interview World Literature Today 2009

WLT Schotanus-interview_1Elske Schotanus ( is a vital voice in European literature, a Dutch author who writes in Frisian, a minority language that achieved official status in the Netherlands in 2956. Along with Europe’s dozens of other minority languages–Ingrian, Adyghe, Arvanitika, Karaim, Skansk, Meglenitic–Frisian is battling the onslaught of linguistic globalization that is leading to a shrinking biodiversity in the world’s languages. Few of these languages have a contemporary literature as vibrant as Frisian. A painter, novelist, short-story writer, literary critic, editor, and publisher, Schotanus has used her considerable influence to further Frisian language and literature. In 2002 she established with Eeltsje Hettinga the Cepher Foundation, which publishes and promotes Frisian writing. She was an editor at Kistwurk and is a founding editor of Go-gol, an online literary magazine ( In 2004 her book of short stories It griisstiennen (Gray stones) was published by Utjouwerij Venus, and in 2007 her novel Skrik was published by Utjouwerij Fryslan. Schotanus is a critic and essayist for the Frisian cultural magazine De Moanne / Trotwaer and is active in the Frisian literary association It Skriuwersboun, where she directs Project Skriuw, which assists new Frisian writers in their literary efforts.

Peter Constantine: You’re Dutch, but you are a Frisian author. How do you see yourself?

Elske Schotanus: Well, I am Dutch, but I’m not a Dutch author. I’m a short-story writer and have also written a novel, all in Frisian. It’s my mother tongue. But at some point I lost the language I grew up in. At school I spoke Dutch, my friends were Dutch, my colleagues were Dutch, I even brought up my children in Dutch. The only times I spoke Frisian were when I was visiting my parents, and every so often I would scold and swear in my native language. In 2001 my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I began writing a diary in a kind of phonetic Frisian. I can speak it but, like a lot of Frisians, never learned to write it, so I got a spell-check, some grammar books, and a dictionary and started rediscovering the memmetaal, the mother tongue. During this period I got in touch with Eeltsje Hettinga, a former journalist who writes poetry and was the editor of the Frisian literary magazine Kistwurk, which also had an online version. We corresponded by e-mail for about half a year, at first in Dutch, then after a few e-mails we switched to Frisian, and it was through this digital contact that I learned to look at the world in a different way. At the time I was working in a psychiatric hospital, and though I had written some articles for its staff magazine, it was through the correspondence with Hettinga that I began to turn daily experiences into words. So I didn’t just say that “I drove to work,” but discovered that describing a dull trip in full detail could make it an exciting adventure. Besides that, I started doing editorial work for Kistwurk and after a while began writing reviews for them. So I didn’t plan to be an author. It was the e-mail exchange and editorial work that sparked the process of my becoming a writer.

PC: Your novel Skrik, which was published in 2007, is a masterpiece of style and linguistic creativity. You play exciting Joycean word games–“pimperjend en timperjend,” “Copyright. Koppie wrong.” Do you see yourself as an innovator in Frisian literature and language?

skrikES: The spoken language holds some important keys. Frisian is a melodious tongue. We have many words with diphthongs and even “triphthongs”–leauwe (believe), kreauwe (quarrel), skriuwe (write). Also, Frisian is earthier and more resonant than Dutch. An author is handed these sounds on a silver platter, which is why I prefer to use Frisian as my literary language rather than Dutch. I might prefer the sound of Spanish to the sound of Swiss German–regardless of what those sounds might be expressing–and yet one cannot argue that one language is more beautiful or more appealing than the other. And there is of course wordplay. Pimperje and timperje are Frisian words, both of which mean “tingle,” as in the tingling of Coca Cola, the tingling of the little bubbles of carbon dioxide that fizz through your head: not a painful sensation, but not pleasant either. Some of this is captured by the repetition of the meaning and sounds in these two words, their subtle “i” that sounds very much like the “i” in the English word sit. When it’s icy cold outside and you come into a warm room, you could say that your fingers timperje, tingle, but in everyday speech people would never use it in the same line with its synonym pimperje.

In my novel Skrik, the style is also content-driven. Elke, the first-person narrator, is a psychiatric patient. The novel is written entirely from her point of view. During borderline psychotic moments her language changes. In a quickened associative thought process, she links sounds, mixes up languages, chooses foreign words, and creates new ones. In Frisian, kliint (client) rhymes with pasjint (patient). When the two concepts are linked, the question of different approaches in psychiatry comes into play: is patient care a service based on equality, leaving it open for the client to make choices, to decide on his own fate, or does the treatment take precedence, with terms like right and wrong? In the wordplay you pointed out–“Copyright. Koppie wrong”–the English word copy has the same sound as the Dutch word koppie, which is the diminutive form of kop, “head.” Koppie wrong is Elke’s made-up word, a neologism that expresses her troubled state of mind, of her head being “all wrong.” I would say that my novel Skrik is an experiment in language, and also experimental in the way it is narrated from the unreliable point of view of a person who regularly slips into a world of hallucination and delusion. The Frisian writer who is linguistically most experimental, however, is Trinus Riemersma, who is of an older generation. When the Frisian Academy ruled on standardizing Frisian spelling in 1980, he created his own phonetic spelling in which he wrote a number of works, such as De Reade Bwarre (The ginger tomcat). He experimented with forms too: De hite simmer (Hot summer) contains three interlinked tales that are typographically quite different, each representing a different orientation: the masculine/ sky, the feminine/earth, and the invisible/netherworld. In the face of his work, I’d hesitate to think of myself as an innovator, at least for now, though I don’t see myself as his successor either.

PC: Unlike many European regional minority languages, such as Arvanitika, Tatar, Pomok, and Griko, Frisian has an academy that sets norms for how the language should be written and spoken. How close is this official Frisian to the native Frisian you spoke at home, and do you agree with the norms?

ES: My answer could fill an entire issue of World Literature Today! There are many regional variants in Frisian, and our dictionary often includes them. A certain amount of standardization is good for the status of a language and also for its preservation. If everyone used their own spelling, as was generally done in the nineteenth century, nobody would read Frisian anymore. A dictionary is a concrete thing you hold in your hand, but language isn’t; language is a process that arises from communication. There’s been a Latin and French presence in Frisian since time out of mind; a computer is a kompjoeter, and recently, because of a shift in population as well as supermarket advertising campaigns, many Frisians now know the difference between the Arabic halal and haram. But the greatest influence on Frisian is Dutch. Frisian is racing toward becoming a dialect of Dutch, Dutch with a local accent. We Frisian authors are faced with a dilemma: What language do we write in, dictionary Frisian or the language people speak? If I were to use the word tante, a dutch-ism for “aunt,” my Frisian editor would immediately change it to muoike. But in my family, Frisian though we are, we have tantes, not muoikes.

PC: In 1996 the Netherlands signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages, recognizing Frisian, Low Saxon, Yiddish, and Romany as regional languages in Holland. I heard on the Frisian Radio, Omrop Fryslan, this morning that yesterday (February 26, 2009) the European Parliament sent a “control” committee to the Netherlands to discuss continuing issues and problems concerning the Frisian minority. Did you ever feel you were being discouraged from using Frisian as a speaker and, later, as a writer? Is the Frisian literary scene encouraged in the Netherlands?

ES: The question is if this charter reflects today’s linguistic reality in the Netherlands. There is the matter of the dialects, such as Jordanees in Amsterdam, which is almost extinct, and Friesland’s dialects Bildts, Snekers, and Liwwadders. We have many political and economic refugees in Holland, and people from the former Dutch colonies, all of whom speak their own languages. There is much Turkish, Moroccan Arabic, and the languages from the Antilles. Furthermore, the European Community’s free-trade policies have attracted some 120,000 Poles to Holland. There is a trend for Frisians to move to the outskirts of the cities, and just as in the 1950s many of our farmers emigrated to Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, there is now a trend for Frisian farmers to seek their fortune in Poland or Russia. The affluent Dutch are moving to Friesland’s rural areas, while young Frisian speakers have been moving into the cities. One of the side effects has been that in Heerenveen, where I live, more Frisian is spoken now than was spoken forty years ago, but at the same time you hear a Babel of languages on the streets.

Frisian is not being intentionally discouraged. The thing is, though, that a Frisian tends to be very adaptable: if there are ten Frisians at a table, and an eleventh person who speaks only Dutch, the conversation will immediately switch to Dutch. Frisian is by law the Netherlands’ second official language. It is prescribed in education, but in practice Frisian doesn’t come sufficiently to the fore. The main language of education in the Netherlands is Dutch. Consequently there are countermovements, such as the radio station you mentioned, Omrop Fryslan. It broadcasts in Frisian and attracts more listeners now (an average of 45,000 a day) than it did three years ago. And yet the borrowing of Frisian books in public libraries has been down by 30 percent during the same period.

The local government and “professional” Frisians have launched all kinds of language initiatives. When a newborn baby is registered, for instance, parents are given a “language bag” containing information about the advantages of a bilingual upbringing. There are free magazines promoting Frisian in child-rearing or with information about books and writers. You can now learn Frisian online at different levels, and there is even a section that targets Frisian emigrants and their children. There are also websites geared to the young, with all sorts of information, dishing up fast rap, hip-hop, and sexy talk in an attempt to tap into teen culture and coaxing a new generation into using the language.

There is an organization that subsidizes books and magazines, and another that does all the promotion. Don’t laugh, but some 1,700 volunteers are sent from door to door with–believe it or not–wheelbarrows laden with Frisian books, CDs, and DVDs! Frisian poets appear at international poetry festivals, and a number of their works are published with Dutch and Frisian on facing pages. I wonder whether this trend of publishing poetry books and anthologies in bilingual editions will not ultimately damage Frisian literature.

The fact that Frisian is an official language means that publishers and magazines in Friesland have the same opportunities for funding as the rest of the Netherlands and Flanders. For Frisian writers this means that they can get grants and support. Publishers can apply for subsidies to cover production costs for works that are of high quality but attract a limited reading public. I received a grant for my next novel, and find myself, in this sense, not in the least discouraged or held back from writing in my mother tongue. At the same time, this means that I undertake this venture knowing that only a few hundred people will read my book. Furthermore, the Frisian reading public has aged significantly, which means that young, new, more experimental writers of Frisian find few or no readers at all. Frisian literature is blossoming, but blossoming on parched earth.

February 2009 By Peter Constantine
Peter Constantine’s most recent translations include Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy (2008) and The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (2007). He was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories, by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov.
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