I am everything: Literature Crossing Ethnical and Sexual Borders
Feature by Dick Hogeweij
I am half Surinamese and half Groninger, my ancestors came from China and France, I love men, I am brown and have blue eyes, a Dutch mother and a Surinamese father.
This is the way Raoul de Jong introduces himself in a recent interview with Dutch newspaper Trouw (translation mine). This feeling of “being everything at once” is the theme of the Dutch Boekenweek (Book Week), to take place in Spring 2023. The theme addresses a trend in the contemporary literary field, namely that of authors writing about their experience with complex ethnicity and sexual orientation. De Jong is one of the two featured authors of this national event, having been invited to write the Boekenweek essay for the occasion. This essay will be handed out to everyone who buys a book during this week.
I am everything sounds nice: swimming in an endless ocean of opportunities, being a little of everything. However, such an ocean could also be overwhelming, since it implies being nothing complete, or in the opposite extreme: I am nothing. Much of the literary work of writers such as De Jong can be seen as a struggle against this negative feeling, a struggle to build a safe house in which one can fully live her/his/their complex identity. Even better, this fully accepted identity is this safe house.
This struggle for a safe house rings a bell: it reminds me of a completely different yet related story from nearly a century ago, the essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Of course, Virginia Woolf was white and belonged to the privileged British upper class. Nevertheless, as a woman, she had to fight prejudice and defended the thesis that every woman needed a room of her own to be able to develop her creative talents.
I read Woolf’s essay as a plea for the free development of women’s own identity – urgent for Woolf herself as a bisexual, intellectual and free-thinking woman – and the title of the essay as a metaphor for this identity.
Although separated by nearly a century, Woolf’s struggle against the prejudice of the inferiority of women very much resembles the struggle of the protagonists of the novels I want to bring under your attention under the umbrella of the Book Week theme “I am everything”.
As these authors are in search of their identity, this literature is often self-reflexive, and frequently takes the form of autofiction. Belonging to a minority along two different axes (ethnicity and sexuality) makes defining and upholding your identity a difficult task. As De Jong comments in the interview, “You need all the pieces of reality to be a full, whole, round human being”.
A related theme that we encounter is dealing with one’s own history: if you want to fully understand and accept your identity in the present, you also have to come to terms with your (colonialized) past.
Maybe not surprisingly, much of this literature is by non-male writers, since they are a minority (not numerically, but in the sense of power) and must fight for their position even along a third axis. This trend is not only prevalent in Dutch and Anglophone literature, but also in the literary landscape on a global scale. Here I will take the occasion to draw the reader’s attention to a few recent books of auto-fiction from various regions around the world, in which the struggle for defining one’s own identity is thematized.
The first novel is Huaco Retrato (Huaco Retreat) by Peruvian author Gabriela Wiener. Her background is complicated, with an Austrian Jewish great-great-grandfather named Charles Wiener (“Wiener” meaning “from Vienna”), and with both Spanish and Quichua (Inca) ancestors. She herself is bisexual, living a polyamorous life in Madrid with a Peruvian man and a Spanish woman.
In her autofictional novel she is trying to get a grip on her complex ethnical and sexual identity.
Her ancestor Charles Wiener was a famous archaeologist who excavated in Peru in the service of the French government. He discovered and stole many indigenous treasures and sent them to Europe. Among them were many huaco retreats, portraits of men on pottery, which had a ritual meaning among the Incas. Charles had the typical colonial superior arrogance, taking Quichua women at will for his sexual pleasure and leaving them behind without any remorse or conscience. Gabriela faces this colonial legacy, which puts her, albeit against her will, on the side of the colonial powers.
On the other hand, she has, due to her Quichua ancestors, a dark, mestizo complexion, causing her to be treated as a sudaca (derogatory expression for South American people in Spain). In one scene, hilarious for the reader but humiliating for Gabriela, her mother-in-law mistakes her for the new housemaid. This puts her on the side of the colonized.
Apart from dealing with her position between colonizer and colonized, she has to cope with her complex sexual orientation. To complicate things further, she does not shy away from short love affairs outside her triangle of love in Madrid.
All in all, Huaco Retrato is a rich, layered novel worth reading. Unfortunately no English version is available yet, but I plead for an imminent translation.
The next novel is La Bastarda, the 2016 coming-of-age story of Trifonia Melibea Obono from Equatorial Guinea. This small West African country is a former Spanish colony, and the novel was written in Spanish; however, an English translation is also available under the same title.
Obono lives and works alternately in Equatorial Guinea and in Spain. Nowhere is she fully at home: she is considered Spanish when at home in Equatorial Guinea, while being considered a negra while living in Spain. Being bisexual, she is outspoken about LGBTQ+ human rights issues in Equatorial Guinea and uses her literary work as activism. She has broken the taboo of discussing homosexuality in Equatorial Guinea.
La Bastarda tells the story of Okomo, born a “bastard” and an orphan after her mother dies in childbirth and who lives in a traditional village in Equatorial Guinea that is about a day’s walk from the capital Gabon. As a bastard, she is in a subaltern social position. When she discovers the pleasures of lesbian love, she is forced to confront the attitudes of the culture of her Fang tribe about fixed gender roles, like the requirement for women to have sex with men for the purpose of reproduction.
When her family discovers her lesbian love affair and she refuses to conform to the cultural norm, she is expelled from the tribe. She eventually retreats to a sanctuary of freedom in the forest, where other exiles live. She breaks free from the conventional norms of her tribe, since she cannot fit the mold. She is more than the mold. She is everything.
La Bastarda was the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English. Due to its lesbian protagonist, the book is currently banned in Equatorial Guinea.
Of course, such novels were written in the past as well. In fact, what I have been calling a trend could actually be seen, with our new perspective, as a tradition. Therefore I want to extend the theme of the Book Week to authors of one generation earlier, and draw to your attention two books from the 1990s that did not receive the attention that they deserved in Europe.
The first 1990s novel I want to mention is Las historias prohibidas de Marta Veneranda (The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda) by Sonia Rivera-Valdés. Although it was written more than 20 years ago, it fits the present theme perfectly. Rivera-Valdés is a lesbian author of Cuban origin, who emigrated to the US after the Cuban revolution.
Marta Veneranda, a Latina woman living in New York, finds that she inspires confession in people; when people come to her, they feel the need to reveal their most embarrassing and shameful stories. The ten short stories of The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda focus on female homosexuality and the cultural hybridity of Latina women in the US. The protagonists are not only confronted with a cultural shock, nor is their only problem to reposition themselves as Latina women in the new society, but they experience another very complex process of female sexual transition. For this reason, The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda is an excellent synthesis of many migratory tensions – the search for a cultural, social and sexual identity.
The next novel, also from the 1990s, comes from a completely different part of the world, from Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin. Her most popular novel, Notes of a Crocodile (1994), is set in the lesbian scene of Taipei. After she wrote this novel, she moved to France, where she wrote Last Words from Montmartre.
Last Words from Montmartre tells, in the form of a series of letters written by an unnamed narrator, the saga of a passionate love affair between two young women – their sexual awakening, their gradual breakup, and the devastating aftermath of their broken love. Qiu’s genre-bending novel is at once a psychological thriller and a sublime romance.
The letters are alternately set in Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo. They provide disconcerting insights into what it means to live between cultures, languages and genders – until the genderless character Zoë appears as the ultimate incarnation of the “I am everything” theme; she causes a radical transformation of the narrator’s spiritual and physical identity.
Earlier I wrote about how authors might use literature as part of their struggle to build a safe house. Unfortunately, Qiu lost her struggle. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-six soon after finishing Last Words or ‘last testament’ (an alternative translation of the title).
Finally, I want to return to the author I started with, Raoul de Jong, and consider Jaguarman, in which he dives into the history of his Surinamese ancestors.
De Jong grew up without his Surinamese father, and when he meets him for the first time at the age of twenty-eight, he discovers that he is very much like him. They speak alike, move alike, and both believe in miracles. When Raoul’s father tells him that one of his ancestors, a medicine man, could transform himself into a jaguar, Raoul is gripped by this mystery and decides to investigate his Surinamese roots.
The history of the former Dutch colony is filled with slavery and oppression, but those who search carefully might also find a great deal of hope and vitality. De Jong is living proof: his ancestors somehow managed to survive, and during this personal quest he acquaints himself with Surinamese writers, thinkers, and resistance heroes. He discovers that the power of the jaguar was essential for the country; in indigenous cosmology, the animal is considered a precious, ancient energy that transforms, heals and protects all living creatures in the forest. Thus he comes to understand how much everyone can learn from it.
The 2023 Dutch Book Week takes place from the 11th until the 19th of March 2023. If you happen to be in the Netherlands during that period: pop into a library or bookshop, obtain De Jong’s essay, and see what is happening.
Dick Hogeweij is an MA Literature Today student at Utrecht University and a member of the editorial team of RevUU. During his BA Spanish Language and Culture he specialized in postcolonial theory and transculturality, in particular regarding Latin America. In literature one of his main interests is to examine how cross-cultural exchanges enrich the literary scene.
- “Cover of A Room of One’s Own.” Book Depository, https://www.bookdepository.com/A-Room-of-Ones-OwnThree-Guineas-Virginia-Woolf/.
- “Cover of Huaco retrato.” Penguin, https://www.penguinlibros.com/ar/literatura-contemporanea/258289-ebook-huaco-retrato-9788439738480#.
- “Cover of Jaguarman.” De Bezige Bij, https://www.debezigebij.nl/boek/jaguarman/ebook/9789403114910.
- “Cover of La Bastarda.” Feminist Press, https://www.feministpress.org/books-a-m/la-bastarda.
- “Cover of Last Words of Montmartre.” NYRB, https://www.nyrb.com/products/last-words-from-montmartre?variant=1094930009.
- “Cover of The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda.” Seven Stories, https://www.sevenstories.com/books/3644-the-forbidden-stories-of-marta-veneranda.
- De Jong, Raoul. Jaguarman. De Bezige Bij, 2020.
- Obono, Trifonia Melibea. La Bastarda. Flores Raras, 2016. Translated from the Spanish as La Bastarda by Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press, 2018.
- Qiu Miaojin. Last Words From Montmartre. 1995. Translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich, NYRB Classics, 2014.
- Rivera-Valdés, Sonia. Las Historias Prohibidas de Marta Veneranda. Txalaparta, 1999. Translated from the Spanish as The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda by Dick Cluster, Seven Stories Press, 2000.
- Wiener, Gabriela. Huaco Retrato. Random House, 2021.
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Hogarth Press, 1929.