How an American Became a Dutch Author

When transsexuals claim they were born in the wrong body, I can understand how they feel. Growing up in the USA, I felt that I had been born in the wrong place. I had known since childhood that I wanted to be a writer, and since adolescence that Europe was where I rightfully belonged. Everything that interested me seemed to have originated there. Although my parents had come from Europe to the United States, I felt that I must migrate in the opposite direction. That decision turned out to be the luckiest one I ever made. Even now, fifty years later, it is again paying off, in a way I least expected.

I had to bide my time and wait. At last I turned twenty. The 1950s were about to begin, and I had an inkling of the kind of stultifying decade that would become in the United States. The life I would have to lead as a woman in that decade would be circumscribed by conformity and hypocrisy. I wanted to be a writer, but I felt intuitively that in the US I would never be able to earn large sums of money this way, and that would ultimately stamp me as a failure in life. I had in me a yen for purity, a desire to be absolutely true to myself in my work. In Europe, I felt, this sort of crazy ambition would be understood. In Europe one could hope to lead a life of virtue without being despised for it; one could be poor and still get respect.

Now Fate took a hand. Among other things, I had been studying French for years. Paris was my goal, the great good place where Americans turned themselves into writers. After taking my Master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin I applied for a Fulbright Travel Grant. To my surprise I got it, and in September of 1950 I set sail for France.

Living La Bohème

Almost at once after arriving in Paris I met a Dutch poet. Strangely, he resembled a self-portrait of the young Anthony van Dyck that I used to drool over during my afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I must have seemed as exotic to him as he seemed to me. We fell in love, and in July of 1951 we married.

Life in post-war Europe was very unlike my cushy existence in the United States. Farewell, central heating and running water. It was like taking part in a real-life performance of an opera called La Bohème. We were always short of money. We were often cold: our coal stoves kept going out. There was no indoor plumbing and no running water; one had to fetch it in buckets from the courtyard. When my baby daughter arrived, I had to boil her diapers and wring them out by hand. Stolidly, I put up with all these inconveniences: this must be what camping was like.

I soon discovered that my husband was part of a circle of Dutch writers and artists who had fled the decade of the fifties in Holland. They were a fascinating bunch, lively, original, rebellious – I at once recognised their talents and realised that I was privileged to be present at the making of history. The writers were part of a literary movement called The Fifties Generation, and the artists belonged to a group known as CoBra. The latter stormed on to international fame. As for the writers, I soon mastered the secret language they wrote in, and relished the fact that I was one of the few in the outside world who could appreciate their work.

Meanwhile I was writing short stories of my own – my growing family and a full-time job with a small NGO attached to Unesco didn’t leave time for much else. Eventually, the editor of a Dutch literary magazine invited me to send him something. The story I sent described my struggle with the staff of the American Hospital in Paris to be allowed to nurse my newborn son with my own milk. When it was published in Holland it caused a sensation – not only for its unusual subject, but because few women were writing in Holland in those days. How times have changed!

A choice for obscurity

In 1970, after twenty years spent in Paris, my husband and I decided to move to Holland, and there, at the late age of 43, I brought out my first book of stories that he had translated into Dutch. Its enthusiastic reception told me that I had found an audience. The Dutch and I hit it off at once. Like them I am sober and thrifty, I disapprove of excess and extravagance, I am practical and reasonable. On the other hand, the Dutch when they write tend to get preachy, they have a tendency to brood, they are often sombre, they need to be taken out of themselves. A foreign element in my work must have appealed to them: my sense of humour. My mother-in-law, who also read my stuff, used to reproach me for not being more ladylike and proper in my writing, but I think that its very boldness became a point in my favour.

Since 1972 I have published more than twenty books: short stories, essays, novels, criticism, even studies in folklore and sociology – all of them in Dutch. My talent has been able to flourish in Holland like a wildflower, in isolation, unaffected by literary fashions, either those of Holland or anywhere else. I have been able to go where my fancy led me, with no thought of satisfying any particular ‘market’. And I have written all my work in English because, having started publishing so late, I have had to make up for twenty years of lost time. In the interest of speed, I can’t permit myself to agonise over a text in another language, trying to get it exactly right. Besides, when I write, I give myself, and my mother-tongue is the core of that self.

In becoming a Dutch author, I have wilfully chosen obscurity. I might as well be publishing in Estonian or Latvian for all the impression I make on the outside world. But I don’t care. I have found my niche and I’m delighted with it. Dutch people find this hard to believe. Indeed, they have a kind of inferiority complex about their own language. ‘You speak Dutch?’ they used to say when I first arrived in Holland, astonished that someone from such a powerful nation would take the trouble to master their insignificant tongue. I felt like shaking them. ‘Hey, be proud! Stand tall!’

Because my work always passes through the hands of a translator, I have been forced to write clearly and unambiguously. I write for the meaning, the content, and whatever language my work may appear in, it will always look the same. There is such a thing as making a fetish of language, an old-fashioned notion that used to be current in the Fifties. As if that were more important than what was being said! Thus the regulations of the big Dutch literary prizes stipulate that a work must be written in Dutch originally. I could have fallen into the trap of fibbing that this was the case, but I don’t like telling lies. By not dissembling in this way, I have disqualified myself for all those prizes. Never mind, I am happy enough to be living in Holland and publishing my work at all!

That means I have in my files a pile of manuscripts of my books in their original English versions. Perhaps I will leave them to some institution some day. Since I feel quite content with my status in Holland, quite satisfied with my sympathetic audience, quite fulfilled as a writer, I refuse to take the trouble to get my work published in the English-speaking world. I will not send out a manuscript only to have it land on a slush-pile in some publisher’s office. I am too shy and retiring to go out and sell myself to an agent. Who wouldn’t be interested anyway – in Holland I am not a best seller. I sell a few thousand copies of a book and that’s it. The US, I know, is where the big money is. But I have become so European that I’m not interested in big money. And the thought of having to participate in the promotional circus that accompanies the publication of books in the US makes my stomach turn.

Yet, after having been a Dutch citizen for half a century, having lived in Holland for over 30 years, having paid Dutch taxes, raised Dutch children, even edited a Dutch literary magazine, I am still not seen as a ‘Dutch author’; still I am thought of as an ‘American’, and when television companies in Holland want to demonstrate what Americans think about some international development or other, they try to get hold of me, their token American.

I identify with the Dutch, but they don’t see me as one of them. I am still in their view an anomaly – as if only three generations of eating sea-kale and sausage qualifies you to be Dutch. The Dutch love their new immigrant authors; a host of them are now publishing in Holland and very good they are too, but they don’t think of them as Dutch either. Nor can I be lumped with them. I am an immigrant too, but not from a Third World country. I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl.

Citizen of a super-civilised country

When I first came to Holland, the Holland of thirty years ago, I fell in love with the place. It was in my view as ideal a society as humankind could hope to shape. It was peaceful, orderly, compassionate, tolerant, and full of music-lovers. Those were the glory days when Holland thought itself, and was, an example to the world. But since then it has become Americanised, and now alas it resembles every other country in the Western World.

That Holland of thirty years ago – I still bear it in my heart. When I visit the United States, I find myself going around disapproving of things – many, many things. The pretension that it can rule the world and lay down the law for everyone on the planet. Their motives are good: the motives of the Founding Fathers of the United States were admirable. Those beautiful ideals were stamped into me from childhood. But the noble ideals are often invoked these days to cover a multitude of sins.

So I see my motherland now with the eyes of a foreigner. Whenever I go back there I find myself seeing the place through the eyes of a Dutch person – a Dutch person, I should add, of thirty years ago. Excess, extravagance, waste, greed – I notice all those things and disapprove of them.

What, if anything, do I miss? Here in flat, overdeveloped Holland I miss the raw physical beauty of the United States. Where Europe has the beauty of Art, America has the beauty of Nature. The deep feelings its forests and mountains call up can only be described as feelings of reverence, like listening to great music. In neat, safe, manicured Holland, such feelings are hard to come by. The Dutch landscape is sweet and homely, but the American landscape is full of splendour.

And looking over at the US nowadays, I am appalled by the vestiges of barbarity that still linger on there, like the death penalty for instance. And I congratulate myself for being a citizen of a super-civilised country, a country that has just legalised euthanasia. Now that I am growing old, and with the shadows drawing in, the thought of one day being able to apply for euthanasia is a comforting thought. The last dividend of my great decision, and a final reason to be glad that I am over here, and not over there.

By Ethel Portnoy

First published in The Low Countries, 2004