Europeans are not
the central force behind
history anymore

By Cleo Freriks – What it means to be European, how to deal with European history – both good and bad, collective memories and individual experiences. These are all themes that the storytellers who spoke at last Tuesday’s Storyline event ‘Europe: stories about love and hate’ touch upon in their work, whether it’s in writing, the spoken word or film. In cinema theatre Lumière they shared their thoughts.

The evening started with Mathieu Segers, professor of Contemporary European History at University College Maastricht, interviewing novelists Francesca Melandri and Lodewijk van Oord. Both wrote about the problematic relationship between Europe and Africa.


In Melandri’s case, this involved travelling to Ethiopia, a former colony of her motherland Italy. “I’m one of those writers who need to be in the places they write about. My body needs to experience it.” Her research further involves “being a real nuisance to everyone I meet and ask them to tell me their stories.”

In her latest book De lange weg naar Rome (originally written in Italian, not yet translated into English) teacher Ilaria finds a young African man on her doorstep one day. He claims to be her nephew from Ethiopia. This prompts Ilaria to explore her father’s past, a man, who like Melandri’s own father was part of a generation of “fascist natives. Growing up they couldn’t imagine a world without fascism.”

Even though she writes about fascism, immigration and refugees, that is not what makes her books political, says Melandri. “They are because I engage the reader in the complexity of the situation. I have no problem judging actions, but human beings are another story. Nuanced writing is what makes the relationship with the reader interesting. Otherwise, it becomes preaching, it becomes propaganda.”

Lodewijk van Oord did not go to Africa to write. On the contrary, after leaving for a teaching job in Swaziland, living close to the border with Mozambique for a couple of years, he was determined not to write about Africa. Like one of his main characters in his book Niemand is van hier, he didn’t want to get involved.

“It’s a coping mechanism of the white man going to Africa and suddenly being part of the wealthy elite. We believe the colonial era is over, but there it’s still very much alive. You cannot not become part of a long history.”

His other main character, biologist Rineke, deals with the situation in a different way. She tries to do the right thing, even if it goes against local customs or laws. “Both mechanisms are problematic. Because you’re part of the elite and because the government in these countries can’t do everything, people call upon you for help. You can either do nothing, which is immoral. Or you want to help everyone, which is impossible.” Finding a balance, says Van Oord, remains a contradictive and awkward business.

Both he and Melandri agree that their experiences have made them feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to have been born in Europe. “I feel like this used to be a collective understanding, but that we’ve lost it somewhat,” says Van Oord. “Young Portuguese people for instance, go to the old colonies of Brazil and Mozambique nowadays to get a job. Mozambique even introduced a quota for them.” Melandri agrees, adding: “Europeans are not the central force behind history anymore. But that’s not necessarily bad.”

The evening continues with performances by spoken word artist Samira Saleh, who reflects on Europe in a poem she wrote for the event. Europe to her – a Belgian from Moroccan descent – means a search for home.

Film-maker Ena Sendijarevic on the other hand has always felt European, she tells film critic Dana Linssen, who interviews her. But she didn’t feel very Dutch – Sendijarevic fled from former Yugoslavia with her family after the war in the 1990s – until her first short movie Travellers into the night brought her to international film festivals. “Suddenly I was representing the Netherlands.”

Her search into identity and immigration is represented in Import, a showing of which concludes the evening.

This article was published at

Photos: Philip Driessen