Marjolijn van Heemstra is a writer, poet and theatre maker. Her latest novel ‘En we noemen hem’ (And We Call It) was translated into seven countries and won several prizes. In her work, Van Heemstra tackles current themes with poetry and wonder and shows them time and again how versatile reality is.
Talking of time, where do you find the time for all your projects?
I recycle a lot of material and use the different platforms to investigate things. For example, I can write a column about space travel, then include a sentence from it in a poem and use the text again in a theatre performance. Ultimately, all these forms of expression help each other.
Tell us a bit about your book ‘En we noemen hem’
It is a search for the truth of a family myth about a distant uncle of mine who committed an attack on Sinterklaas evening in 1946. I researched my novel about what exactly happened that night and whether we should remember my uncle as a hero or a criminal. An important line in the book is the question whether or not I should name my future son after him. In the book I count down the weeks to the birth, and so to the moment when I have to make the decision. A big question in the book is how the past influences the present and the future.
How did you decide on the subject as it seems very personal?
It was a story that I had been thinking about for a long time. I needed to find the right context to investigate the history of my uncle. When I was pregnant and the question arose whether I would name my son after him, which was a wish of my grandmother, I suddenly saw the book in front of me. A story about old and new life, that seemed like the right combination
Will it be translated into English?
Yes, in 2020 it will appear in America. It is also translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian.
How did you get into writing?
I don’t really remember anymore, it’s something I’ve always liked to do and it has gradually become my career.
Which do you prefer writing? Your prose or your poetry?
I cannot make a choice about that. For me it is important to keep the poetry close because it helps me in my other writing. So, I read and write many poems to keep in touch with the language, with rhythms, sounds and the eloquence of words. But nobody reads poetry, so I prefer to publish prose, which I do for myself.
And performance, another string to your bow. How did this come about and does it excite you?
It does not feel as far from the other work that I do. Everything starts with writing. The difference is whether I write down the story alone or tell people about it and the latter has become my preference because I like the concentration in a room and the togetherness of listening to a story with a group. I actually hate going on tours so all in all it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with that theatre.
Again, how did you decide on the unusual subject of Garry Davis for your next novel?
I accidentally came across the story of Garry Davis online when I was googling for alternative systems and ways to bypass our border system. On an occasion a friend of mine from Beirut did not receive a visa for a visit to the Netherlands, so for me I had to find out the how’s and why’s of our border system and the big question as to whether it could be done differently. Garry believed that. Me too.
For those who have not heard of him, Garry Davis was an international peace activist who created the World Passport, a fantasy travel document based on his interpretation of Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the concept of world citizenship. He designed and made his own documents and travelled the world on it.
Here in the Netherlands where do you see the creative arts?
There is a huge supply and the level is high but there could be a bigger audience. At schools, little attention is paid to the arts, and especially to what art can mean for ones self and world view. Everyone wants to be a musical star, but nobody wants to read a poem. Art is more than self-expression and spotlights, it is research into what it means to be a human being in this world and to the question of how we can and want to live.
Do you think that Utrecht becoming a UNESCO city of literature will inspire a new generation of writers, firstly in the city, but more broadly in the country?
It is a nice gesture, but it can also ensure that the view remains focused on the past. I think that literature should enter a new time and ask new questions because the old questions give us nothing but old answers and we do not get any further. We live in a strange time with far too little perspective. It would be nice if literature could show us new areas and windows that can open up to writers instead of our current blind walls.