Rachida640A National Literature

Keynote address given by Rachida Lamrabet

First presented at The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Brussels


Rachida Lamrabet keynote text: “A National literature”

A few months ago I was invited to give a lecture for the occasion of the 200th
anniversary of the great 19th century Dutch writer Hendrik Conscience, the man
who taught his people, The Flemish, to read. This writer played a historical role
in defining the identity of Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium.

Conscience wrote ‘The Lion of Flanders’ an epic novel about the brave
Flemish resistance in the Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302 against the French
dominancy. He wrote in Dutch which was quite revolutionary. Flemish
writers of his time and those who came far behind him, were only taken
seriously if they wrote in French.

The Flemish writer Maurice Maeterlinck, our only Nobel prize winner for
literature, said for instance that the Dutch language was “un coassement de
grenouilles, mis en grammaire”. Or in plain English; “the croaking of frogs put
into grammar”. Maeterlinck wrote in French.

Conscience defended the importance of the Dutch language through his
literature and played a major role in promoting the idea of a Flemish people. He
adhered to the idea ‘that language is the whole of the people’.

And those who read him began imagining a nation for that Dutch speaking
people. Unfortunately, it is that very idea that divides today our country.

Conscience’s legacy became an important symbol of the Flemish movement, a
movement which at its worst was not afraid to go in alliance with Nazism and

So you can understand that I was unenthusiastic towards the kind of national
literature that Conscience represented because it was too often used to define
a rigid notion of people and of citizens, it was used to justify a politics of
exclusion, and it caused an obsession with identity. Referring to a national
literature was in my eyes referring to something archaic and closed, a monolith
that would not change even if the world was changing.

I felt more comfortable with Ben Okri who said ‘I was born in the world and
I’m at home in the worlds myths’.

So when I was asked to say something about the meaning of Conscience for
me as a writer who came in the seventies with my parents from the north of
Morocco to this brave new country, it was that idea of an almost hostile national literature that dominated my thoughts.

A national literature that I could not touch or add something to it, for it left no
room for other stories because these other stories where simply not considered
to be part of the national patrimony, and they weren’t considered to be part of
the collective narrative.

Sure, these other stories could be very interesting and informative, but they
remained the stories of the others, stories from the periphery, who could
never affect or alter what was considered as the centre and the norm. As
Marc Cloostermans, a book reviewer of one of the two important Flemish
newspapers, puts it plainly; ‘Sure, we like to read allochthonous writers, but
only if they meet our criteria and if they make bold statements we secretly

Here you have it, there is even a word to describe writers like me, I’m
considered to be a special kind of writer; I am called an allochtoon writer. Let
me explain to you what that word means, because there is no equivalent for it in
English. It sounds unfriendly. I can assure you, it is unfriendly.

The word Allochtoon has a Greek origin and means ‘someone who came from
elsewhere’, in opposite to the word autochtoon, which is used to indicate the
Flemish people and means ‘pure, came from the land’. The reality in this
society is that there is a semantic division on the grounds of ethnic origin. You
either are an allochtoon, from the outside or an autochtoon, from the land.

The only chance to get rid of the allochtoon label in this part of the world is
to be a brilliant soccer player who leads the national team to victory and fame.
Guess it’s too late for me to make a career in soccer and so for writers like me,
it is not obvious to just be part of that great guild of writers.

Regardless of the fact that I write in Dutch, my writing is not considered to
meet the norm that has been set out by the centre. I write about identity, about
migration and a changing super diverse world. That is the kind of world we live
in today here in this country, and yet, some readers and critics are convinced
that my literature has nothing to do with them; it is the literature of the others,
as opposed to national literature. I write about Antwerp and readers would talk
to me about my work as if I had described a world far away from them. My
characters are strange exotic individuals for the mere fact that their names are
Younes, Mariam and Marwan and not Isabel, Jan or Peter.

I’m not so very young anymore, but I’m still very naïve and I thank God for
that, that’s why I decided to challenge myself for my lecture about Conscience,
I wanted to emphasize the things we had in common. I wanted to draw a line
between Conscience’s writing then at his time and in his troubled society where
his language was not recognized and me writing today in my society, which
had transformed to a place where you can see the world. In Antwerp, Brussels
and Ghent alone you have over 170 different nationalities living together and
these people brought their languages, their stories and their convictions to this
country. For me the main question was how the dominant society reacts upon
claims of recognition of one’s own cultural identity. I think that the way that
society responds to those claims can tell us a lot about how that society defines
itself and how self-confident it is in a changing world.

I had the brilliant idea, so I thought, to make a comparison between
Consciences’s striving for recognition and the aspirations to cultural
emancipation of the new minorities in Belgium. I wanted to show how
literature could be of help when you are trying to form an identity and trying to
define your place in the world.

I tried to connect the search for identity of young citizens with non-European
roots and Conscience’s cultural and linguistic struggle. I was convinced that in
his time Conscience asked himself the same questions as do the young men and
women who live today in the big cities of this country. Questions like; ‘Who
am I? Where do I belong to? What is home and what does language mean to

And then off course, I went too far, I crossed the line, I came too close, and
asked my audience what Conscience would think of Dyab Abou Jahjah, the
former leader of the demonized organization the AEL, the Arab European
League, which advocated for the emancipation of the Arabs in Europe and
Belgium. Jahjah launched the provocative idea to make Arabic one of the
national languages of this country. My audience, mainly white and middle class,
was not amused I can assure you.

That idea encountered resistance in the audience because there was the fear
that their constructed national identity, a Flemish identity which has been
obtained after a hard battle, would be transformed by multicultural, non Flemish
compatriots into something else. I could see the horror in the eyes of my
audience. And it is also that fear that makes it difficult to really open up to
other stories, to let those stories really change ideas, opinions, and the way
we look at things. As long as they don’t get too close and risk changing the
norm, then these stories are ok. But for how long can a society shut out its own

Not for very long, because it bangs at the door.

In fact, this evening, I declined an invitation to a funeral in the city of Ghent, 50
km from Brussels. The funeral of a word.

The city of Ghent decided, on the instigation of a few organizations and artists,
not to use the word allochtoon anymore. And at this very moment, on the
international day against racism, there is in the town hall of Ghent a funeral
ceremony going on. And when the word is buried there will be an enormous
feast, perhaps we could all, after this, take the train and join the people of Ghent
for this celebration of the semantic birth of citizens. History is made by people
who have a lot of imagination.

Thank you.

Copyright: Rachida Lamrabet, 2013