‘Patriarchy is a very old, very global, extremely powerful system’


Flemish author Annelies Verbeke is in Tokyo this weekend to read from her first novel and to talk about the representation of gender in European literature

Universal problems

“When I started out as a writer, I had no idea that I would get so many questions regarding gender.” Annelies Verbeke published her first novel in 2003 and found out immediately that interviews would be focused as much on her gender as on her book.

The Flemish author (pictured), who has published several novels and short story collections since, is in Tokyo this weekend as part of the European Literature Festival, co-organised by Arts Flanders Japan. She will read from her first book, Slaap! (Sleep!) and be part of the panel discussion Contemporary Literature and Gender.

Already translated in more than 15 languages, the Japanese version of Slaap! publishes next week. Verbeke will read the book in the original Dutch, and it will be simultaneously translated into Japanese.

Slaap! isn’t about gender issues, Verbeke says, though her own gender came up a lot when it was published. “Sometimes I didn’t want to talk about it because it is annoying to always get questions about it because you are a woman,” she says. “You don’t get panels of men asked to talk about gender, nor are they asked about it in interviews. They can just talk about their books. That says a lot.”


In Slaap!, which has the distinction of being the most-translated debut by a Flemish author, two people – a young woman and an older man – meet, discovering that they are both incurable insomniacs. “There are two characters, one male and one female, who have an equal number of pages devoted to them, and the arc of the story mostly concerns the male character. Yet in many reviews, it was perceived as a book about the female character only.”

Readers are biased as soon as they read the author’s name on the book jacket, says Verbeke. “The books I like the best as a reader could have been written by a woman or a man; you can’t tell. And I think my books are like that, but they are not perceived as that. It is very hard to have readers who read you without the usual assumptions, who read you with the same mindset as when they read a male writer’s book.”

All of this should make for a lively discussion, and it’s universal, she says, making it easy for the European authors to connect with each other on stage and with the Japanese audience. “Patriarchy is a very old, very global, extremely powerful system. Though things have changed, I think it will take a long time before it is really fair for female intellectuals – and people of colour.”

It’s quite sad to see over and over again how hatefully women who are not young are represented in fiction

- Annelies Verbeke

While #metoo, she says, broke open the secretive world of harassment in the arts, it was focused solely on sexual harassment and intimidation. Important, surely, but “intellectual discrimination,” she says, “is much more present in my life. Female writers rarely win the big literary prizes, the big money and honour. In fact, there are still a lot of people who think that ‘women just don’t write as well as men’.”

Verbeke has read much Japanese literature. “I like it a lot,” she says. “I find there is quite a lot of sadomasochistic sex in Japanese literature, with females in the masochist role.”

But it does have something in common with other literature that she sees again and again. “I read a lot of literature from all around the world, and it’s quite sad to see over and over again how hatefully women who are not young are represented in fiction.”

Annelies Verbeke’s books have been translated into more than 15 languages. Two titles, Thirty Days and Assumptions, are available in English

Photo: Annelies Verbeke (right) with Japanese translator Chisa Inouchi