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Symposium Unhinging the National Framework: New Developments in Transnational Life-Writing

door Leon van Wissen

On Friday, 9 December, the recently established research platform for the study of transnationalism and life-writing held its first symposium. The platform’s catchy project title, Unhinging the National Framework, was also the title for the symposium, where its researchers presented their work to colleagues, students and others interested.



Foto’s Amrita Das

The title indicates the groep’s ambition to lift the national framework from its hinges–or at least to (somewhat) unsettle and unbalance it. They wish to do so by studying the lives and work of 20th century individuals, i.e. artists, diplomats, translators and writers, who operated internationally and whose life stories question methodological nationalism. More than ten speakers, most of whom are connected to the platform, spoke about the ways in which transnational connections constitute a major component in the lives they are studying and writing. The meeting was organized by Dr. Babs Boter (VU), initiator and convener of the platform, and chaired by Prof. dr. Susan Legêne (VU). The meeting was financially supported by Clue+, the VU-based Research Institute for Culture, History and Heritage, and the VU Department of Language, Literature and Communication.

Prof. dr. Diederik Oostdijk (VU), who held the opening keynote lecture, argued that the practice of “unhinging” should not just focus on national frameworks, but also on the frameworks of gender, class, and/or race. He further stated that, oddly enough, transnational life-writing emphasizes the power of national myths and ideas of hegemony. To prove his claims, Oostdijk presented to us three “doubles”: pairs of American and Dutch artists/writers who drew from each other’s cultures. Figures such as Adrienne Rich felt inspired by immersing themselves in non-American, Dutch/European discourses, whereas others, such as Jan Cremer, was driven by processes and practices of Americanization. Prof. dr. Giles Scott-Smith (Leiden University) responded to the keynote lecture by pointing out, on the one hand, the significant role of the American government in intercultural exchange, and on the other hand the significant acts of appropriation and self-fashioning among the studied artists and writers. Scott-Smith, who is a member of the research platform, is involved in a biographical project concerning the informal diplomacy of the Dutch entrepreneur and philanthropist Ernst H. van Eeghen during the 1980s and 1990s. One of his key aims is to assess how Van Eeghen portrayed himself in this activity, and how he was perceived by diplomats and others.


Prof. dr. Susan Legêne


Next, platform researchers Dr. Bettine Siertsema (VU), Lonneke Geerlings (VU), Dr. Marleen Rensen (UvA), Edy Seriese (Indies Wetenschappelijk Instituut), and Rebecca van Raamsdonk (UvA) presented their work on a great variety of life-writing projects: the Dutch vs. American framing of Holocaust testimonials; the encounters of Dutch translator and activist Rosey Pool with the American civil rights activist and writer W.E.B. DuBois; the framing and presentation of “national” authors as “European”; the collecting of Indies life stories; and the impact of international literary traditions on the writing of individual, “national” memoirs. A discussion with the audience followed about the differences between transnationalist and comparative approaches, and about the politics of life-writing, including ways for biographers to give voice to marginalized others.

After lunch, during which researchers of the platform presented their work using posters filled with graphs, photo’s and topics, the symposium continued with a panel discussion. Ditteke Mensink, writer and director of award-winning documentary films, introduced and showed a fragment of Farewell, a portrait of journalist Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, the first woman to travel around the world in a zeppelin. The fictionalized portrait is entirely made out of archival film footage, and only partly based on Hay’s letters, diary and published work. Mensink explained that to her as a film maker what counts is not an accurate representation of historical reality, but her subject’s inner conflicts, which she found when researching Hay. Prof. dr. Michiel van Kempen, author of the hefty and recently published biography of Albert Helman, Rusteloos en overal, followed suit with a statement on the difficulties of turning a complex and long, transatlantic life such as that of Helman into a readable book. He had decided that “My public would be well-educated, but not part of the monastery of academics who seem to understand each other very well, but unfortunately nobody outside their circle understands them. When one writes on a person of importance rooted in a former colony, to my opinion you have an obligation to bring back to the people their own history.”



Edy Seriese

Panel member Dr. Frank Okker, biographer of three Dutch/East Indian figures—writer and journalist Willem Walraven, writer and translator Madelon Székely-Lulofs en traveller and scientist Gerret Rouffaer—claimed that one overall theme in his biographies is the idea that “coming from the Netherlands you have to distance yourself from that small country.” Yvette Kopijn, an independent scholar who currently works on collective life stories of diasporic Javanese, emphasized that it is essential in her biographical work that the subjects whose voices have so far been unheard are now written into (colonial) history. Finally, Dr. Hendrik Henrichs, historian and biographer of the Dutch hispanist, translator and Spanish Civil War fighter Johan Brouwer, pointed out that not only national and political alliances should be examined when writing the lives of transnational figures, but also religious ones. With this incitement the discussion came full circle, as Oostdijk had opened the day’s symposium by pointing out how not only the national but also other frameworks need to be taken into consideration when attempting any shake up.

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