GEMS in portraits: Britt Dams

MapaRIograndeThe third person we want to portray is Britt Dams. In February 2016, Britt obtained her doctoral degree with a dissertation on the description of Dutch Brazil (1624-1654). Currently, she is teaching a course on the history of Brazil at the Catholic University of Leuven. And in Ghent, Britt is still working as a French and Portuguese language instructor at the University Language Centre of Ghent University. Britt is a passionate storyteller, who knows just how to convince people to go travelling throughout Latin America.


How did your interest for your research arise?

My research seems to be the place where all my interests meet: Literature (with capital L), globalisation, colonial history, the early modern era and Latin America (particularly Brazil). The interest for Literature has always been there, but I suppose it became a passion the year I was writing my Master’s dissertation on Baudelaire’s art criticism. It was the first time I could work creatively on a chosen literary topic and I enjoyed it more than I had ever imagined before I started to write that dissertation. When I graduated that summer, I decided to go travelling throughout Latin America, where I was introduced to (and fell in love with) the richness of this culture. I also soon realised that the colonial legacy was much more present and considered much more important in the South of America than it was in Europe. The interest in colonial history I had always felt – my father and his family were born and raised in Belgian Congo – evolved into a strong interest for the colonial past of Brazil in particular. This journey made me realise that it would be interesting look into Brazil’s colonial past from afar, as an ‘outsider’, as a European.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/ or groundbreaking?

I certainly do consider my research as multidisciplinary. I think my work could be situated on a wavering line between history and literary studies. For historians, my work will always be too literary and for literary men, my approach has too much of a historical bias. Moreover, my writings include traces of natural science, sociology and anthropology.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?

Supposedly like many doctoral students, the first phases of my research were quite uncertain. Jürgen Pieters always compares it to being lost in a big dark forest – I imagine it to be a tropical jungle. You are running and looking everywhere but you literally cannot find a way out of the forest. Until you notice a ray of light. That moment the first pieces of the puzzle start to fit; that moment you see the ‘bigger picture’. When you’ve found your way out of the forest, you realise what bigger story you actually want to tell. What started as a mere interest now becomes very concrete as you now understand where you want to go with this topic. In my case this ray of light only made its first appearance during the writing process. It was quite a relief – a ‘Eureka moment’ indeed.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?

L’Écriture de l’histoire of Michel de Certeau (1975), without any doubt. I read it while I was taking a course on him at Leuven University. Without exaggerating: it totally opened my senses. De Certeau was an extraordinary intellectual for his time. Not only had he an incredible far-reaching knowledge, he also knew how to write his findings down in a nice and readable way. In L’Écriture de l’histoire De Certeau discusses many kinds of history: the history of the Jesuits, mysticism and sorcery, but he also suggests how one can or should look at the ‘Other’. De Certeau is able to put into words what is actually beyond words. That is also what I refer to in the title of my own PhD dissertation – Writing to Comprehend: Descriptions of Dutch Brazil (1624-1654) (defended in February 2016) . De Certeau succeeds to interlace problems of the modern era with questions and topics of today, yet to continuously underline this duality. This book was a true inspiration for my own research.

Last winter I have eagerly read Timothy Brooks Vermeer’s Hat (2008). Pedalling across the Low Countries, Brooks discovers six interesting paintings by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. By singling out some details in these paintings, such as the Chinese porcelain bowl in the painting ‘Brieflezend meisje bij het venster’ (1657-1659), he subsequently writes an intriguing history of the roots of the world trade in the seventeenth century. Whereas globalisation is often considered to be a phenomenon of the last decades, Brooks argues that this process started in the seventeenth century. I have learned a lot reading this book as Brooks touches upon some topics I was less familiar with (such as the impact of China during the ‘age of innovation’) and he succeeds to connect historical events in a very inspiring way.

by Sarah Adams