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.