22 titles of books looked at me when I entered my apartment on the campus of Seattle University at 3.30am in the morning. For someone who loves the literature and from a country where you will seldom find contemporary literature, this is the best experience in one’s life. The U.S. Embassy in Suriname nominated me for participation in December 2017 for SUSI2018 (The Study of The US Institute Contemporary American Literature 2018), funded by the Department of State in Washington DC. In April of this year I heard that I was one of the 18 people from around the world who made the cut. Yelling has always been my first reaction.
Prior to the start of the program, that began on 29 June and ran for six weeks, we had received reading material in PDF format to prepare us for the seminars. For six weeks we were in care of Seattle University (SU) in the literary landscape of America. The SU had developed an intense program, so that we could get a good impression of the history of America, its culture through the eyes of American literature. It was a veritable maelstrom of prose, poetry, plays, museums, buildings, movies, books, theories, hikes and history. For us that meant every day preparing for the seminars, in the afternoon, an activity that always had to do with literature, readings in the evening for the next day so one could fully participate during the seminars. By us, I mean the 18 SUSI participants from Tunesia, Belarus, Chili, Cameroon, India, Thailand, Indonesia and so on (link SUSI participants). I love reading, am never bored: but reading at least 22 books, essays, poems etc. in six weeks, required that I become a professional speed-reader.
John Ashberry, Elisabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, these are all classical authors that I’ve never heard before. Of course Surinamers read James Baldwin, Audry Lorde and Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, the so-called ‘ black authors ‘, but names like Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler and Allen Ginsberg were altogether new to me. ‘ Howl ‘, a poem by Allen Ginsberg still haunts me. Contemporary authors were new discoveries as well. Sherman Alexie whom we had a seminar with, sat with us and spoke candidly about his work as native American writer.
Suriname’s literary canon has always been influenced by the Dutch. Even what is translated from non-Dutch or non-Western literature. At high school we still read ancient literature. We are stuck in time when it comes to a contemporary literary canon, to my great frustration. It is ridiculous that good literature is ignored. It’s not strange that reading is not a popular passtime among students. Our teachers are mentally too lazy to put modern books on the canon. (Yes, I said it!) I have the anthologies of prose and poetry before me and I’m wondering why I haven’t seen them before.
‘Don’t tell anyone, but I am going to start a revolution against the Dutch Literature.’ That was the joke I often made during the seminars. I tripped from one amazement into the next. There are so much more similarities in themes when reading books from non-white American writers. I told Michiel van Kempen recently on the phone, author of the history of Surinamese literature, that I often had mentioned his name: ‘For God’s sake, a Dutch white man wrote the history of Surinamese literature and we are independent since 1975!’ Everything is determined by the Dutch; even what Surinamese literature is! Everything is still determined by what is translated in The Netherlands and what is considered literature. Obviously this is due to us being a former colony. Suriname’s legislation, our education, our culture, everything are till affected by that. Van Kempen did laugh and was very happy to listen to my plans for my institute and the American literature. We’re very good friends. I am still wondering when Suriname is willing to write her own history from her own perspective. It has so much to do with how we look at ourselves, our history, how we deal with ourselves and where we want to go. I have often thought during classes: throw away those history books! The American reader has so much more to chose from, it’s almost like the writers are so much more brighter then the writers I usually encounter. They had so much more to endure and still they kept their own voice. I was the only one in the group that had no English faculty in her country! And we’re living on planet earth, watching 24 hour American Tv shows, news, live in the Caribbean where English is spoken, etc. All other colleagues from the 17 different countries are teaching American or British literature at their universities. Yes, I felt really disadvantaged at times.
That subordination provided a pleasant advantage for me when Dr. John C. Bean presented me with a copy in Dutch of his book ‘Engaging ideas; the professor’s guide to Integrated Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. He conducted a workshop for us ‘ Flipping the classroom’. It struck me that the education at the universities is predominantly ‘ active learning ‘ and ‘ critical thinking. In my work as a writing teacher I’ve always used Peter Elbow’s methodologies, not the Dutch methodology in which I was taught. I find the approach of American educators less analytical, ‘more natural ‘ (Yes, I said it!) and closer to Surinames perception. Probably because of the different ethnic backgrounds that are similar to ours. The teaching methodologies and pedagogy are based on learning how to learn. It is not a one-way street as it is here; 25 or more in a classroom and you have to sit attentive and quietly and listen at the teacher. The discussion is triggered by problem-driven objectives where you learn to think, where you will learn to argue, where you will learn to write, where you will learn to listen and debate. The teacher coaches throughout the process. That was really the key fact for me; writing is a form of thinking. All universities where we had seminars had that. Dr. June Johnson had a workshop in designing a syllabus and curriculum. The syllabus was based on one or two of the books that appealed to us most. Each one of us made a draft design within its own context, within the own composition of our education. There was feedback on our drafts and we received a wide range of practical tips from the professors.
That ‘ subordination ‘ is also a challenge for me: to at least arrange a course in American literature. Of course, I have to see if there is enough interest. A lot of books are to be read and I have to coach it very well. The great thing about programs like SUSI is that you can participate afterwards in alumni networks around the globe. We were also introduced to Padlet, an application on the internet that is super-economic for developing countries. It’s a digital bulletin board where you can post all documents and students have immediate access. Handouts, links to books, essays, pdfs, movies; everything is there. That means less printing, less gasoline to go the printers etc. You can keep it private or public, and it’s free. My brain has grown a few centimeters. I have a totally different vision now, of the direction I’m heading into . I really wished that I could take the experience of the six weeks, put it on a memory stick and share it with everyone who is interested in Suriname. I can safely say that SUSI2018 is a life-changing experience!
The professors were proportionate in gender and all experts in their fields! All of them had delved into their own ethnic history, identity and culture. All of them had written books and essays on their specific interests.
Interestingly, the term Latinx was used instead of Latino or Latina. It has been two years, said dr Ricardo Ortiz, Chair of English at the Georgetown university, that the gender-neutral term, to classify latino and latina subjects has been used. Native American, Christina Roberts, also made an impression on me when she passionately discussed Bad Indians, written by Deborah Miranda, and their position in the USA. There were many moments where the group was visibly emotional when we were talking about certain passages from the books or essays. Venus Hottentot, the story of Saartje Baartman was one of those. I have often felt anger and helplessness from all that injustice done to humans.
NOTHING REALLY CHANGED
Something I think the organization could not get around the topicality of America: racism that seems to get a revival with its new leader. ‘ They still are racist, they’ve never changed! ‘ a fellow student told me one day. At the welcoming speeches it rained apologies for that what is now going on in America. It’s really sad to hear and to see how non-whites are treated. The Mexicans and African Americans especially. Before now James Baldwin’s work, Maya Angelou’s, Nina Simone’s activism did not speak to me. I can understand Trevor Noah’s obsession with racial issues. I made the comment during Dr. Robert Patterson’s (Chair of African American Studies) class that it looks as if the history of America begins with slavery and not the African continent. He answered me that slavery, the Jim-Crow era after that had destroyed many of the heritages and some of the ex-slaves did not want to tell their stories. Slavery was abolished, but the psychological hold of slavery not. It’s pretty scary what has happened and still is happening above all with black/brown people. In the hotels I saw on the news the ongoing police-brutality. It is different witnessing this racism when staying in the US than watching CNN news in Suriname. I never walked alone in the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco or DC and I always travel alone…
The visit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture has nestled itself into my psyche. All museums in Washington DC are free. You have to reserve an online ticket at 6.30 am, otherwise you won’t get in. It’s too busy. A giant elevator brings you back in time where it all started, the fourteen hundreds. In a dimly lit space you see how America’s history began. The different floors give a sometimes macabre display of what the the black man has endured. It’s horrible to go to all those images, all those replicas. It’s horrible to see those white laughing faces that castrate and hang a black man. The creators of this museum managed to let the visitor ‘ feel ‘ slavery, feel injustice, feel rage when walking through the floors. Many came out with puffy eyes. I sat on a bench, digesting it all when someone sat down next to me. It was the SUSI program director, Charles Tung, who asked if I was ok. ‘ How can humans be so cruel? ‘ I asked and broke into tears. ‘ It’s ok to cry Ruth. Thank you for that. ‘
SUSI 2018 was intense, in all its meaning. But the gratitude, I have felt, and all of us, was big. We have been able to look at America’s culture through the eyes of literature in its purest form. Thank you for that SUSI! SUSI2018, Thank you!
Ruth San A Jong