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Never Completely Dutch: Flemish Writers in the Land of Freedom
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© Jan Willem Kaldenbach / Erik Lange / Bob Bronshoff
© Jan Willem Kaldenbach / Erik Lange / Bob Bronshoff © Jan Willem Kaldenbach / Erik Lange / Bob Bronshoff
Newcomers to the North
literature
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Never Completely Dutch: Flemish Writers in the Land of Freedom

Flemish Writers Ivo Victoria, Sarah Meuleman and Geert Buelens all found it liberating to move to the Netherlands. But it wasn’t long before they encountered the downsides of their destination country. ‘Everything is viewed as a management issue.’

Ivo Victoria has been living in the Netherlands for twenty years, yet on the terrace at De Ysbreeker in Amsterdam he orders a pintje, rather than a pilsje. In his latest novel Alles is oké (‘Everything’s okay’, 2019) his character Hans – not by coincidence the real name of the writer who publishes under a pen name – notes that his speech has nevertheless grown “irreparably Dutchified”. “It’s something that happens automatically when I’m among Dutch people,” Victoria says. “When I’m in Antwerp, after a couple of days I talk just as I used to. At least, I think so. But there are people who say, ‘You sound just like a Dutchman.’ My Belgian friends see it as a loss, as something negative. The Dutch can hear that I’m Flemish and see it as positive, it makes them curious. In fact, the Flemish accuse me of assimilating, which is not the case.”

The day we meet, the newspaper De Morgen publishes a column by Victoria about an opinion poll showing that three-quarters of Flemish people wish migrants to assimilate. An impossible task, in his view. “I have a Dutch girlfriend who has lived in Antwerp for fifteen years and is still not accepted as a Belgian. Her son was born there, but he remains a Hollander. You might call for ‘integration and assimilation', but the Flemish don’t permit it.”

In the Netherlands, it’s pretty similar. “Here, too, I’m reminded on an almost daily basis through little remarks and jokes that I’m not from around here,” Victoria tells me. “You can imagine that for someone with a different colour skin, coming from another continent, the effect is one thousand times stronger. What are you demanding of people from Africa or Asia, if you can’t make it true of someone who comes from a hundred kilometres away?”

Ivo Victoria: ‘Belgians are good at laughing at themselves, the Dutch are inclined to take themselves far more seriously’

In 2011 Victoria said in an interview, “I remain a Belgian who happens to have his home across the border. I’ll never be Dutch.” More than ten years on, that hasn’t essentially changed. “I think I’ve become more involved in Dutch society and view Belgium more from a distance. But I still recognise much more of the way of thinking there.” Of course, it’s difficult to pin that down. “In a positive sense there is still a healthy sense of perspective on oneself,” the expat from Antwerp believes. “Belgians are good at laughing at themselves, the Dutch are inclined to take themselves far more seriously. But the sense of grievance has grown in Flemish society. When I lived in Belgium, we treated everything that went wrong there as a joke. I notice that my Belgian friends are past laughing about politics. My left-wing friends see the extreme right gaining ever more support and that nothing can be done to stop it. The breeding ground for that is the failed state, the fact that the country is out of kilter and people need someone to blame for it. I’m afraid that in Flanders we’re on our way to the situation in Hungary.”

Neoliberal free state

Victoria is less worried about the country he has moved to, although he has seen the Netherlands change substantially over the past twenty years. “Initially the Netherlands was wonderful for me to move to. Exceptionally well-organised, prosperous, and rich in opportunities. In Flanders, everything was always so administratively complicated, but never in the Netherlands. The Dutch remain a proactive people, entrepreneurial, less aggrieved, and more optimistic. But the whole image of the neoliberal free state has been abruptly destroyed. It seems that the Netherlands has overreached in efficiently organising itself, causing the government to lose its focus on the human touch.”

Ivo Victoria: ‘The Netherlands has overreached in efficiently organising itself, causing the government to lose its focus on the human touch’

Where Victoria feels that a threshold has been reached and that the Netherlands will rediscover itself, Geert Buelens takes a more gloomy view. “Really all the core sectors of Dutch society are a mess. Care, education, the housing market,” says the poet, essayist and professor of modern Dutch culture on a terrace in the West Flemish town of Wevelgem. He’s there at a climate festival one Sunday afternoon at the end of May to talk about his latest book, Wat we toen al wisten (‘What we knew back then’, 2022). “Those responsible for the messes are repeatedly re-elected,” he observes. “Of course, the victims are always the socially weak. If you have enough money to cope with everything being privatised, it doesn’t bother you so much. The Netherlands is a neoliberal country in a way that never ceases to amaze me. Everything is viewed as a management issue. I think it’s extremely problematic, if not intolerable.”

Although they share a language and a long border, Buelens has experienced first-hand how fundamentally different the Netherlands and Belgium are. “Hubert Smeets recently wrote in a column in NRC about Russia and Ukraine, ‘The Netherlands is an essentially apolitical country.’ I thought, That’s the crux of it. The Dutch want to do as much as possible as if politics didn’t exist. I once experienced that close-up at the university. In Amsterdam about ten years ago there were a lot of student protests and that fanned out into the rest of the cities. In Utrecht, we conducted a campaign for elected rectors and deans as they existed in Belgium. In a debate, I asked the rector at the time why we didn’t already have that in place? He replied that it would make things so political. That really sums it up. As if the current system whereby people are parachuted into all kinds of positions – mayors, broadcasting executives, you name it – somehow isn’t intrinsically political.”

Geert Buelens: ‘One of the things the Dutch are good at is persistence. They come up with something new and go for it one hundred percent’

Buelens expresses the suspicion that that attitude may play havoc in the Netherlands when it comes to tackling the climate crisis, the subject of Wat we toen al wisten (2022). “Neoliberal thinking has them even more deeply stuck in optimism about progress. Godfried Bomans had already made the analysis in 1972: you need a new kind of person with a new ideology to replace consumerism. Don’t assume that will happen. We’ve actually ended up with the opposite, because the neoliberalism that pushes the whole of society into competition was still to come back then.”

Nevertheless, the Netherlands does have a quality that Flanders lacks and which can work to its advantage in the climate crisis. “One of the things the Dutch are good at is persistence. They come up with something new and go for it one hundred percent. Sometimes that’s disastrous, but for the climate, it could be a good thing.”

Out of the Flemish straitjacket

Buelens may be critical of the political system in the country he has moved to, but he likes living there. “Everyday social interactions with colleagues, students, officials, bakers, people in the street, are all very pleasant,” he notes. “I think it’s made me more sociable and open. I increasingly struggle with surly Flemish silence. Although I’m still that way on the inside, I fight that tendency in myself. But before you know it you’re talking yourself into dreadful clichés.”

Ivo Victoria also warns against generalisations about the Dutch, but enjoys the Dutch optimism. He came to the Netherlands when he met a French woman who worked in Amsterdam. “I was working at a record company in Brussels, had been playing music for a very long time and was at a point in my life where I wasn’t sure which way to go. I’d considered going freelance in Flanders, but I was being advised not to from all sides. A steady job, that was the motto. I thought, Let’s go, I’ll give it two years. It never felt like a big decision and I’ve never regretted it either. Without Amsterdam I would never have become a writer. The music stopped, the band split, and I had to do something else with my creative drive. I started blogging, that was the in thing at the time. Later on too, when publishers started to show an interest, when I was thinking of going freelance, everyone said, ‘Do it, do it!’”

Sarah Meuleman, too, found she benefited from shaking off the Flemish straitjacket. “To me, the Netherlands stands for freedom,” the writer who went to study in Amsterdam twenty years ago tells me in a video interview. “I really needed to take the step from Flanders to the Netherlands to free myself from the limitations I experienced there. It’s a different culture. In Belgium, you have to spew out whatever you’ve been spoon-fed, absorb knowledge from thick syllabuses and reproduce it as faithfully as possible, with as little initiative as possible. In the first week in the Netherlands, I was asked what I thought of one of Kant’s texts. Here you have the freedom to have an opinion of something and talk about it, while in Belgium you’re expected first and foremost to show respect and you have to earn the right to an opinion. I found it very perplexing but also liberating.”

Sarah Meuleman: ‘In the Netherlands you have the freedom to have an opinion of something and talk about it, while in Belgium you have to earn the right to an opinion’

In her latest novel Zie mij graag (‘Please see me’, 2021) the main character Lieve commutes back and forth between Amsterdam and Damme. The Amsterdam Lieve is different from the Flemish one, who is “smaller, quieter, barely there”. The same goes for Meuleman herself. “The Flemish Sarah who returns to the place where she grew up is different from the Amsterdam Sarah. There all the old patterns are awakened. Among the memories, scents and sounds, you somehow regress to a child with the vulnerability that comes with it.” It also feels like being thrown back into a world from which you’ve wrested yourself free with great pain and effort. “Leaving was an act of emancipation. I wanted to shape my own life and to do that I had to cross the border. Now that has happened, and I’m following my heart, I can see a lot more that’s valuable in my culture of origin.”

Linguistic DNA

Over twenty years Meuleman has acquired a Dutch accent. Nevertheless, she still feels like “a Flemish writer” on the inside. She’s unwilling to define what this entails. “It’s far too dangerous to label that. I notice that in my work I’m increasingly returning to that Flemish identity. I grew up on the outskirts of Ghent, in Sint-Martens-Latem, by the Leie river. That’s where a major proportion of the patterns of my existence took shape. As a writer, I always come back to those Flemish roots and language. It’s sometimes difficult for me to know whether a word is Flemish or Dutch. My editor pointed it out to me and said, “Do we really want to use those kinds of Flemish words and phrases?” In the first instance, we chose not to do that. Now we are. Those words are part of my linguistic DNA.”

All three writers have found that the northern variant of Dutch is often seen as the norm. “Your book goes through rounds of editing in which you receive hundreds of comments on language use,” says Geert Buelens. “Sometimes I very consciously opt for certain Flemish phrases, but then it’s suggested that I change them. Flemish and Dutch differ in word order and rhythm. When I’ve opted for the Flemish way of saying something, I have no wish to give it up just because it’s not standard Dutch. But if it means I’m no longer understood, then the benefit no longer outweighs the cost.” That was an issue in his latest poetry collection Ofwa (2020). “I’d come up with a great cover text, but my publisher and even my Dutch wife didn’t understand it.” On that cover text Buelens used the expression “onder je voeten krijgen” (literally “get it under your feet”), where speakers from the Netherlands would say “op je kop krijgen” (“get it on your head”, in an idiom meaning “to be told off, reprimanded”).

He stuck with the title of the collection, the Flemish filler word Ofwa, which is also gradually becoming assimilated in the Netherlands. “There’s currently a Netflix series, Undercover, that’s very popular among young people, which is set in a drug-dealing context in Brabant. My publisher has noticed her Dutch niece using the word, and she’d picked it up from that series. I think that’s a telling anecdote. You can work for years to encourage Dutch-Flemish collaboration and we should certainly continue to do so, but when a powerhouse like Netflix puts on a series like that with Flemish actors, set in the border region, all kinds of Flemish expressions can penetrate the mainstream in the Netherlands in a way you would never achieve with high-brow literature.”

Buelens resists the Dutch tendency to see their own language variant as the correct one. “I hope we are heading in the direction of seeing Dutch, like French in the francophone world, as an international language with its own diversity, rather than one that depends on the Netherlands to set the standard.” There’s somehow something colonial about the Dutch attitude, but Flanders has also allowed itself to be colonised. “It has allowed its self-image to rely too heavily on its big brother’s opinion,” the professor of literature observes. “There’s a certain kind of Flemish literature that does well in the Netherlands. Baroque, luxurious, extravagant. As a Flemish person, it’s very irritating to be reduced to those clichés. At the same time, it’s not surprising. What is our view of the rest of the world? That’s often exotic too. There’s a certain ingrained image of how the French and the Germans are. And when things fit in with that image, it increases their chance of travelling. To authors themselves that often feels inauthentic. They think, “Surely I’m far more than that?” I also find it irritating. But as I’m gradually acquiring the ability to see it from both sides, I also understand that there’s no ill will behind it and that it’s not necessarily down to Dutch arrogance.”

Geert Buelens: ‘Flanders has allowed its self-image to rely too heavily on the opinion of its big brother, the Netherlands’

He now sees himself as a hybrid poet with a Flemish background who lives in the Netherlands and is certainly also substantially influenced by Dutch poetry. Your identification with a particular nation coincides with deeply rooted feelings which go beyond reason, he believes. “I would find it strange only to hold Dutch nationality, just as I would find it strange to be seen as a Dutch writer. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable when some Dutch people make you feel that you remain an outsider, that you don’t completely belong. Then you wonder, if you’re suddenly labelling me ‘Flemish’ now, do I have less of a right to speak?”

Flemish quirkiness

The position in between, with a foot on the ground in both countries, is one in which Ivo Victoria feels comfortable. In any case, it offers some advantages. “In Belgium, they still see me as a Flemish writer and my books still receive attention. In the Netherlands, my work is also discussed all over the place. You often hear the idea that in Flanders there’s more appreciation and attention for culture and that that’s going down the drain in the Netherlands. Flanders produces more quirky and original art, but the opportunities offered by funds and platforms in the Netherlands are far greater and there’s also far more interest.”

Ivo Victoria: ‘Flanders produces more quirky and original art, but the opportunities offered by funds and platforms in the Netherlands are far greater’

Is it not the case that in Flanders there’s more tolerance for complexity? “That’s certainly true for television,” Victoria acknowledges. “The question ‘Has it happened to you too?’ is inescapable. I’m hamming it up a bit, but five years ago you could get away with having a mother with dementia, whereas now if you want to get on a talk show you need not just dementia but also to have gone through abuse and a sex change operation. Literary fiction has it hard. In the end, it’s the fault of the TV talk show De wereld draait door. In all their good intentions to focus on literature, they’ve effectively demanded that books be pitchable in thirty seconds. The publishing field is also reacting to that. Has that happened to you? Then you should write about it.”

In Flanders the obsession with confessional prose is less, he believes. “I have the feeling that attention to culture is small but valuable. The quirkiness of Flemish artists in all kinds of disciplines also has to do with how difficult it is to be an artist in Flanders. If there’s no money in it, why would you do your best to please and not just follow your gut? Artists under pressure think differently and their quirkiness increases. You see the same effect in pop music. For years the Netherlands has just produced copies of U2. The fact that dEUS or Soulwax have such quirky sounds is also down to limited resources. In the theatre and in literature you also see more experimentation in Flanders.”

Sarah Meuleman confirms this. “In the Flemish literary landscape there is more space for experimentation,” she says. “In the Netherlands, we have a very fixed idea of what literature is, to which all institutions fervently adhere. My first novel, De zes levens van Sophie (Find Me Gone, 2015), was fairly experimental. The lives of other writers were worked into my main character. In Flanders and in the outside world that was far better seen and appreciated than in the Netherlands.”

Dutch literature has placed itself in quarantine, thereby threatening to marginalise itself, Meuleman claimed in an opinion piece. “We all have it hard, there’s not much money to be earned with books. We should grasp the opportunity to experiment,” she explains. “But the crisis has sent the literary world into spasm. They’re hanging onto what was always the case and playing it safe.”

Sarah Meuleman: ‘In the Flemish literary landscape there is more space for experimentation. In the Netherlands we have a very fixed idea of what literature is’

Her work has been published internationally by renowned literary houses. In the United States, HarperCollins published her debut; in France, Gallimard is to publish her latest novel Zie mij graag. She cannot expect a similarly warm reception from Dutch literary circles. “There’s such a thing as plot phobia in the Netherlands,” she explains. “I’m interested in using a plot in a complex, psychologically driven story. I think it helps to get people on board, there’s a reason they’re watching all those Netflix series. But it’s a big problem in the Netherlands. As soon as there’s a plot, it has to be a thriller. There’s not a single series out now that’s purely a single genre. On TV people mix and match, but in books, you don’t really see it. That has to change, otherwise, we’ll be side-lined.”

Originally to her, the Netherlands was the land of freedom. “But now I’m coming up against something very rigid in the literary world, contrary to the way I’ve always experienced Dutch culture, while in Flanders they’re more open, which defies the clichés.” Fortunately, the world is wider than the Low Countries. Recently Meuleman chaired a debate with young writers and artists. “I noticed that the new generation looks across state borders,” she says. “They don’t think in nations but in niches that can be found all over the world. Of course, that’s because they’ve grown up with social media, which takes you there with a click. But in the Netherlands, they’re quick to see it as a betrayal if you want to cross the border.”

Sarah Meuleman: ‘The new generation doesn’t think in nations but in niches that can be found all over the world’

She herself also has serious plans to pack up and go. “When your books are doing so well abroad and at Gallimard, three people of different ages say, ‘We’ve got to have this,’ then you think, That’s the place where I’m understood.” When asked if she wants to return to Flanders or move on to Paris, London or New York, she replies with a resounding, “Onward, onward!”

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