Universal Things: An Interview with Esther Gerritsen

In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved.

Boekenweek is a week-long festival of Dutch-language literature held annually in the Netherlands since 1932. Aside from the now legendary Boekenweek ball in Amsterdam, readings, panels, and other literary events are organized throughout the Netherlands and Flanders, and a prominent writer is commissioned to write a novella which is then gifted to the public during the ten-day festival. In 2016, Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the Boekenweek novella, one of only two women to do so in the past eighteen years. This year, Gerritsen’s novel Craving was one of several recently published Dutch-language novels in translation featured at the World Editions Boekenweek celebration at Flanders House in New York City. One of the most celebrated novelists in the Netherlands, Gerritsen also works as a screenwriter and columnist and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Frans Kellendonk prize for her entire oeuvre. Craving, artfully translated by Michele Hutchison, is Gerritsen’s meticulous excavation of a complex mother-daughter relationship which is further complicated when the daughter moves back into her childhood home to take care of her dying mother. In honor of Boekenweek, Asymptote asked Esther Gerritsen to share her thoughts on Craving, radical thinkers, and gender equity in the Dutch-language literary world.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, New York, April 2019

STH: Craving opens with a powerful scene in which the mother, Elisabeth, spots her daughter biking on a busy street in Amsterdam and decides it is the right moment to tell her that she is dying. Immediately, the reader is made aware that the mother isn’t neurotypical and that the relationship between mother and daughter is quite strained. What drew you to these characters and inspired their story?

EG: I started writing about the mother, Elisabeth, first. I wanted to write about ‘stuff.’ Objects, materials, the love human beings have for things. I originally had Elisabeth talking posthumously about all the things in her life, from the first blanket she’d slept under and her childhood toys to the furniture she owned when she was older, even the bed on which she died. In her version of heaven, everything she ever possessed was there, new and complete; shoes without scratches, puzzles with no missing pieces—an ideal, silent world filled with beautiful stuff. Of course, then the story became very . . . silent. And I thought: for a person who likes quietness, order, and perfection, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I knew then that she should have a child—and that’s where the daughter comes in. Coco is her mother’s opposite, chaotic and messy. They live in different worlds, but both have the best intentions and would love to be closer, but are just too dissimilar. When the mother is dying, and the daughter is already an adult, they try to form a closer relationship before it’s too late and end up tormenting each other with their good intentions. Coco and Elisabeth really can’t stand one another, but because they are family, they are inextricably linked.

STH: You have frequently chosen to write about family members who, due to illness, death, or circumstance, are drawn back together after long periods of distance or estrangement. What is it about this particular tension that interests you?

EG: Family is interesting because you can’t choose them. It’s a little like people stuck together in an elevator, the ideal setting for putting totally different characters together in a scenario they can’t escape. It can be a blessing or a curse, to get stuck with people you might never choose to be with, but it makes life much more interesting.

STH: During a recent interview that aired on Dutch television you mentioned that the characters in your books are often radical thinkers. In your opinion, what is radical thinking?

EG: Radical thinking is taking your own thoughts too seriously. When you truly believe that you can discover the truth only by thinking, instead of looking at things.

STH: In eighteen years, besides yourself, only one other woman (Griet Op de Beek) has been given the honor of writing the national Boekenweek novella. This year, in spite of the 2019 theme being “The mother, the woman,” another man, Jan Siebelink, was asked to write the Boekenweek novella. Is it considered radical thinking in the Netherlands that women writers be given the same opportunities and esteem as their male counterparts?

EG: In the Netherlands, we often make the mistake of thinking that the emancipation of women has been completely achieved. For everyone involved, that is a radically optimistic misunderstanding.

STH: Who do you think should be asked to write next year’s Boekenweek novella?

EG: Manon Uphoff, author of Desire and The Bastard Son. Manon writes her own extraordinary universe with such incredible style and humor.

STH: Michele Hutchison’s translation of Craving is outstanding, brilliantly capturing the characters and understated emotion often present in Dutch-language dialogue. Did you work with Michele on the translation?

EG: I might have answered some of her questions, but Michele did the brilliant translation work all by herself.

STH: Was there any part of Craving you thought might be challenging for English-language readers to grasp without prior understanding of the cultural context?

EG: I don’t think so. Craving is about universal things, family, illness, strange people.

STH: Your writing has been translated not only into other languages but also other mediums. Craving was recently made into a film by the director Saskia Diesing. You co-wrote the screenplay for the film. What it was like for you to translate your novel into a film script? And how is it to share your original vision for the story and characters with an entire production team?

EG: It’s very hard to adapt your own story. There were times I wanted to throw the book away and write an entirely new script for the film. I find I want to write something new every time I write. Saskia [Diesing] actually did most of the work on the screenplay.

STH: Another of your books, Roxy, also translated by Michele Hutchison, is about to be published by World Editions. What can readers expect from Roxy?

EG: The novel is about anger and madness. Roxy is a really angry woman, but her antagonist is already dead. What does a mad woman do, if she can’t find her antagonist?

Esther Gerritsen (1972) is a Dutch novelist, columnist, and playwright. Gerritsen made her literary debut in 2000 and is now one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers in the Netherlands. In 2014 she was awarded the Frans Kellendonk Prize for her entire oeuvre, and in 2016, Gerritsen was given the honor of writing the national Dutch Book Week novella, which had a print run of 700,000 copies. Her novel, Craving, was shortlisted for the Vondel Prize and was published in the US in September 2018. Roxy, recently translated by Michele Hutchison, has sold over 20,000 copies in the Netherlands and was shortlisted for the Libris Literature Prize.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and CagibiLiterary Journal.


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