Blood Oranges

BLOOD ORANGES

At 4:00 AM.

in a Warsaw hotel room I ate an orange

in bed, thinking it wasn’t long ago

that there were no fresh fruits here

to speak of, just the occasional jealous

citrus off a boat from Havana, rationed

with goodwill from Prague to Hanoi.

At 8:45 a.m.

a young Polish professional bound

into the meeting room, suit impeccable

and mouth full of chocolate,

telling me it wasn’t long ago

that he had to drive to the German border

just to get a Mars bar. So now he eats one

(sometimes two) for breakfast every morning.

At 4:00 p.m.

I arrived at the airport in time to witness

the pre-flight ritual of vodka with beer chasers

in the LOT lounge, wondering how long ago it was

that my family fled this city, those not

stacked like orange crates into cargo cars

and taken to the German border.

Some minutes before

we touched down on a runway west,

before stowing our tray tables into

an upright position, it occurred to me

I had no one left to ask.

Written by Hollis Kurman

Hollis Kurman is a contributing editor on the Board of Barrow Street Books and is a member of SCBWI. Hollis studied poetry writing at Penn with Daniel Hoffman, former Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. Her poems have been published in Barrow Street, Rattle, Phoebe, the Ocean State Review, VIA (Voices in Italian Americana), and the anthology “The Path Not Taken,” where it won The Editor’s Choice Award. Her poem “The Farm” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also now writes poems and stories for children, including new picture book project “Welcome! A Counting Book of Kindnesses” (tracing the refugee child’s journey through the lens of help offered along the way—currently in development with Amnesty International Books).    

In addition to her writing, she moderates literary events and is Chairperson of the Ivy Circle Netherlands, member of the Fulbright Board NL, Founder of the Human Rights Watch NL Committee, and member of HRW Women’s Rights Advisory Council. She lives in Amsterdam and, occasionally, New York.

Searching For A Different Life

Scene 1: Jimmy

the Fat One

Athens 1948. The Second World War is over, but the Civil War is raging in Greece. We're at the club "Tzimis o Hontros," Jimmy the Fat One. The room is full of smoke. It used to be hashish, but now it is only tobacco; I think. The place is packed. Sitting at tables scattered around the room are not sailors, bums, criminals, loose men and women, the lower class manges (tough guys, smartasses), like it used to be. These are more aristocratic, quiet, "decent" people. More in line with society, one could say. Against the wall the musicians are sitting in a row: a guitarist, a violinist, a baglama player, and two bouzouki players, one of which is the famous Vassilis Tsitsanis, the godfather of Greek music. They're playing taximia (improvisations) and waiting for the singer to come. To sing rembetika music. The music of the outsiders. The Greek blues.  

Rembetika was brought to the big cities by refugees from Asia Minor and Pontus in the 1920s after The Asia Minor Catastrophe. Almost 700,000 Ottoman Greeks died and almost all the rest were uprooted because of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. They had to leave everything except their instruments. Suddenly there were 1.5 million refugees in Greece who were left without a home and a clear future. They had to begin all over again. It was a tough life—lots of drugs, prison sentences, and poverty. They started to sing their own tunes based on eastern rhythms and western music. In the ‘30s their music was forbidden under the rule of dictator Metaxas, but they kept singing—about prison, hash, cocaine, heroine, the trips, addiction, poverty, streetlife, but also a lot about love and broken hearts. The rebetes didn't sing about politics. They kept away from that world. They lived in their parallel world, their subculture, with their own dialect, lifestyle, look, and music. They were poor, but they acted like they were rich, always wearing beautiful suits, hats, moustaches—real manges. Who did exactly as they pleased.

It was a man's world, but they were waiting for her. The only woman on stage. The singer.

Twenty-seven years old, short black hair slicked backwards, dark playful eyes, big dazzling smile, a dark suit and a turtle neck, a cigarette, deep voice, proud: Sotiria Bellou.

LifeScene1.png

ΔΕΝ ΛΕΣ ΚΟΥΒΕΝΤΑ

Δε λες κουβέντα,

κρατάς κρυμμένα μυστικά

και ντοκουμέντα

κι ακούω μόνο

συνθήματα μεταλλικά

των μικροφώνων


Ξέρω τ’ όνομά σου

την εικόνα σου και πάλι από την αρχή

ψάχνω για μια διέξοδο γυρεύοντας

μια αλλιώτικη ζωή


YOU DON'T SAY A SINGLE WORD


You don’t say a single word

you keep hidden secrets

and documents

I hear only

the metal slogans

of the microphones

I know your name

your image and then again

from the start

I seek for a way out, searching

for a different life

Scene 2: No

Surrender

Trying to find a way out, to live a different life. That's what the song says. And that's exactly what Sotiria Bellou did. She was one of the first rebetisses and one of the most famous ones.

She was born in 1921 in a village 85 kilometres from Athens, the eldest child of two grocers. She started singing when she was just 3 years old. Her grandfather was a priest who used to take her to church to sing byzantine hymns.

Some people are never silent—Sotiria was one of them. Her mother didn't like it at all.

"What, you want to become a singer? Tha se tsakiso sto xilo, kale!" (I will beat the hell out of you!)

But Sotiria answered with confidence.

"That's exactly what I'm going to be. I'm going to be a singer and I'm going to be a big one."

Luckily, Sotiria’s father supported her. He was fond of her, being his first born. He brought her to the cinema so she could see "The Little Refugee Girl" starring Sophia Vembo. She adored the movie, which fueled her desire to become a singer, and she mimicked the songs and dances of Vembo every day. Her father also bought her a guitar—well, Sotiria kind of forced him to buy it for her, but he did. When she sang her first song with the guitar, he was so proud that he bought her a straw hat with strawberries on top.


LifeScene2_1.png

She was ζωηρη, fierce. Although Sotiria’s father loved her, there was the rest of the world with their opinions, gender biases and of course his wife ... so, he married her off when she was 17. He tried to tame her—that was a mistake. She didn't want to be ordered around by anyone. She wanted to make her own decisions.

Her new husband didn't agree with the way Sotiria wanted to live her life. He was an alcoholic who beat her. When Sotiria found out he was cheating on her, she decided she had had enough. She marched down to the bar where he was drinking and threw acid on his face. Lucky for him, he was wearing sunglasses. She was very fierce indeed. And she had anger issues, to say the least.

For this, Sotiria spent four months in prison. But even after she returned home it was hard. There was too much gossip—Sotiria was all over the newspapers. The family couldn't take the shame. They restricted her movements which was really hard for Sotiria, and after a lot of fighting and repeatedly being beaten by her family members, she took the train to Athens. The day she left was the same day that Italy declared war on Greece: October 28, 1940. It is now known as Oxi Day, “The ‘No’ Day.” Metaxas refused to surrender to Mussolini by saying a simple, "No." Greeks are still very proud of that—Greeks do not surrender easily. And neither did Sotiria.

It was the beginning of the Second World War, but also the beginning of a new life for Sotiria. She started doing odd jobs and singing and playing the guitar wherever she could. She got involved in the resistance movement against the Axis occupation of Greece, which landed her in jail a few times, and even tortured. During the Civil War between the leftists and the Greek government forces—the first conflicts of the Cold War—she was still an outspoken activist and supported the same leftists who resisted the Germans. And again she ended up in jail.

Then one day in 1947, Vassilis Tsitsanis heard her sing. He was blown away. That talent, that deep, emotional voice, but at the same time so down to earth. He immediately wrote two songs for her: "When You're Drinking at the Taverna" and "The Boy You Used to Date." They started singing together at Jimmy the Fat One, and a partnership was born.

Scene 3: The

Smoky Room

and the Married

Woman

Nothing about Sotiria's life was conventional—the way she looked (masculine style in dress), the way she gambled (a lot), the way she loved. She never said she was a lesbian, but she never pretended to be anything else. She lived with a woman and didn't hide it. In the '50s it was unheard of for a woman to live such an uncompromising life. Even now I can hardly name a Greek singer who is open about his or her homosexuality. And there was Sotiria defying gender and beauty norms and living just as she pleased almost 60 years ago.

She allowed herself to openly charm women with her dazzling, big smile and beautiful voice. Like tonight. She's flirting with the captain's daughter. The dark beauty from Alexandria seems to like it. A lot. There is something about Sotiria’s self confidence—something quite appealing. Exciting. Sexy. The captain’s daughter always sits neatly next to her husband at the front. She's holding a strand of her long black hair, her eyes fixated on Sotiria, her leg crossed over her knee, showing a little bit too much skin. Sotiria knows that the husband is watching them closely, but she doesn't care. She will sing for the captain's daughter, remembering the secret kisses they shared in the alley, oh so many times. But the games the captain's daughter plays with her heart ... ai ai ai.


LifeScene3.png

ΤΟ ΓEΛΕΚΑΚΙ

Το γελεκάκι, που φορείς,

εγώ στο 'χω ραμμένο,

με πίκρες και με βάσανα

στο 'χω φοδραρισμένο.

Με πήρε ο ύπνος κι έγειρα

στου καραβιού την πλώρη

και ήρθε και με ξύπνησε

του καπετάνιου η κόρη

Άντε το μαλώνω, το μαλώνω

άντε κι ύστερα το μετανιώνω

άντε το μαλώνω και το βρίζω

άντε την καρδούλα του ραγίζω

Φόρα το μωρό μου

φόρα το μικρό μου

γιατί δε θα το ξαναφορέσεις άλλο πια

φόρα τo για να σαι, για να με θυμάσαι

για μετάξι έχω τα σγουρά σου τα μαλλιά


THE LITTLE JACKET


The little jacket you wear

I have made for you

with tears and distress

I have added a lining to it

I fell asleep and I leaned

by the ship's prow

and came and woke me up

the captain's daughter

And I scold it, I scold it

and then I regret it

I scold it and I curse it

and I break up his heart

Wear it my love

Wear it my babe

because you won't wear it anymore

wear it so you can remember me

For silk, I have your curly hair



Scene 4: She,

Me, and the

Rest

  It's one of my favourite songs. Singing about a broken heart with such a merry melody, it is healing: ‘this little jacket I made just for you, and now that you broke my heart, I hope that by wearing this jacket you will never forget me.’

  I love this music so much. I listened to it from a young age. The free-spirited tunes and macho style have always appealed to me. I love to dance the solitary, drunk dance that goes with it, the zeibekiko. Taking my space on the floor and cursing life and love, and at the same time embracing it: the paradox of Greek music and life itself. It's all about living in the moment. In a cool way. I was born and raised in a Greek family here in the Netherlands, but I feel like there's a little Greek macho person in me that needs to get out—a rebetis.

  In the present I can romanticize it, but the life of a rebetis wasn't a romantic life at all. And Sotiria's life was a rough life. I don't want to go to prison. I don't want to be beaten up. But her voice, her desire to sing, the song that had to come out—the fact that she did that on her terms in that time, defying Greek norms of female behaviour—that is what is revolutionary. That is what stays: to be no secret.

   That is exactly why she inspires me: she reminds me not to suppress who I am like I have done in the past. I have been force-fed prescribed ideas about how a woman should be, how a Greek woman should be, how a person in the Netherlands should be, how I should or should not express my desires, and longings, how I should dress, walk and talk. How much space I should take up in the world.  

And now, 21 years after her death, the fascists are knocking on the door again. To be different is always tricky in these circumstances. How many people dare to defy conventional norms openly? “Just be yourself!” Not easy for everyone. When does the revolution start? When you don't care what people think or say about you? Or maybe you do care, but you do it anyway. Remember: another life is possible.



LifeScene4.png

ΔΕΝ ΛΕΣ ΚΟΥΒΕΝΤΑ

Δε λες κουβέντα

κρατάς κρυμμένα μυστικά

και ντοκουμέντα

κι ακούω μόνο

συνθήματα μεταλλικά

των μικροφώνων

Ξέρω τ’ όνομά σου

την εικόνα σου και πάλι από την αρχή

ψάχνω για μια διέξοδο γυρεύοντας

μια αλλιώτικη ζωή


YOU DON'T SAY A SINGLE WORD

You don’t say a single word

you keep hidden secrets

and documents

I hear only

the metal slogans

of the microphones

I know your name

your image and then again

from the start

I seek for a way out, searching

for a different life.

Written by Soula Notos

Art by Plum Globig

Soula Notos is a second generation Greek theatermaker, comedian, actress, and storyteller living in the Netherlands. She studied Psychology and Gender Studies, before finishing theater school with the absurd western "Doctor, where do cowgirls dream about?" She toured the Netherlands with her show "Heimwee" ("Homesick") for two years. Recently she wrote her first long theatrical piece, “Who are you when no one is looking,” in which she tells expressive, energetic, poetic stories full of self-mockery about growing up with different labels and how to deal with them without losing your mind. She performed the play at the International Storytelling Festival Amsterdam, First Contact London, Storytelling Festival Prague, and Fortellerfestivalen Oslo, but also for various students at art schools (HKU Utrecht, Artez Zwolle), the School for International Training (SIT), and the University of Utrecht. She is a regular storyteller at the storytelling center Mezrab in Amsterdam, where she told the story featured here about Sotiria Bellou. The performances and comedy she makes, the myths she chooses to retell, they all have themes in common: empowerment, connection, humanization, freedom, lightness. She tells stories to connect, to change, to make people laugh. To remember.

More info: www.soula.nl

Our Little King

His name was Leroy

but in their language there was no equivalent.

They asked him its meaning and he told them:

Le Roi: the king

and so they called him Ons Koninkje: Our Little King

Where did you come from? they asked.

I was born in a castle in the sky

above the clouds, but below heaven

every day sunny and warm

every night cool and dark

like the desert.

What did you do for water?

Rivers of clouds flowed around the castle. We gathered them

up and squeezed them like marshmallows

& out came sweet nectar.

What did you do for food?

We collected stardust which fell on the castle grounds

& baked them into cakes.

What happened?


This in-between world turned unstable. Stardust began to fall heavier and of a different sort—metallic, inedible. The cloudwater grew polluted, its sweetness replaced by a dirty taste of rust. Or was it blood? The castle was under constant assault. Huge sections of the marble walls crumbled; falling debris kept injuring people. The inhabitants spent their time huddled inside, scared to venture out. Many died of starvation. The elders made the decision to forsake the castle, plunge into the world below, and take their chances with the earth-walkers.

“But you have no idea what’s below,” Leroy’s grandmother warned his parents. “There are stories that the people down there eat each other. How could you ever live among them? They sent up those terrible things in the sky which rain down on us.”

“We’re no safer here. If we stay, it’s certain death. Besides, what life is this for the child?” his father countered.

“Pshh! We’ve survived this long.” She refused to leave.

Leroy watched the exchange from behind a door, breathing as quietly as he could to keep from being noticed. Of course, he wanted to stay with his grandmother. While his parents spent their days working in the marble factory or rebuilding the walls with the rest of the adults, Leroy’s grandmother watched him. They played Mahjong together with marble chips. And, even though she was old and had pain in her back, she indulged his games of hiding, covering her eyes, counting to 10 and then bending over to look inside cupboards and around corners, or stretching to see if he had folded himself onto the top shelf of a closet. She taught him how to bake cloud cakes and gave him cookies made from distilled cloudstuff which his parents never let him have for fear of spoiling him.

And the stories. His grandmother often let Leroy stay up late, talking to him about grownfolk things, like the history of their people, how she and his grandfather first met, and the previous wars which their people had won. This wasn’t the first and surely it wouldn’t be the last. Their people survived. They always survived, she wanted him to know. He listened, often falling asleep on the rug at her feet.

Their games were often interrupted by aerial bombs or the shaking of the castle as it returned fire. In these instances, his grandmother would take him to the corner of the house and hold him tight until it all passed.

The night they were to depart, Leroy huddled in the same corner. “I’m not going,” he cried. He hoped his parents would relent and leave him to stay with his grandmother. Leroy’s parents couldn’t convince him and his father didn’t want to force him. They pleaded with his grandmother to reason with him. The castle was crumbling and would, any day now, collapse.

Is this what she wanted—for her only grandchild to be buried under the weight of her own stubbornness?

No, of course not. Leroy’s grandmother took a big breath and went to him. She crouched on her bad knees and took Leroy’s hand. She whispered in his ear. Leroy kissed her and gripped her for a moment. He wiped his eyes and joined his parents.

“Are you coming?”

“No, honey. I have a longer past than I do a future. You all have a hard road ahead of you and it’d be even harder with me. You don’t need to worry about me. What did I tell you our people always do?”

“Survive.”

“Exactly.”

Leroy asked his grandmother how he would hear from her—how would she let him know that she was OK? She said that she would send messenger birds when she could, when it was safe for them to travel and when she was sure they would reach him.

———

One by one, his people stood at the edge of the sky,

hungry and afraid. And they jumped through the clouds.

Some, however, remained—

like his grandmother not everyone could (or would)

throw themselves into the unknown.

And so it was that families like Leroy’s were split asunder

during what his people would call the

Great Descent.

———

As he told his story, Leroy watched his audience closely, noting where they gasped in shock or amazement, when they released involuntary sighs or drifted off during the less captivating parts. He modulated his voice, aiming to maximise their young attention spans.

The other children, spellbound by these tales on the playground, went home and told their parents of this magical boy. Sometimes they embellished the story, other times they left things out. Of course, their parents thought this was all ridiculous. They pointed to the map of the country where Leroy came from, explained that he and his family arrived by aeroplane. The parents gave the boy and his kind a name which the children found hard to pronounce. Their parents spoke of things like protectorates, colonies, independence, and shared governments, none of which the children understood or were particularly interested in. They did not like this story from their parents. Not at all. They preferred their little king’s version of events.

Not all of the children, however, were convinced.

image_part_001.png

One such child was Thijs, an older boy at the primary school, whose nature was to be skeptical to the point of heresy. At the dinner table he would follow his parents’ conversation and nod with a solemnity belying his actual age. If his father made an assertion which Thijs doubted or (and this was more likely) an assertion which Thijs knew to be categorically incorrect, he would interject: “But, dear papa, you are mistaken.” Thijs was the first child in his school to stop believing in Sinterklaas.

Before Leroy, it was Thijs who had commanded the attention of the other children, regaling them with demonstrations of science, like his award-winning volcano which mimicked the smell of burning sulphur with eggs and vinegar. Since Leroy had arrived, however, the children (and even the teachers) had lost interest in Thijs. He watched irate as the rest of the school fawned over their newest addition. Even at Thijs’ home, Leroy and his family were stars.

“I ran into one of them at the grocery store,” Thijs’ mother said at dinner one night, drinking a glass of wine.

“Oh?” His father’s interest piqued enough to make him look up from the newspaper.

“Fascinating story. Tragic, actually,” she said.

“I can imagine.”

“We have one in our class. He’s always telling lies, stupid made up stories about where he came from that don’t make any sense, like out of a fairytale,” interrupted Thijs.

“It’s probably a coping mechanism. I’m sure he’s just traumatised,” said his mother.

“He’s full of shit.”

“Thijs Bartolemeus Mattias,” she said, employing his full Catholic name to effect. “I don’t care what you think, you be nice to that poor child. We should invite him and his parents over for dinner.”

“God, please no!”

“Honey, what a marvellous idea. We can introduce them to some of our food and way of life.” Thijs’ mother instructed Thijs to invite Leroy and his parents to dinner.  

It was settled. The next day at recess, Thijs walked over to Leroy and with reluctance extended the invitation.

image_part_001.png

“Should we bring anything?” asked Leroy.

“Ugh. I don’t care. Just be there at six.”

Leroy beamed for the rest of the day. At home, he didn’t relay the invitation to his parents. Though he had never met Thijs’ family or seen his house, he knew from the boy’s clothes and from his shiny new bike that he was rich. He didn’t want Thijs to meet his parents, to see how they dressed, to have another weapon to use against him in their playground war.

A week later, Thijs, his parents, and Leroy sat around the table.

“My parents send their apologies, they have to work tonight.”

“That’s OK. We can do this again another time, with them, Thijs’ mother offered brightly. “Did you like the food?”

“It was all delicious. They’ll be sad they missed it. Next time you can come to ours. We can cook for you,” Leroy offered.

“Your food has too much spice for me,” said Thijs’ father. Leroy didn’t mention how the dishes had been either flavourless or over-salted.

“Had you ever had potatoes before, Leroy?” asked the mother.

“Once or twice,” he replied, failing to mention they ate them almost daily. In fact, the potato originated from his home country and had been, through a circuitous and bloody route, introduced here. Leroy’s father often ranted about how everything in this “Old World” was stolen from the New. Though, of course, that wasn’t something to be discussed now.

“Why don’t you ask him about where he’s from,” Thijs said loudly.

Everyone looked at Leroy. Unsure of what this audience required, he tried to read them. He knew where Thijs stood, but his parents were different, unfamiliar. Their faces, set and closed, revealed nothing. Leroy moved his mouth to speak, but a cough escaped instead.

“Oh, honey. You don’t have to talk about it. Not if you don’t want to. Here, have some more cake,” said Thijs' mother, almost in tears.

“Thijs, why don’t you take Leroy upstairs and play for a bit,” commanded his father. Thijs groaned in response. “And remember what I told you.”

Thijs walked begrudgingly upstairs with Leroy following. The house was bigger than it had looked from the outside. The dining room opened into a large living room, at the end of which loomed a staircase leading to the second floor. Leroy and his parents lived closer to the town centre in an apartment building with narrow, steep stairs.

It was impossible to pass someone on those stairs, meaning if two people were walking in the opposite direction, one had to retreat to the landing to give way to the other. Still, Leroy loved playing in the building’s angles and corners. He imagined the small crevices were secret passageways to unknown worlds waiting for his discovery. His parents spent their days working at a ship factory and came home tired, listless ,and silent. The move had been difficult for them, especially his mother whom he often heard crying late at night.

Upstairs, Thijs' room was as large as Leroy’s family’s entire apartment. Thijs showed Leroy his model train and car racing set. “Here,” Thijs said as he thrust a broken car into Leroy’s hand.

“What’s this?”

“A toy. Jesus, don’t you know anything? My mother said I had to give you something. She didn’t say it had to be nice.”

“What happened to it?”

“My dad ran over it with his car.”

“Sure, whatever. Thanks,” Leroy said, pocketing the car. He surveyed the piles of clothes on the floor, the books haphazardly stacked in a corner, the dusty stereo and the walls covered with posters of pop stars and comic book heroes. “You know, I don’t get why you’re so miserable if you have all this stuff,” he said before turning and running down the stairs.

It was getting late and Leroy had to get back to his parents. He had told them he was working on school project with a classmate. Leroy thanked his hosts for their hospitality, kissing Thijs' mother three times and offering his father a firm handshake.

On the way home, Leroy decided to take a longer route so he could cycle next to a canal—he could always say he got lost if his parents asked why he was late. The neighbourhood was relaxed at this twilight hour. Leroy’s father complained that it was too quiet in this country. But Leroy didn’t agree. There were sounds, but of a different sort than those from home—cicadas, the buzz of lawnmowers, echoes of clanking dinner dishes, slow and easy radio music. And the birds! Never had he seen so many and such variety: hawfinches, black-tailed godwits, greedy herring gulls, and his favourites—the herons. He memorised the charts at school and did his own reading on their eating, mating, and migratory habits.

Large elms stood tall and straight on the canal banks, as if standing in line at the store; their branches performed a languid dance over the wide waterway. In the distance Leroy could see cranes adding new buildings to the skyline. He learned at school that the entire city had been destroyed during a war that had ripped the continent apart, but he couldn’t believe it, not from how it looked now.

He heard the sound of an approaching bicycle behind him. He moved to the left to let the rider pass. The rider rang the bell furiously, nonetheless.

image_part_002.png

“That’s not how it works!” the cyclist yelled.

Ting-ting-ting!

Leroy veered to right to let the bike pass, but the cyclist kept ringing the bell. He looked leftward and back to see what was happening. A boy a few years older than Thijs but with bright red hair gave him the middle finger. The cyclist grinned, nasty and lupine. Leroy turned forward to watch the road. The front wheel of the cyclist’s bike grazed against Leroy’s leg and then braked, causing Leroy to swerve again. The cyclist sped up and cut him off. Leroy braked hard and lost control of the bike, falling over onto the path. A crow watched from the top of a street lamp, blinked its eyes once the scene was over, and flew away.

Leroy’s pants were ripped, his knees were skinned, and his wrist was twisted. Stunned he looked ahead at the cyclist, who turned around to let out a red-faced, throaty laugh. “Go back to your own country if you can’t figure out how to ride a bike!”

Leroy told his parents what happened later that night. His father smashed a plate and stormed off to the small balcony to smoke a cigarette.

The next week, Leroy was in the middle of one his lunchtime sessions with an audience of rapt classmates when Thijs came up to him.

“Stop this ridiculousness,” Thijs demanded. Fists clenched like miniature cannons ready to fire, Thijs towered over Leroy and in his rage looked ready to strike.

“What do you want?”

“Admit you’re lying.”

“But I’m not.”

“He’s not!” the other children protested on Leroy’s behalf.

“Prove it then. Every event has some proof it happened.”

Leroy turned his back to Thijs as he addressed the gathered group. During the Great Descent not everyone landed safely, he explained. In fact, many were hurt, including Leroy. As his family jumped, Leroy tried to hold his father’s hand tight, but their grip loosened and Leroy fell hard to the ground. He pulled up the leg of his pants to show the scratches. “And my grandmother gave me this before I left. It was crushed when I fell.” He produced the toy car Thijs had given him.

image_part_002.png

“I gave him that car! He got it at my house,” Thijs said from behind himself. But he had already lost—the other children were disinterested in his protestations. They pulled Leroy over to them and walked him to a picnic table. Before him they had laid out what they had been able to spare from their lunches or surreptitiously steal from home. Leroy surveyed the array of orange juice, chocolate chip cookies, cheese sandwiches, and apples laid out before him—stacks of food piled higher than he was tall—and it was thus, when he realised where a king’s true power lay.

As they sat, a little bearded reedling hopped on the pavement near the picnic tables. Leroy recalled how he had told the other children of his grandmother languishing on the other side of the atmosphere with no way to reach him except through the deployment of trained birds.

He watched the reedling and threw a bit of bread to it. It sang something in response. A teacher gathered the kids to go back into class. The bird flew up to the picnic table and hopped toward Leroy. It continued chirping, but now faster and with determination. It chirped and chirped, straining its voice to reach a louder volume. Leroy tossed more bread, but it ignored the food and continued toward him.

“Now, please, Leroy,” called the teacher. Leroy stood up and headed towards the door.

The bird remained—its chirps now a histrionic screeching. It jumped furiously up and down on the table.

“You shouldn’t feed the birds,” the teacher admonished.

Leroy looked back at the bird jumping furiously, beside itself, almost screaming—it was as if its or someone else’s life depended on delivering message which he didn’t, couldn’t understand.

 Written by Lloyd Miner  Art by Dakota Peterson      Lloyd Miner    is a writer currently living in Amsterdam. Originally from the U.S., he has degree in Film Studies from Columbia University. He writes prose and poetry and sometimes a combination of the two.

Written by Lloyd Miner

Art by Dakota Peterson

Lloyd Miner is a writer currently living in Amsterdam. Originally from the U.S., he has degree in Film Studies from Columbia University. He writes prose and poetry and sometimes a combination of the two.

Interview: Babs Gons

The woman who many refer to as the Queen of Spoken Word—in Amsterdam and beyond—discusses the ups and downs of pioneering the Netherlands' spoken word scene.

What brought you to Amsterdam?

The lure of the city—I wanted to get away. I grew up in different places in Holland, and the last 10 years of my school life I lived in a small village on the beach. A place where I didn’t really feel at home. As soon as I had my high school diploma I just got the hell out.

Did you discover spoken word at college or have you been writing your whole life?

I have this big, big love of literature and I used to read a lot when I was a child. And also write little stories, little poems. In ‘97 I spent a year in Brazil and when I came back, I went to New York to visit my friend—I stayed there for a month, and I went into the city and I came into Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Bowery Club and different places, and I saw all these people doing exactly what I wanted to do but I didn’t know it existed. People like me, on stages, telling stories about people like me—it was so recognizable and so passionate, and for me it was like kind of a ‘click,’ you know? I never knew the literature I love could be so vibrant and dynamic.

And then I came back here to Holland, to Amsterdam, and I had the chance to organize something myself, but it was a little harder to find the local talent because spoken word—people didn’t know what it was. It was like a very well-kept secret. People came on those monthly nights and they brought their friends who knew people, and people were surprised because everyone had this image of old, white, gray men with big beards, you know, with little books about the toe of a mosquito and nature and dust! So it was like, the same surprise I had. Every month I saw people looking so surprised that they could be so entertained by a night like that.

But spoken word was still quite new and unknown, and I thought, we need local talent. Because you need to kind of translate it to your own context and stuff. So there was this production house that started up in the east and they wanted to have this really complete workshop program. So we started giving workshops there, and actually that’s where this group grew from, it’s called “Poetry Circle Nowhere.” Sometimes, if we had the chance, we invited guests, workshop masters from all walks of life, and we made plays, and started to get bigger and bigger. I was the artistic leader from 2007 to 2014, and then I thought, Okay. My work is done. It’s happening. There’s a lot of people involved in the spoken word movement—there are hardly any festivals anymore that don’t have a stage for spoken word. So in 2014 I quit and went to work as a solo artist. Because all those years working behind the scenes, building the stages and the organization, prevented me from doing my own thing. And that’s the reason I started in the first place, of course—you know, to be a performer myself.

It sounds like a very organic growth with the spoken word movement here. I guess it was the same thing that you encountered, just that people hadn’t known that that was what they wanted to do until they saw it?

I think so. It’s almost like a new thing, it’s not pure literature, it’s not pure performance art. It’s where they meet. And sometimes it’s also where theater meets. And comedy. And movement. And play, and music, and hip hop—so it’s, to use a very technical term, an interdisciplinary art.

Especially this year I’ve been bombarded with requests of organizations to help them transform the organization, or the magazine, or the platform, or the festival into a more inclusive organization or festival or magazine, because there’s this growing consciousness that there is a group of people in this society, young people from different ethnic backgrounds, with different gender definitions, who are doing this thing that is kind of literature and art. It’s more fit for the people, it’s more inclusive—it’s a form where the stories of people that are never being heard are being heard. There’s a place for them. And why is that? That’s because the rules are different. The rules are no rules, really. It’s telling your story. It’s very personal and it’s also part of a long oral tradition, much more maybe than the classic poetry that we read on pages because this is not only for the pages, it’s more for the telling. It’s the most direct form of having your voice being heard. There’s no editing, you know? And I think it’s a very important, and also a big difference from the classic literature. And I think a lot of young people are discovering that, but also the world of the arts and institutions and maybe even the organizations, they start to value spoken word. It’s a powerful tool as well, and that’s I think why it’s growing so much right now.

Do you think there’s more of an institutional consciousness of the value, or is there just more movement at the grassroots level that is sort of making its own noise?

I think it’s more consciousness from the institutions, and I think even they are the ones sometimes—the funders, the money-raisers, or the money-givers—that tell, for example, the magazines: “We’re gonna give you these grants if you start to include more people from different backgrounds, more spoken word.” And I directly get these questions—not even like, you know, with a nice package or something—questions like, “We are a very white organization, we need to be a little bit more diverse and younger. Can you help us?” Maybe even every week I get a request in my mailbox asking to advise them, and help them, and be some kind of ambassador. I think it comes from both ways. It’s the organizations themselves—they say, “OK, this thing’s happening and we need to be part of it,” but also, like, funding organizations tell them, “We’re only gonna give you this grant if you include more.”

That’s a weird dynamic—it still indicates a sense of ignorance, it seems.

We lack a lot of consciousness in our history, I think. Like, in this society right now, we’re having this basic discussion of what is racist, what is inclusion, what is white privilege or privilege at all. My family is from Texas, from Houston, but here it’s like we’re 50 years back in history. What happens here all the time is, like, a select group of very privileged people kind of feel like they can decide or judge about what is racist or not, and without any form of empathy. So it’s the same with this a little bit—sometimes, I’m just looking at people thinking, Where have you been? The first thing you wanna say is, “You must reflect what you’re looking for.” Some organizations I'm just thinking, Yeah, you want something, but you’re on such a different planet!

I think the most important thing is that people go to places, look at things, dance to things, read things where they find some place of reflection in themselves, you know? It’s like, when I grew up, I read everything that I could find, but it was mostly white writers, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Shakespeare, until I found Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker—I think most of the books I have are written by black women, Caribbean women, African women, women from the Diaspora, because I find something of myself in those books. Even though their lives are millions of miles apart we have communal experiences. And I think it’s so important to have this.

I have a poem, it’s an ode to Toni Morrison. I performed this poem, and still until this day people are mailing me that I touched them so much and it was so recognizable. It’s so intense how many people have the same history, growing up in this country and not being included in the stories, in the books, in the novels, in the films, in the magazines, in the series on television. It’s changing now, but we all feel it.

Creating the live experience and having that direct connection with people that stirs up emotion must be so powerful.

Yeah. It’s funny, because when I come off stage people wanna hug me, and I have to get used to it. It’s something about being so personal that I think you become some kind of public thing—and it’s amazing because I’m always surprised!

Do you remember the first time you were hugged? Like, the first performance where you had that kind of reaction from somebody?

No, I don’t really recall that first time. But it started happening in the last two years, I think. I think when I started to feel really at home, like, really comfortable on the stage, this started to happen more and more. Also, I guess, because it’s very personal. And it’s nice actually. If it doesn’t happen I’m just like, “What? No one’s hugging me?! What happened?”

You’ve only become truly comfortable on stage in the past two years?

Yeah—in the beginning when I started organizing, so the beginning of 2000, I performed still. But I was a totally different person then. I also did my work in English and I’ve started doing it in Dutch now. I got so much more comfortable in my own language, I think. In your own language you’re much more confronted with the real meaning of every word. You have to be a little bit more selective, you’re not prone to use the cliches and expressions because it’s closer to you. Also, I think English for us is like good Chinese food with lots of sauces on it, you know? Or like a very juicy sushi. And the Dutch language is a little bit more, like, pickle-y. You need to work a little harder to make a nice flow in it. Words most of the time are longer, they sound more technical, they’re harsher. But they’re very close to us.

And yeah, so it’s since 2014—I think then I became really, really comfortable on stage. Really comfortable with my work. All the insecurity I had before was also because I didn’t have the proper amount of time and attention because I was always working for other people, for the stage and the shows, and when that fell away—I now tend it as a garden you tend daily to, you know? It becomes something different. The art is all I have—I pay a lot of attention to it, and I nourish it.

I take this art very seriously, with a lot of humor as well, but I think it’s such a privilege to be able to live from my art right now. I think what’s most important for me is that when I started to perform again, I felt there was a need for me to perform there. Because people responded, and I thought, I have this mission to tell stories of the people, of myself, all the people around me, and the people that make part of my world. And that’s, I think, what I do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.




February On The Herengracht

FEBRUARY ON THE HERENGRACHT

Snow,

not the kind that heralds frozen waterways,

an eleven-city race on skates, but a change

on the cheek, a white sky smile.

Slow mist and snow, gulls

glissade low over the canals,

grey-on-grey then gone.

Curtains

wide onto feathered white, lacing

branch by branch into city time.

To be consumed by this pale

portrait, where all is stillness

save for our two forms, slow, slow

under layers of white then gone.

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Poetry and Photography by Hollis Kurman

Hollis Kurman is a contributing editor on the Board of Barrow Street Books and is a member of SCBWI. Hollis studied poetry writing at Penn with Daniel Hoffman, former Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. Her poems have been published in Barrow Street, Rattle, Phoebe, the Ocean State Review, VIA (Voices in Italian Americana), and the anthology “The Path Not Taken,” where it won The Editor’s Choice Award. Her poem “The Farm” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also now writes poems and stories for children, including new picture book project “Welcome! A Counting Book of Kindnesses” (tracing the refugee child’s journey through the lens of help offered along the way—currently in development with Amnesty International Books).    

In addition to her writing, she moderates literary events and is Chairperson of the Ivy Circle Netherlands, member of the Fulbright Board NL, Founder of the Human Rights Watch NL Committee, and member of HRW Women’s Rights Advisory Council. She lives in Amsterdam and, occasionally, New York.

Interview: Linda Veldman & Dean Bowen

Linda Veldman, director of Perdu, Amsterdam's 35-year-old poetry bookstore-publishing house-experimental performance space, talks multilingualism and the Perdu community with Perdu editor Dean Bowen.

Linda: Perdu started out as a tiny bookshop selling used books, fully run by volunteers. It slowly grew bigger because people started organizing programs and other events. In '96 Perdu finally moved here [its current, larger headquarters]. Perdu has grown and professionalized a lot during the last decades—we're currently working with a staff of four to make sure things run smoothly, in terms of business, administration, PR etc. Perdu remains primarily volunteer and community based however, with around 30 volunteers as of today. Those who do the work, whether it be behind the bar, as an editor or as a book seller, decide which way to go. Experimental poetry remains our main focus, we're mostly operating in the margins, trying to shine a light on the literary and artistic work that is under-exposed elsewhere. Our bookshop sells poetry from all over the world and every Friday is Perdu-night, it's called De Avonden (The Evenings). The editors build every night from scratch, there is no fixed format, it's something else entirely every week: different theme, different form, different speakers. There's hardly any money to be made of course, we're all just in it for this crazy love of poetry.

How did you get involved with Perdu?

L: I decided to volunteer for Perdu when I was living Berlin. A friend of mine knew the former director, and she said, “Yeah that’s something for you. You should call them.” So yeah, I just came in here and started doing all sorts of stuff. I became an editor for years, and then I moved back to Berlin, but then I came back. The former director, she wanted to quit, and I applied for the job. Then they hired me. I love doing it, so it’s a good place to be.

Are you from Berlin originally?

L: No, but I am half German. I was raised in the Netherlands, but I also speak German fluently. I just moved back and forth a bit.

I know that you performed at a Verso event a while ago, and you were billed as doing trilingual poetry, which I thought was very interesting.

L: I’m not doing it now because now most of my poems are in Dutch. For me, as a poet, I think that started because I was basically living in three languages. In Berlin I was working in English, I was speaking to all my German friends in German, but I obviously still had contact with my Dutch family and friends and stuff. So that was a day-to-day thing, just living in three languages, and that just naturally ended up in my poetry as well. And at first I tried to work around it, in the sense that I translated things if they didn’t fit into the same language. At a certain point I just left things the way they were. We have a series this year on multilingualism, actually.

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I didn’t know before I came here that, like, everyone speaks English. It’s been crazy for me.

Dean: Dutch people love to speak English. It gives us the opportunity to feel international.

L: It does, it does. So sad!

D: Well, it’s good to be able to facilitate people coming here and just being able to communicate.

L: My experience in France is that if you try French, they’ll just start in English, like: "You suck at this." And if you start in English, they will do French! There’s no way.

D: I just kind of abuse my memory, so the only thing that I can retain is the early years of French. So I know how to order a beer and get some bread, ask for cheese.

Well, that’s better than most Americans. Myself included—I’m monolingual.

L: Yeah, but is that such a big surprise? I mean, you have this entire continent where you just wander around and speak that one language. It’s also born out of necessity, right? The speaking multiple languages. I mean, Dutch is obviously—if we drive for three hours—

D: We’re in a country where nobody’s gonna understand.

L: —it’s a language that you cannot speak anymore, so you’re forced to learn different languages. Because otherwise you’re also forced to stay within this very tiny country. [Americans] have heaps of ground to cover before you reach the end of your language, so it makes perfect sense that you just stick with that.

D: Apart from you just speaking English, which is, you know, spoken in I think most of the world right now, then there’s also this part of being American. A lot of the world is already kind of geared towards you in a sense.

L: Yeah, I think that, definitely. I had to write the yearly reports, and I realized that we had been—and still are—inviting a lot of American poets. This is something we’re doing—why is that?

D: Well, I think that it’s just circumstantial with the contacts—we just get tipped off about American poets.

L: Yeah that’s true. We’re lucky in that sense. But American literature is also big.

D: It is.

L: I mean, most Dutch poets and writers read a lot of American lit—we wouldn’t say that about Spanish literature.

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Does who the editors read factor into who gets invited for events?

L: Yeah. So our programming also changes—it depends on the editors, really. So if you look at Perdu and the history of Perdu, what we do—the basis is experimental poetry, but what that means is that the programming changes a lot. It depends on the team of editors we have because they have the freedom to do what they want. It’s also because it’s so community-based—people invite people they know, or they hear of new voices. So what we do and our subjects, that just changes along with the editors. What’s on the program now is definitely not what was on the program a couple of years ago—not only because, obviously, they’re different programs, but also because the interests and topics and everything changes over time. Most editors stay two or three years, so there is not a constant shift, but it changes and you do see that in the programming. I also really like that about Perdu: it’s not stuck. There is always room to evolve, to turn things upside down and in a different direction.

Do you remember the first event that you organized when you first joined?

L: Oof. I think it was a night about poetry and performance where I invited four speakers to perform their own work and each other’s work. They all had very specific ways of performing, so they kind of did a roulette with their work. And what came out was very interesting, because a very loud poet, for example, would do the work of a very quiet poet and vice versa. It was cool.

This seems like a cool place to work!

L: It is. Yeah. It’s also a crazy bunch, I guess. Isn’t it?

D: Oh yeah. It’s wild. The thing is, there is this connective tissue that is poetry, literature, but then you look at the people, the editors, and it’s just a weird bunch that would not necessarily mix any other way. And not for personality’s sake, but just the pockets that we kind of move in, in regards to just our jobs and studies, and life in general. So it’s this weird little thing that we’ve got here. But it’s home, which is important.

That’s great that you have hands in different ponds—well, that’s mixing metaphors—

D: No, I think especially for what we’re doing with the programming, we also kind of look for that—to find people from these different pockets, because I think in the range of programs that we want to make, that gives us the opportunity to diversify themes, topics, and access to certain archives or certain networks. So it is to our benefit.

That sounds like a smart way to do things.

L: Yeah, so I’m very happy here. A couple more years, and then we’ll see! I guess the position I’m in now, most people that do it do it around four, five years. I think that’s also a good thing. That there’s room for new ideas—I don’t think it’d be good if I stayed here for 15 years or whatever and just did what I know. At a certain point you just—I don’t know, I guess you grow old and tired and you need a new, fresh person to pick things up.

Two weeks ago I had a dinner with all the former directors—five of them in total. That was a lot of fun. Perdu is very much a community—people leave, in the sense that they stop being an editor here or doing whatever they did, but they don’t leave in the sense that they come back every time, and they do still feel involved, and they help out when needed. Once at Perdu, always at Perdu.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interview: Megan M Garr

The woman who paved the way for Amsterdam's international literary scene reflects on the community she helped to create.

Firstly, I wanted to talk to you about how you got here and about why you came to Amsterdam.

The real story, the true story?

Yeah!

So my last year of college, I studied abroad in Glasgow, Scotland and I met a Dutch girl. And, as you do, you decide to change your whole life for each other. We decided not to go back to America. Being gay in America in ‘99, 2000—it wasn’t really safe. So we decided to try to make a go of it here. I basically moved here right after college, and I never left.

I was fresh out of college. I had very little work experience and no plan. But I had met her so I was just like, “Yeah! Going to Amsterdam!” I didn’t have any reason to think very far in the future. And we just tried it. We sort of made it work for a couple years and it was fun. But then after we broke up, I stayed. By that time—about six years later—I had a job, a good network of friends, and I didn’t want to go back to the United States. I was like, “OK, I’ve got my shit together here. I know how to do taxes.” Already by that time I had started the magazine, I had started all this stuff in the community and I wasn’t gonna leave it.

So when you came back, did you jump into starting Versal?

Pretty quickly. I was very naive—I thought that Amsterdam was on par with the stories that I heard about Paris or Berlin. That there would be this amazing international community of artists and writers from all over who I could just, like, become friends with. And that was really not the case. There was no organization in the community. So there were lots of writers here, but there were very few places where they were meeting each other. I wanted to make my own world here. So I started meeting people, and slowly but surely we gathered ourselves into kind of a workshop format where we were sharing work with each other, and from there, you know, we wanted more. And it wasn’t already happening, so we decided to do it ourselves, because that’s what you do, I think. By December of 2002, we launched the magazine and a show we did called the Open Stanza. So in the same month everything started, and it just snowballed from there, and we basically haven’t stopped since.

There have been 12 issues now—is there a particular issue or a particular piece that you’ve edited or written in conjunction with the journal that really sticks out to you, or that was particularly rewarding?

That’s like picking your favorite child! What I’ve loved about doing the journal is that even though the writers and artists that we work with are all over the world, we build a relationship with them. We treat them in a human way, and try to maintain that relationship over the distance, so that if they were to visit here or have a new book out, that they feel comfortable contacting us and saying, “Hey!” You know? So I feel kind of close to all of our contributors in this sort of weird way.

What happened for Versal was: we started here, and we started making issues, and we were getting work sent to us to review from all over the world. People really liked it, and they liked that it was in Amsterdam, so it was kind of exotic. So what happened was, the work that was sent to us became more and more and more American. By Versal 11, our issues I think were maybe 80 percent American. And when I realized that, I realized we weren’t doing what we wanted to do. Because we were basically an American literary journal with an address in Amsterdam, and that wasn’t offering anything interesting to the community. Not to the community here, and not to any other community in the United States or anywhere else for that matter.

We took about a three year break to regroup, and in that process we worked ourselves back to a core value of: we are in Amsterdam, and this is a hugely international community of people from all over—artists and writers just doing so many fantastic things—and that’s what we need to focus on. Thats where Versal’s interesting, that’s where our heart is, and sure, maybe we get some work from the United States that we think is really good, but the core is here. And so we changed the way we reviewed work. Versal 12, I think 60 or 70 percent of it, is pulled from the shows we do here. I don’t think it was worth continuing the other way. There are so many literary journals in the United States. There’s no need for us to make another one. Or to keep making another one.

Are the shows you’re referring to the Verso shows?

Yeah. So before we started publishing again, a friend of mine, Sahand Sahebdivani [of The Mezrab], gave me a call and he said, “I want you to bring your show, your old show, the Open Stanza, back to my stage.” And I told him I didn’t want to do that, but I had this other idea. I said, “I want to do a live magazine. I want to figure out a way where we can present an edited program, like a curated program, and give people this idea that they’re participating in a live magazine.” And he was like, “OK, you can try it.” So that’s Verso. The new issues from now on will always pull from the people we meet at that show. That will be the the core. So it’s sort of like we went from the print to the live back to the print. It’s a circular process now.

So are people bringing work to perform, or how does that work?

The people on my team and I act as lead curators for the show, and we ask a few people who we know to guest curate. We don’t usually go too far into what the performer will present the night itself, we kind of leave that up to them. But that allows for a lot of play as well, because we give the artists a lot of room to interact with the audience, to disrupt performance and ideas of performance—it’s pretty experimental, in that sense. Some nights are sort of off the charts, and you’re not quite sure if you’re in an art gallery or at a literary show, and some nights are more traditional, you know, with a lot of readings. So it changes, and I think the guest editing brings us in contact with a lot of other people, so it creates a snowball effect where we meet people through other people and the community keeps expanding.

That’s really cool that it’s a totally grassroots effort.

It has to be. You’re not gonna get a lot of funding in the Netherlands if you’re not completely spotlighting Dutch writers. And there’s nothing wrong with Dutch writers, but there are so many things happening for Dutch writers. They have a very well-oiled infrastructure. Some nights we’ll have a Dutch writer and it’ll be half in Dutch and half in English, but because we’re offering an international platform and we’re not going to say, “Every night we’re gonna have three Dutch writers,” we can’t get funding. Obviously, like, for good reason, or for understandable reasons, the Dutch funding infrastructures, they want to promote Dutch language literature. We can’t do that—we don’t want to do that.

Have you noticed since starting Versal that there has been more of a push either towards English-speaking or just non-Dutch speaking literary organizations that have popped up?

Yeah, and that’s kind of what I wanted to see happen. This is a really silly metaphor, but you know “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner? So that phrase, “if you build it,” was in my head a lot in the first years because I thought that if we started organizing and creating places where writers could meet that things would create themselves from there as well.

A couple magazines have started—off and on, they’ll come and go sometimes. And different types of shows, especially in the last year. Again, it kind of goes like this. I’ve been here almost two decades, I’ve seen it—all of a sudden there’ll be, like, seven spoken word nights, and it’ll be really active and there’ll be lots of programs, and then it’ll die down again. We’re in another peak. Verso is kind of unique still in that it’s a very multifaceted program, and we keep it on the experimental side because there aren’t that many places, I think, where artists can really experiment and take risks, so we try to keep Verso as open to that as possible. It’s not, “everything needs to be awesome and entertaining.” Sometimes it can be uncomfortable and I think that’s important.

I wonder why that happens—what makes it come about at certain times and not at others.

I remember when the financial crisis hit that things felt like they came to a standstill. And that was more on the international side of things, because not as many people were coming here to work, and people were moving away. But that’s very expatriate-centric and that’s not the best way to look at a literary scene, of course. I don’t know—I’ve also thought about why that is. There have been lots of spoken word initiatives for years in Amsterdam that have just always been around, but their popularity has surged again recently—why that happens in waves I don’t know.

Maybe just trends—if you start to not have something for a while, you want it back. Like, I don’t know—flared jeans?

Yes! Bell-bottoms, yes! Yeah, I think it’s very much about trends. The trick I think for us, for organizers, is like, how do you sustain yourself regardless of what you’re doing is a popular thing. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard sometimes to get funding. Because if you’re on the margins of an art form or if you’re doing things more on an experimental level, and you don’t necessarily attract a large audience, then funders don’t see your value. And that’s sad because there has to be space for experimentation, because it’s through experimenting that things become mainstream. They usually start on the experimental side and move into the mainstream and then become popular. It’s really interesting that it’s more difficult to get funding or support or even audience numbers for things that are at the beginning, so to speak. It would be a really good place to put money.

Yeah, like, the most important place.

I think so. If you’re in that space you have to work really hard. It’s not just limited to experimental spaces, it’s also the people I know who are trying to run workshops. Like, it’s popular right now to want to be a writer maybe, but there might be points in time where that’s less interesting and it’s harder to find students.

It incentivizes doing more things to keep it in people’s consciousness I would think.

For sure.

And everyone has to be supportive of each other.

I think so. I mean, we’re too small to have a healthy, critical conversation about each other.

What do you mean?

Well, it’s a very small community, in the sense that like, basically once you’re in it you kind of know all the players. And I think our best way forward is to continue supporting each other whether or not we wholeheartedly support the aesthetic or the goal of the others, because it’s just so small. But if you have a larger community, like in New York City, there’s breathing room between you and everyone else. So there’s space for criticism. I’m supportive of healthy criticism. I’m not really supportive of fighting and the kind of stupid drama that happens in the literary world. But I do think that being able to be open about, like, aesthetic criticism and talking about that is important for a community to grow, if it’s big enough, and Amsterdam is just not big enough. It would be stupid if I came out in a critical way against one of the other organizations—if I were to critique it on any level, I would just basically be ostracized. And that’s not helpful. It happens in the Dutch world but I don’t think in the international world it would be very smart.

And the Dutch world can do it because there’s more of an infrastructure?

There’s a lot of them. And they have a very long history, whereas the “international scene,” so to speak, is just smaller. It just doesn’t help to break each other down on any level. It’s better if we just all support each other and help each other make things better, I think.

That just sounds healthier, period.

Yeah, I think it is. And when things do happen that are less nice, they usually get swept under the table pretty quickly. It’s almost like a family! Like, everyone still comes together for Thanksgiving and nobody talks about that thing. And that’s okay—I think that’s okay the way it is.

It seems to be working, at least.

Sixteen years so far, at least from my perspective.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Uitgeverij Chaos

What is the Only Thing That Gets Harder When Boiled? / Sayonara Stutgard

Spring / Thalia Ostendorf

Nether Lands: An Immigrant Guide / Yael van der Wouden

Three Utrecht-based writers are spearheading the Netherlands’ only feminist publishing house: Uitgeverij Chaos (Chaos Publishing House). Through providing a platform for the Netherlands' underrepresented literary voices, the women behind Chaos are working to revolutionize the Dutch literary landscape. The interview that follows details their thoughts on writing and building their organization, and the above links contain samples of each of their own work.

Uitgeverij Chaos: by writers and for writers.

What is each of your relationship to writing? How long have you been writing?

Sayonara: I have been making up stories for as long as I can remember. Writing is just something that has to come out of me, otherwise my brain explodes.

Thalia: Writing is something that came along while I was at uni, when I barely dared to admit that I wanted to be a writer, and I haven’t really stopped since.

Yael: For me writing preceded reading in a strange way. When I was a kid I’d write stories but refused to read novels—I thought they’d be boring for some reason. It was only once I moved to the Netherlands and found myself without friends to keep me occupied that I was forced (out of sheer boredom) to start reading. It was around then that both writing and reading became a coping mechanism—for the angst of immigrating, to process being bullied, growing up poor. Whatever it was that bothered me, I wrote up an imaginary world where that thing couldn’t get to me.

Has your work been influenced by living in Utrecht, or the Netherlands as a whole, in some way?

S: I am now working on a poem about being black in Utrecht. I think it’s one of the hardest things I have ever done.

T: I would say this specific piece [that is included in AMS] has, but overall it differs on a case-by-case basis. I do not necessarily feel that my writing is shaped by my experience in the Netherlands on some base level.

Y: The very first piece I wrote (after not having written for about five years) was about being (visibly) a Jewish immigrant in the Netherlands. In a way that’s the essay that broke the dam for me, and also the first piece of writing I’ve ever had published (it came out in The Sun Magazine in 2017). It kind of gave me the freedom to write about other things as well, which before I couldn’t even think of—I was so full of this story I needed to get out. Now some of my pieces are about the Netherlands or Utrecht and some aren’t at all. I am free to engage with the topic whenever I feel like it, which is lovely.

How did the three of you meet?

This question has a rather complicated answer with a lot of connective threads: Thalia and Yael met at university, whereas Sayonara knew who they were from a distance. She’d had classes with Thalia and met Yael at a party once, that kind of thing. But the whole group properly met in the fates-coming-together kind of wat other one day at a feminist open mic. It was at this feminist bookstore, Savannah Bay. This was in February 2017 and we’ve pretty much been inseparable ever since.

How did the idea for Chaos come about? How long did it take to get from an idea to the genesis of the organization?

The bookstore we mentioned, Savannah Bay, held an evening about black feminism in the Netherlands. Sayonara was hosting it, and Yael and Thalia were in the crowd. Someone made a joke at some point about bringing back feminist publishing houses and that was the moment where all three of us, separately in the same room, went: yep. We got together during the feminist open mic, then met up a week later to start the talks. We knew we wanted to create an intersectional feminist space for aspiring writers, and we knew that we wanted it to be ours and that we didn’t want to model it on the established order. We came up with the name two months in, and once we had that there was no jumping off that train, really. Within a half year we were in talks about our first publication, a new translation of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and within a year that publication was out in the world. Now we’re heading toward our second publication, “NYX,” a collection of short stories about women and the night.  

What has your experience of doing this work been like?

Overwhelming but very inspiring! We didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into. Each of us knew about the publishing world from a different angle: Thalia and Yael were editors and Sayonara knows all the ins and outs of the bookselling world. We figured that together we’d cover just about most of the elements, but it became quite clear quite early on that there’s so much that we had no idea about. Every day of the past year and a half has been a learning experience, which is also exhausting, but at the end of the day incredibly fulfilling: we’ve met so many people and have gotten to hear so many amazing stories, and that’s what we’re here for.

What challenges have you come across in trying to get Chaos off the ground?

Money. What a surprise! Money is the main problem. You have all these cool ideas and all those wonderful people that are willing to work with you, but money is still a party pooper, helaas.

Utrecht was recently added to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and formally recognized for its creativity in literature—what does a city with this distinction look like day-to-day?

You don’t really see much of it in the daily life of Utrecht. We have a strong feeling that all the benefits went to the generally established literary institutions—which are mostly white. It goes quite unmentioned, but it’s clear as day when you look at the literary calendar of the city—it’s just very white. And then there’s also the fact that the title was awarded last year, the same year that we founded Chaos—Utrecht’s and the Netherlands’ only feminist publishing house!—and no one’s reached out to us. We haven’t been included in events, conversation, brainstorm sessions. In other words, it’s a great title, but it exists entirely outside of us. For us it’s the same literary landscape as it’s always been: a white and conservative literary event twice a year, that’s it. Only it’s got a different title now.

Is there a relationship between Utrecht’s literary world and Amsterdam’s literary world?

Not really. The literary scene in Utrecht is still very small. If you want big events outside of the two festivals we have here, you have to go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam. We’re working on it though!

What do you hope to achieve through Chaos? What are Chaos’ goals for the future?

We want to create a new Dutch canon of literature. We want to change that quite male-dominated, white landscape into something that looks like what our own world looks like. On a more practical level, we would love to come out with four publications a year, and be a stepping stone for up-and-coming young writers who feel like their voices aren’t represented in other places.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

What is the Only Thing That Gets Harder When Boiled?

As the youngest, he thinks he knows the answer to every little freaking thing

I won him over with fun facts. Well, I call them fun. He calls them “basic knowledge.”

He’s the kind of guy who can say “I love you” in 67 languages

I was 16 when I first said the words “ani ohevet otcha” out loud

He likes to say things like “such a cute little ass in those jeans” in the same language my granny makes comments about my hair.

Right now he is talking to his mom on the phone—they are using loud, classical singing tones. Het is een andere taal dan de talen die wij met elkaar spreken. Hij leert Nederlands en Sranan. I am working very hard on my English, yes.

But most of all I am rediscovering the language I once learned to love in.

Did you know that heart attacks are more likely to happen on a Monday? (Fun Fact #42)

I tried to translate my poems into English.

He stopped me halfway and said, “You left the sadness out. Please try again.”

Ik leer geen tegengas te geven—ik werk aan mijn flexibiliteit.

Wij kunnen in principe overal van alles doen. We are young, we are going to be fíne.

He ends every long distance phone call with: “Did you know that (insert Fun Fact #) and I miss you? Mi lobi joe, Sayo. I will kon hesi baka to you.”

Sometimes it takes days, sometimes it takes months.

I am learning to complain like a lady from Babel.

We are using the tools they hand us while knowing the tower ain’t ever gonna reach the sky.

Did you know that cats think we are kinda slow? They don’t meow in the wild. (Fun Fact #8)

Maybe this is growing up:

patiently wait for someone to get home,

use his dryer for both the tears and your clothes,

sleep in his shirt,

eat breakfast,

pick him up at the airport,

drink cheap champagne in short Uber rides, read the evening paper together,

wake up at 7 a.m., go to work,

make polite, smart dinner conversation with his colleagues,

stop pretending that you are perfect, say things like:

“I have the body of a 78-year-old lady, please help,” embrace his hugs,

cry when his plane leaves,

make brunch for one, watch Netflix in his bed,

leave.

Say things to his house like: “Hi bath, how much are you going to miss me, huh?”

block every thought about how you are supposed to deal with abandoned spaces,

stay strong,

don’t cry during long distance phone calls,

maybe lie a little and say things like: “Fun Fact #198: I am doing príma.”

Does anyone know how to translate “I love and miss you too, but is that enough?” into Farsi?

I can only remember how to say “Please stay.”


Written by Sayonara Stutgard

Art by Dakota Peterson

Sayonara Stutgard is an intersectional feminist, bookseller, poet, professional savage on Instagram (she loves to make jokes about the boyfriends she doesn't have), online blogger about the Dutch city Utrecht for time to momo, a very bad (book club) host for Aphra's Book Club and other cultural events (she still doesn't know why they keep asking her), co-founder of the intersectional feminist publishing house Uitgeverij Chaos, and crazy about pizza.  

Spring

It could have been spring, or even summer. While still in bed, leaning on my elbows, I can see the rooftops, lighted with the warm glow of the sun that is hiding behind my shoulders. Behind the roofs, the church tower stands quiet against the blue sky that accents its red bricks, setting them ablaze. Smells of dry dust and sunbathing facades come towards me, linger on the other side of the window, get stuck there without reaching my nose. The only thing showing the true temperature are the white puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys. They try their best to stay alive but are soon pulled apart, dissolving into nothingness. That shows how cold it really is—that, the down blanket I have enfolded myself in, and the countless others with me: obscured from sight, invisible and hidden in their bedrooms where walls are beige and flowers adorn the pillowcases. Everyone is comfortably wrapped in their own story. Had it really been spring, I would have been outside, in the sun. I would not have been lying here, not even with you. Or only with you. Spring is not the only thing that has left me waiting.

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     Slowly the city awakens. Warmed bricks are pulled from their northern hibernation and no longer rigidly face the inhabitants. Life can carry on, arise from sleep as it hasn’t done for a couple of seasons. You never did. You never woke up here, with me, summer, spring, or cold seasons. I would love to blame you, fly into a rage, tell you you are cruel and cold hearted. That you deny our being together. But even that is a pleasure I cannot have. How could you possibly know that my balcony looks out into your study? That during the warm months, when every window and door was open so that the inside was no longer locked in, the books on your shelves became my most intimate friends. They saw me, recognized me almost immediately. The books I didn’t already have, I acquired, and I lost myself in their pages. It feels as if our libraries have the same parents, they are so much alike. It was the first thing I noticed, before I noticed you, before I knew you were there. You weren’t there at the time; you didn’t work in such beautiful summer weather. Not there, in that room, in any case—somewhere else, where the air wasn’t as syrupy as it became between our old buildings.

     But you were there when you and your wife split up. The sounds of the rows that erupted bridged the minimal distance from garden to balcony without hindrance. I heard your silence, saw you pace to another part of the house, even heard the dull clink of the small metal ring she flung outside, when it hit the partition between the two outdoor spaces. Your empty gaze was directed at the books, never at me.

     Last week you were there too, when you procured your new job in Stockholm over the phone. Another couple of months, six at most, and you won’t be here anymore. You will be even less here than you are now. The then-empty study will have to get a new function, your books are heavy, cannot come along, disappear wild and homeless into a box.

     Before you leave, when spring arrives, or pretends to arrive as it does now, when the icy winter fools us and the cold seems like warmth, I will be here. I will ask you if this morning fooled you too, with that light that wishes she belonged to spring. Who knows, your doors might not even be open, you might not unknowingly recline in your armchair on the other side. I’m running out of time, chances of coincidental encounters dwindle before my eyes. I don’t want you there. Not in the Scandinavian cold, where spring is too short and intense, winter too long and dark. I don’t want you there either, at the other side of that wall. I want you closer, without partition. I always want things I cannot have, things that are out of reach, things that are married, things that don’t care, things I cannot name.

     I hear cracking, the sighs and moans of cold locks, slamming doors. I wish I could float onto the balcony like an angel, but my fleece pyjamas are torn, miss two buttons, have holes along the seams, are even printed with smiling reindeers. Contemplating all this I still move forward, out of bed, outside. Crumpled and shivering I stand there, attempting to casually lean against the doorpost, but the cold of the metal frame makes me cringe. I must look like a bird dazed by cold, disappearing into its feathered collar. Carefully avoiding the railing, I stretch my neck and peek over the edge. My downward gaze falls helplessly into yours. You smile, say that the light fooled you, that you thought it was spring.


By Thalia Ostendorf

Thalia Ostendorf is a graduate of Utrecht University and has studied comparative literature in Italy and California. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in "the politics of literature" at St. Andrews University, Scotland. She writes short stories and the occasional article.

Nether Lands: An Immigrant Guide

So your country is on fire. Your home is on fire and your bank is on fire and in the rattling belly of a bus or a plane you unfold an old map to show your daughter where you’re going. “This nail in the sea,” you tell her, and she takes the map in her fingers that are still fat with childhood. She holds it with such care and looks and looks, and somewhere in a back row someone is changing a diaper and the smell is everywhere. “It’s gone now,” she tells you, and holds the paper up. You look and see: the blue grid of the north sea has somehow spread, has somehow risen, and has somehow taken over the yellow triangle of the Netherlands.

“What?” you say, touching the paper—scratching at it. Perhaps a smudge. Perhaps a fold. The man who has the aisle seat—and who you don’t know and who is so tall his hair brushes the overhead compartment—notices your confusion and says, “Ochja don’t worry about that.” He smiles, and his teeth are perfectly straight but yellow. “It just happens sometimes. It’ll go away.” You frown at him, then gently take the map from your daughter, fold it back up. After you arrive and the ground is solid and the sea is kept at its hedges, after your daughter is asleep on a bench with her head in your lap, you unfold the map again. The raster of the sea has pulled back again, revealing the bed of the fingernail: the yellow triangle and then some, and you swear a crumbling of islands that wasn’t there before is now there, dotting the shore.  

You wake up to the klaxon of a raid alarm down your street and down the next street over and, you quickly find out, down the entire country. You’re convinced war has followed you across a continent and into the edge of the sea. You’re convinced, at that moment, that war will follow you to the end of time and there will be no hiding, not ever. You spent the day hiding under the dining room table, waiting for the whistle of bombs while your mother holds you and doesn’t cry. The next day at school you ask if the country is at war and a girl who’s not your friend but is nice enough tells you that they test the alarms every first Monday of the month.

“But,” you want to know, “what if war actually breaks out on the first Monday of the month?” The girl who’s not your friend laughs and says war won’t break out, not on the first Monday of the month. When, in the following days, the alarm rings across the Wednesday morning and the Thursday evening and the Friday night, you ask the girl, “What do those alarms mean?” The girl looks at you. “What alarms?” she asks, frowns. “There are no other alarms.”

Someone tells you the mists are spirits of scorned women. Old spinsters that died alone, that lure children into their thick and take them to the nether world. “They’re called the White Wives,” you’re told at a bar, one night when the mists grew especially bold. “Not the White Wives,” someone corrects the translation. “The White Women.”

“The White Women?” you ask, and everyone at the bar nods, says,  “Ja,”

Ja,”

Ja.”

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You went to school with a girl called Lisa. She had blonde hair that stopped in a straight line halfway down her back and she smelled like sheets washed in lavender and vinegar and left to dry in a hot attic. She had braces and spent half the lunch breaks eating whole-grain bread and the other half picking the grains from the metal, running her tongue over the tracks. Her lips were chapped and she may have said things to you, but you do not remember them. She may have helped you with your homework, but you do not remember how. You haven’t seen her since school, which is almost 20 years ago. You hadn’t even thought of her until that one evening at the train station, somewhere lost up north of the country. Somehow you recognised the back of her head. She was talking to a friend and you thought, Lisa, and when she turned to look at the clock, you quickly turned away and pretended to look at the vending machine. At the vending machine was another girl, blonde as well, and when she reached into her pocket for a coin, the fabric of her coat seemed familiar to you and with a shock you realised that she, too, was Lisa. You gathered your things, the scarf you draped over your bag because it’d been too hot, the bag you’d overpacked and which dug into your shoulder—you gathered it all and made to walk further down the platform, but the person waiting next to you was suddenly Lisa as well. You walked the other way and three more Lisas stood there, too, eating sandwiches with the waxed paper wrapping crunched in their hands. You paused for a moment, took a good breath. The train rolled into the station and screeched its breaks. All the Lisas started walking along with the slowing train, their postures slouched, their waxed paper balls in hand. The train stopped and opened its doors, letting out more and more Lisas.

You’re told that the woods are natural here, not man-made, not like where you’re from: no one has to put the roots into dry earth and pray for them to grow. A strong wind blows an acorn from a canopy and it sprouts the next day. It is a towering, shadowy thing by the time the next season rolls around.

“Really?” you ask in the car on the way there. “That fast?”

“Yep. That fast,” your friend says, smiling, and you’re not sure what shape humour takes in this country and whether this is it. Your friend parks on a soft shoulder and lets you out, fusses with putting the leash on the dog while you stand and stare at neat rows and rows of trees. The trunks are in line, the tops won’t touch, growing around each other in shy patterns. Nothing grows on the ground.

“I thought these weren’t man-made,” you say when your friend joins you, dog excited at their side.

“They aren’t,” they say. “They just grow like this. In line. Come on,” they turn to the dog, smile with a row of teeth. “Let’s go.”

You’ve only been here for a few months and you don’t understand the language very well. You’re on the bus and you know how to ask for one ticket but when the bus driver asks you something in return you don’t know what he means, so you have to laugh in a way that’s an apology.

You shake your head and he repeats himself, louder, and now you don’t understand him louder than before. You don’t respond, you blush and you sit down. The bus winds out of a suburb and into a wooded patch, and between two mounds of grass there’s a yellow exclamation mark of a pole, a bus stop. An old lady gets on and even though there’s plenty of seats, she comes and sits next to you.

“Do you like it here?” she asks you, speaking in a local dialect. You understand every word and you don’t know why. Her hair is a cauliflower helmet and she smells like butter and cookies. Even while sitting you’re taller than her.

“I’m still getting used to it,” you answer in your own language. “It’s a lot to get used to.”

“It is,” she answers in dialect. “I was born here and I’m still getting used to it.”

“I’m sorry, how come I understand what you’re saying?” you ask as the bus drives over a dike, road as smooth as ice. The old lady shrugs and says, “I don’t know. You’re the first one in years.”  


You’re on the train home and the compartment is empty but you smell tangerines. It’s a strong smell. Who ate a tangerine? When did they eat it? Did they peel it and throw the peel in the trash? Did they pull apart the segments and push them in between the cushions? Did they pluck apart the seams of the seats and squeeze the fruit into the foam filling, did they take the waxy orange and rub it on the windows—is that why there’s a blur of oil on the glass?

Did they bring on board a bag full of tangerines and then stand at the one end of the compartment, throw the fruit against every surface as hard as they could so they’d splatter on impact, so the juice would run down the walls and onto the gray linoleum? Did they enjoy it? Did they enjoy the tangerine? Do they eat tangerines at home? Do any of them? Does anyone eat tangerines at home? Do they save them for the train? For this train? For your train? For you?

You get off the train with the rotting citrus burning behind your eyes. You go home and shower and the smell is still there. You wash your clothes and the smell is still there. You go to sleep and the smell is in your sheets, in the hot pocket of your body. The next morning you look in your trash and find a long string of tangerine peel, oil beading in its pores, growing mold.  

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You don’t know how but somehow the class has ended up discussing your hijab for a full hour. Your political science teacher has dark blue jeans and sits on the table when he faces the class. He lets the five girls up front have their turns in saying what they think. “I just think,” says Lisa, “that you should just be able to see someone’s eyes when you talk to them.” There’s a murmur of assent from the right, dissent from the left, and then the teacher makes everyone quiet down to ask you if you agree. You hate talking in class. Your heart is burning a hummingbird hole in your throat when you say,

“But it’s not like you can’t see my eyes though.” Lisa doesn’t turn around to look at you when she answers, “I don’t know, it’s like, shadowy. It shadows your face. In my opinion.”

When you leave school that day there’s a thick drizzle in the air. You zip your coat up to your throat. As the girls around you step out onto the grounds, they wrap their knitted scarves up and around their heads against the rain. They pull them over and lower, over their brows and ears and noses. They step onto their bikes and you can’t see their faces anymore. You stand in the doorway for a moment longer. Lisa comes to stand beside you and wraps her own scarf around herself and says, “It’s not personal what I said in class.” And, “It’s just how I see it, you know?”

You shrug, like: “Maybe.” When you look up you can’t see her eyes. Even in the harsh strip lights of the school, a shadow has stolen her face. “See you tomorrow,” the shadow says, before it steps onto the wet grounds, and joins the other shadows on their bikes.

“Do you know why,” your lover asks, “the Dutch are so tall?” She’s wrapped around your back in the kitchen. She towers over you, makes herself small for you.

“Why?” you ask, already amused.

“In case the water rises,” she says, and stretches to her full length. Her head touches the ceiling.

The pretty boy with the sharp eyes asks why your lunch is weird and why your bread doesn’t look like bread. The other boys, pretty and not alike, hear his words like a wolf’s call and join in arooo, arooos, like: “Who brings dinner to school?” and, “Why does that smell?” and, “Is this why you smell too?” You go home and demand an embargo on your mother’s lunchboxes. She gets angry and slaps you and then goes to her bedroom and cries for a long time. When she comes out she says, “Then tell me what,” with a voice that makes you want to cry too. “Yellow cheese on white bread,” you say. “With cucumber slices.” She makes them for you and wraps them, on your instruction, in kitchen paper, then foil.

At school you eat your lunch with pride, holding the bread like a prop. At home you’re hungry and heat up some leftovers. When you take the plate from the microwave, a cheese sandwich has replaced the hot rice. You leave it on the counter, untouched. That evening, at dinner, your mother piles a red stew that turns into a cheese sandwich on your plate. You look at her, incredulous, and she doesn’t know what to say either. Little slices of cucumbers line the edge of the plate. You eat it, sobbing, and go to bed with a rumbling stomach. The next day at school you can’t bring yourself to touch your lunch. You ask a friend for one of her tangerines, but that too turns to a cheese sandwich in your hands. Heaving over a sink in the girl’s bathroom you tell your friend about what’s happening. She accidentally turns on the hand dryer by leaning on it, and over the grunt of the machine she says, “That’s not that bad though, is it?” She’s chewing on your tangerine-turned-sandwich. “I rather like a cheese sandwich.”

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Your husband takes a night job at the post office sorting through mail. You have small hours together when he comes home and you’re waking up, but he can’t touch you because his hands are too tender, cut up with little marks. If you have time, you soak them in a bowl of soda water while he’s bleary-eyed, falling asleep in the kitchen table. He sometimes jokes, feigning delusion, “Hanneke Nijkerk, Breedstraat 39, zipcode 8036PK, Zwolle.” If you laugh, he continues: “Johan Vlissing, Marnixlaan 40, zipcode 3501LP, Utrecht. Karel-Hein Groote, Mosterdstraat, zipcode … ”

One day you get home and the whole house has been rearranged alphabetically. The chairs (stoelen) in a pile with the pans (stoofpot) with a box of cream (slagroom) on top. The TV on the table with old, busted (tele)phones strewn around it. The couch (bank) has been shoved in a corner, and all the books have been tipped out of the shelves and onto it.

You’re furious. You’re tired and shouldn’t come home to this, whatever this is, you don’t have time or energy to clean the mess and you tell your husband as much, pulling the blankets off of him as he slowly comes awake. He has no idea what you’re talking about. He hasn’t done anything. He’s been sleeping. “I came home and went to sleep!” he shouts over your shouting. “Nothing else! Nothing else!”

You notice that his hands have bled, have crusted over, flaking red now. He notices it too. He doesn’t understand. “But I was asleep,” he says, quiet as you sit on the edge of the bed, closing your eyes.

“I don’t understand,” he says, again. “I was asleep all day.”

You bought a new bike and within a day it disappears. You locked it with three chains, strapped it to a tree, and still. You scream in frustration, and the next day a different bike has taken its place under the tree: an old one, one of yours, one that disappeared years before.

Your daughter hits a classmate and you’re called to come pick her up. She’s quiet at the principal’s office but loud on the way home, explaining that the boy told her to go back to her own country, to come back when she’s learned the language. “He deserved to be punched,” she says, full of conviction, and you have no idea where she got this confidence, this self-righteousness. Certainly not from you.

That night the mother of the boy calls. She screams at you over the line, and the shock of it is so strong you hang up nearly immediately. She calls again the next day. You try to apologise to her. She doesn’t listen. You try to reason, try to say, “Well, from what I’ve heard, your son—”

But she doesn’t let you finish. You hang up again. She calls the next night, and you let your oldest son answer the phone. It doesn’t make a difference. She calls every night for a month. You speak with the teachers at the school, who say you should speak with her directly. “I can’t,” you try to explain. “She doesn’t listen.” They shrug, nothing they can do.

At some point, the mother of the boy and her family move away. She still calls once a week. Sometimes she doesn’t say anything. Just breathes over the line, listening. Sometimes she’s doing something: washing dishes, typing on the computer.

Your daughter grows up, finishes school, moves out. Your oldest son marries. The mother of the boy calls every first Monday of the month. You pick up, hold the phone between shoulder and ear. Your hands are doing something else. There’s busy silence on the other end, and you listen to it, exhaling into the receiver.

The flatlands never end. There are no mountains, no hills, only horizon. You travel for hours, but they never end.

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Written by Yael van der Wouden

Art by Dakota Peterson

Yael van der Wouden is a writer and mixed-bag diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. One time she rescued a mouse from being eaten by a snake, but when she took the mouse home the dog then got it. This still makes her sad. She reviews for Platypus Press and channels the beautiful spirit of Sir David Attenborough in the form of an advice column over at Longleaf Review. Her words can be found all over, and most recently at places such as Cotton Xenomorph, Split Lip Magazine, and Grimoire Magazine. She's currently working on a collection of short stories about women and monsters.