Last year, in 2012 I wrote an open letter to the Dutch SF/F writer community.
I made a point for more English-language writing to make the Dutch SF/F rise out of it’s ghetto of Dutch-language-only ness.
After that post I decided to write 6 short stories explicitly in a Dutch setting. Story 1 is a remix of a time-travel story, called “Scars in the fabric of time”, documented here.
“A Stranger” takes the Netherlands of the 1950’s and remixes many style-elements into the Netherlands of 2170.
Story 2: A stranger at the small side of town
A soldier, Caro, comes home after 60 years in the Dutch city of Tiel. It is around 2170 and a lot has changed, but a lot more has remained the same.
Oranges grow in the open air. Wind-mills swoop their rotors in the blue sky. People are poor. People are under-educated due to a shut-down and syndication of information online. (See “The decline of Europe” as it takes that base story universe and moves 100 years further in time). Europe has gone back to be a closed environment with local produce. According to the media, the world outside of Europe is broken and ‘we should be glad to live where we live’.
Her parents have died. Her sister is still alive (and vital) at age 80. The grand-daughter of Caro’s sister works as a butcher in the village and lives in the same house as her sister.
There are several things that has created a rift between the characters in “A stranger”. Due to rejuvination medicines, Caro, the soldier, looks no older than 30 years. Her twin sister aged the normal way. Due to her long absense she has become a stranger in a small-town with a small-town mind. Most of the people who knew her are gone. Her grand-niece hates Caro for giving an example to her mother, who went as well and died.
It is inspired by a Spanish folk-tale / Romance (poem) about a soldier who arrives home after 7 years of war, finding his wife and three children. As a sort of play both he and his wife pretend not to recognize each other and as the “stranger” he asks her whe she never got married and is she would consider marrying him.
She answers that she is true to someone else and even if it would take another 7 years, she would wait for her man.
At the time of writing several things happened obfuscating most of it and derailing my mind to other directions.
While preparing the story I read “Where are the older women?” and I thought: “indeed!”
[why not more stories about older women] who have a place in the world: a place that may or may not be comfortable, or suitable, but worn in around the edges and theirs. […] whose importance to the narrative is not sidelined or minimised by relentless focus on the youthful angst of less mature characters.
The funny thing is, one of my proofreaders responded to this story with (loosely translated from Dutch):
[..] apart from that you surely know that the majority of the audience has trouble to relate to people of old age. I did not feel much for Caro due to that for a long time. And when she uses language like: “face full of shit” I thought: this is not how people of age think, do they?
I responded something like this:
LOL! Wait until you and I meet each other 40 years from now. I certainly will [think/act like that].
Topics and themes
I made notes during my day on the beach. I decided to address several -isms in the story, including sexism, (justification and white-washing of) racism, classism and the small-town mind.
As I worked out the basis I decided to do something with my recollections of my parent’s recollections of the 1950’s. For instance, the “verzuiling” which is something “typical” to the Netherlands in that period, divided in religious and class-related “pillars” where you were either Catholic, Protestant, [fill in other variations of Christianity] and where your family, your wealth and the place of birth decided if someone was part of “your” group or not. A time where racism was unchallenged and people from other countries and continents only existed as abstract entities.
In that time, The Netherlands was white. Non-white people were a huge exception.
On judgement and “isms”. People from adjacent streets, within the same religious community, could already hate each other.
A simplified set of (romantic) assumptions of the 1950’s
Clothing and style
Note that even the workers wear fancy clothing. The outer appearence is carefully groomed. (AND people stank. You had one or two sets of underwear which was washed each week. Washing of the body was done in a tub. Using soap and a small cloth. — If I remember my fathers– and family stories properly.)
Women with suits
I bent things a bit, dressing my main characters in men suits. Because there is no reason not to wear pants and an fancy suit. Yesterday I found this photo on a blog-post (that is a required read if you write). Think that/this direction, basically, without the hats and a more modern style.
Poverty, emigration, hoarding and harshness
The Netherlands, just after the 2nd world war, was poor. Families worked hard. You saved everything you had, including empty boxes, empty bottles and jars and broken things “because parts could come in handy later”. You kept samples of anything and everything including soaps to be used in daily life.
People emigrated to New Zealand, the United States and Australia to find work and a better future.
On the general spirit; as one of my aunts remarked this weekend on a birthday party: “When my brother broke his arm, my father asked him ‘how he could be so stupid to break his arm’,” as it would lead to extra costs from the hospital and the house doctor.
You did not treat specific conditions or walked on with injuries for the same reasons. “Because you can still work and it will not kill you”.
People died from conditions that could have treated easily. Not all children reached maturity. It was not common to have regular visits to the house-doctor or got a specific condition checked, until you collapsed.
Emotions in general were ignored. You worked. You expressed the basics and then went on. Hate usually was expressed in gossip. To keep up appearences you pretended everything was OK when you met people you did not like. A snidy remark might be made but not always.
The neighbors were always watching you. To keep yourself out of gossip, you assured that:
- You always looked good. Hair combed. Neat suit. Neat clothing No holes.
- Your house looked good. No decay. Neat garden.
- Your children looked good.
Marriage was not always with the one you loved. Marriage could be– and sometimes was an economical arrangement. You — at least — married within the same or similar group and level of wealth and poverty. To marry “up” or “down” was considered to be foolish.
In marriage, the unit came first. In time: “you would learn to love each other”. It was not uncommon people married out of peer pressure base on age (“are you not married yet? Don’t become an old spinster”) children (“is it not time to find a man/woman? to get children?”) with someone who was available and not to bad as a partner. Someone you liked. Sharing emotions further than courtship was probably hard.
Racism and hate
As said before, the Netherlands was very white in the 1950’s. People from abroad were in most case Germans going to the beach and tourists who would be gone a few days later. Other people, non-white people came at the end of the 1950’s when Indonesia became independent, seeking refuge from the volatile political situation and the murders. The biggest change, however, came in the 1960’s when the economy went better and the need for temporary workers increased. Workers came mostly from Italy, Poland, Turkey and Morocco.
The racism in the Netherlands expressed itself probably in several forms including: the mistrust of anything and anyone “different”; the mistrust and hate for strangers and ignorance (not being aware of one’s own racism).
Within a system of “Tolerance” you mostly ignored the issues and silenced any open discussion. Pretending everything was OK.