One of the stranger things about the internet is you meet people online, you get to know them, and things happen to them, but at that strange distance where everything is like a muffled underwater echo, the kind of thing that is so faint that responding to it with a couple of taps, a like or a retweet doesn't seem as dyfunctional and sociopathic as it should.
Every now and then somebody dies and you respond with a sad face and it's quite inadequate. There's a genuine sense of loss that somehow finds expression through the automated mass of responses that is Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. I like to think it's a sign of the victory of humanity over machine, that there is something beyond the algorithm. I like to think that because if I don't, then it's a sign of the victory of the algorithm over humanity. But somehow I don't think we're quite smart enough to make something that can do that yet.
Anyway, I never met Rosa Verhoeve in person, but I saw her posts on Facebook, I chatted to her, I swapped books, I reviewed her book on the PH Museum website. And then she died so I pressed the sad face button and typed some words of condolence. It wasn't much.
I knew her through Kopi Susu, which is a quite beautiful book, a luminous book that shines with an intensity that is both comforting yet searching. It's a good way to remember her, and that idea is embedded within the book. Here is my review.
Kopi Susu by Rosa Verhoeve
The Dutch colonisation of Indonesia was not a benevolent affair. It came to a premature end in 1942 when the Dutch East Indies (as it was known then) was occupied by the Japanese. This was a brutal occupation in which Indonesians were starved, tortured, raped, murdered and an estimated 4 million were worked to death in Southeast Asia.
With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the Dutch still reeling, an Indonesia free of colonists declared independence on August 17th 1945. The liberation didn’t last long. The Dutch (with some British help) reoccupied the country, another quarter of a million Indonesians died in the ensuing fight for independence before finally the Dutch accepted defeat in 1947 and returned to the Netherlands.
One of those Dutch soldiers who came in 1945 was Rosa Verhoeve’s grandfather. He met and married a Javanese woman and remained in Indonesia before being forcibly repatriated to the Netherlands in 1957. Verhoeve never knew these grandparents but heard about them through the stories of her mixed-race ‘Indo’ mother, and felt their presence in the décor of her home and within herself and the Dutch community of people with Indonesian heritage to which she half-belonged.
But as she grew up, this heritage remained a mystery shrouded in the nostalgic romanticism of the Tempo Doeloe (Old Times) of the Dutch East Indies. With a background set in two worlds, Verhoeve set out to discover the contemporary reality of her heritage, a heritage personified by Verhoeve as the kopi susu (of milk coffee) used to describe Indo skin colour, the kopi (coffee) being the Indonesian side, the susu the Dutch.
Kopi Susu is Verhoeve’s visual investigation of that heritage. It’s a small book, a fragile book, where images of domesticity and the symbols of Indonesian-ness are paired up in short sequences that coalesce into a search for identity.
It’s a search that is creates a partial picture of Verhoeve’s heritage, and that partial picture is ultimately the complete picture; everything is slightly out of reach, a finger’s breadth away, sensed but unseen in the shadows. And that partial vision is what makes the book so successful, because that is what an Indonesian identity (which like all national identities is one that doesn’t really exist) is like.
There are archival images of her grandmother and grandfather, family album snaps of good times at the lake and by the sea. The contemporary images are matched in pairings that have an otherworldly element to them; giant lily pads paired with a circular pond, a wormhole to the world that lies beneath and beyond Java’s physical exterior. A leg on a wet tiled floor is matched with a tree standing in a mud-scuttled bay, a bag on a palm goes with two girls hanging off blue coloured swings, the sun setting in golden hour glory that will end suddenly and lead to the abruptness of an equatorial night.
The book gets closer as it progresses, Verhoeve’s mother and grandmother echoing in locket photographs and faces being made up. There are white women and brown women and we are never quite sure who is who. The images work like rhyming couplets, one playing off the other, leading you into a new world. It’s fragile, and it’s beautiful and eventually it all merges into one. Just like the title, just like the drink; Kopi Susu.