Books in Brussels

Books in Brussels

I’ve always enjoyed my visits to Brussels, although I can never get the topography straight in my head. Perhaps it’s because I’ve stayed in different hotels and districts; maybe it’s because of the changes in elevation, with unexpected hills leading one up, down and around intriguing corners. One of the most famous examples of this is the glass lift from the Palais de Justice down to Marolles – from the top you can see the city displayed in picture-postcard splendour on even the greyest of days. 

I also get a buzz from the range of culture and politics on offer, with world-class visual art, opera and film vying with the apparatus of the EU. But above all it’s the plurality of the city’s inhabitants which makes it so appealing. Everyone speaks Dutch, French and English as a minimum; you’ll also hear West Flemish, German and Arabic pretty much everywhere you go. It’s full of vitality, its demographic range resulting in a huge variety of bars, restaurants, music. The appalling violence of Belgium’s colonial past isn’t ignored, but its triumphs and wars over the centuries are commemorated in churches, plaques and museums throughout the country, and especially here. The LA-based writer Paul Holdengraeber’s father called it ‘the centre’; but, asked the young Paul, of where? His parents had left Vienna in the thirties, fled to Haiti where they found themselves among a community of 137 Jewish families, moved thence to Mexico and on to Texas where Paul was born and lived for four crucial days, granting him a US passport. When the family returned to Europe and made their home in this city for four decades, it was obvious to Holdengraeber senior what ‘centre’ meant. 

I learned Paul’s family history during a panel of the third edition of the Asmara Addis Literary Festival in Exile, founded and curated by Sulaiman Addonia. He is an Eritrean/Ethiopian/British writer whose second novel, Silence is my Mother Tongue, my publishing house The Indigo Press published in 2018. This panel, entitled The Return, featured writers who had previously spent time in the city; it was chaired by the vivacious and hospitable Canan Marasligil, who translates from her native Turkish, lives in Amsterdam, speaks fluent Dutch and has just completed her first novel in English. Other panellists included Jay Barnard, the London-born poet who was less lucky in the passport lottery; describing their life as a series of residencies, while actually residing nowhere, they missed the chance to acquire EU citizenship while here on a residency with the outstanding, multilingual, literature house and bookshop Passa Porta. 

This panel also featured the Vietnamese writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai, whose husband works for the EU and whose peripatetic life brought her here when she had two small children; the generous welcome of her neighbours notwithstanding, she was alone for much of the time and started writing her first book in English, The Mountains Sing

It followed on, with beautiful creative logic, from a panel chaired by British-Eritrean writer Hannah-Azieb Pool, called Writing in the Margins. Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi made us laugh with bittersweet descriptions of finding a home for her novel Kintu. Alvin Pang reminded us that the novel is a colonial construct, and exhorted writers not to confine themselves to this genre when other literary forms such as poetry and the short story thrive all over the world, to reject a hegemony in which an imported literary ideal gets imposed on local talent; he read us a poem in ‘Singlish’, written for his home country Singapore, to prove his point. The line-up was completed by trans Dutch writer Tammie Schoots, who talked about place and identity both literally and metaphorically. 

And this was a recurring theme of the two days I spent here (pressure of work and a general Belgian public transport strike prevented me from attending the third day). Addonia’s talent for collecting people was evident in their enthusiasm for his project. I met two women volunteers on his team, both of whom had recently completed their first books; one, called Soife Verraest, speaks most often in Dutch and West Flemish but has written her first non-fiction book in English; the other, Julia Galaski, has French, German and Israeli nationalities and speaks perfect English. Her first novel Le Passeport was recently published by indie collective Editions les Etaques based in Lille, northern France. 

And these two writers were among the hyper local recruits. People came from a long way to talk and to listen. Gary Younge, formerly a columnist for the Guardian, took part in a session on travel writing chaired by Desta Halle, along with three eloquent speakers who set the stage alight: Lola Akinmade, whose life has taken her from Nigeria to Sweden; Mylene Gomera, a London-based actress of Eritrean ethnicity, and Ethiopian-born Seada Nourhussen, editor in chief of Dutch media platform OneWorld. 

As well as more formal panels there were also walks and readings from aspiring writers, including those with The Creative Writing Academy for Refugees and Asylum Seekers set up by Addonia. Given my incompetence with Brussels’ spatial challenges, see above, I managed to navigate our group to the endpoint of the walk rather than to the start, so we missed the readings along the way, although we did get to have a much-needed tea break and a discussion about European publishing of the kind that haunts every book fair and literary festival. 

‘We’ included Sulaiman’s German publisher Annette Michael of Orlanda Verlag, based in Berlin, and his Dutch publisher, Jurgen Maas of the eponymous house based in Amsterdam. (The transport disruption caused by the strike resulted in the latter offering the former a lift to Amsterdam during which they exchanged professional intel about small presses in their respective countries – an example of how we publishers turn setbacks to our advantage.) And it also included Catalan writer Ennatu Domingo, whose book Burnt Eucalyptus Wood I am publishing next year; we met to work on the manuscript in person, as she is based in nearby Maastricht. Ennatu was adopted from her native Ethiopia at the age of seven, and we listened together to several panels which reflected the experiences she describes with passion and sharp political antennae.  

At Passa Porta we heard literary agent Jessica Craig, US by nationality but based in northern Spain, discuss gatekeepers and ‘permitted’ subject matter with the effervescent Ebisse Wakjira-Rouw, a publisher and writer from Holland, joined by Belgian-based, Rwandan-born Dalilla Hermans and moderated by Raf Njotea. Later, after Dalilla had delivered a funny and wistful keynote about representation and role models, we listened, aghast, to a session with Swedish-Eritrean Vanessa Tsehaye in which she described her work as Horn of Africa lead for Amnesty International and her personal pain for her uncle Seyoum Tsehaye, who has been imprisoned in the Eritrean desert for more than 20 years, with no word from his captors, following a crackdown on press freedom in 2001. This event was created in partnership with Flanders PEN and included readings in Tigrinya. 

Lest this all sounds a bit worthy and possibly dull, let me reassure you: it was nothing of the sort. Yes, the painful and shocking facts of the past and the present are real, and cannot be wished away or ignored. But the festival pulsed with laughter, and fizzed with determination to agitate for change. Gary Younge’s daughter asked Vanessa Tsehaye, ‘but why didn’t the people reject that terrible government?’  and the latter responded with dignified yet barely-restrained rage as she outlined the steps from the repression of a free press to the abolition of democracy. 

Vanessa and Lola were both called upon to explain a subject then trending on the socials, about Swedish families not offering hospitality to children who come home after school for playdates, and, after making us laugh, pointed out that this is what happens to the white children – imagine the fate awaiting those from other ethnicities. 

Despite the brilliance of the curation, we go to festivals as much for the downtime as for the formal programmes. On Monday 30th May we gathered at midnight outside a new bar in Ixelles, 25 people from all over the world relaxing, chatting, drinking beer, swapping stories. I have some snapshot memories – a tall waiter cheerfully waltzing with a much shorter waitress while they must have been wondering if we’d ever leave, a skinny man opening a window above the bar and shouting at us to keep the noise down (it turned out he’d moved to the square when the bar was a sandwich shop and the change in operations was playing havoc with his circadian rhythms). It’s the serendipity, the connection, the affirmation that we crave. 

Saleh Addonia, Sulaiman’s brother, was sitting opposite me; we had previously met in London, their journey being the focus of many narratives. He proudly showed me his short story collection The Feeling House, recently published by London-based indie Holland House, and as I flicked through the contents page I noticed the word Gondar, a place mentioned frequently in Ennatu’s book, and Ebisse’s birthplace. As we were discussing this Sulaiman walked past and the two brothers reminisced about their father’s Ethiopian hometown, the beauty of the mountains, the rising of the Blue Nile, the exceptional fecundity of the landscape. I would love to visit, to see these meadows for myself; but for now I’ll content myself with a return trip to Brussels and the festival next year, where I’ll probably get physically lost again, and will immerse myself once more in this joyous celebration of difference, the movement of peoples, the transformational possibilities of the written word. 

About Susie Nicklin

Susie Nicklin began her career at The Bodley Head publishers and co-founded foreign rights specialist The Marsh Agency in 1993. She was Director of English PEN from 2002 – 2005, and inaugurated its translation programme (now PEN Translates). She was Director of Literature at the British Council from 2005 – 2013, creating international literary partnerships and events.

From 2015 – 2019 she was the owner of award-winning independent bookshop Dulwich Books, and she produced and directed ten literary festivals in that time. She founded The Indigo Press in 2018.

Susie Nicklin
Photograph © Sarah Hickson