Saturday 23 August 2014


When Lucia Nankoe was shown a photograph of writers from the French-speaking Caribbean recently, she was able to identify everyone by name. The same goes for the main authors from the Anglophone and Dutch-speaking countries in the region.

Lucia Nankoe
 (Photo: Monique Kooijmans, Amsterdam, June 2013)
Nankoe, a Surinamese scholar and lecturer at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, is among those working to bridge the Caribbean linguistic divides that are a result of colonialism.

Fluent in English, French and Dutch - three of the languages spoken in the Caribbean - she is able to understand a wide cross-section of works, and to examine the area’s history and literature from different perspectives. She is equally interested in fostering debate about the impact of slavery - a tragedy common to the islands.

Her latest project is De slaaf vliegt weg (The Slave Flies Away), a thought-provoking look at the portrayal and perception of slavery in the arts. Co-edited with Jules Rijssen, a researcher and filmmaker also from Suriname, the book has been used as a basis for public discussions about slavery.

In the Dutch city of Leiden, Nankoe and Rijssen recently hosted an open debate that examined the attitudes of the descendants of both slaves and slave-owners to their mutual history.

Sculpture by Jamaican artist Laura Facey:
"Their Spirits Gone Before Them".
Part of the Slave Route Project
© Laura Facey
“It’s evident that the issues about slavery are very much alive, and this was clear from the many questions posed,” Nankoe told SWAN. “Members of the public obviously think that more should be discussed at the national level than has been done up until now.”

The book is timely as this year the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, is “celebrating” the 20th anniversary of the Slave Route Project, an initiative that was created to heighten “understanding of the history of the slave trade in societies carrying this memory” and to promote intercultural dialogue.

August 23 is also the UN’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The day is observed annually “to remind people of the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade”, and it gives people “a chance to think about the historic causes, the methods and the consequences”, the UN says.

The date recalls the uprising that began in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in August 1791 that “weakened the Caribbean colonial system” and led to the abolition of slavery and independence for the island. “It marked the beginning of the destruction of the slavery system, the slave trade and colonialism,” says the UN.

The organization is also preparing to launch the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), which should further help to advance dialogue about the 400 years of the trade in humans and its lasting effects.

Nankoe’s The Slave Flies Away comprises essays edited from lectures given in September 2009 in Amsterdam at an international conference on the relationship between historical novels and the imaging of the Netherlands’ history of slavery.

The speakers included the book’s co-editors and a multi-lingual roster of academics who explored the role of art forms on the public perception of slavery, and discussed the function of art in current debates about slavery's effects, particularly on the descendants of those enslaved.

The book focuses on the work of artists such as Letitia Brunst, Remy Jungerman, Frank Creton, Elis Juliana, Natasja Kensmil, and Ras Ishi Butcher, all of whom have portrayed slavery in one form or another. It includes literary contributions from a number of writers, including Rijssen.

Nankoe’s next project, still in its infancy, is a book with historian Jean Jacques Vrij that will comprise photographs from 1863, when slavery was abolished in Suriname. She believes that with the rise of nationalism and racism in many areas of the world, it's imperative to discuss these issues.

Meanwhile, her literary studies (she holds a degree in Modern Literature from the French university La Sorbonne) are continuing. Books she has edited include De komst van de slangenvrouw en andere verhalen van Caribische schrijfsters (The Arrival of the Snake Woman and Other Stories by Caribbean Writers), a collection that introduced several authors to a Dutch audience for the first time.