Kim van Kaam ( the Netherlands)
I met Kristina Kay Robinson by coincidence, while she sat next to me at an Antenna meeting. Almost by accident, we found out she had been writing letters with one of the writers I work with, Simone Atangana Bekono, commissioned by the Dutch literary festival Read my World in 2017. The coincidence of this meeting gave us the extra energy needed to get this publication running. Simone and Kristina did not know each other before festival organizer (and poet himself) Dean Bowen connected them, but in their letters, you will read how they immediately connected. Through their letters, both Kristina and Simone got to travel around the world, its form providing a perfect platform to engage, reside, so you will, in each other’s worlds.
When I arrived in New Orleans August 19th, my goal was to get to know Antenna, the people, the projects, and the way they work. I work for Wintertuin, a literary organization from Nijmegen, the Netherlands that provides a group of 26 emerging writers with talent development trajectories. We edit their work, and provide a platform through which they can extend their professionalism as writers: perform at festivals, teach workshops, get their work translated and published and be represented. The one thing we lack is our own residency space, in which we can provide for working time for our own writers, but also invite other, international writers for them to connect with.
I am very proud to leave New Orleans residency with this publication. I am very proud to introduce you to my organization and to one of the writers I so intensely cooperate with. I am also very proud to take a bit of New Orleans home with me. This city gave me new insights, new ideas, new perspectives and most importantly: so many people who I will not forget.
Dean Bowen (the Netherlands)
Dear Simone and Kristina,
I write to both of you as an editor for the Read My World festival and to extend an invitation into a collaborative program that I want to facilitate for the festival. Being a poet myself, I have long since been fascinated with the ideas of canonization and intimacy in regards to the literary eco-systems we inhabit and how these ideas relate to the consciousness of the black author who has to navigate past embedded colonial and discriminatory modes of critique, investigation, and review, pertaining to the work produced by said black authors.
In this vein, and in realizing these experiences are not universal, but profoundly informed by the context and culture they inhabit, I wanted to pair-up a festival author and a young Dutch voice to explore these experiences, meditations, and concepts in a letter-exchange.
In what I’ve read in your work, Kristina, I found a voice that is filled with reverence for the ghosts of ancestors, a voice that is very much aware of its political position as a black voice in a broader societal context. This reminded me of earlier this year, when I had the pleasure of reading some of Simone’ work and listening to her poetics statement at a literary event in Amsterdam, where I was struck with the similarity in the questions she, and I, seemed to struggle with. I am convinced; pairing you together would result in a meaningful examination of these broader themes.
I believe the letter-exchange to be an underutilized literary frame nowadays that in itself implies an intimacy any other form of reflection might not. I hope both of you, would be interested in joining this program, as I believe there is a possibility for something beautiful and important to emerge.
Editor Read My World
(Kristina Kay Robinson, New Orleans)
July 31, 2017
New Orleans, LA
I am so pleased that this exchange is taking place and that you are willing to share your thoughts with me. I believe we are alive to witness a very remarkable period of human history and feel very lucky to be able to have this conversation with you. I hope I don’t sound too dramatic right at the outset, but I truly believe it is a unique moment. The country I was born in is in a terrible time socially and politically for Black people. However, there is also a lot a lot of creative energy and ideas being put forth in the world. So much is happening, so rapidly, all over the world that it has been hard for me to process. Hard for me to get a grip on the role and responsibility of the poet or the writer, particularly, the Black, female writer. I think it is a necessity that as many of us make contact with one another as possible. I don’t think it is hyperbolic that for many of us, our actual survival depends on it. I hope it is not presumptuous of me to say “our.” If it is, please correct me. Does an affirmation, negation or questioning of kinship between Black peoples factor into your work? If so in what ways?
I know from oral history also that my people passed through multiple islands in the Caribbean and that they chopped sugarcane in Louisiana. Some of them were free before emancipation—some were not. At the port of New Orleans, these people interacted with the indigenous Native population in the American south and with other peoples of African descent from all over the world. Today, I live five miles from where these ships docked. Three from where some of the largest slave markets in the world were located. I am blown away daily by this fact. So for me, I have been constantly curious about how the fact of movement, despite my rootedness in New Orleans, has shaped my identity. I am curious what movement means to the identity of other women of African descent in other parts of the world. Do questions of origins or fact of race play into the work you do?
Another reason I was excited to participate in this exchange with you was for the opportunity to write outside the process of submission, rejection or acceptance— publication or my hard drive. One because I do enjoy the act of writing and reading and believe that meaningful contribution to the canon can happen in these spaces that have the opportunity to be urgent and spontaneous. As a Black-American female writer, it is just more difficult to be published. That is just a fact that every one of us deals with and tries to figure out the best way to respond. I have had luck publishing essays with some magazines. But I have also worked at creating independent publications and circulating them amongst readers and writers. I know I have to take a certain amount of this into my own hands. Just looking at the numbers it can be very discouraging at times. What is the publishing landscape like in The Netherlands from your point of view? Do you deal with any of the same issues? Please feel free to respond to this letter as you feel. The questions I asked were just places I thought our themes may overlap. Feel free to take it in another direction and we can get back to this later!
All my best,
Kristina Kay Robinson
(Simone Atangana Bekono, the Netherlands)
Let me start by saying that I was really excited to see we have so many themes and emotional experiences overlapping while living in these vastly different yet absolutely historically connected countries. So yes, let’s say “us” and “our” and “we”. As a Black female writer in the Netherlands, there’s not so many occasions where I feel I can speak to a fellow poet and speak in plural as convinced as I can in this exchange with you.
There’s a particular kind of loneliness that comes with being who we are in the literary landscapes of both the USA and The Netherlands. I’ve always wondered, in very general terms, what it really meant to be a Black female writer in America, what overlaps and distinguishes it in relation to my experiences. In the Netherlands, the creative world is thrilled these days to let people of colour speak their minds via art, journalism, literature, but I’m very suspicious of its motives. I’ve had some situations and conversations where people were enthusiastic about what I wrote yet it felt like these people, these representatives of the art institutions I depend on, did not want to necessarily work with me because I was a good author but were just trying to prove that they are not the bad white (wo)man discriminating against minorities in the racialized constructions of the art and literary world. That’s why getting jobs in writing sometimes feels like a constant flow of moral decisions for me, and I’m slowly getting to know fellow Black authors who are going through the same experiences, so I do really feel like there is a kinship there. Do you have the same experiences? There seems to be a bigger community of PoC working together and supporting each other’s work in the US, so I wonder if you’ve ever discussed these things strategically with your fellow writers and creators.
That being said, there are not a lot of Black female authors that I know of in my country, and I’m trying to find them but as of now, it can get a bit like I’m trying to change the terms of the conversation from a very far away island. Considering I grew up in a predominantly white community, I spent (and am still spending) a lot of time as a young adult needing to understand my positionality within the communities that I’m a part of in my life, be it the (predominantly white) art community, Black community, or my friends who are not all as concerned with the topics I’m concerned with. Being from an African father and a Dutch mother, I’ve had and still have this quite cliché desire of really finding a community where I belong to. At the same time, I don’t want to spend precious time and effort searching for this “ideal” sense of belonging, and rather discuss the deeply rooted misunderstandings of Black humanness from my own perspective. How do you position yourself in these conversations going on in your country, in the world? Do you feel connections between the struggles of Black peoples? As you said, there is a role in these conversations for the Black female writer, and I’m of the opinion it is a very important role, but I’m also still trying to make sense of what this could be. I think this feeling of being disconnected and not having a voice is a big part of why I’m so passionate about what I’m doing.
In a certain way, coming from this quite isolated position in a country that has hidden its colonial traces really, I can only wonder about the absurdity of living in a place like the USA, which has so much pain and trauma tied directly and visibly to the constructions and adornment of its cities. Living in New Orleans as a woman with this heritage must be devastating at times. I’m writing this letter to you days after the Charlottesville drama and I can’t fathom how the response of president Trump, or just the plain fact it happened(!), must affect you and the way you go about your day. I hope you’re staying strong. It’s something positively absurd, yet somehow people manage to live in all kinds of absurdity every day.
Here in The Netherlands the proof of coloniality and the effects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade seems less evident in the public space, but I’ve always had a very complex relationship with the art, architecture, and rules of the big cities here, which are drenched in this colonial narrative, a relationship that I’ve been trying to deconstruct and understand. I’m very interested in changes my body and mind make when they go out into public space in the Netherlands, the way people from African descent or other ex-colonies of the Netherlands seem to have their special ways to interact with this public space that is in a way always violent to them, even if it’s a violence that lurks beneath the surface. The idea of rootedness and movement is very interesting to me. I find that I am feeling more and more disconnected from the spaces that used to feel safe or home in my country, including the town where I was born. What does New Orleans mean to you? Is it a precious home to you with a conflicted past, something you can’t escape or are learning to love? I’m interested in this because I’m wondering about the immediate effects of these spaces on the human body, a topic I think a lot of people are not talking about.
I don’t know how your writing came about, but I started realizing I’m taking a big risk being a Black female writer that is more difficult to face than just by writing what I think: I guess what I’m trying to say is that people have been pushing me to write about my experiences and to connect the dots of psychological, physical and societal effects of coloniality and modern-day racism through my stories, but they’ve also asked me numerous times to do it on their specific terms. I don’t know what it’s like in the United States, but there’s something very suffocating about being able to do what you want to do, but also seeing people ready to take their advantage of the complexities you’re trying to express.
At the same time, I haven’t published much and the encounters wherein my delicate position became evident are still quite limited. I wonder what your tactics are, how you position yourself in your writing, how you negotiate and how you navigate through the literary landscape with all these different kinds of factors forcing you to be very strategic (or maybe not) about who to approach, what you publish, who you think will or won’t give your writing a chance.
I hope I have returned some food for thought. Looking forward to your response and once again wishing you strength and good energy from The Netherlands!
*This correspondence was initiated by Read My World. Read My World is an international literature festival that takes place every year in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Read My world concentrates on literature in all its manifestations, from regions in the world where society is changing rapidly. These are places that we know best from newspaper headlines and flashy news coverage. The festival wants to take a new glance at these area’s from within, by literature. In 2017, the festival focused around Black USA.