In The Conversation for The Pavlovic Today, award-winning author Tommy Wieringa talks about the controversies of Trump’s presidency and the tragedy of a life spent not living to one’s full potential.
Tommy Wieringa, one of the best-selling literary Dutch authors, whose literary works have been translated to over five different languages, speaks to The Pavlovic Today about his compelling journey as an author, Trump’s America and the migration crisis in Europe.
Wieringa was born in the Netherlands in 1967 but spent part of his childhood on the tropical island of Aruba, birthing a nomadic lifestyle that would later translate into much of his literary pieces. His life experiences, through his childhood and travels, often inspire the characters and stories behind some of his best-selling novels, including All About Tristan (2002), Joe Speedboat (2005), These Are The Names and A Beautiful Young Woman (2014). Wierenga has received the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prize in 2006, as well as the esteemed Libris Prize in 2013, known as the “Dutch Booker”. European by background, Wieringa shares his thoughts and insights on the unfolding political controversies surrounding Trump’s presidency and explains why Europe needs to define its outer border.
When did you first realize that your writing was worth publishing?
Tommy Wieringa: I never had any other ambition. This is the only ambition I ever had – to write. It started when I was about 11 when I started writing diaries. I did that whole “girl-like” youth. I wrote diaries, and I found it amazing. I see with my daughters now, that if you have a pen, just a pen, and a piece of paper, and you start writing, things with meaning suddenly appear under your hand like your own name. Just like writing your own name, it’s like ‘I am somebody’, and I can actually express myself in words. Which is magic. Which until now, I find that sheer magic that you can actually, with very little effort, create or recreate life, itself. It has to breathe of course. And that is the main goal of writing when you write something. And I left a diary behind and wrote poetry, I tried fiction writing, which I was terribly afraid of because it was very difficult.
Difficult in what sense?
Tommy Wieringa: When you get older you realize that every tree and every leaf or grass has to possess life itself. It has to if you write about it. So you have to recreate life.
Do you think it’s God?
Tommy Wieringa: No, it has nothing to do with God. Of course, you could call it that, but not me. It’s much more humble. Because it’s not God, it’s craftsmanship.
You create a life for the characters in your literary works, isn’t that the closest experience to God?
Tommy Wieringa: No, being a father is much closer actually. Being a father is recreating God’s deed. I’m serious. It’s a much humbler task than what you compare to God. It’s about being very observant and having a lot of love for it. For the love of it.
How old were you when your first novel was published?
Tommy Wieringa: I was 27. It’s not that young, it’s actually quite old, but it’s like for me, the first novel was something I had to get rid of. I took a long time before I actually… it was a long struggle learning how to write, and finding out what good writing is. And I’m still struggling with it, and I realize with every book that I start that there is no experience in my writer’s life. Every book that I start, I’m completely overwhelmed by the hubris of it. The fear of failure, of writing something that is not good or worthwhile, or boring…there are so many dangers. Every time I start writing, I’m a bit defeatist.
What pulls you through to keep writing new books?
Tommy Wieringa: What pulls me through is dedication. Discipline is what pulls you through. The problem with starting a new novel or a new story is that you have to overcome your own disbelief. I find that is probably the hardest part. And you overcome your disbelief over time, so the novella I’m writing, that’s what took me the most time actually – I had to overcome my disbelief that I could actually write a story about two Dutch Moroccan girls.
You mentioned an issue of cultural appropriation in literature, what are your major points of contention or concerns?
Tommy Wieringa: I’m not very concerned about it, but I realized it suddenly becomes public and I find it’s interesting to think about how we depict, for instance, minorities. Of course, we make use of clichés all the time, and sometimes writing is also about if you use a cliché, it better be a crucial or a useful cliché.
Is there room for political correctness in writing?
Tommy Wieringa: No. Definitely not, because that’s the end of literature as we know it. That is a disastrous idea and you could throw away half of literature if it was for the morality of political correctness.
With President Trump in office, how do the results of the election connect with your understanding of a place of “utmost truth”?
Tommy Wieringa: As a writer, I find it an incredibly sad, but interesting era. And it just urges us to be very attentive at the sign of the times, to see what’s happening. I think we’re on the brink of some drastic, dramatic changes. And I want to point them out as carefully as possible. There’s really something at stake, from a humanitarian field for instance, or the field of democracy and how we address this rise of aggressive nationalism. It’s not about comparing it to Nazi times, but to be able to see how it makes us very unsettled. It needs another discourse.
Are you hoping to open such discourse with your books?
Tommy Wieringa: Well, I’m trying to, yes. For instance, my book Melville House deals very strongly with migration and how we treat newcomers and the fate of newcomers. How the idea that migration is, of course, timeless – it’s a timeless tale of migration. I started thinking about this novel 14 years ago, and suddenly when it was published, the whole migration crisis suddenly exploded. And my book was in the middle of that. So I wasn’t being a prophet, I was just being attentive. I was watching carefully.
How do you feel about border crossing, in real life and also in literature?
Tommy Wieringa: We did it without internal borders but forgot that if you want to actually be Europe, we forgot to protect our outer borders. We sort of invited the rest of the world to be part of Europe. And that, of course, is a burden. You can’t ask the people who do not suffer from it because I’m not suffering from migration, I don’t have newcomers. I don’t have Somali and traumatized families near me. I live safely away from all the rumble, from all the hassle. But the people who actually suffer from it, haven’t recovered from the first wave of migration in the Netherlands, where we have many Moroccan workers who came to the Netherlands, and that still poses a big problem. And they have to do with the Syrians and Somalis nowadays. Not I, not me. I think you have to be very careful, and this is not something I would have said years ago. We ask migrants to become part of it and become Dutch for instance.If you migrate to the Netherlands, you can. But please, adapt yourselves to our morale and to our standards. But, you have to know what these standards are. We have to define ourselves, you cannot define yourselves without borders. Defining yourself starts with landing, something like this: an outline. Defining yourselves begins with a border.
Europe needs to define itself, also by its outer borders. It’s sad but true. It’s the worst time for migrants, for refugees, to come to Europe. Because Europe is a very depressed continent.
Depressed in the sense that we don’t procreate anymore and we have the lowest rates in the world. There is a very little belief in the European project, there’s very much room for disappointing for people. I find it amazing, and it gives me a headache to think about this disappointment.
Why are the Europeans disappointed?
Tommy Wieringa: That is what puzzles me so. It’s also a psychological problem, and that’s where the depression comes in. There’s no belief in who we are or what we are. There’s very little pride about being French, or Dutch, or European.
Who are you then?
Tommy Wieringa: That is who we are of course, but there is very little pride about who we are. And it’s very difficult to tell newcomers and refugees to embrace it if you’re not even happy with it yourself.
Is this why you decided to write about Moroccan girls? Moroccan immigration in the Netherlands?
Tommy Wieringa: Partly, yes. And also because it was a good story that I stumbled upon. And I went to a lawsuit, when two girls in 2004, they were visiting family in Moroccan. A boy with them, from Tangier, they hid him in the car, and he died, in the car. He died crossing the border. They found him, they were panicked, and drove into Spain, with this dead body in the back of their car. So I’m writing this road novel about these two girls, as illegal migrants.
Do you have any views on what Trump said about illegal immigrants in America how he wants to deport them?
Tommy Wieringa: I think that was a bluff. Because if you deport them, the entire American economy then would collapse, so that’s ridiculous. It would really be a bomb under society, I think the American economy thrives on these immigrants.
That’s Trump’s populist bluff. With saying a thing like that, you can actually point at them, and say fellow Americans, I’m giving you back your jobs, which the immigrants stole from you. They didn’t steal them; it was just the type of work you didn’t want to do anymore. That’s why they came in.
In what way does America speak to you?
Tommy Wieringa: I was interested when Obama came to office. We were very dependent on the American defense in Europe, NATO and Obama came to Europe about 2 years ago and held a speech, it was a fantastic speech, in which he was both a poet and a soldier. He said something like Europe has to take care of its own defense, its own military. We cannot trust in America again, anymore. And it proved true. Because now we have Trump, because of Trump, in that sense, is very isolationist. He has nothing to do with Europe. We have to defend our borders. I’m not saying that we should’ve started a war with Russia over the Ukrainian border, but I think we are responsible for not letting it happen and not letting it go any further, in Latvia, Estonia, and Lavinia. These are countries under threat, and they’re part of Europe, so it’s Europe’s problem and we have to deal with it ourselves. We cannot trust that the US will deal with our problems.
Are we now living in an age where everyone wants to protect their borders?
Tommy Wieringa: Yes, we need to protect borders, against unlimited immigration. Unlimited has been ‘off’ for the past few years, but we really suffered from it. Where they really suffered was Italy and Greece, where millions of people crowded the streets, stations, and all the terrorists are everywhere. Migrants, illegal migrants, everywhere. It’s absolutely amazing. They take the burden of this migrant crisis. So that’s why we need borders. But we also need a very strong border against Russia. I mean I started off as a Pacifist, being very anti-military, but I’m not anymore because there is something to defend. There really is something to defend in Europe, the war zone in the world for almost a century and we have to prevent it from happening again.
In one of your interviews, you said you were sending postcards from all your travels. Where were you traveling to, and what kind of journey was that for you?
Tommy Wieringa: It was a journey in many different episodes.When I was 21 and went back to the island where I grew up. On the coast of Venezuela, a Caribbean island. I grew up there as a boy, and then we went back when I was about 9 or 10, and I had a feeling that I’d been in exile for most of my life, for almost 20 years, that I actually belonged there, and I knew I would go back one day. And I went back, and I realized that I did belong there. I only learned to be Dutch after I’d decided that I was not Aruban or Caribbean. So I told myself: ‘be Dutch’. When I write in this language, know where you live.
Do you still feel like you need to find your abode?
Tommy Wieringa: Yes, I needed to find room, a place where I belong. I lived this bohemian life for about 20 years, and then a miracle…children! Everything ended. It didn’t really end, because it started all over again, two times. Children are like seeing the whole world starting again in a child, which is fantastic.
Where did you travel to during this bohemian time?
Tommy Wieringa: Everywhere. From Cambodia to Egypt to Ethiopia to Columbia.
How did you fund your adventures?
Tommy Wieringa: I worked. I wrote about it every now and then for newspapers or magazines.
So you’re proof that one can live from writing?
Tommy Wieringa: I lived off my writing early on, but then again I didn’t have a family and I only had myself. I had very low rent, I lived in a shared, somewhere in the Netherlands, which they made a sort of a house out of it, but it wasn’t shared, but I paid very little rent. And that’s why I was able to travel that much.
In what way did it shape you as a human being and an author?
Tommy Wieringa:I don’t know how it formed me as a human being but as an author it was most important because it gave me an idea that while I’m living in the Netherlands, simultaneously, on the Cape Verdian Islands there is a man sitting on top of a hill with a gun in his hand, protecting a telephone tower. At the same time, in Capahena, there is a man walking the street selling Bendsols, the same time, in Columbia. While I’m still in Amsterdam. I know that, in Egypt, near to the bus station there are three men, over one shoe box, one sells the first part of the pen, the other one sells the middle part of the pen, and the last one sells the last part of the pen. So that’s poverty. So it gave me an idea of all these simultaneous lives lived, while I’m not far from Amsterdam. And I’m constantly aware of that. For me, it is very important to be aware, of the enormous possibilities of life. Yeah actually, the hunger, capital H, of the world. The cosmic hunger. So that’s why it was important for me to travel.
What do you know to be true about life?
Tommy Wieringa: That’s a very difficult question. True life is…beauty, hell, a certain amount of wealth, love, probably.
What makes the difference in success?
Tommy Wieringa: In life, for me, tragedy is when you see life pass by without making use of the full potential of it. That I find very tragic. I am a bit of a failed historian, and I think of all these talents and all these gifted men and women who were peasants or property of a landowner, or died in a war or died in a camp. This enormous loss of human potential, through history, is both proof of limited possibilities of human potential and also limited destruction of human potential.
How do you protect yourself from the destruction of human potential? How does humanity protect itself? Is it also connected to disbelief, or doubt in yourself that you need to overcome?
Tommy Wieringa: No, but how to overcome it – is to create. For me, creating is key.
Do you think one can be taught to write?
Tommy Wieringa: If you have the potential to write, then it may become a muse. But it’s only for those who already have potential. If you don’t have potential then you will never be a writer. It’s impossible.
When you say potential, you use the word ‘talent’ instead?
Tommy Wieringa: No, I find talent difficult. I think potential covers more than just talent. Potential has to do with the amount of energy which you can make use of and I had a vague notion of talent, but it was potential, the amount of potential, which made me go on. So I like the word potential more.
I’m curious, where do you find the emotional courage to reveal parts of yourself in writing?
Tommy Wieringa: I think you have to deal with a few things. One of them is the shame. I was thinking about that this morning. Because I wrote in my diary, and it was things that I didn’t really dare to express, and it’s my bloody diary. I was thinking, what kind of a writer are you, that you’re actually ashamed but there are things that you have to deal with all the time. I think it’s what it all starts with. If you can deal with your shame and if you find a way to deal with it, then that’s a giant first step in becoming a writer.
What do you write in your diaries?
Tommy Wieringa: None of your business. No, but now I write about writing because I like to follow the process of my own writing now. So I write about writing and the process of writing and the problems that I’m facing in creating these stories. It’s for me because I find it interesting. And I like being vulnerable to my surroundings, open to what’s happening around me. If I’m in a hotel room, I also do it when I’m a bit stuck in my fiction. And I just write, ‘here I am in my hotel room and I’ve been looking at the empire state building for 5 days without realizing it. I didn’t realize it was the empire state building. I’d been looking at it for 5 days, writing, and I suddenly realized ‘hey that’s the empire state building’. These are the small, silly things, but amazing things happen. I was on a Dutch island, on the north coast of the Netherlands, and I wrote about war in the evening when it was getting dark and things were getting blurred and you couldn’t make out what was what. Suddenly there was a “whoosh” and I thought that’s exactly where story-telling started.You can’t make out if it’s a sleeping horse or a shrub. That what I like to think, where we start making up stories. Like this magical horse that went over to this field with a naked girl on his back. So I write little notes about things like that, which is very daily and dull, but for me, it’s interesting because if I read it a year later, or certainly this little bird which I wrote about, suddenly started singing again. It is wonderful recreating, it’s a miracle of writing. This lark, which larks, when they’re mating, they rise and they rise and they sing frantically until you can’t see them anymore because they’ve gone so high. Then suddenly they drop, they look like a bomb, they drop back to where their nest is. I once, was in England, and I wrote about this lark, and a few years later, I stumbled upon the note I wrote about it, and suddenly there this lark sang again. Little words on paper. That is to me, the magic recreation of life. Life itself. I put life itself on this page. So that’s why I write.
So you said also that you’re upset with preserving the past? Why? Because you’re a writer?
Tommy Wieringa: Yes, I am. It has to do with the meaning of life, to me. There’s no sadder thing than a library which is taken apart. It’s the saddest thing on earth. I feel really hurt when I think of the library of Alexandria, which was burned by Julius Cesar’s troops. I feel hurt. I think, all these fantastic works of art, all these plays…this is when a man is at his best and he’s thinking. And all these works of great intellectuals were burned, gone. And I feel hurt when I think about that. I had this feeling when I was much younger. I collected stones, from stones I collected anecdotes, from anecdotes I collected stories, from stories I collected life stories.
I’m a collector by nature. I want to keep it all, everything. I want the history of everything. And of course, when you think about the enormous destruction of the second world war, and the destruction of all the art, libraries, books, all these lives. Yeah, the destruction of life. So to me, the destruction of a library, I find it the saddest destruction of life.
Your interest in writing about the difference in age of men and women, why were you attracted to writing about that?
Tommy Wieringa: It’s an interesting question. I didn’t realize that I had an interest in that. But I always asked friends, or certainly, I had a friend – a beautiful, beautiful woman, a Caribbean girl. And she told me once, how she, in her red sports car, pulled over at a gasoline station, and there was this man with beautiful features. And she smiled at him and he smiled back, and from then on, they got children and it all started with a smile over two sports cars. Because he had a sports car as well. So it started with a smile and he was I think 20 years older. Or 18. And I asked her, how is it when you have a fight? A domestic fight, not a fist fight. Is he going all the way or is he holding back? And she says, he’s holding back. And I knew why. I realized why. Because she had many lives still left, whereas he, was almost 50, and had the end of all the possibilities, the limitless possibilities of life. They, one by one, they end. When you’re 49, you’re not able anymore to…you can fancy a girl who is maybe 25, but you cannot sleep with her until you pay for it.
Tommy Wieringa: Because they don’t fancy you anymore. Too old. Men are very sensitive to age. And there are of course women who don’t mind, who like that men are a bit older. But most of the time. If I’m chatting up a 23-year-old girl, I am lost. I could be her father, her grandfather even. So things come to an end, a natural end. And that’s the way it has to go. But if you’re 49 and still want to chat up 23-year-old girls, then that’s a recipe for unhappiness. Because it’s something you have to work very hard for. You cannot impress them anymore with beauty, speed, strength…you’ve lost that at 50, so that’s why he held back during the argument. Because if he lost her, his chances to have a woman like that again, were very, very low. That’s why he was holding back.
What would be the shortest story about New York?
Tommy Wieringa: I am just a city.