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Alfred Birney

Alfred Birney - foto Eddo Hartmann
Alfred Birney - foto Eddo Hartmann

(Netherlands, 1951) descends from a former plantation-owning family in the Dutch East Indies. His father is Indonesian-Chinese and his mother is Dutch. Recurring themes in his work include alienation from family and the inability to identify with one's mother- or fatherland. His 1987 debut novel was Tamara's Lunapark. He compiled an anthology of Dutch colonial and post-colonial literature, East-Indian Ink, in 1998. In 2002 Indische Gezichten was published, a compilation of his Dutch post-colonial novels Vogels rond een vrouw (Birds around a Woman, 1991) and De onschuld van een vis (The Innocence of a Fish, 1995). These books create an unforgettable portrait of his father. His successful autobiographical novel De tolk van Java (The Interpreter from Java, 2016) received multiple awards and was adapted for theatre. In 2019, the diary Niemand bleef (Nobody stayed) was published in the Privé Domein series, for which he was awarded the Littéraire Witte Prijs 2020. In March 2024, Zwerfpost (Wandering Post) was released, a personal selection from 25 years of articles, blog posts, columns, essays, critiques, lectures, studies, sketches, polemics, travelogues, and portraits of unknown writers with divergent perspectives on the Netherlands versus Indonesia.

(WN 2024)

Archive available for: Alfred Birney

  • Alfred Birney in gesprek met Ellen Deckwitz - Met voordracht van Dewi de Nijs Bik

    Between East and West: A postcolonial journey of discovery with Alfred Birney and Ellen Deckwitz

    With: Alfred Birney, Dewi de Nijs Bik, Ellen Deckwitz

    In this episode of the Writers Series, Alfred Birney, author of, among others, ''De tolk van Java'' (The Interpreter of Java), will go into conversation with Ellen Deckwitz about his new book, ''Zwerfpost" (Wandering Mail). This book is a personal selection from 25 years of articles, blog posts, columns, essays, critiques, lectures, studies, sketches, diatribes, travelogues, and portraits of unknown writers with dissenting voices about the Netherlands versus Indonesia. At its core lies the perspective of the Indo, caught between East and West, emblematic of the misunderstood and unseen figure.

    Ellen Deckwitz discovered upon her Indo grandmother's passing that she is the only one in her family who heard her grandmother's life story. In the years that followed, she engaged in conversations with numerous people whose roots also lie in former Dutch East Indies. Armed with these experiences and her personal insights, she will interview Alfred Birney in her original characteristic, witty, sensitive, yet sharp manner.

    Alfred Birney (1951) is the author of a substantial body of work including novels, novellas, stories, and essays, in which his Dutch-Indonesian family history occupies a central place. His novel ''De tolk van Java'' (The Interpreter of Java) (2016) was awarded the Libris Literature Prize and the Henriette Roland Holst Prize. In 2019, his diary "Niemand bleef" (Nobody stays) was published in the Privé Domein series, for which he was awarded the Littéraire Witte Prize 2020.

    Ellen Deckwitz is a poet, presenter, theater maker, and writes weekly columns in both NRC and De Morgen. In 2021, Ellen Deckwitz won De Johnny, the lifetime achievement award for stage poetry. In 2022, she won the Tollens Prize for her body of work. Together with Joost de Vries and Charlotte Remarque, she hosts the Literature podcast Boeken FM and hosts the daily podcast Poëzie Vandaag. Since January 2024, she has been the Stadsdichter of Amsterdam.

    Dewi de Nijs Bik has previously been published in publications such as Poëziekrant and DW B. She was selected for the Paris residency of deBuren and for the mini-tour Vers van het Mes. Since 2012, she has conducted in-depth interviews for the Indo monthly magazine Moesson.

    "A novel in which, as a reader, you almost feel complicit in the described cruelties due to the sublime style, yet also experience the strength to want to survive." - Libris Literature Prize 2017

    "A merciless novel about the role of colonial Netherlands during the Indonesian struggle for independence in the former Dutch East Indies." - NRC

    "Such a masterpiece. Read this bloody book!" - Adriaan van Dis on DWDD

    "Impressive novel." - AD

    "Seldom have I read a book in which history is written so mercilessly while the need to settle scores with one's parents is so high." - De Standaard

    This Writers Series program is in Dutch.

  • Winternachten 2020 – Saturday Night Unlimited

    Letters from Overseas

    In 1795, the once-enslaved but later freed Wilhelmina Kelderman sent a heartbreaking letter from Paramaribo to her former master. The letter never arrived, as it was on a ship hijacked by the English, ended up in an archive, and was only opened two centuries later.

    Writers Unlimited festival asked nine authors to write a letter to someone in a (former) colony, inspired by Wilhelmina's entreaty, and to present it at this event. They will recite them in their mother tongue or preferred language of writing; English or Dutch translations will be simultaneously projected.

    Participants are Antjie Krog (South Africa), Alfred Birney, Reggie Baay, Ellen Deckwitz, Rosabelle Illes (Aruba), Jolyn Phillips (South Africa), Jasper Albinus, poet Angelina Enny (Indonesia) and poet, musician and theatre maker Robin Block.

    Tip: Antjie Krog, Reggie Baay, Ellen Deckwitz and Jolyn Phillips will also read from their contributions to the 25th anniversary Winternachten festival anthology during the Opening Night - A Free Mind on Wednesday, 15 January at Theater aan het Spui.

  • Oorlog in Indië - met Alfred Birney en Hans Goedkoop

    War in The Dutch East-Indies - with Alfred Birney and Hans Goedkoop

    With: Alfred Birney, Hans Goedkoop, Paul van der Gaag

    A programme - in Dutch - on the role of Dutch fathers and grandfathers in the Indonesian war of independence in the late fourties of the past century. Alfred Birney wrote a novel on the history of his father, who was a spy, informer, bodyguard and murderer, fighting for the Dutch. Birney tells that story, but also what happened after the war, in his bad relationship with his father. Hans Goedkoop reconstructed the history of his grandfather who was a high ranking officer in the Dutch army in that same war of independance. He was the man who arrested Soekarno, the first president of the Republic of Indonesia. After the war, the story of his grandfather 'fell through the hole of history'. Moderator was Paul van der Gaag (VPRO O.v.t.).

    Dutch spoken. A programme made by Ton van de Langkruis (Writers Unlimited). Bookselling by Van Stockum.

  • Winternachten 1999 – Winternacht 2

    East-Indian Anthologists

    Oost-Indische Inkt is the title of anthology of Dutch East-Indian literature. It was published in 1998. Anthologist Alfred Birney discussed the choices he made, from Multatuli to Marion Bloem. He spoke to Michaël Zeeman and Kester Freriks, writer and critic. Freriks invited two 'Indian' writers: Aya Zikken (whose work was part of the anthology), and Jill Stolk, whose work is not represented in the anthology. Both writers read from their work.