Summary A History of Surinamese Literature - Michiel van Kempen
This study presents a history of Surinamese oral and written literature from the earliest known sources up to the year of the independence of the Republic of Suriname, 1975. In Suriname twenty two languages are being used, some of these however only in non-literary registers like religious rituals. The three major literary languages are (Surinamese)-Dutch, being the official language and also the mother tongue to ever more people, the lingua franca Sranantongo (or Sranan), language of slaves and their descendants but nowadays spoken by the majority of the Surinamese, and Sarnami, language of the largest section of the population, the Indians or Hindustani. Quantitatively Dutch is by far the most important language for prose, while Dutch and Sranan balance each other in poetry. Sarnami became important in literary texts only quite recently, after 1977. Surinamese-Javanese, language of the third largest community is used as a written language rather sporadically, while oral literature in this language is under heavy pressure, not to say on the verge of disappearing. All other languages do not reach beyond some thousand or even a few hundred people and are rarely used in written literature.
Theoretical part I deals with tracing down, describing and organizing sources and on many other problems of writing a history of literature. Specific attention is paid to the way scolars in areas with multicultural constellations comparable to the Surinamese one, have tried to describe literature, in South-Africa, India and the Caribbean. Subsequently a number of epistemological principles are being discussed, notably ideas on colonial and postcolonial literatures. The position of the historian of literature is discussed, as is his ideology, the meaning of writing a national history of literature, the framing of the corpus, the position of colonial literature and the transformation of organized material into a narrative structure. Resulting from all this is a definition of Surinamese literature:
Surinamese literature encloses all oral and written texts and other communicative expressions (interactions) having an aspect of literarity, created in one or more languages of the communities of Suriname, and taking part in the retro-active historical process of contributing to one of the traditions who constitute Surinamese national identity.
In the final paragraphs of part I a model of writing a history of literature will be presented. In short this model amounts to this. Point of departure is that there are all kinds of approaches to literature (from sociology, structuralism, biografism etc.), and all these kinds of approaches generate information. What a history of literature does, is bringing together pieces of this information, ordering them and giving them a place in an analytical narrative. Small elements form the building stones of a Profile: a series of characteristics giving a coherent description of works of an author, or the literary activities of a company. All Profiles taken together guide up to the Pattern: the broad lines of the history of literature. If desired one might zoom in on one of the corner stones making up the Profiles; this is done in so-called Close-ups.
The core of each Profile consists of four building materials, simply: language, style, structure and contents of a text. These materials may be varied endlessly. This means that an adequate description of these four elements can identify a text as a unique work of art. Around these are more building materials backing up the description, but none of these make up the core of the literary text, but they belong to the context: the affinity between authors, the way texts are received by the audience and critics, the production and promotion of a book by printers and editing houses etc.
Now every literature, and indeed Surinamese's, may only be well understood within a cultural-historical framework, drawing in broad lines the developments in society. Thus in every chapter is considered the general history (political, economical, social and mental), the demographic history, the cultural orientation and organisation of the Surinamese people, language politics and education, developments in the field of arts and entertainment, and main developments within the Surinamese migrants community in the Netherlands. Subsequently the economics of literature of each period is sketched: printing and editing houses, book and book trade, libraries, newspapers and periodicals, reading audience and reader's associations, writers organizations and literary awards.
This history of literature does not aim merely at a collection of positivist facts, but tries to bring facts into a logical interconnection and moreover in a narrative context. It's then inevitable to conclude that objectivity does not exist, because choices have to be made at all levels. I have tried to find a basis of my approach in the philosophical pluralism of H. Procee. He starts from the impossibility to lay down once and for all the neverending dynamics of interactions, and seeks the quality of those interactions in the possibility to continue them. A counterpart within the theory of literature can be found in the intercultural study of literature, offering a starting point to render explanation in the best possible way of the position of the literary historian, his background and cultural-historical context, his way of gathering knowledge and the occurance of possible gaps, and his set of norms, if one wishes: his shortcomings in judgment.
To describe Surinamese literature in the best way possible, I try to take as a starting point the Caribbean region (to this purpose Jack Corzani has introduced the concept of recentrage). In this way of describing some notions may be of use, having stripped them of their western connotations: multilingualism, multi-etnicity, multiculturalism, in-between-position, creoleness, roots, orality, resistance.
Part II of this study deals with oral literature. Non-written literatures have been extremely vital, authentic and essential domaines of expression, and they still are up to the present day. The influence of oral culture on written literature is substantial; leaving out oral literature could never lead to an adequate description of written literature. The introductory paragraph of part II is going into this delicate relationship between oral and written literature.
In the introduction first the esthetic function of oral literature is discussed. Pointed out is the holistic framework oral texts are functioning in: the distinction between sacred and profane texts, amusement and education is in general less sharp than it is in western cultures. There is a complex connection between status and structure of oral texts, very important is the way texts are performed, the `ritual performance', and texts nearly always belong to a larger unity with song and dance.
The chapter traces what kind of texts and related ways of expression originating from oral tradition are known by different sections of the Surinamese population. A synchronic description is given of all forms of oral literature still existing within two Surinamese village communities, the Amerindian community of Galibi (Caribs) and the Maroon village of Yaw-Yaw (Saramaccan). The results of this inventory are linked with the information given in research sources on the subjects. For other Amerindian and Maroon tribes this history of literature is based on existing research papers, written for the major part by anthropologists. In those paragraphs the historiographic state of affairs is given and scientific findings are communicated on the basis of existing recordings on tape and paper, completed with new information of specialists.
The oldest inhabitants of Suriname are the Amerindians. The two largest tribes are the Kari'na (or Caribs) and the Lokonon (or Arhawaks) who, like the much smaller tribe of Warao, find their habitat in the coastal area. Tarëno (or Trio), Wayana and Akuriyo are all living deep into the interior of the country, not far from the Brazilian border. Each of these peoples get a general social-cultural description, preceding an extensive inventory of their stories, songs and proverbs and the way these function. Stories and songs with special magical power are known only to the pyjai or shaman who plays a crucial role in all tribes. Analyses of an Arhawak and a Trio story make clear how natural and supernatural, human and animal form one inseparable unity to all Amerindians.
Afro-Surinamese, descendants of African slaves brought in chaines to the New World, are distinguished into Maroons (living in the interior of the country) and Creoles (living in the capital and the coastal area). Their oral culture exists strongly in the sign of winti, the Afro-American religion and way of living. Among the six Maroon peoples Saramaccan and Ndyuka are by far the largest groups, while Matawai, Paamaka, Aluku (or Boni) and Kwinti are smaller. An inventory of stories, songs, dances, proverbs and riddles is made for each of these peoples. The special way of story telling and singing and dancing is depicted. Different oral genres of the Creoles are reviewed as well. Special attention is paid to the Anansitori, stories brought from Africa, the spider Anansi playing the major role. This trickster figure became an identification character in slavery times, and has ever since been a very popular figure in all his appearances. Two story tellers, Aleks de Drie and Harry Jong Loy are portrayed. There is a description of the sacred dance ritual known to Creoles as wintiprei, followed by the depiction of the development and function of different kinds of profane plays, which all carried elements of creole resistance against colonial suppression. The Du [Do] is a dramatized play with fixed characters and was present as a great musical comedy already in slavery times. Lobisingi [Lovesong] and Laku are of more recent origin. Immigrant groups arriving later also brought in their own cultural heritage, giving it in the course of time an ever more Surinamese appearance. In the culture of British-Indian contract labourers and their descendants old religious thinking and ancient eopopees like the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata played a vital role, and still do so up to the present day. Yearly performances of the Rāmlīlā [The Play of Ram], have always attracted huge crowds. Many story, theatre and song forms were strongly affected by the experiences of contract time. Baithak gáná [seated singing] got very popular, in the beginning accompaniment music for theatrical performances, but in the course of time developing into a special genre based on Surinamese texts. An analysis of a story explains how contract labourers from Java too have given their culturale heritage a specific Surinamese appearance. Their cultural baggage manifested itself in singing, wayang [shadow theatre], theatre, cabaret and dance (jaran képang [horse dance] being the most spectacular). Other sections of the Surinamese population (Chinese, Lebanese, Jews) have presented themselves less manifestically in the spectrum of Surinamese cultures.
16th and 17th century
From the end of the eighteenth century onwards one might speak of an indigenous written literature of Suriname. As far as the colonial era is concerned, this history of literature confines itself primarily to texts produced within the literary infrastructure of Suriname, or texts having had direct significance for the Surinamese situation (for instance in debates on the abolition of slavery). Some Dutch texts are discussed having functioned within literary debates in Suriname, thus throwing more light on Suriname's own literary value system.
Out of the encounter with the oldest inhabitants of Guiana came a mythological representation of the `Amerindians'. Without doubt early travel accounts have contributed to the belief in the existence of the gold lake Parima (Eldorado), thus enlargening the attractiveness of the area to adventurours. At the end of the seventeenth century the ongoing quarrels between European powers were brought to a provisional end, when the Treaty of Breda of 1667 adjudged the territory of present-day Suriname and a huge part of Guiana to the Republic of the United Netherlands. As yet the - sometimes imagined - contours of Suriname arose only from European, especially Dutch sources, which for that reason belong to the story of the earliest phase of the birth of Surinamese literature. It is still too early to speak of a `Surinamese' written literature; textual material consisted of all kinds of reports, diaries, pamphlets and sailor songs, witnessing embryonic colonial society. No doubts about slavery were expressed, for the line of Cham had been predestinated to subjection. No fiction was written in these centuries, although one can not deny the esthetic quality of some texts, like the diary of Elisabeth van der Woude, dating from 1676.
A huge part of the eigteenth century was dominated by the plantation-sweeping attacks of runaways and the costly patrols undertaken against them. These events have been depicted in several descriptions of the colony, but slave society was primarily charted by three non-Dutch authors: Aphra Behn, Voltaire and John Gabriel Stedman. The image of Suriname as an extremely cruel slave colony was created by them, although it is hard to tell whether they exercised their influnce directly, or through well-known histories by Hartsinck, Van Hoëvell or Wolbers. Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or The royal slave from 1688 for instance wasn't translated into Dutch before the twentieth century. All the same with Oroonoko she created an archetype for all versions of the noble slave in later fiction. The expedition account of the Scottish captain Stedman Narrative of a five years' expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam from 1796 set its stamp on the representation of slavery in numerous nineteenth-century prose stories, thanks also to the engravings in his book (the `photography' of his times).
Two colonial personalities have written notable works: reverend J.W. Kals and governor J.J. Maurcius. They didn't reject slavery as such, but they brought charges against the excrescences of the slavery system and the devious planters' coteries. With his satirical theatre piece Het Surinaamsche Leeven [Surinamese life] (1771) an author calling himself Don Experientia confirmed the image of a society dominated by the rabble, for whom the only thing that mattered was the pursuit of profit.
Enlightenment thinking gradually provided another image of plantation society. No longer were negroes only uncivilized savages. The anonymous Geschiedenis van een neger [History of a negro] from around 1770 created the person of the good master, a character worked out by Elisabeth Maria Post in Reinhart (1791-1792). This epistolary novel was the first Dutch text of fiction treating colonial problems in depth.
In none of these texts the black man is the protagonist. The spectatorial writing De denker [The thinker] from 1774 introduced black perspective by giving word to an African, who in a subtle way criticized the system of slavery. Most probably the work was written by a white author. One who surely spoke for himself was Quassi of Timotibo, whose erudition compels the admiration of many. Considered for a long time as a questionable individual for his collaboration with colonial powers, he now tends to be seen as the personifaction of an intelligent and bold resistance against a subjugating system.
With Enlightenment slavery had become and important theme in Dutch literature, for the first time also in texts written in the colony itself. The last decades of the eighteenth century brought the historical path of written literature to a decisive fork. The earliest initiatives for an indigenous Surinamese literature may be seen at this time, although the Netherlands would remain an important point of reference for imagination and cultural life.
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century the feastdays of Suriname as a conquered colony had gone. Nevertheless a remarkable cultural upspring was seen, explained by different factors: the creation of a permanent population, growing interracial contacts, a stronger hold on plantation economy from the capital Paramaribo, and a strong orientation towards Europe where the Enlightenment gave impelling impulses to intellectual life. Especially this last factor left deep marks in the colony, where Jews contributed a lot to cultural life. They moved their cultural center from Jodensavanne on the savannah to Paramaribo near the coast, set up their own organisations, participating remarkably enough at the same time in all non-jewish writers' societies. The Jews also signed for an important historical source, the Essai historique sur la colonie de Surinam (1788) by David Nassy and others.
The earliest reports on theatre performances date from around 1770. Christians and Jews principally played the same European tragedies and comedies, but they each had their own theatre building and theatrical group, jewish De Verreezene Phoenix [Phoenix arosen] being the most distinguished one. Important linguistic results were made in the field of Amerindian and Creole languages, but apart from a single text in `Negro-English' (Sranan), all texts in vernaculars were laid down for missionary purposes. Newspaper notices on auction sales of books show how many upper-class people possessed large book collections. Educational facilities were growing, although as yet not spectacular. W.J. Beeldsnyder Matroos began the first printing business in 1772 and two years later started the publication of the first newspaper, de Weekelyksche Woensdaagsche Surinaamse Courant [Weekly Wednesday Surinamese Newspaper]. It was followed by several others, of which De Surinaamsche Nieuwsvertelder [The Surinamese Newsreporter] (1785-1793) caught the eye with sharp, satirical articles. The Surinaamsche Courant [Surinamese Newspaper], appearing for the first time in 1790, existed in different editions until 1883. There were no real bookshops, yet in 1783 a first public library opened its doors. Society life flourished as never before: masonic lodges shot up like mushrooms, several learned and literary societies were founded, among othres De Surinaamsche Lettervrinden [The Surinamese Friends of Literature]. It published four collections Letterkundige Uitspanningen [Literary Demonstrations]. Within circles around this last society we found three of the most remarkable men (women were not found in this man's world): Jacob Voegen van Engelen who published the magazine De Surinaamsche Artz [The Surinamese Medicine], Hendrik Schouten, writer of a small number of satirical poems, and the man with the largest oeuvre: Paul François Roos. At least part of their texts are still very readable, be it for their satirical power (Voegen van Engelen, Schouten), be it for their lively art of description (Roos). In so far as their thinking is concerned, all three were representatives of a colonial society bringing its fruits to their country of birth, the Netherlands. But at the same time all three were especially devoted to their new country, the first two being more critical than the last, whose cream-coloured images made an incorrect picture of slave reality. All three choose not to leave the colony and died in Suriname. In considerable extent they contributed to the fact that for the first time in the existence of Suriname one could speak of a lively literary life and a real literary circuit. As yet no coloured man or woman participated in this world.
`Development of literature' is a concept the historian of nineteenth-century Suriname isn't able to deal with. The Netherlands remained the main point of orientation to cultural Suriname, while the Netherlands measured Suriname in terms of economics. Until the educational laws of 1876 `the motherland' saw no mission of civilization reserved for itself in the colony.
In the first half of the century Surinamese society was strongly dominated by colonial censorship. This situation didn't offer a good breeding-ground for ambitious initiatives, although now and then individuals did give some impulses to literary life. H.C. Focke for instance was most likely the author of the note-worthy `Proof of Negro-English Poetry' entitled Njoe-jaari-singi Voe Cesaari [New Year's Song for Cesar] in the middle of the thirties. Focke was one of the most active members of the Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen [Society for Public Welfare] which was the most important instigator of intellectual activity. Focke was also the author of a first ever printed Negro-English Dictionary in 1855. From 1838 through 1839 J.J. Engelbrecht edited the cultural-social monthly De kolonist [The colonist], printing off interesting essays. E.A. Jellico van Gogh and E. Soesman thought the colony should have a literature-loving society and founded in 1835 Oefening Kweekt Kennis [Exercise Breeds Knowledge]. In 1856 it published a yearbook with a piece of prose by transient Christina van Gogh, which stood emphatically in function of christian ethics, and contributions by Soesman and Van Gogh. Jellico van Gogh situated his psychological novelette De gouden sleutel [The golden key] - the first in Surinamese literature - in the colony. Reverend Cornelis van Schaick, who stayed in Suriname from 1852 to 1861, stood out as an energetic publicist with articles in Surinamese newspapers, with a collection of poems for the Surinamese youth and the novel De manja [The mango], a remarkable piece of work full of liberal ideas. Van Schaick and Focke were among the founders of West-Indië [West-Indies] (1854-1858), which turned out to be a worthly successor to De kolonist. We do not find any programmed standpoints on literature in this magazine, likewise the absence of any reflection on what was written shows an impressive vacuum in the entire nineteenth-century. Ch. Landré and F.A.C. Dumontier, both editors of West-Indië, took in 1857 the initative to the Surinamese Colonial Library, which stayed the most important book collection for the century to come.
In the works of Van Gogh and Soesman one might discover a late attempt to join in Romanticism, but the great international literary movements apparently weren't strong enough to reach Suriname against the Amazon-current. That nineteenth-century concepts of literature had changed drastically, that the writer's personality got another individuality: in Suriname no one seemed to know and nobody seemed to care. There were welfare societies and lodges though, but no chambers of rhetoric able to pick up international debates and give them drive.
Theatre life however for the major part of the century showed striking activity. Dramatic art in the first decades was dominated by groups like Oeffening Kweekt Kunst [Exercise Breeds Art] and De Verreezene Phoenix [Phoenix Arisen]. A group broke away from De Verreezene Phoenix and continued under the name of Theatre Graave Straat. After a period of malaise in the thirties, the new theatre company Thalia opened the doors of its new-built theatre in 1840. The predominantly jewish company started a glorious history, already from 1853 onward marked by never-ending problems with decay and restoration of its building. Theatre programming was almost always after the European fashion. Theatre writing of Surinamese origin during the nineteenth century has been characterized by its extreme discontinuity. A handful of original plays are known as well as a small number of adaptations of European theatre pieces.
The abolition debate raged in the Netherlands since the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless when we draw up the balance of the first half of the century, it becomes clear that no great, influential text has ever been written on Surinamese slavery. There has never been a prominent book capable of drawing the attention of the audience at large on the crying abuses in the West-Indies, let alone a work affecting public opinion. Not until W.R. baron van Hoëvell in 1854 published his Slaven en vrijen onder de Nederlandsche wet [Slaves and free men under Dutch law], a larger public in the Netherlands had their eyes opened to a situation already belonging to the past in most of the colonies of other imperialist powers.
The abolition of slavery in 1863 first of all provided for a revival of journalism. Greatest gain scored in the century has been the expansion of education: at the start of the century there were only a few private schools for whites and mulattoes belonging to the higher classes, while in 1876 there were numerous schools and compulsory education was proclaimed.
In the years following the abolition of slavery some exceptional writers showed up. Kwamina (pseudonym of W. Lionarons) wrote notable novels taking place in his own age. Jetta (1869) and Nanni of Vruchten van het vooroordeel [Nanni or the Fruits of Prejudice] (1881) are situated in a decor of decaying plantations and a colony trying to move towards a new economic system. To that purpose Kwamina introduced for the first time within Surinamese literature a character well-known in the Caribbean context: the mulatress. The author pleads for human working conditions for the labourers, but his idea of the world is essentially not different from earlier Dutch-colonial authors. Nevertheless Kwamina was a native Surinamese from an old Surinamese family, and his work - in Dutch with dialogues in `Negro-English' - belongs to Surinamse literature, as does that of the Matawai Maroon Johannes King. King wrote thousands of pages in Sranan, among them some sensational visions. With his travel accounts and diaries King was shown to be as evangelical as the major part of the writers of his century.
The part of the colony Suriname constituting the literate city culture, showed a renaissance of cultural life after 1890, only known a hundred years earlier. Although this feast took place within the borders of Paramaribo, the `upper' was no longer exclusively white and had long since integrated other races, and had widened considerably. New groups of immigrants from British-India and Java stayed outside for the time being.
The advent of modern life in the capital was seen in electric street lamps, wireless telegraphy and the first movies. The quality of printing had improved, it was the printer and publisher H.B. Heyde who showed up with a whole range of important book publications. The library system grew exponentially and, like journalistic life, was developed along three lines: evangelical, catholic and neutral. Numerous new newspapers appeared and had their mutual debates. The Nieuwe Surinaamsche Courant [New Surinamese Newspaper] usually came up with an entire page of news on Suriname in section like `City news' and `Art and literature'. The contours of a serious art criticism became clearer. Ideas on the function of criticism were exchanged; in this respect also a contribution was made by one of the many new reader's clubs with its periodical Kennis Adelt [Knowledge Ennobles]. In almost all reviews, regardless of the denomination of the newspaper, one could see a combination of an ethical norm concerning the text, with an artistic opinion on the actor's performance. Guidelines were always drawn from what Holland had to say in this respect. Those keeping in touch with Holland actively, united in the Group Suriname of the Algemeen Nederlandsch Verbond [General Dutch Union].
In the mean time in Dutch eyes Suriname had moved to the periphery of the Kingdom of the Netherlands farther away than ever before. It is true that J. de Liefde in his short novel De geschiedenis van een kankantrieboom [The history of a giant cottontree] from 1891 put behind the stereotypical way of describing Surinamese colonial history, but the representation of Suriname and the Surinamese in Dutch literature on the whole - and especially in missionary literature - stuck to old schemes, not to say racist clichés.
Surinamese readers seeing themselves in this mirror, will certainly not be encouraged to correct their self-image. The strong neerlandocentric cultural policy after 1876 won't have cooperated in this respect either.
In the opening years of the twentieth century several writings as a reaction to the decay of plantation agriculture, showed a tendency towards looking back on the nineteenth century with a certain nostalgia. The decay of the agricultural colony gives reason to lamentations on `the good old days' in memoir-like texts.
Nevertheless some signs pointed towards a very gradual mental reorientation. The little diplomatic demeanour of governor De Savornin Lohman caused a strenghtening of national feelings, expressed in many occasional poems. In Surinamese history and folk-life the material was found for new genre, usually work of realistic nature. Three personalities left their mark on literary life in a special way. G.G.T. Rustwijk published Matrozenrozen [Hibiscus] (1915), the first collection of poetry by a poet born in Suriname. J.G. Spalburg came with the first collection of Surinamese prose sketches: Bruine Mina de koto-missi [Brown Mina the girl in the creole dress] (1913). With Een Beschavingswerk [A Work of Civilisation] (1923), published under the name of Ultimus, Richard O'Ferrall wrote Surinamese first roman à clef; the satirical nature of the story makes it a remarkable book within the limits of its time. The work by these three writers still bears numerous reminiscences to slavery and agricultural economy, but all three also look further ahead. As representatives of the rational thought and modernity, they contributed to the rejuvenated intellectual life of their days.
The orientation towards the Netherlands has been furthermore strongly contradicted by the work of five men publishing after 1900. F.H. Rikken published in the daily De Surinamer [The Surinamese] in serial form three extensive and much-read historical novels, showing him to be the most talented writer of his time. Jacques Samuels wrote a series of prose pieces, which weren't collected until 1946 in Schetsen en typen uit Suriname [Sketches and types from Suriname]. Johann F. Heymans with his historical novel Suriname als ballingsoord of Wat een vrouw vermag [Suriname as country of exile, or What a woman is capable of] (1911), E.J. Bartelink with planter's memories, A.W. Marcus with poetry and speeches and some writers of naturalistic sketches marked up a literary production bearing a clear Surinamese hallmark. In their texts one sees the earliest experiments with Surinamese-Dutch - something they were not always thanked for. With the colourful street singer Goedoe Goedoe Thijm oral and written literatures find their link: he sang about current events, but also had his songs printed as leaflets.
Clergyman C.P. Rier signed for high quality work in `Negro-English' with Bible translations and songs. Sranan turned up a few times in poems or cabaret texts, but texts in other vernaculars remained very rare outside religious life and oral literature.
Theatre life after 1890 was less well organized than in the preceding century. Thalia saw turbulent years ahead. It kept bringing repertory pieces, although no longer in subscriber's series. Renewal of theatre life had to be sought in other companies like Oefening Baart Kennis [Exercise Bears Knowledge] and several others, who in general existed only for a short time. The first Surinamese plays were written and staged: Lucij by R.A.P.C. O'Ferrall in 1896, Te laat of De wraak van een' Boer [Too late or The revenge of a farmer] by Jacques Samuels in 1900 en de Wagnerian-mythical Het pand der goden [The Pledge of the Gods] by J.N. Helstone in 1906. Joh.C. Marcus with his Deugd en belooning of Hoogmoed komt voor den val [Virtue or reward, or Haughtiness is overthrown] made clear how Dutch theatre still supplied the example in 1910: the play did not have any reference whatsoever to Suriname and proved to be a variant on nineteenth-century Dutch play-writing on the father/judge-theme. The riotous atmosphere during the presentations of the play shows it certainly wasn't a recommendation to be a homegrown playwright.
In what theatres had to offer three kinds of performances draw most: the `soirées variées' (cabaret shows with a mixed programme), children's operettas and operettas. These three genres made the theatres become houses for an evermore wider public. In their programming dancing- and sportclubs brought cabaret, farces, sketches and sometimes small tragedies too. They contributed to lowering the thresholds of the theatre temples. For the major part the `lower classes' still kept out of the cultural business, but the transformation of oral folk culture to popular theatre in the second half of the twentieth century, made a decisive step forward in the changing art of performance in the first half of the century.
With the publication in 1923 of the collection of poems De glorende dag [The dawning day] by Lodewijk Lichtveld - who became famous as Albert Helman - a new phenomenon occurred. Books by Surinamese writers had been published in the Netherlands before. But 1923 marks the starting point of the Netherlands as the country of residence of many writers. Surinamese migrants' literature was born, a literature having much in common with that of Suriname, but distinguishing itself however in many ways from native literature too. Authors being positioned quite differently in the field of literary force and in the world at large, see their perspective change. With changing perspectives and realities new themes were brought up, often asking for other ways of treating ideas. With Zuid-Zuid-West [South-South-West] (1926) Albert Helman wrote a classical nostalgia novel, but the first generation of loners treated migrants' themes in a not very pronounced way. It was not until the great migrations in the sixties that these themes became common property of writers. A possible explication may be found in the fact that the first authors settling down in Holland - Albert Helman, Rudie van Lier, Hugo Pos - culturally had belonged to the assimilated upper class of Surinamese society and easily joined in with literary circles in Holland. A separate position was held by Anton de Kom. He joined in the marxist group of Links Richten [Orientate Left] and with Wij slaven van Suriname [We slaves of Suriname] (1934) attempted a rewriting of Surinamese history as a charge against Dutch colonialism.
Helman built up a huge oeuvre, quantitatively and qualitatively by far the most important of the twentieth century. With his departure, for a long time no important texts in the Dutch language were written in Suriname. Until about 1950 cultural life followed the beaten tracks of religious denominations: catholic, evangelical, jewish and ever stronger hindu and islamic. For the time being the quills brought forward rather traditional toadyisms in stead of daring work of a personal nature, still the churches played a role in sensitizing to word and literary shape youngsters who made themselves heard later. The newspapers of the interbellum offered almost the only means of publication to writers of the interbellum. With poems on the Dutch royal house, serials made in Holland and art sections still dealing with Dutch theatre and literature, the newspapers strenghtened the orientation of the higher and upper middle class towards the so-called `motherland'.
The Second World War had decisive meaning to social-cultural life in the period 1923-1957. The encampment of American troops and the cutting-off from Holland made the Surinamese become aware of their own potentialities and the possibility of getting an independent position within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which was put into effect politically with the Charter of 1954). North-American influence had an appreciable effect in many ways. Perhaps it would be going too far to put down post-war zest to this influence, but it certainly wasn't unrelated to it either.
Post-war bastion of the orientation towards the Netherlands became the Foundation for Cultural Cooperation, Sticusa, domiciled in Holland, with the Cultural Centre Suriname (CCS) as her executive organ in Paramaribo. Little by little the CCS though has got significance for the Surinamisation of cultural life.
In the fifties several new educational facilities were created. The growing book business showed that books attracted ever larger ethnic and social groups. Also the growth of the collection, the number of affiliates and the number of loans of the CCS-library show how large the reading audience had become. Media-activities fanned out in all directions, thus doubtlessly contributing a lot to the cultural flourishing of all sections of the population and at the same time the enpowerment of group identity. The world of visual arts developed along the same lines as the world of music and theatre: from sluggish traditionalism in the interbellum to hectical searching after World War II and energetic enthusiasm in the sixties.
After the repatriation of a few writers following World War II, literary life in the Dutch language got a boost. In Suriname Albert Helman - active in many domaines, disputed in many as well - wrote some of his most importants novels and plays. Hugo Pos and Wim Salm supplied theatre life with fresh blood. The newspapers followed them closely, made space for the world of literature and cautiously explored the Caribbean region. There were no literary magazines in the period 1923-1957, but there were two periodicals functioning to a certain extent as such: Spectrum and Opbouw [Construction]. By far the most important cultural Dutch-language periodical, with a serious component of literary criticism, was De West-Indische Gids [The West-Indian Guide], appearing from 1919 through 1960.
The most important developments in the years 1923-1957 took place in the vernaculars, and especially in Sranan, to a lesser extent also in Surinamese-Dutch. In a country with an educational system based on the Dutch pattern and with media - newspapers and since 1935 broadcoasting station AVROS - using the measuring rod of Official Northsea-Dutch, it needed courage to use their own variant of Dutch, Surinamese-Dutch. Still several writers had the nerve to do that. A number of bench marks can be designated in the development of Dutch towards Surinamese-Dutch: the play Woeker [Usury] by Wim Bos Verschuur in 1936, the short stories by Peter Schüngel in the monthly Suriname-Zending [Suriname-Mission] between 1942 and 1946, the novel Viottoe by Kees Neer from 1948, the translation in 1954 of Marc Connelly's Green Pastures by Albert Helman, the staging of Wim Salm's Sjinnie in 1956 and the memoirs by M.Th. Hijlaard Zij en ik [She and me] (printed in 1978).
Sranan and Creole folk culture got a strong push forward by the committee Pohama organizing `Sranannetie': cultural shows with songs and recitations in Sranan. During no less than ten years, from 1946 through 1956, the committee published Foetoe-boi [Messenger boy], a monthly in which consequently all aspects of Sranan and of Creole culture were highlighted. It was the first broadly cultural magazine in Sranan, made by ordinary people, putting up a barrier against the Neerlandocentric orientation of the higher classes. The driving force behind all these activities was schoolmaster J.G.A. Koenders. With numerous essays, school books and song collections he pleaded for the revival of `Surinaams' and a radical transformation of an educational system, which, colonial as ever, `upset our minds and shriveled up our brains'.
Wie Eegie Sanie [Our own Things] became Koenders' most important heir. This group of students and workers gathering around charismatic Eddy Bruma, came into being in the Netherlands around 1950 and moved to Suriname some years later. There it breathed new life into the `Sranannetie' with plays on slave history and backyard life. Wie Eegie Sanie brought an important impulse to a change in the cultural climate and historical consciousness of the Creole population.
In Sranan the best results were shown in drama. Sophie Redmond wrote educational plays, and Paula Velder's translation of Shakespeare's Midsummernight's dream became an important moment in the emancipation of literary Sranan. The stage showed best how Surinamese culture got more and more multiformal, how the transition from oral to written culture took place. The choice of language was reassessed, the national cultural heritage deployed in theatrical imagination and the casts of plays clearly showed the ongoing process of Surinamisation.
Theatre company Thalia again got through a period of revival after the war. Led by Hugo Pos the doors were opened for other than jewish and white actors, Caribbean plays were staged, or foreign plays adapted to the Surinamese audience. Still the emphasis was on plays from Europe and North-America.
Gradually however more and more plays other than the `Thalia-plays' were seen in the theatres, tempting lower-class public to come to the theaters. In the first half of the century Johannes Kruisland's one-man-shows always included acts in `Negro-English'. Evenings of varied entertainment were very popular and in the twenties and thirties short sketches in Sranan were introduced, written by Albertina Rijssel. Thus the Creole popular theatre came up, rooted in the oral tradition of Banya, Du, Laku and Lobisingi, but completely reshaped for stage. Already in 1927 the black women's theatre company Excelsior conducted by J. Vriese, leader of the The Negro Association in Suriname, staged plays in the district town of Moengo. Another company of black women, De Echo [The Echo], arranged productions in Thalia in 1929, causing much upheaval among an audience keen on scandals. After World War II young groups attracted ever more people from the working classes. They strenghtened the genre of the Creole popular theatre, plays primarily in Sranan with snatches in Surinamese-Dutch. This type of theatre is based on a combination of tragedy and humour, a realistic display of everyday problems with hilarious effects. Since the text is hardly ever written down completely, there is always the possibility of improvisation and anticipating on current events. The newspapers, appearing daily after the war, with their regular theatre reviews have certainly contributed to the growth of the interest in theatre.
Indian plays were staged for 99 % in the district areas. In the twenties the first historical plays were performed, based on drama by Indians, but somewhat adapted by Surinamese authors to local circumstances. Hindi was the most important theatre language (Hindi and other Indian languages were also used by the first Hindustani poet, immigrant Rahmān Khān). The old Indian tragedies with their religious themes dominated the scene, but in the course of time texts were simplified, Sarnami being used more frequently and plays of current and realistic contents being staged.
In 1950 a group of Maroons made their appearance in theatre Bellevue, a significant moment in the theatralization and secularization of Maroon culture. As yet the contribution to theatre of Maroons, but also of Javanese, Chinese and Amerindians still remained very limited. The period 1923-1957 did see a strong growth of social-cultural organisations of practically all sections of the population.
Never before a search for reorientation on the nation's characteristics was seen as in the years after 1957, never before identity was so intrusive an object of literary imagination. Elements of all oral traditions were brought within the new context of written texts. Nevertheless these oral traditions had less meaning as a barrier against the influence of European culture, as in the very same time oral elements in the written literature of the Netherlands Antilles had. An explanation for this might be, that oral traditions among the different etnic groups in Suriname were still very much alive and didn't need the revitalisation of the nearly completely forgotten oral literature of the Antilles.
With his collection of poems Trotji [Upbeat] Trefossa presented the overture to a gamut of literary activities. Several poets testified to the inspiration brought by his poetry, but there were numerous factors which in a complex connection and mutual reinforcement have been decisive to the extraordinary dynamics in literature. Around 1950 the educational system was transformed and renewal began to yield profit. The libraries boosted and served tens of thousands of readers in city and district. Paramaribo counted more printers than ever before, a factor not te be underestimated in a situation of literary production under the own control of the writers (editing houses were only of marginal significance). The Sticusa and CCS had the means to support writers with travel grants, scholarships, purchases of their works and awards. Never before the newspapers made so much space for critics following cultural developments devotedly. Lively literary debates - poet Corly Verlooghen often playing the major role - filled up the columns.
The literary magazines Tongoni [Tell me!], Soela [Rapids], Moetete [Carrier bag] and Kolibri [Hummingbird] offered a platform to young writers, as did the literary page of the daily Suriname appearing every two weeks from 1967 to 1969, and in the Netherlands the magazine Mamjo [Patchwork]. With the exception of Kolibri and Mamjo, both kicking against the sluggishness of a preboiled literary nationalism, all periodicals functioned as anthologies without sharp-drawn programmed literary principles. There was hardly any continuity in the contributions to these magazines. Making up an inventory shows a number of 72 authors. Only two of them have contributed to more than two of these periodicals: Shrinivási and Michaël Slory, nowadays regarded as canonized writers of poetry keeping in balance political engagement and personal expression. The magazines themselves didn't show much continuity either: with seven issues Soela has been the longest living.
Young directors brought powerful new impulses to theatre life in the beginning of the seventies. Thus Henk Tjon started a fruitful cooperation with playwright Thea Doelwijt in their `Doe-theatre'. It is clear however that popular drama attracted by far the largest crowds; companies to be mentioned are NAKS of Eugène Drenthe and Jagritie of Goeroedath Kallasingh.
For years AVROS-broadcasting had been ruling the air, but suddenly a whole range of radio stations joined in, giving a substantial role to vernaculars in their programming and creating space for radio plays and cultural programmes. In 1965 Suriname got its own television broadcast as well, but there has never been a substantial drama production for television.
The collapse of the last Pengel-government in 1969 marked the beginning of a very turbulent time. With pure and simple militant poetry for the masses most poets made themselves the mouthpiece of social unrest and the longing for political independence. From the midst of the sixties onward R. Dobru supplied the poetical model for many of the engagés. His poem `Wan bon' [One tree] became the best-known expression of the desire for unification and solidarity among the Surinamese people.
Strikingly enough - and not wholy in line with the unitarian belief of those years - literary production was limited to work in Dutch (René de Rooy, Corly Verlooghen, Shrinivási, Bernardo Ashetu) and Sranan (Eugène Rellum, Johanna Schouten-Elsenhout, Michaël Slory), many writers also writing in both languages. Shrinivási wrote the first poems in Sarnami, Akanamba the earliest poetry in Saamaka and André Pakosie in Ndyuka, but no complete collections of poems were published in any of these languages. Little by little Sarnami got more important as a theatre language; the most important Indian playwright, Goeroedath Kallasingh, manifestically presented Indian cultural heritage as part of the national heritage.
In his poetry Trefossa introduced also migrants' themes and he was not the only one who did so. Many authors in the period 1957-1975 lived for years abroad and underwent the influence of their stay overseas. Paul Marlee for instance wrote a novel in the international modernist tradition, to be analysed as a web of intertextal references: Proefkonijn [Guinea-pig] (published in 1985). In the Netherlands Surinamese authors were found in the students' magazine Mamjo (featuring John Leefmans and Rudi Kross as the sharpest essayists), around the club Ons Suriname [Our Suriname] with its yearly Fri [Free] and the Surinaams Verbond [Surinamese Union] with its two-monthly Djogo [Beer bottle]. After 1968 Leo Ferrier and Bea Vianen gave an enormous boom to the socially engaged still psychologically refined novel, the genre taking its highest flight since Albert Helman. He himself, still present with new books and all kinds of activities, was sharply critizied by the young generation for being a follower of Dutch ideas.
Several Surinamese poets built up an extensive oeuvre and were awarded several times. Prose revived, especially the short story, but in the end few prose writers could cope with the expectations. After their first publications Coen Ooft, Nel Bradley, Benny Ooft, Thea Doelwijt, Ruud Mungroo and Rodney Russel didn't publish much more, or - like Thea Doelwijt - confined themselves to other genres. The rocket-like entry of Leo Ferrier in Surinamese literature with his novel Átman in 1968 was brusquely broken off after his novel El sisilobi. Only Bea Vianen stayed present for almost a decade as a criticaster of Surinamese corruption with five novels and several collections of poetry.
The miraculous deployment of poetical talent, following the time Suriname had not more but versemongers, had its shadow side too however. Lacking a good literary infrastructure, even the best poets published their books under their own control. Absolutely anything, ripe and green was lying side by side in the bookshops. In the year 1975 almost every week a new collection of poems was published. The market threatened to become saturated.
Among migrants' writers some serious cases of psychosis occurred. This alarming phenomenon may be explained by a complex set of social-cultural and psychological factors like the 'multilateral cultural ties' and the problematic identification by black people with a mirror image supplied by whites.
Finally, of a totally different nature is the question in what way the politically engaged work of the sixties and seventies got somewhere. Something like a unifying force seemed to haunt Suriname, certainly if we go by what we can find in literary texts. But looking back on Suriname before 1975, many authors stroke a sceptical note. Two important writers of the new generation had made their debut already around 1970: Edgar Cairo and Astrid Roemer. They would put their stamp mark on Surinamese literature in the Netherlands in the eighties and nineties, their work thus becoming part of Surinamese migrants' literature of post-independence times, a literature showing more self-criticism than ever before.
Translation by the author