Tuesday, September 6, 2011
On 'Alleen Maar Nette Mensen' from Robert Vuijsje
Following the post on this book and the post on the making of a film based on it I wanted to give my view of things. I do not want everybody to agree with what I write here, but I thought it to be important to share my opinion on this book. The book has already been translated in Turkish and considering its huge success in the Dutch speaking world I am convinced it will soon be translated in English too. I actually advise you to read it so that you can form your own opinion.
In 2009 Robert Vuijsje won the prestigious Golden Owl (Gouden Uil) literary price for his book Alleen Maar Nette Mensen. I read the book before that and although the book shocked me several times, I actually thought of it as a good book. Still, I realized that the reasons why the jury chose him were very different to my reasons to like the reading. When I heard the comment of the jury on the news I was much more shocked than by the book itself. The jury’s president (Guy Mortier, famous and well respected Belgian journalist) felt the need to be ‘creative’ when describing Vuijsje’s novel as the winner. But he just demonstrated how unconsciously racist even a Belgian self proclaimed anti-racist intellectual can be. Moreover the jury only saw one aspect of the book. That same aspect that scandalized so many black people, amused the jury. Guy Mortier said the novel was:
“(…) a burning fresco that swings like an African tit, with a rhythm tighter than a black ass in too tiny leopard leggings (…) The main character’s search for love, sex and intellectual negro women makes a gruesome authentic impression” Read in Dutch here
For me Guy Mortier didn’t understand this book. He misread it, just understood what he wanted to understand and even worse, it confirmed his unconscious stereotypes on black people. The worst is that with white people, when you try to explain this they just ask you to stop whining.
However, I believe in the freedom of art, even when it’s art I don’t like. When Erykah Badu got critique for her Window Seat video she replied with following words:
"You can criticize it, you can disagree with it, you can make your own video, but you cannot censor art in any kind of way" Source
You might think I am a radical, but I agree 100% with this statement. Erykah Badu may change her opinion once she reads Robert Vuijsje’s novel, but I hope she won’t. I don’t believe in censorship, it scares me. I believe you can make people aware though and change things by other means. This blog is a way to show how certain things are sensitive for us, while the majority things it’s hilarious. This freedom of speech is important.
Vuijsje wrote fiction, literature, ... he didn't write a social analysis of Dutch society. Although he was inspired by it and that critics give it more sociological importance than it deserves. Furthermore Robert Vuijsje didn't spare anyone. David (the main character) is disgusted by anyone except blacks but for the wrong reasons. He is very confused, just like Dutch society is. I see it as an allegory, not as a description of how things are.
However, this book is not only a caricature of blacks. I would say it entails a raw critique of Dutch society as a whole. Vuijsje is hard on Jews, Muslims, white Dutch people, Latino's, blacks, ... you name it and they are stereotyped in this book. I sense that Vuijsje got the hardest on blacks (but that’s certainly because I am black, while Vuijsje himself is convinced he was the hardest with the Jewish elite), and in particular on black women. Well, I guess that’s because they are the easiest and most vulnerable target. This doesn’t excuse the author, on the contrary it shows how lazy and safe he plays his game. Doing the same with Muslims could have brought him a fatwa. He is a Jew himself, he can be hard on Jews. And the Dutch/Whites, well, whatever, they have the power, so criticizing them is harmless. The book is well written though and I invite everyone to read it, not as an assault against black people, but as a critical description of multicultural Holland (where for decades everybody thought being in the most tolerant country in the world, nobody dared to say what they thought about other communities and today racism bursts out like a neglected infection full of puss – well it’s not just a Dutch thing though, I see the same happening in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK).
To me although he stereotyped black people awfully, when I finished the book I thought I got his point. And his point is that there is a huge problem and that communities are more and more alienated from each other and that our perspective of the other and ourselves is self destructive. Well, at least that was what this book taught me whatever the author’s reasons.
Additionally I want to say that the way Vuijsje describes 'black males' is also really nothing to be proud of. It is sad. But sad because in a way I recognized a lot of it. Not how most black guys are, but how the media is projecting an identity that blacks are internalizing. That identity discourse is totally self destructive for blacks because it gives us a scary reference point of authenticity , i.e. what it means to be ‘a real black’ guy, and not a ‘bounty’ or ‘oreo’. I guess you all know what I mean. Vuijsje succeeds to play with these images and tell a crazy story.
While this book was 'funny', it was terribly sad at the same time. While I laughed, I was at the same time ashamed to be amused about this cruel description of Western urban life. David, the main character, is a tragic figure.
Therefore I was not amused with the jury's comment when he won the Golden Owl more than 2 years ago. In my opinion they didn't understand. They thought it was a well told story about real stuff. I think it is a well told sarcastic story in which the black image is abused, like always, but in which the whole society as a whole is being put under critical light.
However, every reader makes her/his own interpretation, and that's our right. That’s what being free means. It’s up to us now, to write a book as hilarious and as painful. But where blacks don’t have to be at the center of the polemic or the easiest punch ball for all ills in society (and then I think about French humorist Dieudonné, who tried to laugh with Jews and Israeli’s and got lynched by the French media. Once a star he is virtually dead now. That won’t happen to Vuijsje, he got awards). Moreover, if I, a black man, would write a book in which I am as harsh with white people in stereotyping them, I’m sure I wouldn’t even be able to find a publisher …