Friday, October 14, 2016
SWF 2016 - Interview with Peter van Dongen
I first heard about Peter van Dongen’s Rampokan from my friend, Tita Larasati many years ago. A story set in Indonesia in 1946 and spanned the islands of Java and Celebes, with the background of the Dutch police action as its setting. Other than the political intrigue, double-crossing and betrayal (and a huge cast of characters), it is a story of a sentimental young man trying to look for the Indonesia of his past and making fatal mistakes in the process of doing that. In a way, the protagonist, Johan Knevel, represents the old Dutch who still thinks the Indies will welcome them back with open arms. He is trapped in the past and there will be hell to pay for those who cannot live in the present and see the future for what it is.
Book One Java was published in 1999 and Book Two Celebes was published in 2004. In 2014, the books were compiled as one volume and published in Bahasa Indonesia by Gramedia. A year later, Gramedia released the English edition. With the Bahasa and English editions out, I knew I had to invite Peter for the Singapore Writers Fest this year as I felt we do not know enough of our region’s history, especially our immediate neighbour, Indoneisa.
From the SWF bio:
Peter van Dongen is a Dutch comic artist and illustrator. His acclaimed graphic novels Rampokan Java (1998) and Rampokan Celebes (2004) are set in the time of the Revolution in Indonesia and were translated into French, German, Bahasa Indonesia and English. Co-designed by Joost Swarte, Rampokan Java was awarded the 1999 Dutch Prize for Best Book Design. Current projects by Van Dongen include a graphic novel adaptation of Familieziek (Repatriated) by Adriaan van Dis and a collaboration with Teun Berserik to illustrate a two-part adventure of Blake & Mortimer, a quintessentially British detective duo created by Edgar P Jacobs.
What sparked your interest in history, especially that period of Dutch police action? (1945 – 1949) What do you think of the term, 'police action'?
Of course the term 'police action' is only used for all these years to cover up the real story of what was really happening between 1946 and 1949: a colonial war, with probably more then 100.000 Indonesian casualties and 5000 for Holland. We thought for years that real Dutch people were not able to do such things as happens in a real war: killing so many people, the real dirty work as war always is.
So when you tell the Dutch people at home their boys were fighting only for the good cause as in the so-called ‘police action’, everybody wants to believe that. But nowadays, it's a common thought it wasn't like that, but it’s a real dirty war.
So my interest in this period of the Dutch Indies came from my mother who was born there at Sulawesi in 1941 and I realized I didn't knew anything about her land of birth. I never had a proper history lesson about this at all in school, so I decided to make a comic about her home country. Of course, we had heard everything about World War 2 in Europe/Holland, but hardly anything about Indonesia during that time and really nothing about this war of independence.
How many years of research did you put into Rampokan? How many trips did you make to the Dutch and Indonesian archives and visiting Indonesia itself?
Altogether 3.5 years before I finally started with the first page (19 in the English edition), but during my research I was working on the scenario as well. It was before google when I begun to find my way. I first went to the libraries where I found so many written books about it. Strange that in school it was hardly ever told, because everything was already there in the libraries.
In these 3.5 years I visited only once the Dutch archives (KIT, Royal Tropical Institute) and in 1992 some in Indonesia; it was my first trip then to this country. But to finish the project, it took me altogether 13 years, so during that time I visited Indonesia every 5 years and more Dutch archives too. It was and is still a learning curve.
Can you share with us about your own family background and experience and how they have shaped the creation of Rampokan?
My Mother is born in 1941 at Manado, Celebes/Sulawesi. Her father was a sergeant-major for the Dutch Indies Colonial Army (K.N.I.L.); an Indo, of mixed European/Indonesian. He, Henri Johan Kneefel, married in 1937 his mixed Chinese/Indonesian wife, Engelina Ong, on the island of Ternate, their place of birth. They had three daughters, including my mother, the middle one. During World War 2, my grand father was imprisoned by the Japanese for more then two years and finally beheaded on August 16th, one day after the capitulation of Japan.
My grand mother lost everything during the war, so she decided as a widow with three daughters to come over to the Netherlands after the independence of Indonesia. In fact, she was an immigrant trying to find for herself and for her daughters a better life, like so many of today’s immigrants in Europe. But it wasn't easy for her to come to Holland even though her husband lost his life for this land.
Europe is in flux now with Brexit, the immigrant issue, the Burkini controversy in France and the threat of terrorism. To me, your story about encountering different cultures, mixed marriages and parentage/ heritage is all the more relevant now. What are your views about the situation in Europe today?
What I can see as an average man who is reading his daily newspaper and watching the national news, it's all about fear. Fear to lose all the things people had gotten used to in the past 60 years. For instance, the fear of losing their jobs because of the migrants from Eastern Europe, The European Union had taken away their national identity, but above all, it is the fear of losing their national culture and tradition because of the migrants from the Middle East, such as their freedom of speech. Many times we hear on TV or the radio that the people are afraid of the ‘Sharia in Europe’.
15 years ago, the people had a lot more compassion for 'the others', people were able to share more. But since 9-11, everything has changed. During debates, there is hardly any room left for different shades of meaning. It is often one or the other. For instance, I am a product of an interracial marriage and sometimes when I hear people say that they only want a spouse from their 'own group', I feel kind of offended. What are they afraid of? To have a mixed child as I am?
I don't now how this will end: with the constant threat of terrorism nearby, the European crisis with the Southern and Northern parts, the war in Syria, the immigration…It's quite too much for an average man who is just following the daily regular news.
You have quite a big fan base in Indonesia. How have the readers there responded to Rampokan?
Good! Turns out I am telling a story here about their history they never really heard about. From a different perspective. Another thing I found out from talking with lots of Indonesians whom I met is that they love Tintin. My work is quite obvious influenced by Hergé, so Rampokan feels like Tintin in Indonesia. And in some reviews, it was questioned why there was no Indonesian comic artist who could make this book. Apparently, it had to be a foreigner (with Indonesian roots) who was able to do it. I took that as a compliment, haha.
This would be your second trip to Singapore. What are you looking forward to?
The food in Chinatown! I remember I had some delicious meals on the streets. And of course, to meet new people at the festival to hang out with.
Finally, tell us about your band in Holland.
My band, The Original Talkatives, was formed by my eldest brother Arnold (guitar) in 1980 for one gig only at the school party. We were just some kids from 13 (me on drums) to 15 years old from the same school, Montessori Lyceum Amsterdam. We did mostly cover songs from the Police. But because everybody was that impressed, we decided to continue.
Later on, my twin brother joined the band as well on keyboard and during the 6 years, we released 4 singles on vinyl, played everywhere in Holland in clubs, festivals, for radio and TV, and once in Berlin and Curaçoa. We played kind of pop ska/reggae, the music form that was really popular in those days from bands like Madness, The Specials and The English Beat.
So finally the band split up in 1986 after the release of our last single, High Pressure. Actually, we recorded another song for the single, called Squeeze Louise, but the first 10 seconds got lost and there was no time and money left to do it all over again.
For 27 years everybody went his own way, but three years ago I decided to release this song on vinyl, just for fun, and because of this we had the opportunity in 2015 to do a reunion gig to promote this at the festival Indomania in the Melkweg, Amsterdam. Yes, we reformed the original band together but just only for this event. But who knows for the future? We had so much fun playing together after 29 years!
My two brothers kept on going in the music field and played in the famous Dutch band Loïs Lane who was the support act for Prince during his European tour in 1990.
Ending the interview with Peter by asking him about his band is deliberate. When he gave me the Squeeze Louise 7” a few years ago, I was intrigued not so much that a comic artist was in a band (we have many examples of that), but that one can be of a mixed parentage like Peter with so much history in his blood, and can still be open and global in outlook – reading and creating clean lines style comics ala Herge and listening and playing in a Dutch ska band influenced by Madness.
That gives us hope and an indication of what the future can be. (Peter’s little boy is into drums at home) As much as we need to know the past, we should not be trapped by it.
You can find Peter’s panels at SWF here: