Foto: David Meulenbeld

'A year of being able to observe, being part of it, was wonderful, special, at times moving'

Babs Gons22 May 2022

My year as Vrije Schrijver for the VU is almost over. The final chord awaits me: delivering the Abraham Kuyper Lecture and the Déjà Vu Festival, which I am looking forward to so much because I can’t think of a better way to end a special year than throwing a party and dancing.

At the start of the academic year, I had the following to say:

‘I see you, all of you. We see you. But I know that many of you students have the feeling that you’re invisible. No one’s listening. No one understands. No one supports you.’

We couldn’t greet each other in the corridors on the way to lectures, or flirt on pavement cafés and at festivals. We were too hidden away. That’s why I wanted to emphasise the importance of seeing each other, of being seen. Especially after this time of restrictions and distance. How difficult it’s been to feel that you’re worth it. That there’s room for you. That you’re given the space to show who you are. That the world’s a better place with you in it.

And maybe – apart from the task that I had as Vrije Schrijver for the VU – that was the task that I set for myself. Keeping my eyes peeled, seeing as much as I could. And listening too. The 2021/2022 academic year was devoted to ‘resilience’ and ‘well-being’; I wanted to see how everyone was doing.

I’ve seen a lot this year. I watched and listened to almost a hundred entries to the annual Martin Luther King Spoken Word contest. I saw fire in their eyes, and fists raised. I listened to the stirrings of souls, the joys and sorrows, to revelations and confessions. To personal histories, family dramas, childhood traumas. I also listened to the silences between words, to the language of heaving chests, of restless legs.

Much was said. There was inappropriate behaviour and violence that had to be dealt with; loved ones were lost and left empty spaces. Grandpas came by, ones who had to climb many mountains to contribute to the prosperity we have here. They warned of the speed at which the world was moving – in the wrong direction. We were also asked to reflect on what it is like to have to hide a part of yourself. The desire to just be yourself. Our colonial past sailed by on ships laden with spices. Many a brave attempt was made to stand in the shoes of others. To question your own situation; to examine your own privileges. Of course, the climate and the algorithms that trap us were also discussed. There was a sense of urgency, and even the softest voices were persuasive.

A lot came to light during the creative writing lectures, too. Not only the students’ love of literature, fantasy and non-fiction in the short stories I read, but also about how frank the students were about their frame of mind in the time between lectures. It hasn’t been an easy year for anyone. The pandemic has left its mark.

We also took the Vrije Universiteit to the outside world. A group of students went with us to meet well-known writers in the temple of pop music: Paradiso. It led to conversations with many, including Manon Uphoff and Raoul de Jong, about the themes of their books. These were honest, painful and moving conversations.

I called on a student council to get help to come up with ideas for the Déjà Vu festival. What was meant to be an introduction round turned into a frank discussion about what was preoccupying everyone. We talked about happiness, resilience, support, mental illness, Islamophobia, #metoo, about migration and power structures, and so much more and decided that the theme of the festival should be ‘belonging’. Because it is about connection, about well-being and because it runs like a common thread through our lives.

I wanted to see you all as much as possible. I saw that life was once again opening up, becoming wider, more spacious. I saw you greeting each other again in the corridors on your way to lectures, flirting on pavement cafés, and I look forward to see you dancing at the festival.

A year of being able to observe, being part of it, was wonderful, special, at times moving. I’m ending this column with the same words I used in the beginning. ‘I see you.’ And with gratitude for the encounters I’ve had.

Wanna hear more? Learn more about the multicoloured tradition of Spoken Word, during the Abraham Kuyper Lecture of Babs Gons. And then rush to the Open Air Theatre to listen to some of the best Spoken Word artists from the Netherlands.