On postcolonialism and the neerlandophone perspective: an interview with Elleke Boehmer

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Luan Staphorst interviews Elleke Boehmer about postcolonialism and the neerlandophone perspective.

Elleke Boehmer

Twelve years ago, your co-edited book, The postcolonial Low Countries, was published. It “sought to make connections between international, often largely anglophone postcolonial debates on the one hand, and explicitly neerlandophone perspectives on the other” (3). Looking back over the period since publication, has the development of interlingual literary critique you envisaged through the book – between anglophone and neerlandophone perspectives specifically, but between differing linguistic traditions more generally – taken shape? If not, what has hampered it?

A dialogue between anglophone and neerlandophone perspectives has developed to some extent across the past decade or so, especially in the work of Pamela Pattynama, Jacqueline Bel, Rick Honings, Coen van ‘t Veer and Marijke Denger, on especially South East Asian and Indonesian writing and culture; and from Rosemarie Buikema, Sarah de Mul my co-editor, and others, on gender and postcolonial representation. It has also emerged through the impact of the decolonial debate on museum cultures in the Netherlands and Belgium. Several of these writers and critics have taken pains to consider particular deflections and adaptations of postcolonial concepts and ideas in neerlandophone literary culture. A significant publication was the Nederlands-language De postkoloniale spiegel, edited by Honings and Van ‘t Veer, which brought together essays and studies on neerlandophone colonial and postcolonial literature and culture, and which has now generated a podcast that comes out of the University of Leiden. With that said, there may, however, have been some limitation to the development of the interlingual literary critique that we were hoping for, by the Netherlands government decision in that period to change the voertaal of all university study to English.

The book further aimed “to put under pressure certain of the definitive concepts of postcolonial studies in its anglophone formation, as well as perceptions of the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, as lying outside or to the side of the postcolonial domain” (3). You and your co-editor, Sarah de Mul, in particular critique “the derivative way in which postcolonial concepts have often been taken up in the Low Countries, where these are seen as emanating always from elsewhere, not from within” (4) – a phenomenon you call the “Dutch ‘dependency mentality’” vis-à-vis theorisation. To what extent has this changed post the publication of The postcolonial Low Countries? Have neerlandophone postcolonial concepts or interpretations of anglophone theories moved into international circulation?

Anglophone concepts, terms and theories remain dominant, or are seen as the gold standard or norm, due to the government decision described above – one that is deleterious, in my view, for any country – like the Netherlands – in which the voertaal is a minority language. There is now talk of some rollback of the policy, if mainly from right-wing groups. Anglobalisation is widely perceived, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, as an unstoppable force; hence the dependency mentality described in The postcolonial Low Countries has only been exacerbated. And how could it not? Perhaps the best way of countering what JM Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh and others have highlighted as the threatened extinction of linguistic “species” would be to find ways of making cultural and linguistic guerrilla warfare against Anglobalisation, such as Coetzee has done by being published first in Dutch, and now also in Spanish, before English.

On the concept of the neerlandophone: since the onset of popular-intellectual movements such as #Rhodesmustfall in the mid-2010s, (post)colonial ties in whatever form have come under greater pressure. How do you see working with and from the neerlandophone within this intellectual climate? More to the point – how can it be mobilised without imposing on those spaces in its sphere of influence?

If I understand the question correctly, in the sense that postcolonial terms and ties might also be considered colonial (as in derivative, dependent, lesser, etc) in some way, then the answer probably lies in the spread of decolonial ideas regarding canonicity, for example, from the American Academy. But there is little that is liberated or resistant in the spread of this influence at a linguistic level, in that the terms of the debate are in English and assume English-language historical standards.

Continuing the previous point, postcolonial theory and critique have come under tremendous fire since the start of the “decolonial turn”. Beyond the value of a neerlandophone gaze on postcolonialism, how do you see the (supposed) tension between postcolonial and decolonial perspectives more broadly playing out going forward? And does a neerlandophone accent have a role to play in thinking through this (supposed) tension – whether that accent is placed on postcolonialism, decolonialism or both?

In the above, I have already addressed the stand-off of the postcolonial as against the decolonial. Interestingly, if the former is largely expressed in anglophone terms, the latter first rose out of hispanophone critical and academic contexts (Mignolo and others). I am broadly sympathetic to the point made, for example, by indigenous activist groups that for their peoples, colonialism has not ended, and therefore the postcolonial, strictly interpreted, is a misnomer. But there is in the conflict between the postcolonial and the decolonial an unfortunate mutual misrecognition and a war between minority fronts, which is unhelpful to all parties, only not to those who remain in the driving seat of history. There is so much in postcolonial theory and critique since the 1980s and ’90s about power, voice, belonging, rewriting, representation, identity and so on, that also concerns the decolonial. There’s more to say about this question and many books one could write, but, as we are talking here about language, as both forms of critique are expressed in majority languages – and mainly English – the neerlandophone so far has not had a role to play in thinking through the tension. If a discussion were being waged exclusively in Nederlands or Flemish, very few international commentators would be picking up on it.

Finally, South Africa is linked to at least two major ex-colonial powers, which means it belongs to both the anglophone and neerlandophone worlds. The former is dominant, which gives neerlandophonic links a certain anti-hegemonic power. At the same time, hegemonic Afrikaans specifically has a troubled history with Nederlands – something that the contemporary (Afri)Kaaps movement draws on to distinguish itself from (standardised) Afrikaans. Beyond as an analytic concept, what do you regard as the value in thinking, reading and approaching the world neerlandophonically from within the (broadly defined) Afrikaans context? And what can the neerlandosphere, in turn, learn from Afrikaans?

I’ll take the last question first and say, plenty – in the sense that Afrikaans in all its forms is already a hybridised, wayward, mixed-up, multi-layered language, and hence in some sense both decolonial and postcolonial. As such, to go to the other question, Afrikaans packs a certain decolonial and postcolonial punch that standard Nederlands does not yet have.

Also read on Voertaal and LitNet:

“Wat gestolen is, zal terug moeten gaan” – Wat te doen met koloniale roofkunst?

Themamiddag over postkoloniale beeldenstormen

Van standbeeld naar schandpaal?

Holland word Kaaps!

Afrikaans: the language of dissent

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