I took a lot of notes at this year’s inaugural Amsterdam and Antwerp Fellowship for Non-Fiction Publishers. A lot. And so when it came time to write this blog article, there was a fair share I had to whittle out. So, if your curiosity is piqued about anything written here, just ask: I’m pretty certain to have a slew more notes on it!
First of all, I must say that the fellowship was organized to perfection. The wonderful, graceful folks at the Dutch Foundation for Literature and Flanders Literature never skipped a beat. They kept us on our toes, but hosted us with such generosity and kindness, that I dare speak for all the fellows by saying that we forgot we were even tired! It was a packed program, but nothing was superfluous.
I learned so much. I felt like I was back at university, scribbling down notes, trying to keep up, striving to take it all in. In most cases we were listening to impassioned presentations by authors themselves. And I have to say, I’ve sat through some pretty awful author presentations in my lifetime, but these were all genuinely interesting and engaging. Holland and Flanders, where do you grow these authors?!
Need I tell you that the group of fellows was amazing? Let’s just say, I made some fabulous new friends, and some memories with which I hope to never part.
And I have to mention our not-so-humble abode in Amsterdam, the Ambassade. With its impeccable service and the gorgeous library and artwork and stellar bar, the hotel itself was a highlight of the fellowship. Never has a group of publishing people been more pampered!
A few themes, a number of books
Mireille Berman of the Dutch Foundation kicked off the fellowship by offering up some reasons why Dutch non-fiction seems to travel so well: It’s not nationalist, the Netherlands is a hub of international connections, and the books in question are accessible, in other words, not too academic.
As the week progressed, the evidence in favor of Mireille’s case piled up, and it was true of the Flemish non-fiction we would be presented as well. We were looking at books with a truly international scope. These are authors who travel, in more ways than one.
For example, we met Olivier van Beemen (Prometheus), who showed us how investigative journalism can result in real change, in the example of his book Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed. And then there was Carien Westerveld, who looks at how macro economic changes reflect on the lives of real people, by tracing the lives of individuals in* The African Dream: On the Rising Middle Class* (de Bezige Bij). Annelies D’Hulster traveled through West Africa documenting the trials and tribulations of migrants trying to reach Europe, a journey which culminated in her book Never Home Again (Polis), putting a human face to the anonymous stories that so often populate the news. And finally, there was artist and author Jeroen Janssen, who escaped from Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, but then went back later to listen to the stories of survivors, which he then turned into the narratives and sketches that populate Abadaringi (Oogachtend).
I’m sure it has escaped no one’s attention that the above-mentioned all focus on Africa in some way. While I should perhaps not have been surprised by this, I have to admit that I was, and pleasantly so. But then, we heard not only Africa. We also heard from Carolijn Visser (Atlas Contact), for example, whose award-winning Selma tells about a Dutch Jewish woman who escapes the Nazis and ends up in Cambridge, where she meets her future husband, a prominent member of the Communist party, with whom she decides to build a family in Maoist China. By peering into the kaleidoscope of this specific story, Visser gives insight into much bigger narratives.
Actually, it seemed the only Dutch or Flemish thing about most if not all of the books presented was the personal backgrounds of their authors. Far from being nationalist, they evidenced a keen curiosity about the world and our shared humanity, and a wished to engage the reader in one way or another, or more ways than one.
Examples of this too abound. Like Matthijs De Ridder, who mesmerized us with his The Age of Charlie Chaplin (de Bezige Bij), a work that clearly has an international audience, and implications, as Chaplin did himself. And then there was Rudi Meulemans, who introduced me at least to the American author Glenway Wescott, into whose transgressive life he delves in Beyond Borders (2 Seas Agency), and to the concept of ‘an aristocracy of the sensitive’.
All of the books seemed to be by authors who strive to be accessible so as to engage as many readers as possible. Take Floris Cohen’s Troubling Knowledge: Kepler to Einstein in Eleven Portraits (Prometheus), which explores the tension between science and religion in the persons and work of eleven scientists and philosophers. It is clearly not for naught that Cohen was awarded the Dutch Eureka Prize for the best book of the year that makes science accessible to a wide audience (allow me to interject—what a great idea for an award!). Another example is Tineke Beckmann’s Through Spinoza’s Looking Glass (Polis), in which the author turns a Spinozian eye to contemporary issues.
Non-fiction publisher Leonoor Broeder told us that Atlas Contact has a mission when publishing socially concerned non-fiction. The house shares the five guiding principles set out by Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner in a recent essay on the future of newspaper journalism: help to improve the world, collaborate with readers, strive towards diversification, be meaningful, and report fairly.
Her point was well served by Leo Lucassen (Atlas Contact) and his book Leaving Fortress Europe Behind, which explores myth versus fact in the portrayal of the refugee crisis, and suggests policy changes that would be more humane and beneficial for everyone involved. Or Europe Under the Surface (Atlas Contact) in which Bert Bakker looks at whether the North-South divide in Europe actually exists (answer: no, not at all, not in the way we are often made to believe it does), and how exploring actual differences to find solutions may help prevent the disintegration of Europe.
Something mentioned by Marnix Verplancke, head of Flanders Literature’s expert committee for non-fiction, was the power of the narrative that is both personal and general. And indeed, many of the titles presented were infused with some personal aspect. Not that authors were putting themselves at the center of the narrative, but rather that they were being very clear about their own subjective position, and using their own passions and/or curiosities to launch themselves, and us, into larger narratives.
This was certainly true of Jan Drost’s When Love is Over (de Bezige Bij), in which the author muses over what it means to be loved and left, a topic he appears to tackle in a way that is personal and relatable, philosophical yet rife with pop culture references. Or there is Bloodrush (Nieuwezijds), in which Jan Verplaetse delves into human beings’ relationship with blood, why we find it so fascinating, so revolting, so intoxicating, via both philosophical contemplation and actual lab research, but starting with a very literary anecdote about being confronted with the sight of blood as a child, and how that stayed with him and eventually gave rise to this book.
Of bookstores, museums, and philosophy houses
I don’t suppose I need speak of the somewhat dizzying but certainly fruitful speed-dating sessions we had with publishers in both Amsterdam and Antwerp, or the wonderful food we were served up all week, because I’m supposed to keep this short. However, I do beg you, gentle reader, to allow me a few last notes.
In Amsterdam we also visited Athenaeum Bookstore, one of the Netherlands’ largest independent bookstores, where director Maarten Asscher gave us an overview of the Dutch market. Informing us of an apparently old and definitely humorous adage that, ‘Compromise is to the Dutch what sex is to other people’, Ascher told us about the shared distribution system that the Netherlands has had since 1871. The idea of a single distributor remains somewhat unfathomable to me. This, combined with fixed pricing and no Amazon, made the Netherlands sound like some kind of publishing paradise. (That said, we also heard complaints about the single distribution, saying that it was too expensive to be a member, and too difficult to convince bookstores to take your books, let alone display them. So, I guess there is an upside and a downside, depending on one’s perspective… Well, and fixed pricing I guess is not a black and white issue either!) All in all, this visit was an excellent opportunity to learn about the Dutch language market, and to discuss publishers’ and independent book retailers’ strategies for survival in the current economic climate.
In Antwerp we got to visit the philosophy house The Searching Deer, ‘where emotions come to reason’. I couldn’t help but think that the world would be a better place if every neighborhood had a Searching Deer, where people come together to debate and brainstorm and discuss and collaborate. In other words, I left with yet more inspiration from the Flemish.
Last but not least, I must make mention of two museum visits. First to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, led by writer/art historian Wieteke van Zeil. In the spirit of Van Zeil’s book Up Closer (Atlas Contact), we focused on three paintings, taking around one minute to silently focus in on each. It was a refreshing approach, zeroing in on the artwork itself, without necessarily knowing anything about it, noticing details and posing questions before reading any labels. Indeed, in addition to revealing aspects of the paintings, we were also revealing something about ourselves in what we saw, thus showing how much we had to learn, about art, and about each other.
And then there was the little gem, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. Here, we were led by author and Bruegel specialist Leen Huet (Polis), whose expertise and clear fervor for the art animated us as well. I for one left with a poster of Mad Meg and a burning desire to learn more about this Bruegel guy.
The Amsterdam and Antwerp Fellowship for Non-Fiction Publishers was intense. Indeed, in the space allotted me here I have been able to convey only a fraction of the experience, and to highlight only a few of the books we heard about. All in all, I cannot stress enough how incredibly rewarding the fellowship was. It marked the beginning of many beautiful friendships, and itself comprised an experience of a lifetime. Now, if you’ll allow me, I’m just going to get back to reading these sample translations…
Holland and Flanders, where do you grow these authors?!