Children of war: former teacher branches out into fiction for adults

Summary

Kristien Dieltiens has just released her first novel for adults after a successful series of books for young people

The child inside

Before becoming a full-time author and illustrator, Kristien Dieltiens was a teacher. These days, she mainly writes coming-of-age stories for young adults, frequently in a historical setting. Her latest novel is her first for adults, and it, too, has its feet in the past.

She stumbled on the premise for Kortgeknipt (Cut Short) while she was working on her previous novel, Kelderkind (Cellar Child) – about the German boy Kaspar Hauser who claimed to have spent his childhood locked in a darkened basement.

“I did a lot of research for Kortgeknipt, and several years ago I found a website about children who had to flee the Basque country in Spain, which immediately caught my attention,” she says.

As a visual artist, Dieltiens (pictured) was familiar with Picasso’s “Guernica” but had never really thought about the context in which it was created. “I knew I had to do something with this material, because the stories of children in particular are often lost in history and the news.”

Children are a recurring theme in all her works. She feels a great deal of sympathy for the underdog, those who aren’t written about. “Everyone is confronted with the child in themselves,” she says. “When you’re sad or ashamed or confronted with loss, it’s always your inner child that resurfaces.”

Horror of war

Set in 1937, during the Spanish civil war, Kortgeknipt tells the tale of Angel, a nine-year-old who flees San Sebastian with his family, hoping to find refuge in Guernica. Carmela, 14, lives in Guernica, but, as the city is frequently bombed by the Germans on General Franco’s orders, families decide to get their children to safety.

Angel and Carmela are evacuated by boat to Flanders, where they have to deal with a new culture, the loss of loved ones and the horror of war. 

A child is a person, and I write for people, regardless of their age

- Kristien Dieltiens

Five years ago, Dieltiens got in touch with Manuel Gonzalez, the son of a Basque refugee who works for the police in Ghent. “He was really excited to work with me on this project,” she says, “which was initially going to be a book for young adults.”

It took her four years to write the novel. “The first two chapters I’d written were where Angel sees his mother again for the first time. That’s when I started to wonder if it really was a book for young adults or more mature readers, so I sent it to other publishers.” Antwerp publishing house Vrijdag immediately saw its potential.

Whether she’s writing for adolescents or adults doesn’t make that much difference to Dieltiens. “I take both very seriously. A child is a person, and I write for people, regardless of their age,” she says. “I occasionally adjust the language, and when I’m writing for young people my work is more plot-based, whereas when I’m writing for adults, I let my protagonist take the lead.”

Scarred by the past

Dieltiens has a big family and was a teacher for many years. “I know what children deal with quite well. And in literature, you can give them a sense of recognition and show them you understand what they are going through.”

It doesn’t matter if her novel is set in contemporary times or centuries ago, she says, children deal with the same issues when they are growing up. “I’ve always been fascinated by history – not just the facts, but the stories of the people and how they lived. I remember when I had my first period I started wondering how girls dealt with that in the past, something I eventually depicted in my novel Papinette.”

I know the world of a child who can’t grow up with its parents. I’ve seen first-hand how genetics works

- Kristien Dieltiens

As a foster mother, Dieltiens is fascinated by the question of what happens if a child can’t grow up with their own family. “I know the world of a child who can’t grow up with its parents. I’ve seen first-hand how genetics works, and you have to respect that,” she says. “Usually the children in foster care are from troubled homes, and that scars them. It also has an influence on your own family. It broadened the horizon of our own kids, too.”

She’s always been fascinated by refugees and their lives, she says, pointing out that Belgium gave shelter to 5,000 children during the Spanish civil war. Even in the smallest towns, there were refugees, who would be known as “children of the war”.

Kortgeknipt, while harrowing, is full of colourful metaphors and filmic scenes, in which Dieltiens captures the essence of these young survivors and their will to survive.

Kortgeknipt (★★★☆) is published in Dutch by Vrijdag

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