Inez Hollander’s Silenced Voices was one of those accidental library finds: deep in the stacks, while looking for something else, I stumbled across a book that I would have loved to read years ago. Thankfully it’s never too late, and this week I have had the thought-provoking pleasure of delving into Hollander’s narrative of her own colonial family history.
In Silenced Voices, Hollander brings together the snippets of family history that she has gleaned from relatives and official archives, and makes liberal use of historical and literary sources to support or fill out her narrative in a range of ways. In so doing, the book looks to do several things at once. On one level, it tells the story of Hollander’s family links to Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia, but on another level, it tackles difficult but critical questions about colonial archives, silenced stories, and personal discomforts with family pasts. As the publisher’s description of the book suggests: ‘Hers is a complicated and sometimes painful personal journey of realization, unusually mindful of the ways in which past memories and present considerations can be intermingled when we seek to understand a difficult past.’
I have not finished the book yet, but it has already offered a lot of food for thought about the complex and uncomfortable intersections between different kinds of archives and history-telling, especially when it comes to family history. Family pasts are also personal presents — about how we see ourselves, how we got to where we are, and how we situate ourselves in the world. How do we come to terms with our own sometimes-uncomfortable family histories? And how do we reconcile individual family stories with broader histories and contexts? I think that there is much more that books like Silenced Voices could do to explore these issues, but this is a start, and as such, I think that it is well worth a read for researchers of colonial family history of any ilk.
– Laura Ishiguro