This week five of the writers along with representatives from the Flemish and Dutch literary foundations and artistic director Rosie Goldsmith, met in Amsterdam to discuss High Impact. I’ve been reading their books for the last month, now I have the chance to meet two of the writers for the first time and to catch up with three I’d met before to find out what everyone is hoping to gain from this literary delegation of Dutch and Flemish writers to the UK.
The head wind blows the rain into my face as I cycle to the restaurant and I’m one of the last to arrive, soaking wet, at the lunch table where Rosie Goldsmith is addressing the writers. Contracts are being handed out and Ramsey Nasr jokes that it’s the first time he’s got to contract stage without even the slightest preliminaries. An easy talker, I’m sure he’ll fare well on the tour. When the Netherlands was guest of honour at the Beijing Bookfair in 2011, he livened up a very dull reading by grabbing a megaphone and shouting ‘I need some anarchy!’
He will go down well in Sheffield and Liverpool.
Rosie outlines the itinerary: a bookshop in Oxford, a Birmingham cathedral, a theatre in Liverpool, student participation in Sheffield, Norwich where Geert Mak will make his entrance, and the grand finale in London with David Mitchell, Tracy Chevalier and Deborah Moggach. Plus a famous Dutch jazz trumpeter and a Flemish accordionist, because the show’s at the Tabernacle. Not the home to a religious cult, as someone suggested, but a redbrick community centre that has become something of a legend for top-notch musical and literary events.
All of the readings will be in English and the writers will be organised into pairings with different combinations each night. Rosie mentions themes and the writers looked alarmed, no, no themes, let’s just see what happens on stage. Peter Terrin would like to be freer than that, Ramsey wants it to be ‘natural’ too. The chemistry between the two is noticeable, there will be comic sparring, I’m sure. Herman Koch is a great performer, too, like Ramsey he has acting experience. During the lunch he knows how to time a wry comment. I’m looking forward to seeing those three in action.
Graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael was unable to travel from Brussels as she has young children. I’ll meet her for the first time on the train to Oxford. Lieve Joris, a Belgian writer living in Amsterdam is hoping to find a UK publisher for her forthcoming book on the relationship between Africa and China. It sounds fascinating, though she is rather cynical about its chances after her previous experiences with English translation. Rosie and I try to persuade her that England isn’t as insular as it used to be, it’s opening up to the idea of literature in translation. ‘International literature, world literature’ Rosie corrects me, ‘we don’t tend to say literature in translation anymore.’
One of the writers asks the rest whether they’ve ever travelled around England’s ‘binnenland’, the Dutch word for ‘interior’ or ‘inland’. The concept strikes me as so Dutch with its seaboard of major cities. England’s dark interior, the dark heart of England, I think to myself. Chika Unigwe who is bilingual and writes in English and Dutch has toured the UK in the past, she’s probably the most truly international of the crowd and seems experienced and quietly confident. The rest of them have the British rail service to look forward to, and much more.