On 4 November I read extracts from works by the Dutch and Flemish authors Benno Barnard, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Hugo Claus at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The multilingual multimedia performance ‘I Died in Hell - They Called it Passchendaele’ showcased lyrical responses to the ‘Great War’ from across Europe.
In the life and work of the Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali (1975) themes of travelling, migration and movement are closely connected. Benali has lived in Beirut, Rotterdam and Rome, and uses these and many other places as backdrops of his literary imaginings. During the Travelling and Translation event at UCL’s new Centre for Low Countries Studies, the author explains how traveling can set off ‘language machines’.
An accomplished long-distance runner, Benali is always on the move. Before he came to London, he ran the Marrakech half marathon in an hour and a half. Morocco also provided the scenery for his debut novel Wedding by the Sea (in Dutch: Bruiloft aan Zee (1997)), which launched him into the Dutch literary scene at the age of 21. In the novel Benali created alluring images of migrants returning to, what he calls, ‘their authentic place’.
Having moved from Morocco to the Netherlands himself at 4 years old, he argues that the impact of migration sharpened his sense of early memories. Whilst learning Dutch at his new school, he intuitively understood that grammar positioned him in a complex society: ‘I am; you are; he is… I soon realised that language is always about social relationships.
Benali recognises creative possibilities in passed-on memories too. He refers anecdotally to his parents chatting about their Berber village, at home in Rotterdam: ‘My parents definitely weren’t storytellers, but through gossip, through their fascination with personal relations, I always felt I knew the people in their Moroccan village well.’ It was exactly because communication in the 80s was limited, that his imagination came into play. His grandfather would travel 30 miles on horseback to find a phone booth in the next big city to call his father.
The imagination of the young eavesdropper sparked when Benali picked up snippets of conversations about rainfall and potato growth: ‘It is the absences in gossip, the gaps in communication that allow a writer to create interesting images of place.’
An attentive teacher at his primary school noticed Abdelkader’s talent for observation. ‘Mister Bart’ encouraged the boy to bring a notebook on his family’s travel to Morocco during the summer holidays. The notebook was bound to get lost on the journey, but this ‘memory gap’ eventually inspired De stem van mijn moeder (2009, My Mother’s Voice). Benali describes this novel about a Moroccan family in Rotterdam as a study of different responses to migration. The novel’s main character is one of a twin, a successful photographer – a nod to the importance of visuals to Benali.
Though ‘My Mother’s Voice’ roughly discusses the same themes of his first novel (a migrant family re-visits Morocco), there are clear differences. Less echoes of Rushdie’s magical-realism; more – often funny – contemporary sketches of intergenerational misunderstandings, prejudices about migrants in the Netherlands and mid-thirties anxiety. Many voices occur in the novel: in the end, it is up to the reader to figure out whose story she has actually heard.
Perhaps forced upon him since his early debut, Benali has gradually acquired a self-assured public persona and skilled social media presence. He is often asked to present ‘the Moroccan migrant view’ in Dutch media or to comment on multiculturalism. It seems natural that he has become more outspokenly political.
Frustrated with the harsh speech that has hijacked conversations about migration in his country, he says: ‘People who are younger than me, who lived in the Netherlands far shorter than I did, now tell me I should leave and go “home”… I remember when the Berlin Wall came down; the sense of hopeful excitement amongst teachers at my school stuck with me. The EU is now encouraging the building of walls everywhere.’ Not without irony he refers to Moroccans in Morocco echoing the current migration debate in Holland: ‘In North Africa they complain about migration from the South now: “These migrants, they will take our jobs; they will steal our money…” Migration, movement, curiosity about others: they’re not bad things at all.’
Benali’s use of the expression ‘language machine’ is apt given that his entire oeuvre seems to generate movement into creative and societal engagement. He has broken down a few walls too, with a contagious and optimistic view on connecting with others. The very literal movements of global migration and exile, of global tourism have a political and environmental impact that shapes all our individual lives. It is an uplifting reminder to hear that there is much creativity and humour to these movements and machines.
This post originally appeared on the UCL Events Blog. Travelling and Translation was the first in a series of events on Dutch language, art and literature at UCL's Centre for Low Countries Studies.
Over the past few weeks, I got to know someone special. It sparked off as an online encounter – an email trail about translations.
Her name is Ester Naomi Perquin, and she is an award-winning Dutch poet. I was invited to translate her work for the Contemporary European Poets series.
Translating someone’s poems is a slightly schizophrenic experience. Whilst weighing Ester’s words and analysing her work, I felt I was peeking into her brain, aligning my thoughts with hers. I quickly realised her poems were products of literary craftsmanship: with depth and a refreshingly humorous side to them, though often heavy in subject matter. However, when Perquin flew over last Thursday to read her poetry in London for the first time, I realised that to meet the poet Ester Naomi Perquin in person is something else. This live bi-lingual poetry event allowed for an inspiring dialogue about literary translations, and poetry, as a means of erasing the poet.
Perquin’s observant, almost distanced outlook on, for instance, a shooting in a shopping centre may come from her endeavour to get rid of all individual connotation. Poetry goes beyond the personal, she says: “I write to erase myself. A good poem has nothing to do with me.” Erosion of the self also rings through in a poem in which Perquin describes a response to a misdialled phone call by a woman who asks for “a Richard”:
There are people from whom I differ less than a number
but their mothers do not know me, will never call
You are wasting your time, I merely exist out of partial voices
partial faces, not worthy of a Richard, not a dog
have I ever brought more than hesitant semi-presence
But Perquin introduces and reads out her poetry in such a personal and engaged style. She readily admits: “It’s a difficult process; I simply cannot not be myself.” She returns to the seemingly contradictory ideas of both erasing oneself and the individual poet’s creative approach, when discussing gender: “I do not approach writing poetry ‘as a woman’. But I can’t help being a woman. I understand that women have more, and more complex, social layers than men; I appreciate that. But a thing that women often do is to pretend these layers aren’t there.”
Perquin beautifully expresses her awareness of social pretence, among a group of teenagers on the beach, in ‘The Girls’:
Untouched from tip to toe
there they all lie, with the same voice
discussing the same mother.
What they are sums up all of their
eternities. This silent and sunlit sharing
of age, body, sun lotion.
Perquin's ideas about translation are well-defined and, at the same time, humbling: “Translation enables me to look at my work afresh. I am lucky to understand enough English to comment on some of their work, but I have to trust my translators and let go. A good translation is a work of art in itself.”
Of course, she says this in exceptionally good English. Then she starts reading out her verses in Dutch, and silence reigns among the mainly English-speaking audience.
To listen to poems in a foreign language, live, is surrendering to a new rhythm, foreign sounds, feeling at loss for a moment. Before you capture what has been said in translation, you briefly inhabit a lyrical landscape of in-between. Live poetry is something else.
Perquin’s work has been translated into English previously and some of these translations are available online.
The Contemporary European Poets series was an initiative of the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Poet in the City.
It brought to London celebrated poets from Hungary, Holland, France, Germany, the Faroe Islands and Italy, for showcase events at Europe House.
This post originally appeared on the UCL Events Blog. I convened the event in May 2013 and organised another evening with Ester Naomi Perquin in September 2014 at Senate House.
Have a look at this print from the UCL Art Museum. What do you think this man is staring at? Do you recognize any of the objects on his table? Who do you think he is?
This is an etching from 1656 by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). We can see Rembrandt’s personal friend, Abraham Francen, staring at, perhaps, another etching, mirroring the gestures and concentrated look of the contemporary art viewer. Francen was a pharmacist in 17th-century Amsterdam, who saw Rembrandt’s fame rise from nearby. Though he was not affluent, Abraham was a keen collector of paintings, prints and curiosities. I used this print as a starting point for the community workshops I held at the UCL Art Museum throughout 2012, because ‘collecting’ was a core theme in my narratives about Dutch colonial history, global encounters and 17th-century art.
My name is Stefanie van Gemert; I am a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the UCL Dutch Department, and this summer I worked on an HLF-funded community project called Treasures from the East. This project takes place at the Wallace Collection, not so far from UCL, and involves a year-long engagement with London community groups. The groups – mainly women with a migrant background – visit the Wallace Collection’s Dutch art on a regular basis and use Dutch 17th-century paintings as inspiration for creative art works that will be exhibited from November 2012 onwards. The project focuses on the Dutch East India Company as a major force behind the arts boom during the Netherlands’ golden age.
When I heard about this project, I was immediately enthused and wanted to contribute as a young researcher and teacher in Dutch history and culture, and postcolonial theory. Together with the Collection’s Audience Development Officer, Sophie Martin, I took on the challenge of developing a programme of four day-long workshops at UCL Art Museum and the Wallace Collection. To this end I researched objects from UCL Art Museum and UCL Special Collections; raised funds, and prepared and coordinated the workshops at UCL. It was great to work with the participants, in an informal setting, without the pressure of exams: just for the sake of having engaging learning sessions around wonderful objects.
The Art Museum was an apt place to invite and welcome the community groups to. Through their previous visits to the Wallace Collection, they were familiar with a large national gallery. They had seen many Dutch oil paintings, in a beautiful – though at times imposing – family collection. It is hard to think of a more different setting than the UCL Art Museum: an intimate working museum space on a university campus, developed with research and teaching in mind. The prints from the Art Museum and books from UCL Special collections offered a different perspective on ‘art objects’, and what one may consider ‘Treasures from the East’.
What a surprise as well to find Dutch links in the Art Museum’s collections! There is the Grote Collection: donated by George Grote (1794-1871) to UCL in 1872. Like Abraham Francen, Grote’s Dutch grandfather Andreas Grote (1710-188) collected prints and drawings, and his grandson bequeathed his albums to the university. There were also many Rembrandt etchings in the UCL Art collections (like the Abraham Francen-print from the museum’s Vaughan Collection).
If you would like to learn more about the workshop programme, please read my Wallace Collection’s project blog entries.
I truly enjoyed working with this group of creative and inspiring women, challenging narratives of colonial history by focusing on global encounters, discussing and holding a wide range of objects in the Art Museum of a global university.
The partnership programme ‘Treasures from the East at UCL’ was made possible with the help of the UCL Step Out fund.
This entry originally appeared on the UCL Museums blog (minor edits).
On 11 July Tabitha Tuckett and Gill Furlong from UCL Special Collections and I – Stefanie van Gemert, from the UCL Dutch Department – carefully wrapped up some special books in a waterproof box. We used ‘book pillows’ to keep the old books in place and prevent them from moving during our taxi trip from UCL to the Wallace Collection (through a not-so-summery shower).
There we met the women from West Ealing Deaf Minorities Group who showed us their pink treasure bags and discussed their freshly-printed family treasure trails over tea. The two colourful treasure trails will soon be available at the Wallace Collection, where they will help families to understand the Collection’s Dutch paintings better through play. I had a preview of both trails in the East Galleries and they were great fun – I can definitely recommend them!
During the workshop, I spoke with the group about treasures, travels and the history of the Dutch East India Company. The books from the seventeenth and eighteenth century helped us to get a sense of how the world started to become smaller in the seventeenth century, through trading and travelling. At the same time, they were beautiful historical objects made out of precious material, such as Moroccan leather, silks (probably from China or India) and gold. It was a unique experience to be able to touch these books, and see them in close-up: they were pieces of history, and brought the story about the Dutch East India Company to life.
Whilst Rembrandt and his clients lived in Amsterdam and indulged in collecting expensive ‘treasures from the East’, other – often poor – Dutchmen spent months working on ships to meet and trade with other people. During the workshop we learnt that besides exchanging goods, they were also exchanging knowledge and tastes: travellers studied other languages; Europeans learnt about Indian medicine through a Portuguese doctor in Goa; spices made Western dishes far tastier; Japanese robes became a ‘scientific’ fashion.
After the workshop we met in the East Galleries to try out the new trails developed by the group. Many thanks, West Ealing group, for your stories and other input during the workshop! I hope you enjoyed your visit and you feel inspired by the books when working on your art work for the Treasures from the East exhibition.
My name is Stefanie van Gemert. I am a researcher at the UCL Dutch Department, where I also teach Dutch culture and history to students from University College London. Knowing of the hidden treasures at the UCL Art Museum and UCL Special Collections. I thought it would be fun to invite the Treasures from the East participants to UCL. I thought these visits may inspire participants when creating art works for their final exhibition at the Wallace Collection.
On 17 May, Sophie and I welcomed Aaina Women’s Group and some of the Community Ambassadors to the UCL Art Museum for a workshop on the history of the Dutch East India Company and the seventeenth-century Netherlands. We had a close-up look at a range of etchings from the UCL Art Museum – displayed for the day by curator Andrea Fredericksen. These etchings were a starting point for discussion and reflection. Questions that came up were (for example): why would someone sign up to leave on a Dutch East India Company ship? And: who would come along and would return on the ships? Besides that, we got to know some very curious animals!
UCL Special Collections is part of the UCL Library, and deals with rare books and old manuscripts. Tabitha Tuckett and Gill Furlong from Special Collections were at the workshop to help out when the participants were handling the fragile books they had brought along. We saw an official letter from 1674 with old hand writing and the seal of the Dutch Stadholder William III (who later became King of England). There was also a beautiful book in Hebrew: a Humash, the first five books of the Jewish Torah. This book showed the diversity of Amsterdam at the time, which was a real migrants’ town in the seventeenth century. Additionally, we looked at an exciting and beautiful multilingual map depicting Asia, from a rare book by Gotfried Hensel from 1741, showing the diversity of languages across this vast continent.
In the afternoon we had lunch at the Wallace Collection and discussed the objects further over tea and sandwiches. The Aaina Women and the Ambassadors then linked the UCL objects from the morning session to the Dutch paintings in the East Galleries. We recognised objects from Rembrandt’s curiosity cabinet and wondered where the pigments in the colourful dresses of Ter Borgh came from.
Thank you for your input and thoughts during this fun workshop!
What makes me tick?
I am interested in the links between art and society. I never doubted that art can help us gain insight into societal issues. I like to work on projects that confirm this.
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