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'Black' is unique collection of 'Afropean' literature: 'African-Dutch authors are directly compared to black American writers.'

The book may be 'Black' called, the stories collected in it make it clear that there are as many shades of black, as white and everything in between. We, and by this I mean myself and my largely white network, just need to look more closely. And listen.

Take Olave Nduwanje's story, titled Imana Ikurinde (God save you), in the middle of the book. In it, the Burundian-Dutch author gives a colourful and hilarious account of a visit to her family in Burundi, where the father's reaction to his son's transformation is even slightly less surprising than her mother's exorcism action. Told in a delightfully chilled-ironic tone that appears peculiar to the family of flamboyant apparition Olave.

Separate worlds

I did not know Olave before I read the book, and found out during the presentation of 'Black', February 1 at Cloud 9 of TivoliVredenburg, that she has an amazing fan base. She opened the evening to a raving audience, which was as black as white at any other literary event. We live in separate worlds, and it is useful to become aware of that every now and then.

Prior to the presentation, I spoke with compiler Ebissé Rouw. She is acquiring editor non-fiction at Amsterdam University Press. She was approached by publisher Atlas Contact with the plan for a collection of black authors. She eventually chose to focus on writers with roots in 'sub-Saharan Africa'. That includes Dutchmen, as Anousha Nzume and Babah Tarawally, but also many Flemings like Heleen Debeuckelaere and Sabrine Inganibre: 'In Belgium, most immigrants are from the Belgian Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, but in the Netherlands, meanwhile, a large community has also emerged. Most in this book also have that background. We drew attention to sub-Saharan Africa because it is never paid attention to.'

White South Africans

She explains: 'North Africa and the Middle East are well enough known. What you come to sub-Saharan mainly, if you start looking, are white South Africans. Writers who write in Afrikaans. It is odd that only that is the focus of attention. After all, there is now a fairly large African community in the Netherlands. African authors are doing very well on the international book market, but looking for Dutch writers of African origin does not happen. So we now offer a platform to voices that were not seen and heard until now.'

The bar is also a lot higher for African writers in the Netherlands than for their Dutch (also Caribbean) colleagues. Mourning: 'An African-Dutch author is immediately compared to black American writers, while that does not apply to his white colleagues. And on the other hand, if you quote those American writers, you are told: but we are not in America here. That's what's going on by default.'

Readers are white

And then there is the question of how 'African' you can or should be. During the presentation, Babah Tarawally gave an example: 'I made a conscious decision to be my first book not to make it too African," he told the still somewhat morose audience, "I have to address the readers in the Netherlands and they are overwhelmingly white. I have quite a few friends who have not read my book. In my second book I write much more African, because I feel I have to tell my story the way I want to tell it. Otherwise, others will do it for me.'

So what that African entails, interviewer Anousha Nzume asked. 'A lot of characters,' Tarawally explained. 'If you walk down the street in the Netherlands you might meet 1 acquaintance, in Africa dozens. That is already a very different thing.'

Canals

Ebissé Rouw also has another example: 'It has to do with the socio-economic circle in which publishers find themselves. A proverbial canal circle. If you want to get recognition as an author you enter competitions. You have to try to get into the focus of literary magazines. If you don't get in there, you may find yourself thinking: I'm not good enough because I don't write like the average Dutchman. Then then you don't continue to write differently from what an average editor is used to.'

Sometimes that also means that you stop using certain expressions that could actually specifically colour your story. Several examples came up at the presentation of statements that had been deleted by editors because readers would not understand them. 'While we accept it from Russians like Tolstoy!'

'There is a kind of myth that literature has to be universal or is universal,' explains Mourning, 'But what is seen as universal is a certain way of writing. That's just fairly white, fairly Western.'

Afreuropean

But where do you find that special colour? Mourning: 'The 20 writers in this book come from at least 20 different backgrounds. So there is no specific sound to give, because people born here also have Dutch or Flemish influences. So it is difficult to say: this is African literature. That's why I call it Afro-European. They all live in the Netherlands or Belgium.'

'I think someone living in Rwanda will use specific Rwandan things in his writing. And then when he moves to the West, it is inevitable that he will then write Western with African influences. But so I also think we shouldn't look for one specific African sound.'

Ego

The collection contains relatively little fiction. Many stories are written in the first person about the author's life and stance. Everyday racism plays a role, but the collection is not a collection of pamphlets directed against white supremacy. They rise above that. They are revealing glimpses into the soul. You get to know people, which is not so much confrontational as extraordinarily enlightening.

This image was also the mission of compilers Ebissé Rouw and Vamba Sherif: 'What I wanted is for people to express themselves. That they don't write with the aim of explaining something to white people. I wanted them to be able to write stories as if they were telling it to their own people, without considering that whole white audience.'

50 years

During the presentation, one of the authors stated that it will be at least another 50 years before publishing 'Afropean' literature will be totally normal here.

This book helps, but Ebissé Rouw, when asked, does not see herself as one of the implementers of that mission. Asked if she thinks there should be a quota, for instance, she says : 'I don't want to make any statements about that. I haven't thought about that and the book is not about that. As far as I know, I am the only black editor in this publishing world. I find that quite strange, but I don't know if I feel like acting as some kind of standard-bearer for the black sound in literature. Should I fight the battle on my own? I don't feel like it. That is something publishers should discuss with each other. It shouldn't be that people who put something on the agenda also have to come up with the solution. That's just a bit tiresome.'

 

Buy at bol.com

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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