- The Netherlands -
Radna Fabias (1983) was born and raised in Curaçao. She is a graduate of HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. She debuted as a poet with the poetry collection Habitus (2018) which won all major poetry awards in the Netherlands & Belgium, amongst which the Herman de Coninck prize and the Grote Poëzieprijs. She was hailed as the Dutch literary talent of 2019 by Dutch National newspaper De Volkskrant.
Fabias’ style is characterized by a great variety, both in terms of content and style. According to Dutch Magazine De Groene, “Fabias dares to use every nook and cranny of poetry as an art form, the poems are short and lyrical, sometimes narrative and long, sometimes clear and accessible and sometimes hermetic and experimental.” Habitus has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Arabic and German.
Fabias also translates poetry herself. She is the Dutch translator of both Warsan Shire and Nobel Prize winner Louise Glück.
BLACK HOLES, an essay about Habitus by Radna Fabias
It happens rarely for critics to unanimously pronounce a poetry debut a masterpiece, but the overwhelming and mature Habitus by Radna Fabias has very deservedly received that honour. Fabias (1983), originally from Curacao, is a graduate of HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. She has been writing poetry for years, but delayed publication until her work was fully formed. In May 2018, her debut Habitus was awarded the C. Buddingh’ award. Presumably, choosing a winner had never been as easy for the jury.
The book’s design is striking. The cover is black with white letters, but the front cover features four round holes, through which a charcoal-coloured page can be seen. When looking through the black cover, we encounter yet another shade of black. The different parts of the heavy book have been separated by black pages. Seeing as the poet emphasises her Caribbean heritage, this can easily be interpreted as a statement. The poem titled ‘de zwartheid van het gat’, found in the middle of the book, starts as follows:
zwarte gaten zijn raar
zwarte gaten zijn de wonderlijkste
objecten in het heelal
Gravity in outer space is “zwart / sterk zwart en sterk / niets kan eraan ontsnappen zo sterk”. The astronomic phenomenon symbolises indecipherable, but irresistible enigmas. Possibly, poetry itself poses such a riddle, but so does everything that has to do with sexuality, ethnicity and religion. What do we know about ourselves and the world? How to express our experiences without detracting from this mystery?
The title Habitus signifies a possibly hard-won attitude to life, and a perspective that has been very consciously adopted, which enables the poet to simultaneously experience and observe the influx of confusing impressions. Fabias proves a committed observer, one who gets carried away and takes the reader along, while at the same time maintaining a critical distance. Her poetry is lyrical, rhetorically effective, alternately tender and ruthless, and very funny in places. The tension between abandon and aloof consideration can doubtlessly be related to the realisation of living in at least two worlds at once. In one of the poems, a returned migrant prays for this schizophrenia to be lifted – probably in vain.
The book opens with a six-page description of the barren island. While the poet feels attached to this island, she also feels compelled to expose its problematic aspects. The rhythm in this poem is free and poignant, the lines vary greatly in length. Stanzas beginning in the left-hand margin are answered in the right-hand margin. Lines unfold in a fugal manner, or maybe it is more appropriate to compare this technique with a relay race, in which one group of words hands over the baton to the next. The book begins as follows:
de onberispelijk opgepoetste in de zon glimmende velgen
te groot en te duur voor de auto’s waaronder ze draaien
de geblindeerde ruiten van de auto’s met de glimmende velgen
de ver naar achteren leunende bestuurders van de auto’s met de geblindeerde ruiten en de
A slowly swinging world is evoked bit by bit, one of dusty roads with pot holes, drunk men impregnating chubby women, churches with the colour of ripe bananas, Spanish soaps and annoying tourists – and everything beneath a mercilessly blue sky.
In most of these poems, there is an overwhelming use of repetition. This is particularly interesting since Fabias writes about cultural patterns that are reproduced with every following generation, despite the general desire to escape this cycle. Multiple times, Fabias writes about caring and dominant mothers and grandmothers who propagate the importance of procreation; even though this has often caused them more sorrow than joy. In the last poem, the poet solemnly avows not to reproduce her mother’s behaviour:
omdat ik van mijn moeder houd bezweer ik de herhaling vanuit mijn afgeklemde eierstokken
mijn afgeklemde eierstokken zijn schoon
mijn afgeklemde eierstokken zijn schitterend
mijn afgeklemde eierstokken zijn vervaardigd van reactieve metalen
The fact that the repetition is avowed in the shape of a persistent anaphor forms a painful paradox.
Malicious, hard-to-break patterns can be found in each situation in which people interact with one another. The rich are opposed to the poor, men negligently treat women as objects of lust, racism is everywhere. As a relative outsider, an astonished Fabias shows the politically correct experiences of outgoing second earners and ‘cargo bike moms’, whose compassion with the environment and the Third World does not reach further than their own interest. One text printed in the shape of a survey is especially funny. Possible answers are ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the list including the following items: “festivals verre reizen cerebraal geseculariseerde meditatie geestverruiming in het weekend”, “polyamorie”, “verlammende nuance” en “fotograferen van te consumeren voedsel”.
The poem ‘aantoonbaar geleverde inspanning’ is no laughing matter, however. This describes the suffocating rules and norms that a prospective Dutch citizen is expected to internalise:
de ballotant kan fietsen zonder zijwielen
weet hoe kleding aan te passen aan weersomstandigheden
kan zonder jas naar buiten als het 15 graden is
gebruikt de heupen minder bij het dansen
While this stanza only covers outward appearances, this escalates into suggestions on how to think: “weet ook niet wat de gevluchte mensen moeten / is breed gesocialiseerd” and “heeft haar toon gematigd / beheerst de woede / heeft de wijsvinger op zichzelf gericht”.
All in all, Habitus is a profoundly political project. To this extent, Fabias fits perfectly into the new movement of young, assertive, “black” poets who explicitly address major social ills such as racism and sexism; other examples are Simone Atangana Bekono (Hoe de eerste vonken zichtbaar werden, Lebowski, 2017) and Dean Bowen (Bokman, Jurgen Maas, 2018). It was about time that these themes were addressed in Dutch-language poetry. But that is not the only reason why Habitus should be embraced and appreciated (even though this would be legitimate in itself). Rather, what transforms this poetry into great poetry is its momentum and rhythm, the wealth of its images and its nuanced vision on human existence.
Author: Piet Gerbrandy
Translator: Sophie van den Bergh
This text was originally published in Dutch in Flemish-Dutch cultural magazine Ons erfdeel 2018, no. 3.
opening scene / openingsscene
quiet considerations (in the dark) / stille beschouwing (in het donker)
bride / bruid
in passing / in het voorbijgaan
postcard / ansicht
closing scene / slotscene
old story with magical and imaginary beings and events / oud verhaal met personen en dingen die in het echte leven niet bestaan
gieser wildeman / gieser wildeman
roosting tree / roestplaats