A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers wereinvited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! Today our final installment is a very special series of drawings done by our High Impact graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael during the tour.

(All pictures courtesy of Judith Vanistendael & copyright of the artist.)

Herman Koch in conversation in Oxford

Rosie Goldsmith listening in Oxford

Birmingham: the pub where I tried to get warm

Ramsey Nasr trying to be interested, in Birmingham Cathedral

Chika Unigwe on the train

Peter Terrin working on the train

Liverpool – Continental breakfast versus porridge

Train – Lieve Joris

Train – Herman

Train – Ramsey reads Herman’s book

Poetry of Ramsey Nasr

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all our participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities. For our final ‘authors blog’ we have something different. We are re-printing excerpts from some of the wonderful poems performed on the tour by Ramsey Nasr, Poet Laureate of the Netherlands until 31st January 2013 – with the kind permission of Ramsey’s publisher in English, Banipal Books, and his translator, David Colmer. 

wondrous month

that was in the wondrous month
of excess and of blossomings
when my chest swirled up like poppies
ribs splaying like gaudy quills
may cut loose my stingy tongue
consuming similes like fire water


I wish I was two citizens
(then I could live together)

and this is my poem, come on in
don’t be afraid, ignore the echo
let us begin in emptiness
welcome to my crater of light


I hoped to show you a fatherland
formal, pure and with sustained metaphors
moulding a poem about us, but when I began
I had to look on while one nation
spontaneously wiped out the other
like two irreconcilable republics

how did we move so fast from humble to rude
from a glimmer to an omnipresent shrieking crew?
how could careful caterpillars give rise to this hummer tribe?

they say: because god disappeared – our father
had decided to make himself even more invisible
to see if it was possible, no, it wasn’t
and god was gone


Ramsey Nasr reading at The Tabernacle
(Photo by Victor Schiferli)

psalm for an origin

god of the house of orange

the fathers say
I can address you directly
no saints as go-betweens
but directly, hence this prayer
without form or frippery


I am a splinter of my origin
and possibly doomed
risen from a sulphured womb
but here I stand

incapable of any good
inclined to all evil
cut free of god and gods

The Gift Of Norwich

Todays writerly offering comes from Geert Mak. The superstar essayist and chronicler of Amsterdam, Europe and beyond was only able to join the tour for the last two dates but he thoroughly enjoyed them, even if he too was feeling the cold.

The centre of Norwich is so lovely, it breaks your heart. Especially when it is snowing. It is exactly how England should be in British eyes and also in our eyes, jealous neighbours from the other side of the big grey pond between us. Norwich has trees we Dutch always wish to sleep under on summer afternoons, cosy pubs to give shelter against the winter storms and the prettiest cottages to spend your Christmas – if necessary, until February.

Geert Mak at The Tabernacle with fellow celebrated non-fiction writer Colin Thubron.                 (Photo taken by & reproduced with permission of Max Easterman.)

The Norwich Arts Centre was barely warm, that Friday evening of 18 January. The British have their own temperature control, it seems, and it took some time for our Dutch bodies to get used to. The audience was small, but it became – also because of the cold and the bad weather – a fascinating, intimate evening. We were reading and telling our stories almost to each other, even to ourselves; our personal histories, the lonesomeness of writing, the fun too… It was a rare gift for us, to us, the writers.

Thank you so much, Norwich!

On High Impact from the Low Countries

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! Peter Terrin typed up his thoughts on one of his vintage typewriters.  (Warning:the cold made a big impression on him.)

Peter keeps his spirits up on yet another freezing train whilst Judith draws

‘Don’t Mention the Cold!’

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports. Although todays offering from comedian-turned-novelist Herman Koch takes it as a central theme.

It happened on day two in Birmingham’s beautiful cathedral. The temperature was… well, it was alright really. Compared with conditions in the Oxford bookshop the night before this was like travelling from Antarctica to the southern tip of Patagonia.

Herman Koch & Rosie Goldsmith share a joke onstage despite the cold conditions of British winter and the lack of heating

I was signing books after the successful event. A girl no older than fifteen approached the table.

“You want a dedication or just a signature?” I began, using my standard procedure.

She spelled her name.

“Is your last name spelled just like… well, as in ‘Savile Row’, Elisabeth?” I asked cautiously.

“Yes,” she answered. Maybe she was blushing, or maybe she was just starting to freeze to death.

“Are you in anyway… related?” I asked, realizing immediately that I was probably blushing myself.

“Jimmy Savile was my uncle,” she almost whispered now.

“Right,” I said. She was actually quite attractive. There was some similarity in her looks between her and the youngest sister in Downton Abbey – I couldn’t remember the name just then, but I recall being quite upset when she suddenly died at the beginning of the third season. “Were you in any way…?” I was searching frantically for another word for “abused” in my mind, this being a word that might sound rather coarse in a cathedral. “Did he… Did he… at some point… touch you anywhere?” I was whispering myself by now.

Elisabeth lowered her eyes. Lit by the candles burning everywhere in the cathedral her face suddenly looked like a younger version of Hilary Mantel.

“What was that?” she asked.

Apparently I had said something else, or maybe I had just been thinking aloud.

“That is the name of my hotel,” I said, looking her directly in the eyes for the first time. “And this,” I added, scribbling in the still half- opened copy of The Dinner, “is the number of my room.”

The next day something similar happened in Liverpool. We had been travelling through a snow-covered landscape. One man and his dog were chasing sheep over the white foothills. The heating in our carriage was turned off. We all envied the sheep.

The bleak English countryside viewed from the ever lengthening train journeys

“Is it ‘Walter Epstein’ as in Brian Epstein?” I asked after our even more successful event in the Epstein Theatre. For a change this was not a young girl of fifteen, more a bald man in his fifties, but on a literary tour like this you can get quite sick if you have scrambled eggs every single morning for breakfast, I knew by now. With Nick Chapman, our tour manager, we had a silent agreement who could visit us in our dressing rooms after the events. Something must have gone terribly wrong this time.

“He just gave his… well you know what I mean, and he gave his last name too,” the man said. “I am actually John Lennon’s sister’s son.”

“Did your uncle at some point try to…?” I started. But then I realized what he had just said.

“What was that?” the bald man asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just humming. Isn’t it good, ‘Norwegian Wood’?”

Where there any scandals after that? Yes, there were! I won’t mention names; we all know what we did. The painted graffiti on the wall-paper in the Sheffield hotel room. The typewriter thrown out the window in Norwich (luckily the room was on the ground floor). The foul language in the Indian restaurant. The chicken tikka on the wall and the waiter who, in the end, did not file a complaint – but only after we took him outside (it was freezing). The books we ripped to pieces on stage. The books by other writers (who didn’t participate in the tour) we burned on the trains – just to get warm. On the Ten O’clock News we saw people who lived on Savile Row protesting to have the street name changed. And we all just laughed.

On YouTube there is some much-discussed footage of a Dutch (or Belgian) writer reading out a statement. The writer doesn’t look well.

“I hereby declare that the temperature on the trains and at the venues was… nice,”

he reads flatly, looking straight at the camera. You need to watch this full screen. So you can see the bruises, one of his eyes looking as if it received a high impact just above the eyebrow. “I want to thank the Dutch Foundation of Literature and the Flemish Foundation…” the writer continues in a dull, monotonous voice. You can clearly see he’s been drugged.

Up to this very day, his body has not been found.

(Note from the author: this is a fictionalized account of the High Impact tour; not all these events took place in real life.)

Thank You High Impact!

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! We’ll be publishing one each day this week, written exclusively for High Impact. Today we have Chika Unigwe’s thoughts on the tour.

A few days ago I read Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today” which he composed for President Obama’s inauguration, and this poem resonated with me. The High Impact Tour was a profoundly moving one for me. It was my “One Today” moment.

Chika Unigwe with fellow Belgian writers Judith Vanistendael & Lieve Joris waiting for a train during the tour

I had already performed in the UK before this tour. But never as a Belgian writer. And certainly not as a writer from Flanders. My Belgian identity had hitherto been limited to the red passport which makes international travel easy for me; a lot easier than with my Nigerian passport. My Belgian identity was hyphenated. When I began my writing career in Belgium, I was identified as Afro-Belgian, an identity I accepted more readily than being called an Afro-Flemish writer. Flemishness is a cultural concept that is for me burdened with too many issues and I had chosen to take a conscious distance from it.

And yet here I was travelling on the High Impact Tour as a Belgian writer, a writer from Flanders; a Nigerian writer from Belgium. It reminded me of the many spaces that literature makes it possible for us to inhabit.

After our finale event at the Tabernacle in London, when a member of the audience came up to me and said,

“It’s amazing how you can be both at the same time, and by being both, how you are able to influence the face of literature from the Low Countries, so that it is no longer just the ‘one voice’ but a voice like yours too”,

I was able to share in her sense of wonder.

This too is literature from the lowlands: the story of Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce; of Godwin marrying his Tine so he can be a legal resident of Belgium.

I am grateful to the Tour for giving me the opportunity to share their stories, these stories that make up contemporary literature from Flanders.

Above all, in addition to all, the High Impact Tour was a chance to get “up close and personal” with some of the best contemporary writers in the Netherlands and Belgium. For this, my enduring gratitude.

UK Safari

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! We’ll be publishing one a day all week, written exclusively for High Impact. Today read Lieve Joris.

A man drinking a glass of wine in Birmingham Cathedral, a brisk early morning walk with Geert Mak and Judith Vanistendael in snow-covered Norwich, a reader coming up to me after the event in… was it Liverpool? Ramsey Nasr reciting I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together), Herman Koch wittily mentioning Jimmy Savile on stage after having juggled with his name for days backstage, Chika Unigwe talking about her Nigerian family on the train to… was it Sheffield?

The merry carousel we’d been on for six days kept spinning around well after I returned home. My legs were wobbly, just like Michel’s legs in The Guard, the book Peter Terrin had been reading from – as if we’d been travelling by boat instead of by train. Images of the journey kept popping up: producer Nick Chapman steering us skilfully through the London Underground, blogger Michele Hutchison hunting for stories, curator Rosie Goldsmith wearing a long red dress on our last evening at The Tabernacle in London.

Lieve Joris reads from ‘The Rebels’ Hour’ at The Tabernacle
(photo taken by and copyright of Victor Shiferli)

Once or twice I escaped. In the Tate Gallery in Liverpool I came upon the video installation Kings of the Hill by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana: four-wheel drives and sports vehicles ploughing their way up and down the sandy hills outside Tel Aviv over the weekend, like tanks on a battlefield.

I read from The Rebels’ Hour and as I travelled along, Assani, the main character – a Congolese cowherder who became a lonely, fearsome rebel leader – entered my head again. I tried to escape by reading from my other books The Gates of Damascus and Mali Blues. Inevitably, the characters from those crumbling universes started eating away at the joy and laughter of the trip, accompanying me as if on an underground journey.

How come I always stumble upon cracks in societies, cracks that often widen into craters after I’m gone? Some say it’s a talent, but you can also call it a curse.

On the closing night at The Tabernacle I dressed in a black suit and a white shirt. Glancing in the mirror of the ‘Green Room’, an undertaker looked back at me.

‘If you only touched one or two people along the way, your tour was successful,’ the legendary publisher Christopher MacLehose said to me at the reception that evening.

Out of the shadows came the man who’d walked up to me after the event in… yes, it was Liverpool. The Epstein Theatre, a classy hall with red velvet chairs. He handed me a copy of The Rebels’ Hour– could I please sign it? I asked what had made him buy it. ‘I think, from your words tonight,’ he said, ‘that you are genuinely interested in people.’ And there was his story: he’d been on drugs, but now he was clean and trying to help others get clean as well. He’d found salvation in a church, an African church, where he prayed, sang and danced; he felt he was finally part of a family. From the corner of my eye I saw Geert De Proost of Flanders House wave that it was time to go. Soon we were on our way to join the merry crowd.

The saying goes that we are as many people as the languages we speak. We’re also as many people as the languages we’re translated into. And yet, we are one and the same. That’s what I felt when I met my new reader at The Epstein Theatre in Liverpool and sat down to sign my book, thanking him for wanting to join me on the journey alongside Assani.

Sheffield University student AIMEE HARDY blogs for HIGH IMPACT

The 6 authors on the HIGH IMPACT: Literature From The Low Countries Tour made the Dutch Deptartment at Sheffield University one of their main destinations in January 2013, with a rapturous reception from students and public alike. There were workshops with the students and authors in the afternoon followed by a public event in St Georges Church, Sheffield, in the evening. Here one of the Dutch Language and Literature students, Aimee Hardy, gives her impressions of the day.

“But, why do you study Dutch? I just don’t understand it!”

After what I have experienced today with HIGH IMPACT, I believe that recounting my experience to any Dutch speaker would convince them of their language’s worth.

I found it so tiresome being constantly asked this question when I was living in the Netherlands, and though I could sympathise that it was unusual, I always found myself getting a bit agitated when these people didn’t really seem to believe in my passion for their language and literature and just found it quite amusing that I would waste my time doing so.

Aimee Hardy with Herman Koch, the author she is studying for her thesis

I am unusual in the way that I actually wanted to study Dutch before I even came to university. I knew I wanted to study French and German, was attracted to Sheffield because you could study three languages, and also because you could study Dutch. Most people arrive in their first week, need the credits to fill and think that ‘Yeti’ (our amazing lecturer, Henriette Louwerse) looks quite fun,  and they choose it – just on a whim. But surprisingly, a huge number of people carry it on and I think that a big part is because of the opportunities it brings.

Before today, I had already met two famous Dutch authors, Gerbrand Bakker and Joost Zwagerman, who came to Sheffield in my first and second years of university. They were part of the joint translation project with other universities, which involves translating a chapter of a famous author’s book and having the opportunity to meet them and discuss their work with them on a very small and personal scale. I realised how special this was when my Dutch friends could not believe that I had authors like these in my classroom, and that the more my Dutch improved the more I could read their work.

In my second year we studied Ramsey Nasr’s magnificent ‘Mi have een droom,’ and I remember so clearly watching a YouTube clip of him reading it with Rotterdam as the backdrop. I was so taken in by it. The whole idea of it, the unusual way it was written – everything about it was so exciting. Similarly with Herman Koch’s ‘Het Diner’, or ‘The Dinner’ in English: we read it as part of our literature course and I loved it. Three days ago, Yeti asked if I would be interested in interviewing Herman Koch or Ramsey Nasr – needless to say I jumped at the opportunity. I could think of nothing more exciting than asking them personally about their work. We arrived a few hours before the workshops to help set up and to discuss what we could ask these much revered writers, and it felt very surreal and exciting. It seemed so strange but yet so normal that three Belgian and three Dutch authors were coming to our university, and it wasn’t until they arrived that I finally started to feel nervous.

Aimee’s well annotated & book-marked copy of ‘The Dinner’

That is, until we sat down with Herman Koch, and you remember that these people are immensely talented, but also normal people just like you or I. We enjoyed questions from one of my peers and asked Koch questions ourselves, which was an amazing opportunity seeing as we have all read and studied his book, and I am actually currently in the middle of writing an essay about it. Normally when you study literature, authors are these far away, mysterious people that you would never have any idea about, and that is what made today such a unique opportunity for us. We had the chance to ask them first-hand about their work.

After Herman’s interview, Lucy and I interviewed Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr – I say interviewed, but really he made our lives easy and gave very interesting, lengthy answers and spoke very passionately about poetry. All we had to do was give him the odd prompt and then just sit and enjoy listening to him talk about, for example, the work he has done during his four years as the Dutch Poet Laureate. We were lucky enough to have him read some of his work for us in both Dutch and English, and to top it all off he read ‘Mi have een droom,’ perhaps his most famous poem. Amazing!

The fun continued with the evening session, where we heard all six authors read their work in English and also had the opportunity to find out some more about them through discussions. In pairs, first Herman Koch and Peter Terrin, then Chika Unigwe and Judith Vanistendael, and finally Lieve Joris and Ramsey Nasr. It was really interesting to hear the work read out by the authors themselves, and also to hear it in English. For those there who did not speak Dutch, it was a great chance for them to discover some brilliant literature that they otherwise would probably never have heard of. The Dutch literature modules have been my favourite out of everything I have studied at university and opened the door to a whole new world that I might never have known if I hadn’t studied Dutch – that is why High Impact is so important. It is bringing this incredible work to those who might not have had any way of finding out about it.

On national poetry day, our other brilliant Dutch lecturer, Roel Vismans, asked us to bring in our favourite Dutch poem and as soon as I read his request, one popped straight into my head – I remember thinking to myself, what a strange thing that I have a favourite Dutch poem, and not a French one or a German one. That, I think, sums up the ‘High Impact’ that the literature of these ‘Low Countries’ brings.

For pictures from the High Impact workshops & event in Sheffield please visit http://www.facebook.com/HighImpactTour

Sheffield University student LAURA BARNES blogs for HIGH IMPACT

The 6 authors on the HIGH IMPACT: Literature From The Low Countries Tour
made the Dutch Deptartment at Sheffield University one of their main destinations in January 2013, with a rapturous reception from students and public alike. There were workshops with the students and authors in the afternoon followed by a public event in St Georges Church, Sheffield, in the evening. Here one of the Dutch Language and Literature students, Laura Barnes, gives her impressions of the day.

Today has been a dream come true for me; three years ago I couldn’t have imagined it. I would have never even thought about helping to organise such an incredible event and been given such a great opportunity. All the credit has to be handed to our Dutch department for injecting us all with the enthusiasm and passion for Dutch that they have. Without them, I wouldn’t have got so far with my learning of this language and culture, and without them Dutch wouldn’t be anywhere near as well-known in this country as it is today.

Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr enthralls his workshop participants

So, the day started with panic, helping to set up the HIGH IMPACT events, but also preparing myself for the unknown. I had been given the task of interviewing one of the authors, Herman Koch. My nerves started the minute I woke up. I had never interviewed a well-known author before, and especially not in a foreign language. My list of questions was an absolute train wreck, I had no idea how they would be received or how cooperative Herman Koch would be. But when the first question escaped my mouth, and Herman began to answer, the nerves disappeared. Herman had every ounce of respect for me, he immediately made the interview easier, changing the formal ‘u’ to the informal ‘je’ and making me feel at ease. (I had only realised that morning that I would have to address him as ‘u’, something that is very strange for an English person.)

Receiving praise after the interview also made me realise how far I had come in my ability to speak Dutch, but none of this would have been possible without having the opportunity, day in, day out, to practise speaking Dutch and to never be judged when doing so. Along with opportunities to put ourselves into new situations which show how much confidence we students have in our own ability, and also how much confidence our department has in us representing them and doing them proud.

In my opinion events like this, which attract students and also the general public reflect how successful the Dutch department at the University of Sheffield really is. They do everything within their power to provide us with unique experiences. Each year they work on a different project, they involve the students as much as they can, and at the end of the day they succeed in making dreams come true.

Judith Vanistendael explains her graphic novel storytelling to students

I feel blessed to have been a part of this wonderful day, to witness firsthand how a well-known author is just a normal person at heart. They respect us as we respect them. The interest we have in their work sparks their enthusiasm. Ramsey Nasr could not believe that we had picked out his poem ‘Mi have een droom’ to read out in our workshop – he was so pleased and hearing him read this poem to us made all the hard work we put in completely worthwhile.

This day has boosted my passion for Dutch even more. I’m going to be talking about it for a long time to come as the most incredible experience I’ve ever had with the Dutch language.

For pictures from High Impact workshops & event in Sheffield please visit http://www.facebook.com/HighImpactTour

The End: High Impact arrives in London

Michele Hutchison puts a rather surreal spin on coming to the end of a fantastic, if tiring, week.

The tour is over! Long live the tour!

I can’t believe we’ve made it this far and that everything went well. No missed trains, no missed events, no murders, no need for Inspector Morse. The final gala evening in the Tabernacle in West London was absolutely packed. It was buzzing. A triumphant grand finale for Artistic Director Rosie Goldsmith, after months of hard work.

David Mitchell, Deborah Moggach and Tracey Chevalier, who joined us for this final performance, all said how impressed they were by the Dutch language-writers – and I really believe them. I’m sure we made an impact.

Looking back on the past week, there was certainly no lack of humour and if I were to write a comedy sketch about the tour, it would go like this:

I’d choose a particular moment which we’d all agree was the low point. Day five: travelling from Yorkshire to Norfolk, a very long afternoon. The setting: a train carriage, a white backdrop representing a snowy landscape.

I’d give the sketch a Beckettian quality, create a huis clos, ‘Waiting for Norwich’ – and god knows what we’ll find there. We’d heard that Norwich was snowed in so maybe no one will come. What’s the point of it all anyway? I’d add some Anglo-Dutch humour: a touch of Monty Python, mixed with Jiskefet (Herman Koch’s comic stomping ground).

Cast of characters:

Six authors of various shapes and sizes (though none of them fat).

Rosie, dressed in animal print and red scarf and hat, constantly on the phone to the next venue or flitting around the train, perching on arm-rests and briefing the authors.

Unflappable tour producer Nick Chapman, working on his laptop and stroking his beard.

Diplomats and literature foundation types, sitting on the edges of the group, filling in forms.

Judith Vanistendael & Peter Terrin do their best to keep their spirits up on yet another freezing train journey

The train is freezing. Icy blasts are coming through the vents making a mockery of the idea of heating. The six writers have crawled into their shells, collars pulled up, hats and gloves on, shoulders hunched. A couple are reading books, others stare glumly.

‘We need a samovar,’ says Pieter Steinz, Director of the Dutch Literary Foundation, trying to take control of the situation in a manly, directorial way.

‘I’ll get one,’ says Koen Van Bockstal, attempting to win ground for Flanders.

He disappears and doesn’t return. They wait.

The air gets even colder.

‘It’s me. I’m a bad omen,’ Peter Terrin confesses.

Simultaneously, further down the carriage, Nick is whispering that he thinks Peter’s a bad omen.

‘No,’ counters Ramsey Nasr. ‘Honestly, it’s me. There’s a chill wind wherever I go. I need to find a home for my mixed origins, a barrel to crawl into.’

He pulls up his scarf to cover half his face.

Just then a buxom woman in a short skirt and platform heels arrives with the trolley service.

‘Teas, coffees, hot porridge?’ she calls out with a strong Liverpudlian accent.

‘Hot porridge? Up yours!’ Herman Koch explodes – but you can tell he’s just playing a role (really he’s the quietest of the lot).

‘Don’t mention Jimmy Savile!’ says Lieve Joris, or Chika Unigwe, or both at the same time.

Ramsey Nasr spontaneously recites a political poem about Jimmy Savile at a Palestinian checkpoint, before explaining that it’s a love poem at heart.

Judith Vanistendael makes a drawing of Ramsey in her notebook. Her face drops.

A small Friesian cow enters the carriage, stops and stares. It snorts at Chika’s knee-high red and blue polythene boots. Then it sees what it’s looking for, lunges forwards and begins to eat Rosie’s red trilby hat.

‘Stalin’s toy boy,’ Nasr says.

‘No, mine,’ says Terrin.

The all-seeing eyes of Lieve Joris look on.


It’s late, I’m delirious. I can go to bed at last. And helping me sleep, helping me find a gentle ending to the High Impact Tour: Herman Koch’s comic impersonation of the art of the hushed-voice BBC commentary.