European studies blog

8 posts categorized "Decolonising"

05 January 2023

The Photographic Collection of Indigenous Childhood

The digitised photographic archive of Siberian indigenous peoples (available online from the British Library’s website) is a rich source of information about late Russian and early Soviet colonisation of Siberia. The collection of over 4000 images is the result of five years of exploratory work led by David Anderson (University of Aberdeen,) and Craig Campbell (University of Alberta) in Central Siberia. The research group digitised glass plate negatives in five Siberian archives: Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Ekaterinburg, and Krasnoiarsk. Although many photographs lack any original descriptions, and thus it is not always easy to identify where and when they were taken, the visual archive nevertheless provides great insight into the lives of Siberian indigenous peoples, in particular, Mansi, Nenets, Evenki, Buryat, Karagas, Soyot, Nganasan, Dolgan, Khakas, Khanti, and Kety.

In their articles based on the results of their research, Anderson and Campbell suggested several common tropes to interpret the photographs of indigenous peoples. They explored the themes of ‘travel photography’, ‘ethnographic photography’, ‘expedition photography’, and ‘community-driven portrait photography’, and provided examples. This, however, is by no means an exhaustive list of possible tropes to explore the vast visual collection. Drawing on Anderson and Craig’s observations, I would like to suggest exploring the subject which arrested my attention and the attention of several colleagues at the BL: the visual representation of indigenous childhood and its transformation during the time of intense Soviet collectivisation in the 1920s and 1930s.

The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak

Taimyr. The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)

Children during their class at school

Children during their class at school

The British Library’s digital photographic collections contain many photographs representing children, taken by various photographers – whose names are not always identifiable – during their expeditions. Although the goals of each expedition require some separate research, it is often possible to deduce from the photographs whether the photographers took pictures for ethnographic purposes or for political propaganda.

The ethnographic expeditions to Siberia usually sought to collect information about the ‘sparse’ native peoples of Siberia, and the children in such photographs are usually portrayed as immersed in their families’ social and professional lives, or engaged in traditional games. They are dressed in the national costumes which represent the ‘exotic’ features of Siberian peoples. It was a common colonial practice to collect various artefacts representing indigenous cultures, such as traditional clothing, musical instruments, tools, and housewares which would form vast museum collections. 

Family

Family

A woman with her child

A woman with her child

A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap

Taim. A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag

Taim. The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag. 1938. Photo by Tyurin

Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads

Taim. Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads. She is considered a skilled worker. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A woman with two children

A woman with two children. 1927. Photo by Tyurin

Studies of indigenous childhood had been one of the prominent areas of study in the Russian Empire’s ethnography, and it became even more significant in the 1920s and 30s, when the Soviet State rushed to construct a new society by culturally assimilating Siberian peoples. Indigenous children became the chief target of Soviet policies concerned with the creation of new generations of Soviet people. The photographs of children were not ideologically neutral: they were designed to show the transformation of the old into the new.

Pictures of children taken during the Soviet expeditions often represented them as integrated into Soviet culture rather than as representatives of their national cultures. Soviet photographs of children were often intended to demonstrate the result of Soviet reforms and the transformation of ‘savages’ into educated Young Pioneers. In the photographs we see the children dressed in uniform Soviet clothing.

A group of pioneer-children

A group of pioneer-children. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)

A group photograph of Evenki

A group photograph of Evenki. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)

They are playing Soviet games.

Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom

Taim, Volochanka. Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom

Children making a pyramid

The Nizhne-tunguskaia expedition. Children making a pyramid. 1925

We also find pictures of children visiting a picture gallery, something that can be interpreted as their symbolic initiation into the world of Soviet ‘civilised’ culture.

Buryat children visiting a picture gallery

Buryat children visiting a picture gallery. 24.07.1923

Many such photographs were taken during the census expeditions of 1926, which were conducted in cooperation with geographers and ethnographers. The census was a worldwide colonial statistical practice, and the Soviets employed and developed new approaches to classifying the peoples of their vast empire. The indigenous peoples were surveyed within their households and individually to collect demographic data describing their diet, economy, trade data, beliefs, folklore, and so on. If the statistical information collected during the census was intended to provide an objective summary of life in the remote parts of the Soviet Union, then the photographs often offered a somewhat idealised picture of the social inclusion of indigenous peoples within Soviet life. The photographs of children were especially important as they depicted the social and cultural production of the new generation of loyal Soviet citizens.

Numerous aspects of Soviet modernisation were introduced in indigenous settlements, such as medical care, veterinary services, and housing. Often photographers chose to take pictures of children in these new Soviet settings.

An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test

Tura. An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital

A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital. December 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The most common setting for the pictures were school classrooms: the photographers were specifically advised to document ‘the dawn of cultural and primary school education’ among Siberian peoples, and the work of teachers liquidating illiteracy (Anderson, Batashev, Campbell, 2015, p. 501). To the modern eye, these pictures might look somewhat dystopian: students sit under a poster showing Stalin surrounded by children, located next to another with a wolf trying to kill two little pigs; children eat their meal under a poster instructing ‘eat only from your plate’; or a photograph taken during a sport class where all children synchronically perform the same exercise with a huge portrait of Stalin in the background.

Children playing a game at the district health department

Tura. Children playing a game at the district health department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

A group of students during the May Day demonstration

Tura, the Evenk national republic. A group of students during the May Day demonstration. May 1, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

Children at the Turinsk District Health Department

Tura, the Evenk national republic. Children at the Turinsk District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department

Tura, the Evenk national republic. Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev

The most touching pictures are probably those where we see groups of children sitting in densely bedded dormitories. Taken away from their families – often involuntarily – children stayed in the residential schools during the academic year and were returned to their parents only for the summer holidays.

The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin

Tajm, Letov'e. The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin

Girls’ bedroom

The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. Girls’ bedroom. 1925

Away from their families, children were expected to develop a sense of belonging to the larger Soviet society with its new system of values. The residential schools were also instrumental in the process of reorganising the indigenous populations of Siberia into cooperative settlements and demolishing their original tribal structures. During the first years of the Soviet Union the State tried to accommodate the educational needs of reindeer herders by initiating an experimental project of nomadic schools, which moved together with the clan, but by the end of the 1930s this practice was terminated. The number of residential schools in various parts of Siberia, on the other hand, reached 20 by 1935. Often reindeer herders chose to stay close to their children instead of continuing the traditional nomadic lifestyle. As a result, the introduction of residential schools greatly decreased the nomadic way of living, and saw indigenous Siberians become more settled.

A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’

The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’. 1925

The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’

The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev

In the 1990s, several cultural initiatives tried to revive the idea of nomadic schools as a means of restoring traditional lifestyles and culture. Several nomadic schools were successfully organised, for instance, in the Republic of Sakha.

The residential schools continue to run in different part of Siberia, and a basic internet search shows many negative feelings associated with them. The experiences of indigenous peoples in the residential schools are actively explored by contemporary scholars. For example, in the 1990s, Alexia Bloch, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, collected accounts of elderly Evenki women, who studied at residential schools. Relying on these records, Bloch conclusively demonstrated a blend of positive feeling about the schools contrasted with ambivalence about the termination of the Soviet colonial project in general. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Evenki women recalled their time at the residential schools with a sense of nostalgia for the socialist era.

For many indigenous children, residential schools became a source of radical social mobility within Soviet society. After graduation, young people received an opportunity to continue their studies at university and move to big cities in central Russia, or secure more prestigious jobs back home. We do not know which paths were taken by the children in the photographs in the British Library’s digital collection, and this might be one of the questions which scholars could explore using the BL’s vast visual archive.

Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’

References and further reading:

David G. Anderson, ‘The Turukhansk Polar Census Expedition of 1926–1927 at the Crossroads of Two Scientific Traditions’, Sibirica, 5: 1 (2006), pp. 24–61.

David G. Anderson and Craig Campbell, ‘Picturing Central Siberia: The Digitization and Analysis of Early Twentieth-Century Central Siberian Photographic Collections’, Sibirica, 8: 2 (2009), pp. 1–42)

David G. Anderson, Mikhail S. Batashev and Craig Campbell, ‘The photographs of Baluev: capturing the “socialist transformation” of the Krasnoyarsk northern frontier, 1938-1939’ in From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, ed. by Maja Kominko (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 487–530. ELD.DS.46613

Georgii Vinogradov, Etnografiia detstva i russkaia narodnaia kulʹtura v Sibiri (Moscow, 2009) YF.2011.a.853

«Provintsialʹnaia» nauka: etnografiia v Irkutske v 1920-e gody, ed. by A. Sirina (Irkutsk, 2013).

Olga Laguta and Melissa Shih-hui Lin, ‘Language and Cultural Planning in Siberia: Boarding School System Represented in the Texts of the Siberian Indigenous Writers’, Taiwan Journal of Indigenous Studies, 12: 1 (2019), pp. 1–37.

Sargylana Zhirkova, ‘School on the Move: A Case Study: Nomadic Schooling of the Indigenous Evenk children in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia (Russian Far East)’ (unpublished master’s dissertation, University of Tromsø, 2006)

Alexia Bloch, Red Ties and Residential Schools: Indigenous Siberians in a Post-Soviet State (Philadelphia, 2004). m04/19814

Alexia Bloch, ‘Ideal Proletarians and Children of Nature: Evenki Reimagining Schooling in a Post-Soviet Era’, in Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Traditional Knowledge, ed. by Erich Kasten (Münster, 1998), pp. 139–157. m03/16772

Alexia Bloch, ‘Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia’, Cultural Anthropology, 20: 4 (2005), pp. 534–569. 3491.661000

Natalia P. Koptseva, Ksenia V. Reznikova, Natalia N. Pimenova and Anastasia V. Kistova, ‘Cultural and Anthropological Studies of Indigenous Peoples of Krasnoyarsk Krai Childhood (based on the field studies of Siberian Federal University in 2010-2013)’, Journal of Siberian Federal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 8 (2014), pp. 1312–1326.

30 December 2022

An A to Z of the European Studies Blog 2022

A is for Alexander the Great, subject of the Library’s current exhibition

B is for Birds and Bull fighting.

C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.

D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.

E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger  Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg  1533) C.142.cc.12.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.

G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive! 

H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.

I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.

J is for Jubilees.

Cover of Abetka, a Ukrainian alphabet book for children

Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.

K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.

L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.

M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.

N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.

O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.

Pages from Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico showing letters M and N

Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.

P is for our wonderful PhD researchers, current and future.

Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan. 

R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.

S is for Samizdat and the Library’s Polish Solidarity collection.

T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.

Page from Alphabet Anglois

Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

U is for Ukrainian collections and our work with Ukrainian partners.

V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar. 

W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.

X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)

Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!

Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.

Church Slavonic alphabet from Azbuka, considered the first dated book printed in Ukraine.

Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

03 November 2022

Call for PhD project partners: ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’

The British Library is pleased to invite applications from HEI partners to co-supervise the AHRC PhD project ‘Postcolonial Discourse in East European Studies and its Application to British Library Collections’.

Slavonic and Eastern European collections at the British Library are one of its strengths. Developed since the mid‐19th century, the collections are broad and diverse, including a wide range of materials in Slavonic languages and originating in countries referred to as Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, despite the diversity of the collections, marginalised voices and the complexities of relations between the cultures are not easily visible through the collections’ structures and descriptions. The British Library co‐supervisors have identified postcolonial research and its application to curatorial practices as a priority approach to these collections, likely to reveal many meaningful gaps and contested interpretations. The team of curators are looking to engage with an HEI partner on a project that can be beneficial for the entire collection area and therefore offer an opportunity for wide interpretation of this CDP.

The purpose of this CDP project is first to advance postcolonial and decolonisation work in the above area studies and then to apply this to the British Library’s collections in the form of policy, review and/or recommendations. Focusing on the Belarusian, Polish, Russian and/or Ukrainian collections, the study will therefore provide the foundation for a new understanding of decolonising practices in the context of Eastern Europe, as well as the Library’s policy on collecting, curating and interpreting the collections.

Cover of Taras Shevchenko, Dumky ta pisni Kobzaria (Kyiv, 1905)

Cover of Taras Shevchenko, Dumky ta pisni Kobzaria (Kyiv, 1905). The book, part of a series, was issued by Kievskaia starina, a monthly magazine for Ukrainian studies. Originally published in Russian, the magazine was renamed Ukraïna in 1907 and appeared in Ukrainian. Here, the title of the book is written in Ukrainian in Russian orthography. 

The collections under investigations can be taken holistically using an Area Studies approach; on a country or regional level; thematically (e.g., as a comparative study of colonial and imperial approaches and practices within Eastern Europe); or focus on ethnic, national or transnational groups (e.g., material produced in minority and minoritised languages and communities). The approaches can also vary from concentrating on theoretical issues and building a theoretical framework, creating comparative analysis or conducting case studies. The potential focus and research questions will be refined and developed with the HEI partner and (once recruited) the student.

Research questions can include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • What are the major theoretical problems with the application and adaptation of postcolonial theory to East European postcolonial studies and decolonisation practices? What are common or specific features of postcolonial discourse in East European Studies and how should they be taken into account in interpretation, description and development of collections?
  • How can book and print history, and/or the history of collecting be analysed within the postcolonial discourse?
  • Is there a need, necessity and/or obligation for the Library to engage with Diasporas, national or transnational communities in the UK and in the countries of origin? What methodological approaches should be applied?

By examining the collections through a critical, historical lens and identifying points of contestation in interpretation, potential outcomes of the project could include:

  • highlighting the ‘hidden’ collections and gaps in materials printed in minority languages, by oppressed groups and nationalist movements, as well as materials that represent the complex identities of authors and producers across the present political borders between the countries;
  • suggesting the most appropriate language and vocabulary for the purpose of collection discovery and interpretation;
  • contributing to decolonising metadata for the British Library’s records;
  • suggesting means of communicating and promoting the outcomes of the review.

The placement provides an opportunity to work on a project that will deliver a practical output by improving discovery and accessibility of one of the largest heritage collections in the world, including for the communities who create and are represented in the collections. It also offers an opportunity to develop cultural diplomacy skills by liaising with organisations with varied governance practices and cultural backgrounds, for example: the Ukrainian Institute London, various Polish cultural organisations (e.g. the Pilsudski Institute), COSEELIS, Pushkin House etc.

Based within the Library's European, Americas and Oceania Collections team, the student will have access to advice and support from across this team, and work closely with a smaller team of East European curators. Depending on the student’s interests and project needs there will be opportunities to learn about other roles and activities within the Library (e.g., metadata, cataloguing teams, events, etc). The student will also have access to the Library’s extensive training programmes.

The deadline for applications is Friday 25 November 2022, 5pm. For more information on the project and how to apply, see the Library website.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, Olga Topol and Katie McElvanney, Curators East European Collections

09 February 2022

PhD Placement Opportunity - Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples

Applications are now open for an exciting new PhD placement working with the Slavonic and East European collections at the British Library. Under the title ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’, current PhD students are invited to spend three months (or part-time equivalent) researching and promoting collections and resources related to Indigenous peoples of Siberia at the Library.

Photograph of a group of people

A group of people. Selection of Ethnographic Images from the Krasnoiarsk Regional Local History Museum.

The placement will focus on exploring the collection of photographs created as part of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) project ‘Digitising the photographic archive of southern Siberian indigenous peoples’. This project successfully digitised, archived and distributed 3,672 glass plate negatives collected over a period of time during ethnographical expeditions in South Siberia in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Work was conducted in four regional archives (Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Yekaterinburg State Archive and Yekaterinburg Writer's Archive). These photographs are now accessible via our online catalogue.

Photograph of a Nenets Shaman

Nenets Shaman. Selection of Ethnographic Images from the Krasnoiarsk Regional Local History Museum.

It will focus on research into this digitised collection and other resources in the British Library related to Indigenous peoples of Siberia, in order to contextualise the photographic archive. The placement will also consider some of the issues connected with Russian language metadata supplied with the collection.

Pages from Bukvar. (Букварь на кетском языке). [Russian primer for Ket-speakers]

Bukvar. (Букварь на кетском языке). [Primer for Ket-speakers]. (Moscow; Leningrad, 1934) 012924.l.1. 

The placement will provide a hands-on introduction to the activities of a major research library and cultural organisation, with a particular focus on cataloguing, collection management, and public engagement. In undertaking the placement project, the student will have the opportunity to consult and work with colleagues across a range of collection areas and roles.

Supervised by Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections, the placement will sit within the European, Americas and Oceania Department. Alongside regular meetings, pastoral support, and training opportunities, the student will benefit from being part of a welcoming and supportive wider team, which includes a number of PhD researchers.

The placement is open to UK-based PhD students from all disciplines and academic backgrounds; however, a good knowledge of the Russian language and interest in and ability to quickly acquire a degree of basic knowledge of Siberia and its peoples is essential.

Further information on eligibility, funding and how to apply is available on the British Library website. The deadline for applications is Friday 25 February 2022 (5 pm UK time).

For informal enquiries, please contact Katya.Rogatchevskaia@bl.uk

 

11 November 2021

Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic

Literary awards are given to authors for their work. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as in the case of this year’s winning author of the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) Astrid Roemer. The prize is awarded every three years to a Dutch or Flemish or, since 2005, Surinamese author, and Roemer is the first black and Surinamese author to win it. She is known for being outspoken and an independent mind. The jury praised her work for being ‘unconventional, poetic and authentic’. These traits are bound to lead to controversy at some point. This is not the place to comment on the furore around the award and its winner. I have included some links to articles that discuss this in more detail at the end of the blog post.

Cover of Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw

Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw (Haarlem, 1982) X.958/16031.

I must admit that until recently I had never read any of Roemer’s work, but through research for this blog post I got the impression of a warm-hearted, compassionate woman, who has very nuanced views. ‘Identity’ plays a huge part in her work. Identity as an individual, or as a group, as a man or woman, as a black man or black woman, as a child or a parent, as a citizen in Suriname, or in the Netherlands, etc. She tells her stories usually through women who struggle to take their rightful place in society; who are keeping families together, no matter how fragmented these are.

It is as if she sees a parallel between individuals and families and Suriname itself. A young country still fighting for its place in the world, whilst at the same time different ethnic groups search for their place in the big Surinamese family within Suriname. And a country that struggles to find a relationship with its former ‘parent’, the colonial power that was the Netherlands and where many Surinamese people moved to study and work. Maybe that is why she is so good at presenting ‘big’ events and ‘big’ themes on a human scale.

The problems Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands face in adapting to Dutch life whilst trying to stay faithful to their Surinamese identity is very well described in Neem mij terug, Suriname, Roemer’s first novel. First published in 1974, it was reprinted in 1975 and 2005. In 1983 it was published as Nergens ergens (Nowhere Somewhere) and in 2015 a jubilee-edition appeared, in celebration of its 40 year anniversary and for being awarded the P.C. Hooftprijs for her whole prose oeuvre.

Covers of Neem mij terug, Suriname and Nergens ergens by Astrid Roemer

Astrid Roemer, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Schoorl, 2015) YF.2017.a.33 and Astrid Roemer, Nergens ergens (Amsterdam, 1983) YA.1990.a.18843.

When she says: ‘I am married to Suriname, the Netherlands is my lover, I am in a gay relationship with Africa and I am inclined to have one-night stands with every other country’, she conveys the complexity of ‘identity’, as well as a sense of being a ‘world citizen’, but she doesn’t want to be labelled as such. She has lived in many different countries, but feels most at home in Paramaribo, the place of her birth.

When her mother died in 2019 she moved there, partly as a way to process her loss. She finds comfort and solace there as well as space to write in her day-to-day routine. And write she does.

What is called her ‘Suriname trilogy’ Gewaagd Leven (Risky Life) from 1996, Lijken op Liefde (Resembling Love) from 1997, and Was Getekend (Was Signed) from 1998 will be re-issued as Onmogelijk moederland (Impossible Motherland) early next year. About this trilogy Roemers said: ‘On the rubbish heap of slavery, colonialism and the present I searched for irreducible remains to experience my identity as Suriname-Dutch woman anew.’

Covers of the books in Astrid Roemer's ‘Suriname trilogy’

Astrid Roemer, Gewaagd Leven (Amsterdam, 1996) YA.1996.a.19238, Lijken op Liefde (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.10270 and Was Getekend (Amsterdam, 1998) YA.2000.a.36919.

She will publish a new novel in 2022: Dealers Daughter, set in Paramaribo about a young woman whose father gets involved in a murder. Roemer has also worked on a selection of poems by Maya Angelou for a Dutch audience: En Toch Heradem Ik : Haar 25 mooiste gedichten (Amsterdam, 2022). Her English-language debut, Off-White, translated by Jan Steyn, is due to be published next year.

I cannot wait to discover more of Roemer’s work.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Other works by Astrid Roemer held by the British Library:

Levenslang Gedicht (Haarlem, 1987) YA.1990.a.23555

Waarom zou je huilen mijn lieve, lieve... (Schoorl, 1987) YA.1990.a.21044

De achtentwintigste dag (Breda, 1988) YA.1990.a.15920

Het Spoor van de Jakhals (Schoorl, 1988) YA.1990.a.8974

Niets wat pijn doet (Amsterdam, 1993) YA.1993.a.24646

Suriname : een gids voor vrienden (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.9861

‘Miauw’ (Breda, 2001) YA.2002.a.35999

Liefde in Tijden van Gebrek (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2016.a.26486

Olga en haar driekwartsmaten (Amsterdam, 2017) YF.2017.a.3034

Gebroken Wit (Amsterdam, 2019) YF.2019.a.17264

Further reading:

Hugo Pos, ‘Inleiding tot de Surinaamse literatuur’. In: Tirade 17 (1973), p. 396-409

Hilde Neus, ‘Roemer in redeloos redeneren’, Neerlandistiek, 15 August 2021 

Tessa Leuwsha, ‘Astrid H. Roemer: ‘Dutch Will Slowly but Surely Disappear From Suriname’’ (interview with Astrid Roemer, translated by Anna Asbury)

20 October 2021

‘Writing is a tattoo’ — Kamel Daoud and his work

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he has been for several years the Chief Editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper, and the author of a much-read column ‘Raïna Raïkoum’ (‘My Opinion, Your Opinion’). His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International.

Daoud’s first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête is a response to Camus’ L’étranger. Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’ novel murders a character known only as ‘the Arab’. Camus never gave a name to Meursault’s victim, but Daoud names him Moussa, and re-tells the story from the point of view of Moussa’s brother, Haroun. Daoud’s novel was first published in Algeria by editions Barzakh in October 2013, but mostly started to garner international attention after its publication by French publisher Actes Sud in May 2014; it was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 2014 and came second, just short of winning the prize. It did, however, win the 2015 Goncourt First Novel Prize, and was also awarded the prix François Mauriac, le prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It sold more than 130 000 copies in France and 14 000 in Algeria, ‘A very high number for a novel in French’ according to its Algerian publisher Barzakh.

Although it is often labelled as Daoud’s debut, Meursault, contre-enquête was in fact the third in a series of texts beginning with O Pharaon published in Oran in 2004. As recalled by Joseph Ford, far from being solely a journalist, Daoud was already a writer of note in Algeria, and knew how to use text to express and magnify his ideas about conflict and power. Daoud’s positions have not been exempt from controversy, be it in France or in Algeria and his work as novelist, as well as journalist and polemist are often the subject of examination, particularly through the prism of postcolonial studies. He has in the past expressed his dreams of forgetting journalism to dedicate himself to pure literature, but a collection of Daoud’s journalistic works: Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 was nevertheless published in 2017 and he currently contributes a weekly column to the French magazine Le Point

Two of Daoud’s latest texts, however, have been less embroiled in obvious politics, if still actually describing some facets of Power. They explore the acts of writing and narrating, and hidden aspects of language, and of materiality: the materiality of books and of the body, and the beauty of both.

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.25074

Zabor ou les psaumes (translated this year in English by Emma Ramadan as Zabor, or The Psalms), first published in French in 2017, is a work of magic realism, but also a hymn to the power of fiction. The narrator is a young man who possesses a gift: he can fight death by writing, and the people whose stories he narrates in his notebooks live longer. This is his gift, his responsibility and his mission. But does everyone deserve to be saved? This allegorical novel draws on myths, religion and fables, and as in One Thousand and One Nights, the storytelling can temporarily stave off death. But the book is also an ode to language, or rather languages, and to their transformations and appropriations, particularly in a post-colonial context: ‘C’est à partir de ce capital que je construisis cette langue, entièrement, seul avec mon propre dictionnaire sauvage’ (‘I built this language, entirely, alone with my own wild dictionary’) and so created ‘une langue folle, riche, heureuse, amalgamée avec des racines sauvages, hybride comme un bestiaire de mythologie’ (‘a mad, rich, happy, amalgamated language, with wild roots, hybrid like a mythological bestiary’).

‘Writing is a tattoo’ reads one of the last chapter’s openings. This image of the book as a body is permeating one of Daoud’s most recent published piece, tellingly titled ‘Textures ou comment coucher avec un livre’.

Cover of BibliOdyssées

Cover of BibliOdyssées: foudre, index, exil, talismans, text by Kamel Daoud, Raphaël Jerusalmy; notes by Joseph Belletante, Bernadette Moglia. (Paris, 2019.) YF.2020.a.5142

This is the opening text of BibliOdyssées, and is a ‘literary piece’ companion to a book published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘L’Odyssée des livres sauvés’ held in the Musée de l’Imprimerie and Communication graphique in Lyon in 2019. Here, books have a skin, and again, this skin is ‘tattooed a thousand times’, with words and with the imprints of the hands that manipulate. In his text, Daoud compares sacred and profane books, licit and illicit objects, books for the ritual and the soul and books for the earthly body; both, with their words, magically able to express the ‘eternal unspeakable’.

Kamel Daoud will be in conversation with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the Financial Times’s World News Editor, at the Institut Francais on Thursday the 21st October

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections 

References/further reading:

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête (Arles, 2014) YF.2014.a.27110; English translation by John Cullen, The Mersault investigation (London, 2015) H.2016/.7708

Kamel Daoud, Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.18552

Albert Camus, L’étranger (Paris, 1947) 012550.p.23.

Sami Alkyam ‘Lost in reading: The predicament of postcolonial writing in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55 (2019), no. 4, pp. 459-471

Sylvie Ducas ‘L’entrée en littérature française de Kamel Daoud : «Camus, sinon rien!»’, Littératures, 73/2015, p. 185-197. 

Joseph Ford, Writing the black decade: conflict and criticism in francophone Algerian literature (Lanham, 2021) ELD.DS.582067

14 October 2021

Investigating German colonialism in the British Library’s collections

Content warning: This blog reproduces an image from a historical publication which is now considered racist

Last week, the Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah became the first black African author in 35 years to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Judges from the Swedish Academy highlighted his ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism’ as a key reason for the distinction.

Much of Gurnah’s writing is set in East Africa, and his latest novel, Afterlives, explores the impact of German colonialism on the region. The novel’s protagonists are residents of a coastal town whose lives become shaped by interactions with German soldiers, settlers and missionaries.

Gurnah’s receipt of the Nobel Prize is not only a testament to his literary prowess, but also reflects a long overdue process of engagement by European cultural institutions with the history of colonialism. As part of a three-month PhD placement, I am investigating what the British Library’s collections reveal about German colonialism and its legacies.

Cover of Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Cover of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel, Afterlives (London, 2021)

By consulting curators in various collections and exploring the Library’s holdings in their full breadth, including sound recordings, maps and postage stamps as well as written material, I hope to identify the potential for interrogating European accounts and locating under-represented, colonised and subaltern voices.

The era of formal German colonialism was short compared to other European empires such as Britain and France. Germany, which did not become a unified state until 1871, expanded into eastern Africa and modern-day Namibia, Cameroon and Togo in the 1880s, and established colonies in China and the Pacific a decade later. After defeat in World War One, Germany lost all of its overseas territories, with Britain taking over most of German East Africa.

The involvement of German speakers in colonial projects, however, has a longer history. In the first half of the 19th century, missionaries from German regions travelled to Africa to propagate Christianity.

One such individual was Johann Ludwig Krapf, whose activities were pointed out to me by Mariam de Haan from the British Library’s Asian and African Studies department. A clergyman from Württemberg, Krapf worked in East Africa between 1837 and 1855, and was one of the first Europeans to document the Swahili, Maasai and other regional languages.

In an account of his travels, available digitally in German on the British Library’s website, Krapf proposed that European nations take charge of different areas of Africa and Asia. Each power would place the indigenous peoples under their tutelage until Christianity had brought them to ‘full maturity’.

W.D. Cooley’s ‘Map of part of Africa, South of the Equator, shewing the discoveries of the Rev. Dr. Krapf and Rev. J. Rebmann'

Krapf’s geographical findings are shown on W.D. Cooley’s ‘Map of part of Africa, South of the Equator, shewing the discoveries of the Rev. Dr. Krapf and Rev. J. Rebmann' (London, c. 1864) 2.b.14.

Krapf’s life provides an example of the transnational entanglement of European actors in ‘civilising’ projects. He did not travel under a German organisation, but rather as a member of the British Church Missionary Society, and likened his activities to Scottish counterpart David Livingstone’s work in southern Africa. In London, the cartographer William Desborough Colley published a map (shown above) charting the geographical findings of Krapf and fellow German missionary Johannes Rebmann.

In the mid-1880s, the German East Africa Company sought to gain economic and political power in the region. Following heavy local resistance to the company’s administration, the German government took control of the territory in 1891.

The contemporary and retrospective literature published by colonial officers active in East Africa contains racist stereotypes, and frequently masks the brutal realities of German practices. However, the texts occasionally reveal how local resistance undermined imperial authority.

Early opposition came in particular from the Hehe ethnic group. In 1891, Hehe warriors ambushed a German column in what became known as the Battle of Lugalo. The German defeat, with heavy losses, was described as a ‘catastrophe’ in the memoirs of the officer Tom von Prince, who acknowledged admiringly how the Hehe leaders had exploited their enemy’s vulnerability when marching in line.

Cover of Tom von Prince’s Gegen Araber und Wahehe

Cover of Tom von Prince’s Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.

Accounts of indigenous resistance in the British Library’s collections are not limited to German perspectives. The Sound and Moving Image catalogue contains interviews recorded by Alison Redmayne, a researcher who conducted fieldwork in Tanzania during the 1960s. Redmayne collected interviewees’ descriptions of the Battle of Lugalo and the Maji-Maji Rebellion, a major uprising between 1905 and 1907.

The uprising began when a spiritual medium, Kinjikitile Ngwale, claimed that a water-based medicine (maji means water in Swahili) would protect rebels from German bullets. After Tanzania became independent in 1961 following British rule, the Maji Maji Rebellion was celebrated as a moment of unity between different ethnic groups.

Ebrahim Hussein’s popular play Kinjeketile, published in 1969, reimagined the leader – who was executed by colonial officers early in the rebellion – as a tragic hero who privately doubted the power of his ‘sacred water’ but kept silent to preserve the newfound solidarity among the rebels.

Cover of the English translation of Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile

Cover of the English translation of Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970), X.908/26258

Early postcolonial interest in the Maji Maji Rebellion was also reflected in an oral history project at the University of Dar es Salaam in the late 1960s, in which students interviewed individuals who experienced the uprising. A published collection of material from the project, including transcriptions of the interviews in local languages and translations into English, can be found in our holdings.

In recent years, historians have revisited the interviews and highlighted underexplored passages which challenge the notion of the Maji Maji Rebellion as an interethnic struggle against European domination. Thaddeus Sunseri, for example, has pointed to instances of collaboration with the Germans and emphasised the variety of motives behind participation in the revolt.

Introductory page of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Maji Maji research project

Introductory page of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, too, illustrates the complex choices faced by individuals whose lives are disrupted under foreign rule, and Gurnah’s works are a reminder that understandings of the colonial past are constantly evolving. The British Library does not contain everything there is to know about European colonialism: accounts from colonisers and European perspectives are likely to be better represented than the voices of the colonised, which sometimes survive only in mediated form. Nonetheless, the collections offer potential for new insights which can only be realised through dialogue across departments and across source collections.

I have been astounded by the wide range of relevant material which I have found in the library so far, and, when speaking to colleagues, I think they have been surprised too. As my project continues, I look forward to sharing further library resources for investigating colonialism with colleagues and library users.

Rory Hanna, PhD Placement Student, German Collections

References and further reading:

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (London, 2021), in order

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise (London, 1994), Nov.1994/631

Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge, 2012) YC.2011.a.17036

Clarissa Vierke (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: the life and work of a missionary and scholar-traveller in nineteenth-century East Africa (Nairobi, 2009) YD.2009.a.6998

Clemens Gutl (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: „Memoir on the East African slave trade“. Ein unveröffentlichtes Dokument aus dem Jahr 1853 (Vienna, 2002) X.0909/1053.(73)

J.L. Krapf, Reisen in Ost-Afrika, ausgeführt in dem Jahren 1837-55, etc (Stuttgart, 1858) 10096.e.30. 

J.L. Krapf, Travels, researches and missionary labours, during an eighteen years' residence in Eastern Africa (London, 1860) 010095.gg.34. 

Andrew Roberts (ed.), Tanzania Before 1900 (Nairobi, 1968), X.709/15877.

Alison Redmayne, 'The Wahehe people of Tanganyika', PhD thesis (Oxford, 1965) 

J.B. Gewald, ‘Colonial Warfare: Hehe and World War I, the Wars Besides Maji Maji in South-Western Tanzania’, African Historical Review 40:2 (2008), pp. 1-27, 0732.493000

Tom von Prince, Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.

Carl Peters, Das Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Schutzgebiet (Munich, 1895), 10094.e.29.

Felicitas Becker und Jigal Beez (eds), Der Maji-Maji-Krieg in Deutsch-Ostafrika, 1905-1907 (Berlin, 2005) YF.2006.a.30647

James Giblin and Jamie Monson (eds), Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War (Leiden, 2010) 0733.775000 v. 20

Ebrahim Hussein, Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970) X.908/26258

University College, Dar es Salaam, Department of History, Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.

Thaddeus Sunseri, ‘Statist Narratives and Maji Maji Ellipses’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 33:3 (2000), pp. 567–84, 4541.580000

Elijah Greenstein, ‘Making History: Historical Narratives of the Maji Maji’, Penn History Review 17:2 (2010), pp. 60-77 

Stefan Noack et al (eds), Deutsch-Ostafrika: Dynamiken europäischer Kulturkontakte und Erfahrungshorizonte im kolonialen Raum (Berlin, 2019), YF.2020.a.11433

12 November 2020

PhD Placement Opportunity - Interrogating German Collections

Applications are now open for an exciting new PhD placement working with the German collections at the British Library. Under the title Interrogating German Collections, current PhD students are invited to spend three months (or part-time equivalent) challenging the conventional history of knowledge of German-speaking regions, and to explore under-represented perspectives. Co-supervised with Expanding German Studies, a group seeking to expand and diversify the German Studies curriculum across the UK, the placement offers an opportunity to understand how German culture has constructed categories of racial difference, and how the voices of racialised others (including Jewish, Eastern European, Black, East Asian, Turkish and Middle Eastern people) have been represented within the discipline. The British Library’s German Printed Collections are of worldwide importance and will serve as a comprehensive source.

Covers of four German books
A selection of books by German authors who feature on the Expanding German Studies interactive bibliography

While the student will be expected to propose a specific focus, the placement will involve researching the collections, writing blog posts on items and on methodologies around collecting and curation, improving catalogue records, presenting to different departments on the results. The student will also have the opportunity to work with Expanding German Studies on teaching resources, and on preparing translations of neglected works for German Studies undergraduates, among other potential outputs.

This placement project offers an opportunity for a PhD student to put their research and critical thinking skills into practice at a major cultural institution through a topic that will be crucial to every aspect of the Library and to the cultural sector more widely in the coming years.

Further information on eligibility, conditions and how to apply is available on the British Library website. The deadline for applications is 18 December 2020.

For informal enquiries, please contact Pardaad.Chamsaz@bl.uk, Susan.Reed@bl.uk, Nicola.Thomas@bristol.ac.uk

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