Elte Rauch: Reluctant roots
Roots! Read My World 2023
If you don’t take root in the soil in which you are seeded, you take root in words. Because you have to. To stand your ground in a world that’s gradually becoming more and more uprooted—from truths, from reality, from awe.
I’m talking about attachment. I’m talking about belonging, I’m talking about language and tradition, sound and sensation.
Where are your roots if there’s no soil to call your home?
My family bears the scars of war and a colonial past. It’s a concoction of fair-haired, pale-skinned colonials from The Hague who settled in the former Dutch East Indies before the 17th century and slender-built, dark-skinned Javanese and Ambonese blue-bloods and half-bloods. But some branches of the family tree can be traced back to Jewish, Arab and Italian origins, and presumably German or Swiss as well. And somewhere deep down, some Dutch.
As for me, I feel most at ease in England and the Netherlands, but with only shallow roots in either, as I live on the water, literally on a barge—I take no roots in the soil.
Literature gave me my roots. The languages in which I learned to speak, sing and write. The languages that I dream in—daydreams, nightdreams, and thought dreams.
I grew up close to the Dutch-Belgian border. In school, Flemish and Zeelandic-Flemish dialects filled the air. In summer, German was nearly all I heard.
But German and Dutch were not the languages I wanted to live in.
My parents were no readers; our shelves only contained an encyclopaedia, some fairy tale books and some art books. My father used to work on our dike-side home round the clock, and owned a home-based printing business. I grew up with the smell of ink and sea breeze. Our village, though, had a library. As quiet as a monastery. At home, the printing press often churned deep into the night. Lying in bed, I would listen to the clatter. A rhythm more familiar than my own heartbeat. And yet it was the library’s silence that ignited my love for reading.
My initial literary roots sprouted in French literature. Sagan, Stendhal, Modiano and Camus topping the list. My French teacher befriended me and we exchanged letters, visited bookshops in Ghent, Bruges and Brussels together. He bought books for me. Real books. But on one condition: I had to improve and advance my French. I managed rather well. We maintained a correspondence about literature until he passed away. Genuine letters. I have thousands of them, all of them written in longhand—and when I began to write tales and poems, he was always my first reader.
Not for a teacher’s evaluation, but that of a friend.
It would not have surprised him that I founded a publishing house, although he didn’t live to see it flourish. He passed away a couple of years ago after suffering a stroke. He could no longer speak, write or read. Uprooted in a world that had turned wordless.
His son works as a printer. He prints the books I publish.
Passing on words through publishing.
When I was around 18 years old, I moved to England. Reading in French soon gave way to reading in English. I had to make the switch, for I had a lot to catch up on. I hadn’t paid attention to any language other than Dutch or French in school.
As I spent more time living in England, the other languages slowly but steadily faded to the background. Until I found myself not just studying and reading, but even dreaming in English.
What and where was my language? And my roots? They were getting firmly stuck in the green hills.
They stayed there, in England. Even though I didn’t stay put, I returned only to leave again. I keep going back and forth.
Because what happens when you’ve been living in a country other than your birthplace for a while? You yearn for your mother tongue. First, I revisited Dutch poetry—perhaps out of nostalgia, or perhaps I felt homesick. Vasalis (‘and the severing is never/as hard as being severed’), Hans Andreus (‘and someone says I am/but suppressed’) and Lodeizen (‘will you sail with me? the ship’s ready’), Jotie T’Hooft (‘lonely did I walk the streets’); writers whom I had devoured in my teens all made reappearances.
I read a lot about the Dutch East Indies. I engaged with the colonial past, and therefore with my family history. I tried to find myself through the stories of others. In each I found glimmers of recognition, yet also shimmers of void.
I read Couperus, Augusta de Wit. I spoke with Van Dis and Paula Gomes. Like them, I wanted to write about my parents and grandparents, but I couldn’t. For their tales are filled with gaps. Because of the war, because of being torn away, not being on native soil. Like trees, not quite yet chopped into bits for firewood, but already stripped of their foliage.
Uprooted. Fragments. The past wants to be pacified. Is literature a place for that? Then came a book: Vormen van vrede (Prose for Peace, if you like). And a poem:
Can you see it in my guise
I’m wearing my grandma’s eyes
Indonesian faraway flame and a question too?
The tresses of an Ambonese Jew.
A skin that yearns for the sun’s caress
and darkens in its radiant grace—
is it true that a pain of the past
left its traces upon my face?
Generations of tales and songs
silent, singing, in many tongues
between wild sails and rationality
within me; forms of serenity.
Fairy tales—ones I had grown up with, written and drawn myself, or even in animations or puppet shows made by my father—gave way to Celtic myths, legends and tales. King Arthur and his knights, the Welsh Mabinogion, lessons about the world and ancient spells. I studied philosophy, among other things. I got to know Zarathustra in English, not in German.
Children’s books, I still read them today. I’ve read The Secret Garden half a dozen times. That stubborn little girl came from the British colonies, lonely in a country like a fish out of water, though her roots did sprout there. It was not the place where she was born and bred. And yet she nurtured her secret garden as her own, a world where friendships came to life. Plants grew in the soft English soil that became hers too. I recognized her! And so, I returned to English literature. The garden of a language, where, unbeknownst to me, my roots settled best.
As the poet Daniel Kramb writes:
to each side’s
hills are still
I haven’t taken root, for there’s no soil beneath my feet, only water. I write and read about water. When I sail between England and the Netherlands.
When I return and sail out again.
Where do my untamed roots prevail?
Where I read and exist.
Where I write and sail.
I dwell among my rootless words on water.
Translated by Adiëlle Westercappel
Translation of Vasalis by David McKay