An Interview with Christine Otten

  • By Josh Pachter
  • March 26, 2019

The Netherlands native talks race, The Last Poets, and what’s gained in translation.

An Interview with Christine Otten

You wrote The Last Poets — a novelized account of the lives and work of the legendary African-American poets of the Black Power era — more than a decade ago, in Dutch, in what were very different political times than the times we find ourselves in now, as the first English-language edition of your book appears. Looking back from the perspective of today, what do you think about the fact that a white Dutch woman wrote a book about the lives and work of black American men?

You’re right, it was a different time. But I think it was and is all right for a white European woman to write a book about African-American men. (And the Last Poets themselves love the book and support it, so that should count for something, shouldn’t it?) In a way, I feel it was an advantage that I was a relative outsider and a woman; my outsider status permitted me to observe with open, unbiased eyes.

But I have to explain the context. This whole project started with an interview I did for a Dutch newspaper with Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, two of the founding members of the Last Poets. From the moment we met, I felt a close connection with these men. I wasn’t only interested in the work and the impact of the Last Poets as the godfathers of hip hop; I was also fascinated by their personal stories, their resilience, their ability to overcome the personal and political struggles that resulted from racism and exclusion and poverty.

I had never met men so open and honest about their lives, both the good and the bad. It helped that I came from a radical working-class background. Umar and I both had fathers who were mentally unstable, and the influence they had on our lives created an instant bond between us.

I was deeply interested in these brilliant artists. I wanted to understand where their poetry came from, what brought them down, what gave them the power to bounce back. What was the political and personal context of their work? They were black men, Americans, so I immersed myself in black American history, culture, and music, and met with many of the people who were close to the poets.

Of course I encountered distrust because of my race. My response was to be honest and empathic, to reveal my intentions openly, to always give something back. By “give something back,” I don’t just mean friendship: I arranged paying gigs for the Poets, for instance, in the Netherlands.

It wasn’t always easy. But our friendships and collaboration have lasted for 18 years now. Getting to know and work with and write about the Last Poets changed my life as an artist and as a human being. I could never live inside my old white bubble again.

Was it challenging for you to translate the Poets’ street idiom into Dutch, and for Jonathan Reeder to re-translate their story back into English?

Not all of the language in The Last Poets comes from the street, but some of it certainly does. I wrote the first draft of the novel in English, then translated it into Dutch. I just listened very carefully. I have no problem with street idiom, anyway, whether it’s Dutch or American English. It just comes naturally to me. That’s one of the joys of being a writer, getting into someone else’s skin and not staying locked inside your own limited world.

Jonathan Reeder did much more than just translate the book; he completely immersed himself in the poetry, rhythm, music, and culture of the Last Poets. He listened to the interviews I taped to familiarize himself with the Poets’ voices and idioms. Only then did he start translating. Some Dutch people have said that my book reads like a translated American novel. And I’ve had native English speakers tell me they’re happy they can finally read the “original” book.

You spent six months with the Poets. What did you learn from your time with them?

I learned so much. I learned about history and culture. I learned what racism and exclusion does to the soul. I learned not to judge others too quickly, and that I was tougher than I thought. I learned to understand my father, with whom I had a problematic relationship. Umar kept telling me to contact him before it was too late, and, in fact, I was able to rebuild our relationship. I learned to perform onstage. I learned to be a better writer, to take more liberties in style and composition — the Last Poets are absolutely free artistically — and to write more musically and rhythmically.

You’re deeply involved now with a project called “The Prison Monologues.” What’s that all about?

I was asked to lead a creative-writing workshop with ex-cons. They wrote about their lives, about fatherhood, love, guilt, incarceration, about their childhoods, violence, really anything and everything. Two of them wanted to do something positive with their stories. That’s when I thought of “The Prison Monologues.” Another writer and I talked for hours with the guys and wrote their stories down. We asked actors to read them. That’s how it started. From there, it grew organically into a full-length theatrical piece, because people responded so well to it. We performed the play inside Dutch prisons, for the inmates, and they loved it.

I still work at a Dutch prison. Twice a year, we do a reading night for friends and family — and sometimes the guards and even the warden show up. The inmates blow everyone away with their talent, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. It’s truly an honor to be able to do this work. This May and June, we’ll perform “The Prison Monologues 2” both for the public and for the prisoners.  

You recently wrote your first crime story, for Amsterdam Noir (which, full disclosure, I co-edited). What was it like to immerse yourself in an entirely new genre? Will you be writing more crime fiction?

That was such an enjoyable adventure! In a way, I had to completely re-invent myself. I felt so much freedom writing this from the perspective of a young Algerian-Dutch delivery boy in my own Amsterdam ’hood. The character was based on my kickboxing teacher. I used a real-world crime as a springboard, and then had great fun inventing the story. But “Soul Mates” isn’t just a crime story; it also touches on serious social issues, like exclusion and racial profiling. I loved the fact that you translated and edited the story, Josh. I think your work made it better. It thrilled me to read it in English and to hear you call my tone of voice “American.” And, yes, I hope to write a real crime novel one day!

What else is in the pipeline?

I’m working on a novel based on my prison experiences, and I’m very excited about it. I think it will be a milestone for me as an author, because it requires another form of writing and identification and forces me not to shy away from entering a world which is complex and dark at times but also full of love and inspiration, if you’re willing to see it. I’m [also] very much looking forward to returning to America to talk about The Last Poets. This book will probably always stay with me, and hopefully it will stay in the world, since the Last Poets themselves are timeless and forever inspiring.

(Photo by Fjodor Buis.)

[Note: Christine Otten will be speaking at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus in Sterling, VA, on Tues., Apr. 2, from 7-9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.]

Josh Pachter is the author of a hundred short crime stories, which have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other periodicals and anthologies since the late 1960s. He translates fiction and nonfiction by Dutch and Belgian writers and is the co-editor and translator of Amsterdam Noir. In his day job, he teaches communication studies and film appreciation at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun Campus.

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