“A spoon?” says Connie Palmen. “A spoon?” On the terrace of the De L’Europe hotel in Amsterdam we wait for sea bass and fries, but the waiter places spoons next to our plates. “I think we are getting the wrong order,” says Palmen. Should we ask, I suggest. No way. “We’re not going to spoil a play before we’ve read the plot.” The terrace is located on a jetty, when someone walks past, the water in our glasses wobbles. Palmen saw ‘sourdough’ on the menu and said: “Too bad I don’t have my red pen with me.” She wears yellow-brown tinted glasses, her eyes shining through.
From Connie Palmen (67), writer of six novels including The laws, IM, If you say sopublished this week Mainly women, a book of essays in which she writes about writers she respected and admired such as Vivian Gornick, Olivia Laing, Janet Malcolm, Sylvia Plath. It is also a book for friends, as can be seen from her short foreword: “The women and that one man in this book” – that is writer Philip Roth – “instill in me the desire to be near them as often as possible and they thus share the most important characteristic of all true friends and lovers: thanks to their presence in my life, they make it more beautiful, more exciting, more witty, more complex and more insightful.”
She speaks about all the writers in the present tense, even though most of them are dead. She is “in the ring” with the radical feminist Vivian Gornick. “He says things that I so disagree with.” With writer and The New Yorker-journalist Janet Malcolm “I’m about married. So sharp, so witty. She’s a woman you’re a little afraid of. She always confronts you with a weakness within yourself.” Olivia Laing [Brits romanschrijver en criticus] “is almost too nice for a bitch like me. There’s an air of spice lady about her that I can’t stand. But she also makes such beautiful books. With her it always starts with a personal crisis, which is so cute. She follows a man to New York, that relationship ends and then she starts researching ‘loneliness in a big city’. She does that really well.”
Palmen wants to achieve with her book, she says, “that people enjoy their work as much as I enjoy it.” Why mainly women? “Because I think these female essayists are the biggest surprise in literature of the past twenty years.” She can’t appreciate male essayists? “In his fiction, Philip Roth creates a first-person narrator with whom I feel a bond, to whom I feel attracted, which is why he is also in my book. But beyond that, I know of no male equivalent of the incredible talent of these women. Not really.”
Bread is put on the table fougasse, according to the sourdough card. It’s pretzel-like, she looks at it in disbelief. A little later, while chewing: “It has nothing to do with sourdough, but my god, this is so delicious. I didn’t know I was going to eat bread, but this transcends the concept of ‘bread’.”
Just as Palmen can passionately disagree with the writers in her book, she excites her own readers with her apodictic style. Indulgence is “the domain of women with imagination,” she says somewhere. How so? “As Mae West said: good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. As a writer you have to have a generous, promiscuous approach to life. You must want to make everything you have, everything you know, known to others. Don’t think: I have to save so and so or I have to save myself. As soon as the word ‘saving’ comes up, you should be suspicious.” She also writes, without elaborating: “It’s not the writing itself that’s presumptuous, it’s the reason I do it.” Can she explain that? She refuses that. “This is a sentence that you should not complete further. These types of sentences make essays exciting. They have magic. And you ask me: destroy that magic.” Well, sorry, I say. Laughing loudly: “Yes. Shame on you.”
There is the sea bass, bathed in a beautiful soft red sauce. Ah, hence the spoon. Appreciative: “It is a superior sea bass.” After looking at my plate: “Luckily I have the largest one. Do you want to swap?”
She loves Philip Roth, the only man in her book. She loves how he edited his two biographies. “He sat next to the biographer and interfered in everything. It’s nasty, it’s bad, bad boy behaviour. And yet: I admire it so much.”
Would she also like to ‘accompany’ a biography of herself in that way? “No, I couldn’t do that.” In any case, a biography, she doesn’t want to think about it. “If you are a bit unlucky, it will be written by someone who actually hates you. That is called a Judaic biography.” Well, of course she has no say in the matter. “I’m certainly not going to participate in it. I find talking about my own life boring. ‘I was born there and there’ makes me yawn.” As far as she knows, no one is working on her biography yet. Would she regret it if that never happens? Directly: “That is quite unthinkable, sorry. Dream on.”
Connie Palmen, born in Sint Odiliënberg in Limburg, was a boyish girl with three brothers. “I have four boys, and she’s the worst,” her mother told visitors. She thought that was funny, she writes in her book. “I was one of the guys“, she says. “That’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be tough and unafraid just like them. Don’t squeak, don’t cry, don’t flirt, don’t just focus on superficial things. I didn’t want everything that characterized girls in my time.” At the same time, she writes: “As an only girl [in het gezin] I knew that the atmosphere of intimacy between the boys immediately changed as soon as I walked in, that by my presence I was destroying everything I wanted to be a part of.”
She discusses the fact that times have changed, also for girls and boys, in the essay ‘Lola’. The title refers to The Kinks’ 1970 hit (“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls / It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”). She refers to our time as a ‘transculture’. “With all the pain, fear and danger that entails,” she writes, “anyone can, in principle, tempt their fate and dare the crossing, whether that means transmigration to a country other than the country of birth, or the transition of the body with which someone came into the world.” It is, she says, a transcendent time. “We transcend differences. I also see that as a way to deal with such a situation mixed up meddled up shook up world. You must be able to transcend differences, you must be able to awaken that within yourself. Even if, like me, you are someone who likes black and white, contrasts.”
“Lola,” she says, is the most dangerous essay in the book. “Every statement about gender evokes strong reactions. People get fired from universities for it. It’s an ant’s nest.”
A… wasp nest?
Oh yeah. She chuckles. Some words are wrong in her head. “That’s how I said ‘Dahlia Lama’ for years. I couldn’t figure that out. I liked it. A beautiful flower, and an animal. The Flora and Fauna of Buddhism.”
In ‘Lola’ you take the position that there is a biological difference between men and women. In doing so, you take a stand against gender theorists who call gender purely a cultural, social construction. You do that carefully, I would almost say: reluctantly.
“You shouldn’t walk through such a discussion with seven-league boots on your feet. I understand how difficult it is for children with gender dysphoria. I do not want to deal with a sensitive issue that involves a lot of suffering. It would be like me being blunt about depression or suicide. I would never do that. I’m not the most nuanced person on earth, but this deserves the little nuance I can muster.”
In a trans culture, could she have been tempted to change her body? “No. There was such a thing as a tomboy and a boy’s girl and that was me. I’ve never been insecure about that. I really love being a woman.” What was missing, in the past, was a women’s community. “I never knew him. Others had girlfriends, I only had one. I joined a volleyball club for a while. That is the most dangerous thing I have ever done in terms of female intercourse.” As she continues to talk, she reaches into her bag, takes out a stick and paints her lips light pink. “I was good at volleyball. I could go straight under the net but I was a good set-upper. And I dove for every ball. Kamikaze. Also balls in the back, even though I was standing at the net. Then I thought those girls were dozing in the backfield.” The women’s community did not appreciate it. “The trainer said: you are so unsuitable for team sports, I strongly advise you against continuing with this.”
The conversation is coming to an end. She puts on her black sun visor, her gray spiky hair sticking out far above it. “Because I only have brothers, I knew I would never be part of their community. Never. And that is good. Then you just have to save yourself as a woman. Create your own community.”
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