Alfred Birney: as an Indo he is not at home anywhere

Alfred Birney: as an Indo he is not at home anywhere

Zyard post (between East and West) is the collection of reflections, lectures, autobiographical stories and polemics by writer Alfred Birney (1951). ‘Strand mail’, these are letters that never reach the addressee and continue to wander between sender and destination.

But Birney’s efforts have nothing wandering about them, on the contrary. He knows how to achieve his goal with great persuasiveness. ‘The power of the intermediate figure’, that is the core of the book, and would have been a more appropriate title. That intermediate figure is the Indo, both in the Dutch East Indies period (which Birney prefers to call the colonial period) and today.

The book brings together a quarter of a century of the author’s involvement with colonial and postcolonial literature. Birney broke through to the general public with his novel The interpreter of Java (2016). The key figure in both books is Birney’s father, an Indo. The fact that his father is emphatically not Indo-European requires explanation. Birney has with Stray post a mission: he feels called to explain the complex names for people from the former colony.

He explicitly makes a distinction between Indo-European and Indo, one of his core points. From the earliest time that Dutch people set foot in the archipelago, they mixed with what was then called ‘native women’. Children from this union were ‘mixed-blooded’. Now what mattered, according to Birney, was whether the European father recognized his half-breed child or not. If the former was the case, the child was given the status of Indo-European and enjoyed rights more or less equal to Europeans. If this was not the case, the child was an Indo, or a kampong or camp Indo, and had few or no rights. Birney’s father is a camp Indo. ‘Indo’, Birney argues, ‘is a multi-ethnic designation, Indian a multi-cultural one.’ With the arrival of Europeans in Indonesia, this mixed culture emerged, with which a range of identities are linked.

Large parts of Stray post Birney attributes it to his own origins. He considers himself Indo, with diverse roots. His ancestors are Scottish plantation owners in East Java. His paternal grandmother is Chinese. Birney’s mother is a shoemaker’s daughter from Brabant. So his history is exactly the opposite of that of Indo-Europeans: he has an Indo father and a Dutch mother, and therefore not a white father and an Indonesian mother.


Both socially and in literature (and that is what Birney is concerned with here) the Indo is the victim of racism. They do not belong to European colonials nor to Indonesians. They live in between everything and have to fight an ‘enormous struggle’ with their origins. This leads to stigmatization, ‘as a writer you must always show the traces of your ethnic-cultural origins’. In other words: Dutch writers such as Hella S. Haasse, F. Springer or Rudy Kousbroek never have to justify that their books are set in the Indies or Indonesia, but Birney as an Indo has to do so ad nauseam.

This arouses his anger about the lack of knowledge of literary scholars about the ‘intermediate perspective’ of the Indo. His biggest grievance is that the ‘ledger keepers’ of Indian Literatureaffiliated with the magazine for Dutch-Indonesian literature of the University of Leiden, go around in circles: they are forever coming up with writers like Multatuli and PA Daum and titles like Oeroeg van Haasse and Orpheus in the dessa by Augusta de Wit. And yes, sometimes with the Indo writer Tjalie Robinson as a well-intentioned exception. Birney was fiercely vocal, especially in his earliest years, because there was always a European-colonial vision. Indos are getting off badly. It is mainly the ‘laziness’ of these ledger keepers that they blindly ignore literary history East Indian mirror (1972) by Rob Nieuwenhuys, without coming up with a new panorama himself. Birney did, with his anthology East-Indian ink. 400 years of the Indies in Dutch literature (1998). Here he presents important works by forgotten authors who emphatically choose the point of view of the Indo, such as writer Dé-Lilah (pseudonym of Lucy or Lucie van Renesse) and JE Jasper. The pages that Birney in Stray post to these authors are among the highlights. The comparison between The silent power (1900) by Louis Couperus and The deep currents (1910) by Jasper leads to an interesting conclusion: Couperus predicted that the East wins over the West, Jasper saw the opposite.


The study, among other things, arouses Birney’s displeasure The ancient Indian world 1500-1920 (2003) by scientists Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben. He believes that the authors are fiddling with ‘racial criteria’ by, for example, using the term ‘Indonesian’ ‘when the word did not exist’, i.e. before Indonesia’s independence, and ‘native’ when the word Indonesian had long existed. He accuses the authors of ‘petty jealousy’ because they hide behind a facade of footnotes to let the ‘scientist platoon’ of colleagues know that they want to be taken seriously. The book is, according to Birney, a ‘social accounting tjampoer [janboel, red.] full of stylistic breaks’ that only make the ‘“Indian” world more diffuse [maakt] than she already was’.

With this damning judgment we hit the target Stray post: there is a dire lack of historical knowledge of the former Indies. If terms such as Indo-European, native, Indonesian, Indo and even Indian are so mixed up as in the above-mentioned title, then it is high time to put things in order and come up with clear-cut definitions. That’s what Birney does, in a one-man guerrilla that has lasted more than a quarter of a century. He judges harshly, he agrees with almost no one. The book also implicitly proves how internally divided the Indian world is, there is hardly any unanimity on, for example, crucial concepts such as Indo-European or Indian. For example, can a white European born in India call himself ‘Indian’, as one of the questions asks. And what exactly is an Indian guest? The definitions in Birney’s book are also sometimes confused. This is partly due to the nature of a collection that spans a large period of time.

Many celebrities are going under the knife, including Marion Bloem, who wrote Birney’s anthology East-Indian ink found too little ‘Indian’. What do you mean, Birney sneers, ‘wasn’t there enough rice table in it or something?’ And Wim Willems, biographer of Tjalie Robinson, also mixes around the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Indo’. Also Revolusi (2020) by David Van Reybrouck (‘Tintin on Java’ Birney calls him) receives harsh criticism, ‘commercially successful, nothing new under the sun in terms of content’. Birney’s accusation is that Van Reybrouck suggests at the end that Indonesian independence ‘was just nothing’. The choice for the Western European perspective at the expense of the Indonesian view hinders Birney immensely.

In the narrative passages, such as in the report of a trip through Indonesia, Birney opens up in a personal way and identifies the keynote of this book: an intermediate figure like the Indo does not feel at home anywhere, he is alienated, and ‘alienation knows no mainland’. The intermediate figure that is the Indo will always live with the tragedy of ‘not quite belonging anywhere’. The sometimes angry, sometimes desperately precise description of that tragedy makes Birneys Stray post into an important document in literary history.