Kristen Gehrman
DOOR Lize Spit
Dictator
09-11-2016

The walls are black and the wine is served in ribbed plastic cups.
At the beginning of the Crossing Border afterparty, before I down five of these cups, I’m still my usual sober self – a body with a little dictator marching around in its head.
The dictator wants me to be an ideal version of myself. She’s set up cameras at a fixed radius around my body – the footage is projected live onto the inner wall of my skull. She’s got an intercom that’s connected to my body so she can criticize my every move and order me around.
When someone says something funny in a conversation, she roars, “Now you have to laugh! Not too loud!” She barks the order before my mouth has had the chance to formulate anything.
If the person I’m talking to says something interesting, she promptly commands, “Nod! And ask a polite question so you seem interested!” I dutifully repeat the question she comes up with.
The dictator in my head hates dancing. On the screen in the back of my mind, she projects every dance move I attempt with the caption, “Ridiculous!”
“Look at yourself,” her voice overpowers the music, “Can’t you see yourself, you flailing wimp?” Once she’s figured out that all the people around me are dancing too, and I’m slowly falling out of step by standing still, she says, “Look to your right, see how that pretty girl next to you is dancing? Dance like her, without being noticed.”
I’ve never gone out in public without looking down from above at Lize walking down the street holding her arms slightly away from her body, because according the dictator, it makes her look a little less fat.
Alcohol is tape over the dictator’s mouth. After three drinks, I know it will stick enough to shut her up. I’ll still hear mumbling, but my body can ignore it, it’s too busy moving, laughing at what it thinks is funny, dancing. My body glows and warms up. I dance, laugh, drink a bit more.
Drunk, I send a message to a professional acquaintance. I know the dictator would disapprove, forbid it even, but I hope to prove her wrong, that recklessness never hurt anybody.
After another half hour of dancing, my body starts to get tired, my feet hurt, my head becomes heavy.
I leave the building, trip over a step, and zigzag my way back to the hotel, where I end up in the right bed without knowing how I got there. I stumble to the curtains, startled by the darkness – everything’s spinning. Wishing the spinning would stop, I bump into the nightstand. I want the cameras back, the control. I miss the dictator. I fall asleep hoping the alcohol will wear off quickly.
For me, hangovers don’t mean headaches or nausea, but shame.
Shame is the dictator who, while I’m sleeping, scrapes the tape from her mouth, seething because I ignored her for a few hours. As punishment, she wants to go through the whole evening in retrospect. She watches the remaining footage. She reconstructs the conversations my body had, loudly summarizing what went wrong, how I managed to make a complete fool of myself. She analyzes my ridiculous dance moves, commands me to re-read five times the text message I sent to my professional acquaintance, making me realize how stupid I sounded. She gnaws at me until the shame causes physical pain.
Finally she asks, “What color were the walls at the afterparty?”

“WHAT COLOR?”
“Black?” I guess.
“Correct,” the dictator says. “Go sit down. Take your pen and write: The walls were black and the drinks were served in ribbed plastic cups.’”

Alle vertalingen van Kristen Gehrman
20-12-16

On the way from the station to the center of The Hague, I walk past a big white paint spot on the pavement. It’s in front of a grey plastered house. The paint must be waterproof, because despite the recent heavy rain, the spot hasn’t budged.
Standing at the edge of the spill, I take in the grey house, then look back at the spot and try to imagine how it ended up here. Some scenes capture the imagination – there are mysteries that can only disappear once they’ve been completely solved.
I imagine the local who lives in the grey house. Not just any man, no – to give him shape, I use the characteristics of people I know. I borrow the thoroughness of one of my uncles, who would never buy the cheapest paint at a hardware store. I borrow the clumsiness of a friend who knocks over at least one glass at every birthday party and the embarrassment of someone I know who once threw up in a train station and didn’t dare to take the train for days until he was sure it had been cleaned up.
From these borrowed features, I model a character: a man without children, who bought the grey plastered house years ago and promised his partner to paint the facade white – a promise he never kept.
I fantasize that he wore a cap, even in the house, to hide his baldness. Perhaps his wife left him for another man, who turned out to be even balder than he was, but the new man doesn’t wear a cap indoors.
I imagine that, years after buying the house, the grey facade was suddenly blamed for everything, which is why he went to a paint store. He bought a product with good cover, certainly not the cheapest.
To figure out how many liters of paint were needed, the shopkeeper asked how large the surface area was. The man had doubts about the dimensions of the facade. It seemed to have gotten a lot bigger since his wife left.
He drove home with plenty of paint, stepped out of the care in a hurry, took one of the twenty-liter buckets, but in all the excitement lost his grip – the handle slipped out of his hands, the bucket crashed to the ground.
The man must have stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes, staring at the spot forming in front of his door. He took off his cap, put it back on his head backwards, like he always did when he wanted to change the situation.
He must have stood there for at least as long as I am standing here now.
Over the few days I was in The Hague for the Crossing Border Festival, a few hundred meters from the paint spot, I think of the man regularly, and whenever he comes to mind, I fill in more details. The likelihood that he actually exists seems to grow.
When I look out the window of my big, dark hotel, down on the grey road with white dotted lines, it feels like I, along with him, am waiting for his sorrow to be worn away.

09-11-16

The walls are black and the wine is served in ribbed plastic cups.
At the beginning of the Crossing Border afterparty, before I down five of these cups, I’m still my usual sober self – a body with a little dictator marching around in its head.
The dictator wants me to be an ideal version of myself. She’s set up cameras at a fixed radius around my body – the footage is projected live onto the inner wall of my skull. She’s got an intercom that’s connected to my body so she can criticize my every move and order me around.
When someone says something funny in a conversation, she roars, “Now you have to laugh! Not too loud!” She barks the order before my mouth has had the chance to formulate anything.
If the person I’m talking to says something interesting, she promptly commands, “Nod! And ask a polite question so you seem interested!” I dutifully repeat the question she comes up with.
The dictator in my head hates dancing. On the screen in the back of my mind, she projects every dance move I attempt with the caption, “Ridiculous!”
“Look at yourself,” her voice overpowers the music, “Can’t you see yourself, you flailing wimp?” Once she’s figured out that all the people around me are dancing too, and I’m slowly falling out of step by standing still, she says, “Look to your right, see how that pretty girl next to you is dancing? Dance like her, without being noticed.”
I’ve never gone out in public without looking down from above at Lize walking down the street holding her arms slightly away from her body, because according the dictator, it makes her look a little less fat.
Alcohol is tape over the dictator’s mouth. After three drinks, I know it will stick enough to shut her up. I’ll still hear mumbling, but my body can ignore it, it’s too busy moving, laughing at what it thinks is funny, dancing. My body glows and warms up. I dance, laugh, drink a bit more.
Drunk, I send a message to a professional acquaintance. I know the dictator would disapprove, forbid it even, but I hope to prove her wrong, that recklessness never hurt anybody.
After another half hour of dancing, my body starts to get tired, my feet hurt, my head becomes heavy.
I leave the building, trip over a step, and zigzag my way back to the hotel, where I end up in the right bed without knowing how I got there. I stumble to the curtains, startled by the darkness – everything’s spinning. Wishing the spinning would stop, I bump into the nightstand. I want the cameras back, the control. I miss the dictator. I fall asleep hoping the alcohol will wear off quickly.
For me, hangovers don’t mean headaches or nausea, but shame.
Shame is the dictator who, while I’m sleeping, scrapes the tape from her mouth, seething because I ignored her for a few hours. As punishment, she wants to go through the whole evening in retrospect. She watches the remaining footage. She reconstructs the conversations my body had, loudly summarizing what went wrong, how I managed to make a complete fool of myself. She analyzes my ridiculous dance moves, commands me to re-read five times the text message I sent to my professional acquaintance, making me realize how stupid I sounded. She gnaws at me until the shame causes physical pain.
Finally she asks, “What color were the walls at the afterparty?”

“WHAT COLOR?”
“Black?” I guess.
“Correct,” the dictator says. “Go sit down. Take your pen and write: The walls were black and the drinks were served in ribbed plastic cups.’”

05-11-16

The first evening, The Chronicles writers and translators all eat together around a big wooden table to get to know each other better. Islands are formed right away. Across from me are three people turned toward each other speaking Spanish. I don’t understand anything they’re saying. They sound warm and merry.
A couple months ago, I took a crash course in German along with a few other Dutch-speaking writers in the run up to the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the first lesson, the teacher asked us who we were and why we wrote. She insisted that we communicate with each other in German, which was indeed the whole point of the course. I wanted to answer her questions correctly and thoughtfully, but unlike the others, I didn’t know the right words. “Hallo, ich bin Lize, ich bin ein Schriftsteller. Ich schreibe gerne.” Stating my name, profession, and that I like to write was as far as I could go. A lump welled up in my throat out of sheer helplessness. I felt like a tailor forced to produce a bespoke suit from a square centimeter of fabric.
Language is my way of getting a grip on things, of maintaining control in certain situations. Your body is bombarded with zillions of sensory impressions, and by giving them a name, you make them one-dimensional again, manageable.
When suddenly I find myself assigned a foreign language, like now in The Hague, I struggle with it. I temporarily lose some of my control. The language half of my brain runs on full power, but there’s a leak somewhere, a big part of what I want to get across is lost.
Tonight, at the big table, I sit between my two translators. They both speak very good Dutch, but I insist on practicing my own language skills a little bit in anticipation of Friday night’s joint interview in English with a fellow author from France.
English is the most difficult for me; it doesn’t fit in my mouth. Speaking is about as comfortable as stretching exercises – my body constantly resists. French, on the other hand, I can speak without physical discomfort given that I’ve had a French “r” since I was little. Yet I keep missing the nuances, I don’t know any expressions or sayings, I’m happy if I can catch the gist, humor is out of the question.
I turn to Maud on my right, a translator from Liège.
“Je parle comme un cheval espagnol,” I say, equating my French to a Spanish horse. It’s an expression that I once heard my mother-in-law use while talking about a TV news anchor.

“You mean like une vache espagnole,” Maud says. Apparently, it’s a cow, not a horse.
“What’s the most beautiful expression you know?” I ask.
She thinks for a moment. “‘A frotter la tête d’un âne, on perd son savon,’ or literally that scrubbing a donkey’s head is a waste of soap; in other words, that stubborn people aren’t worth the effort.”
That night after dinner, I find a tiny bar of soap next to the sink in the hotel bathroom. I leave it in its wrapper.

04-11-16

The train to The Hague fills up with passengers. I’ve just left the Antwerp Book Fair. As always, on the way back from events where crowds gather, I marvel at the outside world, that there are people out there who choose not to be at that one place. As if they don’t belong to a particular group; they let it all pass by without feeling like they’re missing out.
A man sits down next to me in a bespoke suit. An empty name tag holder is attached to his chest. I can’t tell whether he is on his way to somewhere or coming back. Shouldn’t this man be headed to the book fair? Maybe he’s wondering the same thing about me. He could be coming from a friend’s funeral, or an important board room meeting, or a reunion. Perhaps he was just part of another kind of event that I had no idea was going on.
For half an hour, we ride together, the man and I and all the other people. We share the railcar, separated only by the aisle, the plastic armrests, the woman who walks by from time to time selling snacks and hot drinks.
We leave Antwerp behind and morph into a new gathering – people subject to the same forces, the same bends. When the train stops, we all lean forward in sync and then back again; we perform a choreography that dance companies would have to rehearse a long time.
If you were to sketch our travel behavior from above, drawing a pencil line through everyone’s wake, it would look like a drawing of a bare tree. From Antwerp to Roosendaal, we all stay together. Our movements form many lines, a sturdy trunk. But at the first station, we go our separate ways, we branch out.
I travel to just about halfway to the crown of the tree. I will step out of the railcar in The Hague, making my own little branch – no, more like a twig. I’ll zigzag my way through the streets with my suitcase in search of the hotel that someone picked for me, where we will all gather in the evening to eat together.
Between Roosendaal and The Hague, the train glides through pastures that I’ve passed many times, always with performances or conversations with other writers on the horizon. As usual, I look out for the friendly scarecrow. There he stands, fearless with his arms in the air, a plastic bag for a jacket. He has nowhere to go; no one expects him anywhere. Sometimes, when the wind is still, birds sit on his shoulders.

24-10-16

On my first day off after a week of readings, I come down with a cold. The “valling” – as we call it in Flanders – doesn’t overwhelm me, but it builds up slowly. The first sneeze is the starting pistol that sets off the gradual spread of bacteria. The germs have a map of my head and draw the most interesting speleological route. Slowly the mucus fills the cavity in my forehead, then my right nostril, then my left.

In bed, before going to sleep, I flip through De Urolige by Lin Ullmann, which in turn refers Virginia Woolf: “We read differently when we are ill, because we are not as responsible and wise as those in the army of the upright.”

The next day I step onto a crowded train to head to a lecture in a castle somewhere in northern Flanders with a fiery red noise, caked in crust. My sinuses are bursting. It takes me a little while to find an empty seat.

The castle is splendid. There’s a grand staircase in the entrance hall with two impressive tusks bent towards each other. They form an arch that people can walk under. I have never seen such enormous pieces of ivory. They represent a very strong animal, a solid poaching, a great suffering.

My reading is in a small hall where a bar has been set up. Plastic flower arrangements are scattered around and on each table, there is something meant to be taken for a tablecloth even though the fabric squares barely cover a third of the table tops.

The interviewer introduces me to the audience and explains that I was a guest of “the Crossing Border” – he says it in such a way that it should give me credibility, hence the definite article.

“But you know, I haven’t been yet,” I say. “The festival hasn’t started.”

Sitting on the stool with my elbows on the rickety folding table, my nose whistling with every breath, I suddenly long to be in The Hague, to be in the future.

On my way home, I dive back into De Urolige. The train is empty. My nose is blocked, my ears seem to be turned inward, toward my innermost center. I hear myself thinking, hinges creaking in my body. My snot slides and bubbles when I bend over.

“The sick, lying in bed,” I read, “are ruder, less thoughtful while reading, feverish, overly sensitive when it comes to words, images or sounds. Barriers disappear, knots untangle, the mind sings. And so it is that in the middle of the night and the early hours of the morning, when the heart is pounding and nothing is sorted out, I’m afraid, tired and not entirely myself.”

It’s true, that night I can’t think straight. My dreams are filled with the embarrassment that I felt at the sight of the dreary tablecloths in the castle. They reminded me of how, sometimes at home, I have to dry myself with a towel that is much too small, which makes me feel like a giant, clumsy animal. Other than an elephant and a mammoth, I encounter people in my sleep, but all they do is parrot phrases from Ullmann’s book.

Once the sun is up, I get up and worry about unlikely things. That my cold won’t be gone by early November, that during “the Crossing Border” I’ll be listening to an army of upright writers but still hear nothing but the creaking of my own hinges.