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5 questions for Yvette Kopijn

In our new column ‘5 questions for’, we engage with interesting people, our network and relations, diving into the world of oral history and everything related to it. This month Yvette Kopijn: oral historian, researcher, heritage and education specialist.


1/ Can you introduce yourself?

‘I was born in Aruba and am the child of an Indian father and a Dutch mother. As a researcher, I am affiliated with the Amsterdam School for Historical Studies (UvA) where I am working to complete my PhD research on migration, family and survival art in the life stories of three generations of Javanese-Surinamese women.


Not only within the university, but also outside it, from the VerhalenOverLeven foundation, I keep myself busy tracing and recording hidden (life) stories and histories of migrants and their descendants in books, publications and exhibition. I also provide training, workshops, lectures and storytelling salons in the fields of oral history, interviewing and colonial history.


Finally, I am the initiator of the programme Tracing Your Roots, in which I invite young adults with roots in the East Indies/Indonesia to go in search of their ancestors and family history and the stories of their (grand)parents’.


2/ Why is oral history method so important and how do you apply it within your work?

‘Oral history gives a voice to groups in society whose voices we hardly hear nor find in archives. I focus mainly on the voice of (colonial) migrants and their descendants. The first generation is now elderly and, given the contribution they made to building our country, they deserve to have their stories recorded.”


Another strength of oral history is that it generates understanding and empathy. Once we stop talking and judging about and start listening to (colonial) migrants and their descendants, it makes history palpable. This allows the narrators to literally ‘get to the story’ and gain recognition for their experiences. This is an important condition for processing and healing the past.


For their descendants, it is important that they know the stories of their (grand)parents. When you know where you come from and on whose shoulders you stand, you also know better who you are and can shape your own future from a firmly anchored self-image. So I use oral history primarily to strengthen (colonial) migrant communities – communities of experience is perhaps a more apt term – from within’.


3/ What are you currently working on?”

‘I am currently working on completing my PhD research on migration, family and survival art in the life stories of three generations of Javanese-Surinamese women. Using life stories of grandmothers, mothers and daughters, I try to reconstruct the history of Javanese-Surinamese contract labour from a female perspective.


In the Netherlands, little attention has been paid to the history of contract labour. In that sense, it is a hidden colonial history that I am trying to make visible. I hope to defend my thesis this autumn. With its publication, I hope to contribute to the current debate around our shared slavery and colonial past. Did bonded labour for the purpose of building the Dutch state indeed end with the abolition of slavery? That is a question I want to raise.”


4/ With the ‘Tracing Your Roots’ initiative, young people with roots in the East Indies/Indonesia get the chance to find answers about their origins and identity. Can you tell a bit more about this project?

‘In this programme, we connect young people with roots in Indies/Indonesia with their ancestors and family history through workshops and guest lectures. Classes are taught by experts from our own communities. Participants learn to do genealogical research in archives and, where these fall short, to enter into conversation with (grand)parents in order to trace and record oral family history. Tracing Your Roots is a programme aimed at breaking the so-called Indian Silence and (re)starting the conversation between generations. In particular, participants learn how to ask about a past so surrounded by trauma, displacement and loss without the narrator falling apart into pieces. It is not about simply bringing up the past. The past, with respect for what a narrator can and will not tell, may be shared so that there is space for connection and thus for healing’.


5/ Are there any fun plans or projects in 2023 that you would like to share with us?

‘The highlight this year will hopefully still be sharing my PhD research with the rest of the world! I therefore want to pay special attention to the Javanese-Surinamese community this coming year, with a tour & storytelling session on 26 February in the fringe programming of the ‘Man at Sea’ exhibition. This exhibition includes the migration story of Satijem Martosentiko. One of the women I spoke to for my PhD research, who in 1924, as a contract worker with the ss. Simaloer made the crossing from Java to Suriname. This private event will be followed up by a public afternoon around Javanese contract labour on 2 April at the Scheepvaartmuseum.


With Tracing Your Roots, I will collaborate the Hague Historical Museum and the Drents Museum in the spring. In autumn, I hope to hit the National Archives with a Javanese-Surinamese edition followed by an edition for young people with roots in India/Indonesia.


In addition, the idea for the next book is already ready in which I will delve into my own family history! I will be looking for the story of my Indian grandfather and other Indian boys of his generation who, after the death of their Dutch father, were taken away from their Javanese or Indian mother and put in children’s homes. The reason was that their mother would not be able to give them a ‘thorough Dutch’ upbringing. Yet another hidden colonial history that deserves to be told’!


Follow Yvette via LinkedIn