Annie McDermott
1: huis is house
DOOR Laia Jufresa
04-11-2014

While I’m writing this in Madrid, in the centre of Amsterdam there are two hundred and twenty flats for rent that have bathtubs. There are thirty-three with fireplaces. Twenty-four with bathtubs and fireplaces. There are even thirteen well-located flats that have bathtubs, fireplaces and balconies. These ones, unfortunately, would be unaffordable for a writer.

I know all this because I’ve been looking for a house in Amsterdam for a few hours now. In this short time I have learnt to say, or at least to write: huizen te huur, badkuip, haard y balkon. Words I don’t know how to pronounce and that in ten minutes’ time I will have forgotten, not only because of the lazy confidence that Google Translate gives us, but also, more to the point, because I don’t need them.

I’m not planning to rent a flat in Amsterdam. I’ll only be there for two days before the Crossing Border festival in The Hague, and I have a hotel already, thank you very much. It’s just that I’ve fallen into the trap yet again. This is my weakness: compulsive real estate. It’s what I do when I’m not writing. Most of all, it’s what I do when I should be writing. I use it to avoid my responsibilities. Procrastination, people call it. I say, well, other people spend their time Crushing Candies.

On this occasion, it lasts until I get up to make a coffee. Then a voice I call my inner grandmother seizes the opportunity to suggest – in the friendly, encouraging way that only grandmothers can – the following: What if, instead of flat-hunting, you were to plan your trip?

Hmm.

I find this a modestly revolutionary idea, because I normally pour all my planning energies into unreal and impossible things. I spend my time writing fiction, for a start. And when I travel, I go without a guide. “Flowing”, I called it as a teenager, and I still haven’t found the right way to describe it. (My mother has, though: “Laia travels like a suitcase.”)

However, over the past few years and very slowly, I have discovered, by osmosis, the relative joy of having a plan. It’s because I married a gringo: you can imagine what it’s like. Two weeks ago, we went to Lisbon. He wanted to hear someone singing fados in a particular neighbourhood and then go to a particular bar to drink a particular spirit. I wanted to “walk around”. My husband travels like I write fiction: in the knowledge that whenever you distance yourself from the concrete, the literary quality deteriorates as a result. I, on the other hand, travel like I procrastinate: determinedly directionless.

I come back from the kitchen convinced that, this time, I’ll be a different person. I’ll be someone who arrives in Holland and declares, for example: I want to eat graskaas! Yes, I tell myself: enough flowing. I’ll plan everything I want to see at the festival and in Amsterdam, I’ll be unswayable, I’ll make a Powerpoint presentation. Well, I don’t know how to use Powerpoint, but I’ll write it all down in a notebook.

There are seventy-five literary acts scheduled for Crossing Border. Twenty-eight musical performances. Ten special events (the selection criteria for which I’m not sure of, since some of them are musical or literary). As well as that, in the corridors there will be teenagers reciting poems, cartoonists sketching portraits, polaroids being drawn in pencil. And as if that wasn’t enough, the TUIG group will be doing “temporary literary tattoos”.

I know all this because I’ve been exploring the festival page for hours now, writing down what I want to see in my notebook. My inner grandmother is purring. She feels useful. And I’m almost dizzy. So many writers, so many good musicians! Not to mention the twelve translators and the other three authors who will participate in The Chronicles. It’ll be a party.

See you there! You’ll recognise me by my temporary literary tattoo. It will say: huis gezocht.

All translations from Annie McDermott
Uitnodiging is invitation
28-11-14

Some things go wrong when you write at this pace. You say Powerpoint when you meant to say Excel. You write bare instead of bear. You find you’ve ended all of your chronicles with a word in Dutch that you never defined for your readers in Spanish or in English. (Gezocht, my friends, means ‘wanted’. Sorry for the delay.)

But some things turn out unexpectedly well. You make mental connections that only improvisation could allow, and you’re more open because there’s no time to hold back. Writing quickly brings us closer to the experience of being on stage: to the vulnerability I talked about in another chronicle, but also, even more, to the presence. Facing an audience, like facing a deadline, means you are where you are. Here and now, and no getting away from it.

Since we’ve come this far, my inner grandmother (who considers holding back as irrelevant as pairing socks) is pushing me to tell you about something.

It happened four years ago. We were asleep, and some laughter woke us up. It was my laughter, I understood, surprised. Laughter so impossible to hold in that it soon turned into sobs. I left my husband half asleep, still chuckling to himself at my laughter, and went to cry in the bathroom. (This exotic flourish, I should clarify – if my inner grandmother will allow me the modesty – is something I have only done once.) Then I spent a long time sitting in the bath, analysing the dream I’d just emerged from, and I realised something.

(Something possibly untrue but extremely revealing, in the way only fiction can enlighten us.)

In the dream, an estate agent had been showing me and three strangers around a flat that was up for rent. Suddenly, a load of lights came on and someone called for a break. I was the only one who was surprised. The fake strangers went outside together for a cigarette, and I noticed long rows of seats arrayed in front of me. The flat was only a stage set. The viewing was a rehearsal. This realisation made me laugh for so long I woke myself up.

After the catharsis, still in the bathroom, I made the mental connection for the first time – flats, theatre – and started counting years. On my fingers. And this is what I learnt: my addiction to real estate began when I gave up the theatre.

During my childhood and teenage years, writing and acting in plays was the most important thing in the world to me. Something, I was sure, that I would do for the rest of my life. But I gave it up when I discovered narrative. I wrote a story and right away I was hooked: I didn’t need rehearsals, directors, other people’s egos… I could do it all myself! Build worlds. All by myself.

To write fiction is to be in character all day long. (Or at least during the hours when you manage to block out the internet and concentrate on living other lives.) And, in my humble opinion, no work in the world is more fun. But it has serious flaws. It’s practically unpaid, for a start. On top of that, it does without two things that the theatre, in contrast, depends on. The body is one of them. Creating things with other people, working as a team, is the other.

I think a scheme like The Chronicles is valuable not only because of the wonderful trip to the festival, but also because it briefly infuses our work (and I include the translators’ work here, since they’re writers even if they won’t admit it) with what it most needs: payment, of course, but also a body – moving around, meeting other people, dancing together – and, above all, a team.

Stage presence is also about being constantly aware of the presence of other people. You have to use your peripheral vision. Over the past few weeks, that’s how I’ve been writing: with Annie McDermott and Heleen Oomen in the corner of my eye. And I’d like to thank both of them, for being as obsessive as me about the different layers of each word.

And now I have a hunch about something.

(Something possibly untrue but extremely tempting, in the way that only hopes can entice us.)

I have a hunch that if people carry on translating me or inviting me to festivals, I might just get over my addiction to real estate.

Attention, my grandmother and I announce: uitnodiging gezocht.

4: Voortzetting is continuing
17-11-14

In Amsterdam I went to see the Vivian Maier exhibition. I also went to the Van Gogh museum. After the first wave of enthusiasm (in which I named my hypothetical children Vivian and Vincent) came the obligatory question about recognition. Obligatory because they both – great, and now revered, artists – died without having been properly recognised when they were alive.

I spent the whole train journey between Amsterdam and The Hague asking myself: how much does recognition matter to you, and why, and what kind are you hoping for, and, in an ideal world, what would being recognised mean to you? And in the real world?

Whenever I think about this, ever since I started writing fifteen years ago, I reach the same basic conclusion: it matters to me, of course it does, but what matters much more is continuing to write.

Vivian Maier died after hitting her head. She slipped whilst walking on the ice. It isn’t a tragedy. Quite the opposite: she was 83, and she was still walking on ice so she could – or so I like to think, though I have no proof – take one more photograph. One more. Always one more. For me, this is what matters: not resting on your laurels, not letting go of the reins. Continuing, polishing, starting again.

And yet I don’t know, I don’t think I could have lived the way she did, collecting everything in a drawer and never showing it to anyone. I respect her, but I don’t have the same inclination to keep everything I do to myself. Sharing feels too good, as we proved yesterday.

In one of the videos of her that have been found, Maier declares: We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel, you get on, you go to the end, someone else has the same opportunity as you and takes your place, until the end, and then again, always the same. Nothing new under the sun.

The wheel of The Chronicles will carry on turning without us, the way all wheels do. Other people will come next year and new languages will invade the strange underground passages connecting the two theatres. There will be dialects and misunderstandings, Rs that get tangled up in different ways, Js that soften or harden according to latitudes, tildes with no equivalent in other languages, untranslatable turns of phrase, complicated winks of the eye, inclinations, declinations, suppositions. Those of us who are leaving are taking with us friendships, Dutch words we’ll try not to forget (hagelslag!) and the happy experience of sharing texts and a stage.

Last night, the seven translators and four writers read from our work and answered questions in a room called Heaven. It’s located on the seventh and last floor of the Royal Theatre in The Hague. For one hour it was a miniature Tower of Babel. Then it was over, and we hadn’t even left the stage before they were setting up the drumkit for the concert that came next. (I like this image as a way of describing the festival: the way literature and music share a platform, each following on from the other in a dizzying relay.)

What I experienced last night is without doubt a kind of recognition I do want. It’s satisfying to see the work of people like you and to feel your respect for them growing. It happened to me with the translators and also with the authors. I was surprised by Bregje Hofstede’s potent prose, Vea Kaiser’s sharp humour, Guillame Vissac’s impeccable rhythm.

As I watched them read from their work, I thought about this sentence that I’d cut out and kept at some point in this long week: One remarkable image taken by the mothership Rosetta shows Philae as a tiny speck, headed for history. “There they go…”, my inner grandmother and I said to each other, impressed and moved.

I wish you good journeys and plentiful pages, everyone, and let’s not lose sight of each other: doorgang gezocht.

3: stem is voice
15-11-14

Last night I discovered a piece of paper you can use to order breakfast to your room. I put a cross next to “coffee” and another, out of curiosity, by “news”. At seven a.m. on the dot, a trolley arrived. On it was some food and a single printed sheet with the “news” in English on one side and in Spanish on the other. This sheet of paper in itself would make a good topic for the discussion about translation that’s taking place later today, but for now, may I draw your attention to its most relevant (or its least depressing) headline: Philae has drilled into the comet but is running out of energy.

Philae dying isn’t depressing. But it is a bit sad. I suggest we see her off with a beautiful song, one of the many beautiful songs I heard last night.

By Stu Larsen:

Darling I should’ve said goodbye
Before you even caught my eye
Now I can’t bear to see this die

Thirteen sad farewells my darling
Thirteen sad farewells

I will see you no more darling
You have used all your farewells
You have used all your farewells

Hmm.

Despite my love for the written word, it’s a bit of an anti-climax seeing that there: black on white, without notes or lights or strings, without that thing we saw so much of yesterday: I’d say “the power of music”, but my anti-cliché alarms are going off.

We saw pure presence. Concentration and well-aimed blows from the diaphragm. Norma Jean Martine, Trampled by Turtles, Iron and Wine, Stu Larsen. All of them surrendering themselves to the stage. We saw something you don’t often see: the vulnerable alchemy of music being made before your eyes.

The vulnerability is necessary: you’re not creating anything that matters if you don’t feel a little bit naked. I fight it with duvets and woolly hats. Making me wrap up warm is how my inner grandmother persuades me to carry on.

But singers can’t cover up. Or they can, but their masks are different, and their mistakes are on show. There are no hours of rewriting: the ego has to be more flexible.

As a writer, I learn from singers. From their precision. From their voices like an age-old octopus, its tentacles tickling the necks of everyone in the room, or pushing down on their breastbones until the tears gather.

Two acts made me cry. One was Stu Larsen. He sings like a choirboy who left the church to travel the world, broadened his vocal register and let his beard grow. I’m normally terrible at guessing these things, but googling him confirmed my intuitions: Christianity and life On The Road. These days he has no fixed address, but more and more gigs. His octopus-voice (like Iron and Wine’s) gets inside your chest and shatters or illuminates you as it pleases. After the show you want to approach him and say: Thank you.

I was also moved by the Indian American writer Akhil Sharma. He was talking about Family Life, an autobiographical novel it took him twelve and a half years to write.

Was it worth it?, they asked him.

His answer was frank: No, no, no, of course it wasn’t worth it.

I understand his frustration. The terrible part wasn’t searching for a voice to tell the story, or what he threw away (7000 pages, he said). It was being unable to move onto the next thing. Because the searching and throwing away is normal: it’s what we do. To end up with the 600 words of this chronicle, I got rid of 4000. I left out people, anecdotes, places (and a mammoth’s jaw for sale in The Hague, which I’m really hoping I can include tomorrow).

You write chipping away at the rock face, until you find a seam and commit. You put on a woolly hat. You gather your courage. You throw everything else away.

The seam is the voice and this is my trade: stem gezocht.

 

2: zicht is sight
14-11-14

Since my last chronicle came out, I’ve had a call from my mum to say it was a joke. The thing about the suitcase. She’d been joking. I’ve also left Madrid, and woken up in Amsterdam for the first time in twelve years. Before going out for breakfast, I googled best coffee shops in Amsterdam. Schoolboy error. And I’ve survived the bicycles. Which is no mean feat when you’re walking around not looking where you’re going because your eyes are glued to first one window and then the next one and then the next.

But my voyeurism (and yours, all of you) is miniscule compared to the multimillion-dollar multimillion-awaited glimpse we caught of Comet 67P after Philae the robot landed there yesterday – more than 500 million kilometres away from where we are. They say the robot bounced three times before lodging itself under a cliff.

The scientists aren’t happy about the cliff because the shadow it casts might spoil the photos. But maybe Philae feels more protected there. If I was going to spend the rest of my days 500 million kilometres away from the earth, I’d want a bit of shelter, I think, rather than being out in the open at the mercy of all that cosmic dust. Especially after today, in the Border Sessions, when I learnt that the dust in outer space is spiky and vicious.

The Border Sessions were two days of talks about technology before the start of Crossing Border festival. I managed to catch three of the fifty that took place. One was about the new spacesuit NASA are designing. Another was about in vitro meat. The third was about the contemporary renaissance man (or something like that).

In a video, an astronaut on the moon is struggling. He tries not to fall over, he bounces, his movements are clumsy. Eventually, the speaker tells us what’s going on: he’s dropped something. That’s all. He’s dropped a bag and now he’s spending all these minutes trying to pick it up again. Mobility is something you didn’t get much of with the Apollo 16 spacesuits. To improve them, they’re making new materials, lighter and more resistant. The mass needs to be reduced. For every kilo you send into space, with fuel and everything else you have to put twenty kilos into orbit, and invest many many thousands of dollars. Every gram counts.

But if space isn’t to your tastes, perhaps you’d like to consider some in vitro meat. It’s already being made. It isn’t quite steak yet, but it does taste more like beef than tofu. And here, too, every gram is extremely expensive. The first hamburger took two years to make and cost 250,000 euros. Yesterday, Koert van Mensvoort showed us his inventive In Vitro Cookbook, with recipes for 45 dishes that can’t yet be made.

From the renaissance session, something Auke Ferwerda said stuck with me: The only sensible outcome of data is insight. My inner grandmother loved this. What a sensitive young man, she said to me. And then: Shouldn’t you ask the same from your work?

No. I don’t know. I hope not. Maybe? It would be paralysing, writing with the ambition of revealing something.

There’s no word in Spanish for insight. In Dutch it’s inzicht. Zicht is sight. In-zicht: seeing in. Well, maybe in that case, Grandma. Maybe then. Writing out of voyeurism. With the only aim being to paint for other people a series of foreign windows, without curtains, that they can’t resist peering through.

The NASA expert assured us that we don’t send people into space to make them work, but rather to expand our sense of the possible. Maybe that’s true. But isn’t it also just that we’re gossips? Checking out Philae’s selfies. Because we all want to peer in, to spy, to compare? We want to see. To see more. Maybe we should get that tattooed: zicht gezocht.

1: huis is house
04-11-14

While I’m writing this in Madrid, in the centre of Amsterdam there are two hundred and twenty flats for rent that have bathtubs. There are thirty-three with fireplaces. Twenty-four with bathtubs and fireplaces. There are even thirteen well-located flats that have bathtubs, fireplaces and balconies. These ones, unfortunately, would be unaffordable for a writer.

I know all this because I’ve been looking for a house in Amsterdam for a few hours now. In this short time I have learnt to say, or at least to write: huizen te huur, badkuip, haard y balkon. Words I don’t know how to pronounce and that in ten minutes’ time I will have forgotten, not only because of the lazy confidence that Google Translate gives us, but also, more to the point, because I don’t need them.

I’m not planning to rent a flat in Amsterdam. I’ll only be there for two days before the Crossing Border festival in The Hague, and I have a hotel already, thank you very much. It’s just that I’ve fallen into the trap yet again. This is my weakness: compulsive real estate. It’s what I do when I’m not writing. Most of all, it’s what I do when I should be writing. I use it to avoid my responsibilities. Procrastination, people call it. I say, well, other people spend their time Crushing Candies.

On this occasion, it lasts until I get up to make a coffee. Then a voice I call my inner grandmother seizes the opportunity to suggest – in the friendly, encouraging way that only grandmothers can – the following: What if, instead of flat-hunting, you were to plan your trip?

Hmm.

I find this a modestly revolutionary idea, because I normally pour all my planning energies into unreal and impossible things. I spend my time writing fiction, for a start. And when I travel, I go without a guide. “Flowing”, I called it as a teenager, and I still haven’t found the right way to describe it. (My mother has, though: “Laia travels like a suitcase.”)

However, over the past few years and very slowly, I have discovered, by osmosis, the relative joy of having a plan. It’s because I married a gringo: you can imagine what it’s like. Two weeks ago, we went to Lisbon. He wanted to hear someone singing fados in a particular neighbourhood and then go to a particular bar to drink a particular spirit. I wanted to “walk around”. My husband travels like I write fiction: in the knowledge that whenever you distance yourself from the concrete, the literary quality deteriorates as a result. I, on the other hand, travel like I procrastinate: determinedly directionless.

I come back from the kitchen convinced that, this time, I’ll be a different person. I’ll be someone who arrives in Holland and declares, for example: I want to eat graskaas! Yes, I tell myself: enough flowing. I’ll plan everything I want to see at the festival and in Amsterdam, I’ll be unswayable, I’ll make a Powerpoint presentation. Well, I don’t know how to use Powerpoint, but I’ll write it all down in a notebook.

There are seventy-five literary acts scheduled for Crossing Border. Twenty-eight musical performances. Ten special events (the selection criteria for which I’m not sure of, since some of them are musical or literary). As well as that, in the corridors there will be teenagers reciting poems, cartoonists sketching portraits, polaroids being drawn in pencil. And as if that wasn’t enough, the TUIG group will be doing “temporary literary tattoos”.

I know all this because I’ve been exploring the festival page for hours now, writing down what I want to see in my notebook. My inner grandmother is purring. She feels useful. And I’m almost dizzy. So many writers, so many good musicians! Not to mention the twelve translators and the other three authors who will participate in The Chronicles. It’ll be a party.

See you there! You’ll recognise me by my temporary literary tattoo. It will say: huis gezocht.