When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

IMG_20180806_025037_938.jpg
My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post. Read More »

Advertisements

Roaming Photographically through my Family History

My mother, Maria Roose, passed away recently, on July 22, 2018. Since my father’s death in 1989, she had lived alone in our hometown of Bruges, Belgium, surrounded by a mix of family heirlooms and newer things, and she lived an active and fiercely independent life, driving until very recently. We are still in shock at how quickly things changed and how sudden her death was, a mere three weeks after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with rapidly escalating health problems. She was 87 years old.

One of the inevitable tasks after the death of one’s parents is having to sort through their personal belongings and to clear out the house. Such work is always emotionally taxing and in our case, it has also been a physically demanding task, not yet completed at the time of writing, for my mother was not one to throw away things. Perhaps it was the experience of having lived through World War II as a teenager, when there were critical shortages of all sorts of goods and supplies we now take for granted but her insistence on keeping still-usable things also led to instructive and at times hilarious finds.

One was my mother’s “shoe collection,” which surely rivaled Imelda Marcos’s, at least when it came to numbers. Another was her substantial hoard of clothes, many of them hardly worn, which provided us with a “history of fashion” object lesson from the 1950s to the present (she had even kept the striped dress she wore when she first met my father at a ball in 1955, which had a lovely petticoat design). My mother was a beautiful woman and she took her appearance seriously. And then there were ample supplies of candles of all sizes, colours and types and of Christmas- and birthday-themed paper table napkins, as well as dozens of board and card games and children’s toys, many old children’s drawings, and an impressive collection of empty (and near-empty) cookie tins—an archaeology of her life as a devoted mother and grandmother.Read More »

Letter to Kei Miller

Port Royal

Update May 14, 2018: This letter responded to the essay by Kei Miller as originally published on the PREE website. This essay was removed, in the heat of the controversy it generated and at the author’s request. It was on May 3 replaced by a  substantially revised version.

Dear Kei,

I have been reading the inaugural issue of Pree. It is a good effort and I welcome it, although I would have been even happier if the contributing authors were not almost all part of the social circle of the editors. It is a bit self-perpetuating and, I need to add, self-congratulatory that way. And it is also very uptown, as uptown as Calabash–this does not detract from Pree’s importance (or the importance of Calabash) but it is worth noting, especially in light of the discussions you had on Facebook recently.

Your essay was the first text I read. And I had to re-read it a couple of times, digest it, and read it again. And I am still digesting, hence this open letter. I understand that it is your intent to think through race in the Caribbean and that the current essay is thus part of a broader and indeed very important and necessary project. I’ve read the other three essays you had posted and I was hoping then that there might be a fourth one like that, about you and your own place in those issues. Perhaps that is yet to come.

But yes, race is a big factor in the arts in and from the Caribbean, and one that people have difficulty talking about, so your essay in Pree is a milestone, as it presents a rare such effort. That I welcome, and parts of the essay are indeed breath-taking, because of the writing and because of the sublime insights you offer — “It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us.” But there are also a few things that bothered me about this essay and I have questions about why you opted to frame it in the way you did. Perhaps you can answer some of my questions and, if you do, please consider this as an invitation to dialogue.

Most people who read it will know who that the essay alludes to actual persons and incidents, which is very different from your first essays on race, which used fictional but plausible characters. I could identity at least two of the women and the incidents in question are fairly well known. So why not get it over with and name them then? Or, conversely, create fictional, composite characters that allow you to address the same issues without getting personal, as you did in your first essays on race?

And it struck me that some of your account pertained to things that the women in question said to you, or confided to you about, in what appear to have been very private conversations. Conversations they had with you because they trusted you, because they thought of you as their friend. Did they know at any point, then or now, that you were going to write about what they told you, about what happened in your presence? And if so, were they consulted about how they would be represented? If not, I’d have a bit of a problem with that. We all have our vulnerable moments, when we do unusual things and say things to friends that we do not expect them to share with others, let alone having to read about in published form. I’m sure you’ve had such moments too.

You accuse one of the white women writers of not understanding or respecting her character’s voice, of speaking through him despite being at a significant social and cultural remove, of ventriloquism, really. But are you not doing the same thing to the women whose voices and positions you claim to represent in your essay? Are we hearing their voices, really; do they have any agency in your essay? Why did you not empower them more and let them speak to your readers directly, on their terms and in the present moment? Why did you not give them the opportunity to reflect on what had happened, years ago? That would not have prevented you from commenting independently.

And talking about power, why have you exclusively focused on white women? There is no shortage of white male writers in the Caribbean, born ya and elsewhere. Why is it that their legitimacy is less frequently challenged, if at all? Why did you not acknowledge that particular bit of gender bias? And as Brian Heap quipped in his comment on your timeline, why stop at white women? Why not add the “red” ones too? What about their legitimacy and status in the Caribbean literary world? And why not go through the whole register of social and racial privilege, while at it?

I know that “white fragility” is a hot topic, and that may have seduced you a bit, but it  strikes and bothers me that some of the women you are alluding to are presented in a way that suggests that they are unhinged, needy, overly dependent on the ways in which they are judged by others, unable to move productively beyond the relatively minor racial slights they have experienced. Why focus so much on these women’s perceived failings and vulnerabilities? Why focus on their bodies and on their weight, Kei? And yes, I am writing this as a white, overweight, foreign-born woman whose body has also been brought into the equation when her legitimacy in the Caribbean is questioned. Would you have brought any of this into the discussion if they were male? Does the way in which you paint them not conform to the most one-dimensional clichés about women, and specifically about white women?

What bothers me also is that you seem to focus on women who are willing to put up their race and origin for discussion, to make themselves vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticisms they have experienced, instead of doing what is the easiest thing to do for white people here, which is to retreat comfortably into the castle of their privilege and almost guaranteed position in the socio-racial pecking orders of the Caribbean. If they had done the latter, would they have been criticized in the way they were and discussed in this essay? And why discuss these white women as if they live in an insulated white world of their own, in which they expect to be supported, and judged, only by their “own kind”?

And I also need to say something about how you represent the black male writers who “attacked” them, their critics: are they, too, not deprived of their own voice and reduced to caricature? Why, save for one moment of hesitation and second-guessing, do you exempt yourself from their alleged predicament of smallness and “carry-down-ness”, presenting yourself in a more open-minded and benevolent vein, the wise and balanced arbiter of it all, all while writing an essay that goes much further than they ever did in terms of how your subjects are targeted as persons, and has much broader reach?

And finally, as I said earlier on, Kei, I would really like to hear more about you in all of this. Because I sense that these essays are ultimately about you and about understanding your own place and role in these dynamics. I suspect that your readers would get a richer and more revealing discussion about race, and class if you would make yourself more vulnerable in this, in the same way as you have made these women vulnerable.

Best regards,

 

Veerle