This academic year, Gustaaf Peek (47) will be taking on the role of Vrije Schrijver (Writer in Residence) at the VU Amsterdam. How does he view this role? And what does he think about as a writer?
The writer occupies a quiet enclave smack bang in the middle of Amsterdam. One of his walls is crammed full of books. „I’m still recovering from the flood that jarred me awake last night. Fortunately my books didn’t get wet."
I noticed in the run-up to this interview that you answered my emails in the middle of the night. Are you a nocturnal writer?
„I aways hope that no one notices that. Fretting about things causes a lot of trouble. I’d rather get up and do some work. I’ve had trouble sleeping in the last couple of years. It’s crept up on me and I’m waiting for it to pass."
What characterises you as a writer?
„I try to be generous in what I write. When I write, I put all of my human and literary capacity into it. I assume that others notice that openness. And I hope that if I give this of myself, it will spark a connection with a total stranger."
With which book have you felt a connection like that?
„The great thing about having a mountain of books is that there is always something to open. When I was young, Ernest Hemingway interested me. I read one of his books, A Farewell to Arms, and something went ‘boom’ in my head. It is a magical and mysterious book, even though it’s written in clear language. If I’m unable to analyse a book straight away, I always think it must be about something truly human, because we as humans are magical and mysterious, and anyone who manages to capture that is an artist. My younger self probably thought: that has such a profound effect on me, it must be important."
You are the Writer in Residence this academic year. What are you looking forward to the most?
„The thing I’m looking forward to the most is meeting the students. To me, that’s the most exciting and meaningful thing. I hope to discover what concerns them, what they need. They are humanities students, so they are already rebels. They’re not prepared to simply follow the herd in society, and they’re focusing on things to do with the mind. Then I’m all for you, right from the start. If I can help in any way, all the better."
What kind of student were you?
„I was first and foremost an unhappy student. My folks tried to encourage me to study law. That didn’t work out. The only thing it was good for was that I could read a lot of novels at the same time. I used to read a book a day. The books gave me hope. After that, I started doing what I really wanted to do: English language and literature. English was linked to the books I read when I was younger, and the films I watched. It had status. A wider world that I wanted to be part of."
„I didn’t think: is this going to work? It had to work. I didn’t have a Plan B."
„The day I graduated was the day I started writing. First short stories and then later I wanted to write novels. But everything I wrote was really bad. I knew that it was. Then I started to read Dutch poetry, and to write poems myself. It was only after writing poetry for three years that I wrote a short story again. I continued to have faith in art. Art had kept me going all those years. I persevered. I didn’t think: is this going to work? It had to work. I didn’t have a Plan B. Looking back, I must have been terrified that it wouldn’t work. I allayed those fears by working a lot. And I still do that."
Do you still get that anxiety?
„It’s always tense. I first got the idea for my latest book, A.D. (about the first voyages to the Dutch Indies, Ed.) back in 2014. You only know whether it’s worked once it’s finished. By that time seven years had passed. In a way, I find that tightrope also exciting. The effort increases with every book. You’re competing with yourself and your work. That’s not a healthy pattern, but it happens. Once it’s finished, it’s worth it, it’s worth almost everything."
„Suppose I had a job that didn't suit me at all and things didn't work out in that job, then you’ve taken two steps backwards. If my writing doesn't go well for me, it’s really frustrating, it makes me angry and sad. But then it is the writing that hasn't gone well and that’s very comforting for me. If you’re happier, then you can write better. I try not to write with pain in mind. I write to deal with life."
„Every person working in the mines or an Amazon warehouse is a person who can't create art."
In your book entitled Verzet! Pleidooi voor communisme, (i.e. ‘Resistance! A plea for communism’), you write about capitalist indoctrination. Why is that so relevant in this day and age?
„Over the past centuries, capitalism has suppressed societies, businesses and workers. People have become slaves to profit. This included the Mozarts, Picassos and Gustaaf Peeks of the world. Talented people looking to express themselves and who were not given the chance to do so. Every person working in the mines or an Amazon warehouse is a person who can't create art, and that could very well be the kind of art that could uplift all of humanity. And that is just one small example of the destructive dynamics of capital."
How do you resist this?
„I follow the philosophy of Marxism, I’m a member of BIJ1, a union for authors. If you are a follower of socialism, it demands an active lifestyle. Society silences us, wears us down, from an early age. We are just like children. We are creative, playful, we want to draw, dance and play whenever we feel like it. That is stamped out of you at school, on the streets, in society."
„I hope that my art is a way of saying: you haven’t got to me yet."
Why is it stamped out of you?
„There’s no place for it. We have three pillars: capital, the patriarchy and white dominance. We have to answer to them. They want us to become robots so that people can accumulate things and hierarchies can flourish with white men at the head. There’s no music in that, no art. Kindness only if it yields a return. I want to be friendly when I feel like it. That’s more often than expected."
Why do people not expect you to be friendly?
„I grew up in a small village in the Veluwe. They couldn’t deal with people of colour there. The tendency is to run down, exclude and set a child apart, and stamp the song and dance out of them. I hope that my art is a way of saying: you haven’t got to me yet. That is what I think to myself every time I publish a book. You haven’t got to me yet."
You are a descendant of the Peek family. Your great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of the department store, Peek and Cloppenburg. Was that something you used to talk about at home?
„Yes, but then from the other perspective. The right side of the spectrum, so to speak. I was brought up from that perspective. Everything that comes out of the mouths of the Ruttes and the Trumps of this world: in my youth that’s all I heard."
Your philosophy went the other way. Did it feel like you were renouncing your family?
„Yes. It creates distance. Just like anyone, I like people to be friendly and kind to me. It’s great if your family is like that. That was not the case with me. I was treated terribly unkindly and it a severely negative impact on me. Finally, I decided to distance myself from them. The sad thing is that my life improved because of that. That sounds mean but it’s true. I flourished once I was out of the grip of my family. I wish it had been different."
„On the contrary: it made me a more cautious person, a distrustful person, an anxious person."
„Even though it’s in the distant past, it still doesn’t feel right. As though something went wrong. Therapist love the word ‘attachment’. If things didn’t quite go right there, the first blow is half the battle. I don’t believe in the idea that ‘what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger’. On the contrary: it made me a more cautious person, a distrustful person, an anxious person. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. That sort of path is very personal and everyone has to make up their own mind. But no matter what you do: we as society have to be there for you. People belong together."
Is intuition important to you?
„Intuition should be important to everyone. It’s part of us, defining and profound, but we are not allowed to use it. Intuition is useless for writing exams or meeting targets at work. You’re not allowed to use your intuition at all. You might even start to distrust it, because it is never rewarded. That intuition could very well be who we really are. Artists have to work with it. By being generous, I want a 17-year-old boy like the one I used to be, not to lose hope, perhaps through a 47-year-old like me musing, dreaming and writing things down."