marriage was dissolved according to Muslim law. The Christian Netherlands did not recognize that law, but the new self-proclaimed state of Indonesia did. Which was why I went by my mother’s surname.

– That there had been a war that you weren’t supposed to talk about to other people , let alone that your father spent hours lying in a darkened room counting out loud. Tallying the dead. Numbers, numbers.

– That Holland was a country that did not keep her promises. For years my mother was kept begging for the widow’s pension she was entitled to from her first husband – the Dutch authorities simply could not believe that a ‘native’ could have sided with Holland in the war.

– That it was never ever  worth giving your life for flag, Queen or country – it would bring you nothing but trouble.

The Hollanders. Those bloody Dutch.

Other wars did count, for some reason. The war in Holland. The war against the Jerries. Anyone who had suffered in that war deserved to be treated with respect. And the Dutch had suffered. So had the Jews … though the reception awaiting those suvivors who made it back to Holland was no more than chilly. My father craved respect. But since no one wanted to hear about his personal suffering, he adopted the European war as his own, and became a rabid anti-German. His way of beating them at their own game.

Like father, like son: I promptly volunteered for the kiddies’ resistance, my brave mission being to send every German holiday maker who asked the way in the opposite direction.

It was a way of belonging, of being Dutch. My father was also quick to adopt the Dutch way of doing things. So we didn’t hang blankets over our windows in winter, which was what our shivering neighbours at the hostel did. No paraffin stove in our sitting-room, unlike the others, who always had some exotic and tasty stew simmering in a pan. No sapoe lidi, or palm-leaf broom, but a proper Dutch floor-mop.

My mother felt far less awkward than my father about her past in the Indies – but this was another thing I came to realise much later. She had not grown up believing in the glowing goodness of a fatherland setting the standards for all things. The farmer’s daughter had embraced the Indies in order to survive.

My father and mother found each other in the stories of Tjalie Robinson – pen name of Jan Boon – a spokesman of sorts for people born in the East Indies. Robinson was the chronicler of an era of transition. After Independence he stayed on in the land of his birth for as long as possible, until things become too difficult for a person of mixed ancestry. He wrote about the uprooted generation – torn between holding on and letting go, between remembrance and adjustment. Eating with knife and fork instead of with fingers. Going barefoot or wearing shoes. At the hostel in the sand dunes Tjalie Robinson’s books were literally read to pieces. I found his complete works among my mother’s possessions, dog-eared and tattered.

I was too young to understand what the stories were about, but I knew all his jokes from the Tong Tong magazine. Many of those jokes, much anthologized, were in the petjoh-dialect, a sort of Indo patois of garbled Dutch words and expressions sprinkled with Malay. The speech of the poorly educated native servants. My parents and my half-sisters, indeed everyone in the hostel, thought it hilarious. We used  to  sing  Santa Claus songs in petjoh : Zie gids kom die kapal uit Spanje hij al…

I didn’t understand, but sang along lustily with the others. Kapal meant boat, I knew that much, but for the rest it was gibberish to me – yet how sweetly the sound of it still rings in my ears today. My father was especially good at it. At home and in public. He ridiculed his own accent. Forever the accént on the wrong sylláble. He acted the part of the colonial-born Dutchman, and sought acceptance in exaggeration.

I was brought up with the tones of the Indies. The tastes, too. My father was the cook in our family: a soldier in an apron. He kept six pans going at the double on the stove. We ate  ‘what was known as ‘monkey hair – dry fried, unravelled meat, strongly spiced. And for dessert: avocado with coffee syrup or wondrous fruits, even the vile-smelling durian, so vanilla sweet at first bite and with an aftertaste of garlic and onion. Difficult flavours for a child, but I swallowed everything just to belong.

What else do you learn, coming from a home like that? I was drilled for a future war. Slapped about daily, flat across the face, like a Japanese soldier. Remember: always keep a suitcase ready for a quick getaway. Travel light. And don’t forget your magnifying glass – so you can start a fire in the wild. Make sure you have plenty of disinfectant. What all those life-lessons came down to was a crash course in camp survival. But again, I did not realise that until later.

My father died when I was ten years old. My mother stuffed the whole kit-and-caboodle of the Indies into a big trunk – the Javanese carvings, the wayang puppets, the curved dagger. It was also the end of the tropics at the dinner table. We stopped having rice every day. We left the repatriates’ hostel. Mother’s farmer-relatives chipped in, and we became potato eaters.

For many years I denied my father’s influence. I was scared to death of being like him. Losing my temper like him. Showing off, like him, or rather, telling lies. Because he was a bold-faced liar if ever there was one. His first and only legal wife turned out to have two children. Family? Untraceable to this day.

Research into the family archives revealed that my father’s great-grandfather had children by a native woman. They were apparently light-skinned enough to be accepted by the father’s Dutch relations, but the next generation turned out surprisingly dark. What did you do in the colonial times of  looking up to white and looking down on coloured? You conjured up an Italian ancestor. There are today living in the Hague, the capital of the fictional Indies, still a large number of returnees from the Indies claiming to have Italian blood running in their veins. Portuguese blood is quite popular too.

My father had made me fearful of his background and the country of his birth. There was no way I could belong there. Very well then, I would find my own colony. Besides, I fancied travelling halfway across the globe, like all the others in our hostel. I yearned for the equator. For colour. I discovered Africa.

And I discovered a language. As a student of Dutch I came into contact with the poetry of the South-African Breyten Breytenbach. In the days of full-blown apartheid Breytenbach was a dissident, but also an esteemed poet. His talent was acknowledged by friend and foe. In his own country he was regarded as an innovator of language, and he won major literary awards. But there was a problem. He insisted on attending the prize-giving ceremonies accompanied by his wife… but his marriage with a Vietnamese fell under the ontugwet (immorality act) – a law prohibiting sexual relations between white and non-white. That was why he had gone to live in self- imposed exile in Paris. Whether he would actually be prosecuted if he stayed was doubtful, but it was reason enough for Breytenbach to write a poem challenging the South African lawmakers’ ideas about race and colour.

I will read it in the translation of the author – specially made for the occasion.

my wife

my wife

‘s name is Yolande

she is a lady

small and true

but dainty

her hair is black

her eyes medlar brown

her tiny nose flares

and her mouth is a robin

plucked in full flight

behind her teeth tips the soft clapper

of a foreign land

Yolande Yolande give me your hand

I hereby wed thee

you are the wife of me

and your gluttonous eyes, gentlemen, will cockroach

in vain over the domain of my hand

if you propose, poor peeping Toms, stupid slobs

for us to skin and dress my belle

to eye in the beds of your febrile imagination –

it is we who will laugh

(my wife and I)

so let me conclude:

her ears are two chapels

her hands are as wine

her feet are masterworks

rose petal and rapt rabbit

she carries five toes to every foot

little sausages of fat and blood

of the very best in the land

my Yolande

here she is by my side

my bride

And  now, just for the sound of it ,the last lines in Afrikaans :

Om af te rond:

haar ore is dus kerke

haar hande is soos wyn

haar voete is meesterwerke

roosblaar en klein konyn

sy dra vijf tone aan elke voet

worsies spek en bloed

van die beste in die land

my Yolande

hier kom sy nou

my vrou

What a language! This was an adulterous form of Dutch, supple and strong, a coloured language rising above the clay soil of Calvin. So much levity, too, with such a grave subject. What struck me most of all was the phrase: ‘slag en rangskik in die beddens van jullie verbeelding.’ The classification of people according to skin-colour and origin. The East Indian milieu I grew up in was no different.

Breytenbach’s language, Afrikaans, reminded me of the old petjoh back home – the Indo mix of Malay with garbled Dutch. A language with a shade of brown around the edges, so to speak. I could hear my father’s voice in it.

I holed up in the library to read more Afrikaans. I wanted to begin at the beginning. The language did not appear in print until the mid-nineteenth century. (As it happens, the oldest printed document was intended for the ear, and consists of instructions, written in phonetic Arabic, for the imam to explain the Muslim traditions to the Cape-Malay faithful. ((1869)) The deeply religious, Calvinist Boers considered their vernacular to  be too lowly, and therefore unsuitable as the Language of Canaan. They stuck to their old Dutch bible – regardless of whether they could still understand it.) Afrikaans first started appear in print mainly for comic effect – just like petjoh, in fact! – notably as a way of representing the non-whites trying to speak Dutch. In the early printed stories and farces the white Afrikaner Boers all speak a stiff kind of Dutch.

Remarkably, there was no hint of colour in the prevailing ideas about the emergence of the Afrikaans language. When I started to study Afrikaans in the early 70’s, its existence was celebrated primarily as the latest shoot on the Germanic family tree.

Admittedly, the Cape Colony had imported a fair number of  Malay names, and also the Portuguese had left their mark, but aside from that Afrikaans was supposedly full of seventeenth and eighteenth -century Dutch words. In some cases it was possible to trace a particular word to a southern or northern dialect in the Netherlands.

So what about all that  reduplication, then? I recognized it in the petjoh expression plan plan for ‘take it easy’ . And orang orang for ‘people’. Reduplication to indicate plural or intensity. You find it in other languages with brown around the edges, too. Pidgin English is full of it. Creolisation is what this phenomenon is sometimes called.

But the South-African scholars of half a century ago kept Afrikaans as white as possible. Reduplication, they maintained, was also to be seen in certain European dialects. And the double negative? Hadn’t that also found its way into the so-called Negro Dutch spoken on the Danish Antilles? No, it came from Flanders. There were two brothers from Aarschot on the crew list of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC. In that part of Flanders they do just as the French still do today: they use two forms of negation in the same clause.

Research into the influence of Khoikhoi and San was still in its infancy. In those days we still referred to Bushmen and Hottentots – the latter term having been introduced by Jan van Riebeeck, who was charged with establishing a refreshment post at the Cape of Good Hope.  He reported back to his VOC bosses in Holland that the indigenous population were nothing but a bunch of Hottentots – an old Dutch word meaning someone who stammers. He also reported that they were unfit for any kind of work: Hottentots were stuck somewhere between ape and human. Using them as slaves was therefore forbidden. As a result, slaves were imported in numbers – from West Africa, Madagascar and Malaysia. We now know that those new arrivals made a significant contribution to the development of Afrikaans. Boss simplifies his speech when talking to slave. Slave passes on simplified speech to boss’s offspring. Thus the Afrikaans language came into being, and in a remarkably short space of time, too. But the researchers of the Apartheid era clung on to their idea of a Teutonic language shift.

How about that? Sounds Familiar! I thought – Italian ancestry in South Africa too!

I decided to study Afrikaans.

It was colour that I was after. In a language where North and South came together. The foreign and the familiar. And also the concise levity of the Anglo-Saxons. A blend of tongues that was far more permissive  than the staid Dutch of the Netherlands.

The Afrikaans language and the South Africa I knew on paper seemed to me more hospitable than the colony of my parents and half-sisters. I became a very diligent student.

And so that is how it started – with aesthetical considerations – but the ethical inevitably came into it too. The good and bad of politics.

I wanted to have nothing to do with the policies that were implemented in the name of Afrikaans, because in those days it was still the case that this supposed Germanic offshoot in darkest Africa was fundamental to the identity and apart status of the Afrikaner Boer.

Afrikaans literature proved to be far less white than its readership, and even the writers themselves, realised. Their world did not lie in Europe. The Boers did not live in a vacuum, their outlook was peopled by black and brown, whether they liked it or not. And however hard they worked tarring the roads, digging mines, building dams and fences and churches – and imposing laws – their entire civilization came down to overcoming a fear of the great, often hostile, wilderness  surrounding them: Africa.

And in due course, with a little effort, I entered another continent, and consequently also another culture, with different manners and mores. I decided to study the Afrikaners from an anthropological angle – how else would I be able to bear their company for any length of time? So there I was, trying to get to know a white tribe who believed that they were a chosen people. A white tribe dreaming. A tribe that oppressed technically weaker tribes, enslaved them, excluded them. I studied the wondrous rites of Apartheid. The many taboos, the sexual predilections of the Afrikaners (early marriage and the highest divorce rate in the world), the gossip among the elite. But also the obligations and prohibitions of culture and censorship.

I bought myself a big notebook with a marbled cover, and resolved to keep account of every book I read in Afrikaans, complete with a summary of the contents. I was determined to read everything – which would surely be possible with a body of literature spanning no more than two centuries. I would start with Kaatje Kekkelbek, or Life among the Hottentots. Great. And then go further back, to the history of the supply station at the Cape, find out who the first Vrijgburhgers, or Free Burghers, were, how they got on with the local Khoi-San – not that I knew that politically correct term yet – I was still reading about Bushmen and Hottentots.

In the course of my reading, I came upon a Hottentot  woman living at Jan van Riebeeck’s fort. She was described by Godée Molsbergen – van Riebeeck’s biographer – as a ‘filthy Hottentot hag wearing stinking animals skins’, but elsewhere, and in later works, such as that of the historian Anna Boeseken, she was portrayed in more human terms. Krotoa was her name – but inside the fort she was Eva. She had learnt to speak Dutch, and acted as interpreter between her people and the new rulers.

Eva’s services went further: she gave birth to a child by a Duusman (in reality the Danish surgeon Peter Haybard, who had assumed the Dutch name Pieter van Meerhof). Aha, I thought, intermingling at the Cape! Oh so necessary for the whites who had to settle for longer periods overseas. And a great deal of intermingling must have gone on, if you compare the VOC crew lists with the number of Vrijburgher families! The few South-African historians in the apartheid era who pointed this out, only did so in the most veiled of terms. The Afrikaner was keen to see his roots and his language as a white alliance of European crew members.

No intermingling without denial. Most blatantly in politics: the Cape Coloured, often literally nephews and nieces who shared centuries of language, religion and blood with the Afrikaners, were barred from the white political decision-making process. That also the noble Boers might have undergone indigenous influences was a mirror you were not permitted to hold up to any Afrikaner.

Bastaarde in search of purity, Breytenbach called them.

I had found my life’s field of study.

Of course I was aware that my quest for colour was subjectively motivated: I, who had been so eager to be part of my family’s war, who had joined the kiddies resistance at a tender age, who wished he was brown instead of white, and who sang the prison-camp songs at the top of his voice… I was terrified of being drawn into another camp: the Afrikaner camp. The camp of the baddies.

So I took sides with the dissidents. Stood up for the oppressed in word and deed. How noble. To be honest I found more inspiration with writers who did not go out and man the barricades, but who explored their own small world or their own private past. Not so much out of escapism, but out of self-discovery. Where did they stand in ‘a country that was loud of voices, and where a sky full of vultures had long since carried the answer. A doomed truth no one was asking for,’  as the poet N.P. van Wijk Louw said.

What was their place in Africa? They were the descendants of colonists. But also pariahs. They too wrote with a knife at their throat. They too voiced the pain of their country. Take a poet like Dirk Opperman: not a man of manifestos, but a sensitive mind who grew up among the Zulus and gave account of that in his poetry. Or the conservative N.P van Wijk Louw, for whom the discovery that he belonged not to Europe but to Africa did not come until he travelled to Paris. He felt more affinity with migrants from West and North Africa than with French intellectuals. He asked himself: ‘what is my connection with Africa?’ And the only answer he could give was: ‘my bastard tongue.’  He was alluding to the language of his native Sutherland, a hamlet deep in the mountains of the Karoo, where white and brown lived side by side and where they spoke their own brand of very flowery Afrikaans.

The language of these poets belonged to a country where their skin was foreign. It was thanks to them that I dared to explore my own backyard: the coloured world of a hostel for repatriates on the Dutch coast.

It was not the Dutch language, but Afrikaans that roused the writer in me.

I wrote Nathan Sid – a short novel about a boy growing up between rice and potato. A modest debut that I kept under wraps for a long time, because I knew that the story I really wanted to tell was a different one. But the courage and inspiration still had to ripen. Ten years (and a few novels) later I wrote Indische Duinen, which was published in the U.S. under the title My Father’s War – the story of a young man who dances a jig on his father’s grave and spills all the family secrets. Two hundred thousand copies were sold within one year. I am not saying this to boast – just to show that the book clearly touched a nerve in the Eurasian community. I had evidently broken a long silence, and suddenly became their spokesman – me, the totok, the outsider. Of course some negative reactions followed: I had been too disparaging about the Indos, I was not a proper representative of the milieu. Old grievances surfaced: my outlook was too Dutch, in other words: too white. How could an outsider like me have anything to say about the old East Indies? It was the same sort of resentment that had long since poisoned the debate about the literature of the former colony. Sparked off  some decades earlier by Tjalie Robinson’s accusation that the white colonial authors had no idea of the barefoot culture of the Indo. To anyone who was not brown, the literature of the Indies was off limits. Actually living among people from the Indies did not count. Then a reader came forward with evidence that my father’s ancestors had mixed with native women, and the debate flagged. It was blood that counted – and soil. Not very pleasant.

One of the first radio interviews I gave after the publication of My Father’s War was with a Dutch Muslim broadcasting service. I was taken aback, and I showed it. ‘Our fathers used to beat us, too,’ declared the young woman doing the interview. I pressed her for more, and she told me that her father, like mine, had been unemployed. Her family too had come down in the world. They too lived in two cultures. And in her family, likewise, the children had to excel at school (which especially the girls succeeded in doing). The children had to make up for everything. It was an extraordinary encounter: I turned out to have more in common with guest-worker families than I had ever imagined.

After that I began to look differently at my own past. And at my father. With more understanding. I decided to write about his life in Holland – the resulting book has been translated into English as Repatriated. The story of a migrant – Mr Java – who drills his son for the future, drawing him deeper and deeper into his delusionary world. There is practically no mention of the East Indies in the novel.

For me personally it was quite liberating to take my family out of the virtual Indies and place those who shared our fate in a wider context.

Repatriated was translated into many languages. To help the French version on its way I decided to go and live in Paris for a while. An interlude which has lasted for eight years now. Paris is the biggest African city outside Africa. When I was asked to be guest author at the Faculty of Dutch at the Sorbonne, I decided to do something with the subject of migration – by comparing my Indies novels with the work of Dutch authors of Moroccan origin and of French authors from Martinique and the Maghreb. Among the authors we read were Tahar ben Jelloun (Le racisme  expliquée à ma fille), Aimée Césaire (Cahier d’un retour au pays), alongside the Dutch authors Abdelkader  Benali (Wedding by the sea) and Hafid Bouazza (Abdullah’s Feet).

The degrees of correspondence were remarkable.

All these writers deal with the experience of migration, willed or otherwise. Racism and discrimination were part of that experience.

Another shared aspect was what I would call ‘exploring the culture’, that is to say, comparing the culture of the parents with the culture in the new homeland – including the misunderstandings and prejudices on both sides.

And there were more similarities, such as:

–         Linguistic exploration – playing with the language or idiom of  the old country as well as the new.

–         Confusion of identities – being torn between a modern Western lifestyle and a traditional lifestyle. Shoes or bare feet? Bikini or headscarf? Eating with fingers or with knife and fork?

All this was based on assumptions, for we did not make an exhaustive study of our findings, but for the students involved all those migrant stories more than complemented each other: they recognized the loss of   the   East Indies in Martinique and Morocco, too.

What struck me above all was the Moroccan concept of Nsarra, a recurrent theme among the North African authors. Hafid Bouazza published a column on the subject in a recent issue of a Dutch broadsheet ( NRC Handelsblad, 6-5-11), ‘Children,’ he wrote, ‘were taught to distrust Dutch people, because they (the immigrant children) would not be accepted or trusted anyway. Not only did the Nsarra lead their lives in a different, reprehensible way, they were also doomed. Nsarra is the plural of nasrani, and derives from the word Nazarene: it denotes both a Westerner and a Christian, the term Christian being taken in the sense of unbeliever. This is inconceivable to anyone who did not grow up in a Moroccan family, Bouazza tells us. But anyone growing up with the notion of kasar – anyone who, like myself, was raised in distrust of the ill-mannered Hollander, understands that Moroccan sentiment all too well – however undesirable and pernicious that sort of folklore can be.

The literature of the Dutch East Indies  proves to be far less exclusive than many Dutch people think.

The French students found themselves looking at the mores of their own country with astonishment. They stepped into the lives of newcomers, but also put themselves in the shoes of the others, for whom the colouring of their neighbourhood or city had simply gone too fast. Perhaps that is what makes reading post-colonial literature so rewarding: it allows us to  look inward with outward eyes.

If we in the Netherlands are to come to terms with our colonial sentiments, then we must also immerse ourselves in the experience of other peoples and literatures. And as long as the old colonial powers continue to be flooded with former subjects and immigrants seeking to make their fortune, that experience will remain very much alive.

In sum, my learned ladies and gentlemen, your field of research has a great future.

(Lecture by Adriaan van Dis at the University of California, Berkeley, September 16, 2011; all rights reserved by Adriaan van Dis)

For an online version of the lecture, please go to:

This lecture by Adriaan van Dis was co-sponsored by the Nederlands Letterenfonds and De Nederlandse Taalunie.

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