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Marvin Speaks – A conversation with Marvin Hokstam

Prior to this interview we read up on you a bit and we learned you had a successful career in journalism in the Caribbean. Why did you exchange the Caribbean for the Netherlands?

It was time for a change. I do indeed consider my career in the Caribbean somewhat successful; being the only Suriname-born journalist who made a full transition into Caribbean journalism, living and working fully in English, travelling the region and the rest of the world extensively and winning four regional journalism awards over the course of almost 20 years. But just like when you’re down the only way to go is up, when you’re up the only way to go is down. And it’s best to quit when you’re ahead.

I did not enter journalism to do the same thing day in and day out, year in and year out. That is not how I live my life and that is not how I wanted to do the job. I need change and if possible, development to feel alive. So at a certain moment, it became time for a career and life change, with new challenges. I decided to come find that in the Netherlands.

If you had to choose between journalism and being a writer which would you pick? Or would you do something totally different? Why?

I think I am both a journalist and a writer.

I still do a lot of journalistic work for my own platform AFRO Magazine, for outlets in the Caribbean and sometimes for international and Dutch outlets. But I also do a lot of opinion writing. To tell you the truth, it surprised me that I could make that switch from hardcore objective journalism writing to opinion, but when I came to the Netherlands I found things here that I had pretty unbendable opinions about that I enjoyed putting to paper. So yes, I do both journalism and writing.

And not to forget: I am in the process of writing my first novel. It’s quite a process, totally different from journalism, because this requires me to create a narrative from within. Pretty exciting. I hope to finish it soon.

When you came to the Netherlands you founded AFRO Magazine, what made it clear to you there was a need for AFRO Magazine in The Netherlands?

Like I said, when I arrived here, I encountered certain things that I knew where here, but they still caught me by surprise and got me thinking. I didn’t see myself in the media. As a newspaper man I pick up every newspaper that catches my eyes, but I quickly realized that there were almost no stories about black people in them. These days there are more, but back then when I just came here in 2012, there were very little. Or maybe it’s me who didn’t see them. Either way it did not feel like these publications were written for me.

And meanwhile I approached a few publications looking for work, but it turned out that to them, no matter my extensive training and expertise in journalism, I wasn’t that much of a catch. I wasn’t getting hired. It could also be that because all my work up to then had been in English, that I wasn’t interesting to these Dutch publications.

But anyway, meanwhile I started noticing that when they would write about a black person, it would either be a professional sportsperson or one of the other few black celebrities here, or a criminal. And if there was a picture of a regular black person, it would be some pitiful image of a suffering African pleading for Europe’s help. Very subjective and with nuances that were totally askew. I would literarily scream at newspapers or at my computer screen when I would read these stories that I knew had to be written differently.

I started to realize that nobody could tell black stories better than black people themselves. So I stopped looking for that job in Dutch journalism … they wouldn’t hire me anyway and if they would, I would become like that crazy old man who screams in the desert; and it felt like I would be required to write the stories that everybody already wrote: white stories. There’s enough people doing that!

So I decided to start AFRO Magazine, a platform dedicated to black Dutch stories. Because there were so many more than those subjective, nuance-less stories that would appear once every so often about the very vibrant and active black community that I was becoming part of.

What does your Sunday morning look like?

My Sunday morning and my Sunday afternoon look the same. On the couch or in bed, tea nearby, unbathed and in my loose sitting pants, and doing one of the following three things, in this specific order: writing, watching movies and Youtube reruns of comedians making fun of Donald Trump … and reading. If I am lucky, I don’t have any appointments all day and around 6.00pm I drag myself to the bathroom to finally take a shower. (I call Sunday swa bal dey, which is Sranan Tongo for “sweaty ballsack day”)

What’s your opinion about the current state of diversity in Dutch media? We see you write a lot of socially critical articles that touch on black or diversity issues … How do you see your role as a black publicist?

Oehh, loaded question with so many answers. I hope you got time for this.

Dutch journalism is very inward and doesn’t realize that it doesn’t properly serve migrant communities. There aren’t enough people of color in Dutch journalism, but Dutch journalism doesn’t realize this; instead it keeps patting itself on the back for doing a great job. This leads to the nuanceless stories about people of color.

A while ago I had coffee with someone with somewhat of a position in Dutch journalism and we were talking about diversity in the profession. But it took him some time to understand my reasoning why it was important that more black people made their way into mainstream journalism.

“Because they would automatically come across stories from their cultural background, and they would write them if their editors would let them. That would lead to more diversity in reporting and that would cause more people outside of the Randstad becoming accustomed to reading stories about black people, which would subsequently, in the long run, lead to less racism,” I argued.

He responded, “but at the moment they see people like (Rotterdam mayor) Aboutaleb and Clarence Seedorf already, don’t they?”

I just looked at him until he understood why his reasoning was wrong and short in vision.

And Dutch journalism is lagging behind in inclusiveness when it comes to offensive language. Newspapers still use the N-word sometimes and we have seen mainstream media openly choosing sides in the ongoing zwarte Piet debate.

I take my role in this very seriously.

As a member of the Black Members Council of the British Union of Journalists, I have written a motion in which the union calls on the Dutch Journalist Association to instruct its members to always remain objective in their reporting. The motion was passed in November.

I have given speeches and written opinion pieces about the need for more diversity in journalism and how it would help alleviate racial tensions in the country. And I am in talks with a student organisation to give a series of workshops to make journalism students aware of the future diversity blind spots they may have.

What is your favorite thing to spend money on?

Gadgets and watches. I love watches! And old antique crap.

If you could change one thing in the Netherlands what would it be?

I don’t believe it’s just the Netherlands that needs to change. I think the entire world is at an impasse at this moment and that it stems from a moment in time when history was written from one certain perspective. There’s no going back to that point in time now, but the people whose perspectives have always been ignored, are demanding their share of the story now. I think the entire world has reached that point, that impasse, where everybody needs to stop and listen to each other. And that goes for the Netherlands as well. Yes; if I could change one thing it would be the willingness of the dominant factor to listen to the people who are marginalized in society.

You’re also active when it comes to supporting youth and education by means of the Weekend College at the ROC of Amsterdam. Do you see yourself as a change agent?

I believe that all adults, and especially adults in the black community have a responsibility to interact with the young generation. And certainly, if you had the opportunity to study.

Young black people do not have that many role models that look like them and that they can identify with. So I constantly tell black people that I meet to come meet my students and interact with them. Come teach them what you know.

I will admit that it’s something I had to learn myself, because before I moved to the Netherlands I had never worked with young people. But then I started as a volunteer at Weekend College in 2013 -while I could not find that journalism job- and I was instantly sold. Working with young people is like a rabbit hole that you tumble into, full of beautiful enriching experiences. I was asked to become the project manager in 2014 and I am still there; can’t leave the job. Partially because I understand how important representation is.

I guess in a way I am a change agent yes.

I have been able to gain a lot of expertise in working with young people, especially of African descent, who because of inequality often lose their path in the education system. The system doesn’t favour students of immigrant descent. You don’t even wanna know how many times I have had to go to schools with parents to intervene on students’ behalf so schools would reconsider their study advice.

I think I am also a change agent in journalism by the way, because I use my journalism skills to create a platform for the underreported stories..

And so are you by the way; with your African fashion platform. You are doing something that goes against the beaten track of the mainstream. Even by allowing me to tell my story.

What makes Marvin tick?

Life, I think? The comedian Martin Lawrence once said ride this thing till the wheels come off. I avoid the things that I don’t like and I overdo the things that I do.

And I love my family of course. And don’t touch my students!

If asked, what would your best friends say about Marvin?

Hmmm….. Each would mention something different. But I think that the red line would be that I’m loyal, dependable and that I can be fun to be around. And that I also make a mean BBQ!

Are you into (African Inspired) Fashion? Does it inspire you and how does it relate to you?

I am, kinda. I own a couple of dashikis that I love to wear. Especially in the summer. And my prized possessions are two necklaces of glass beads from Kumasi that I wrap around my wrists. I wear them every day. It was a special order from Dinkra fashion in Gouda.

But I am also keenly aware that I have been conditioned to feel more comfortable in western clothing, which sometimes disturbs me.

Did you always want to become a writer/ journalist?

Yes; I have always written and I think I was 15 when I realized that I wanted to be a journalist. There was this comic that I loved to read, about a journalist with a nice car, who solved crimes. But somehow, when I finished HAVO, I still ended up going to the university to study law, but I only did that for one year. I worked as a store clerk for a short while and then a friend of mine dragged me along to paint houses. But then one day my dad showed me a newspaper ad announcing the start of the new college year at the hbo institute where they thought journalism. He remembered what my initial dream had been. I have never looked back; there was so much in front of me.

What is your most embarrassing moment?

Just one? The time I congratulated a colleague with her pregnancy, but she wasn’t pregnant. That time I shit my pants on the road. That time at a party in Reeuwijk I think, where I was the only black guy, so I tried to be inconspicuous and took a step back, but too close to a candle … and my jacket caught fire so I was still in the center of attention.

If you had to do it all over again, would you still choose this career path or would you do things differently?

I would do most of the things exactly the way I have done them. The only thing I would change, is that I would spend some more time enjoying the here and now. Because when I look back at things I have done in my career, I sometimes almost feel like I have taken things for granted because I could do them without too much effort. Especially considering that I grew up around some people who would tell me I would not amount to much, you know?

Are there any subjects we didn’t touch on you feel you want to share with us?

Don’t hand over the microphone to the person who loves to talk. I could go on for another while.

And with this we conclude our interview with Marvin Hokstam. The Guava team would like to thank you Marvin, for your insights!

Marvin Hokstam is a journalist, writer, publicist and communications consultant. For more hox.one or afromagazine.nl

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