An Interview With Emma van Meyeren
by Annika van Leeuwen
On a Friday evening in the beginning of May, the RevUU team invited Emma van Meyeren to speak about her collection of essays Ook ik ben Stukgewaaid, which was published in November 2020 by Uitgeverij Chaos. Especially for RevUU, Emma translated part of her second essay – the first one she wrote for the collection – into English. The essay, called “The right ingredients. A ritual in the grocery store,” discusses the experience of grieving through rituals. After the reading, our chief editor Ella van Driel asked Emma some questions about the book and the writing process, including questions from the audience. This article is a summary of this interview.
An important point in Ook ik ben stukgewaaid is that grief does not end. Emma particularly links this to the language we use for grief; words and concepts like the “stages of grief” and the “grieving process” strengthen the misconception that there is a beginning and an ending to grief. These sociological ways of understanding grief do not sit right with Emma, she says, “One of the most important things I learned is that the idea of grief having a beginning or an end has to do with seeing grief or death as an event, different from the way the rest of your life should be.” In fact, grief and loss are an intrinsic part of life, not distinct from other things you go through as a person. A problem with the five stages of grief is that the concept can make people feel like they have to distance themselves from the person they lost and the feeling of grief. To use another cliché, you have to close the chapter and start a new one. Some clichés can be useful, though. The concept of “learning to live with loss” is usually used to denote learning to live with the general concept of loss; however, Emma would like to see people learn to still live with this person that is not around anymore. It would be better to continue the relationship you had with the person you lost, but in a different way – we just do not have the language to talk about the presence of that person. As an example, Emma describes the way the light and clouds make her feel that presence, likely because of their relation to the Christian idea of heaven, “but even as I say this it feels like I am performing it, that someone else has said this for me.” Regarding the title of the book, which came from a line in a poem by Astrid Roemer, she says “Stukgewaaid is impossible to translate. It is a way of saying that you’ve been broken down by the wind blowing.” The perception of being stukgewaaid is a way for Emma to think about grief differently.
Clichés make it difficult to write about grief. Emma refers to a distinction made in an article in the Autumn 2020 issue of RevUU by Laura Hoogenraad, “Welcome to the Self-Help Era,” between spiritual reading and functional reading. For Emma, being stuck in your thoughts can become a constriction that you need to break out of, which is why you turn to the body. In the essay, Emma says she tries to figure out the relation between the mental and the physical. Emotions are usually ascribed to the mental sphere, but the body comes in to help you feel a process that poet CAConrad also highlighted in their own search for rituals. CAConrad tries to find grief through noticing how the body grieves, which gives you clues about how you grieve in general.
Reading itself may also be a ritual, or at least part of the healing process, something which RevUU editor and author Lea Dokter acknowledged in her article “Life and Other Stories” in our Spring 2021 issue as well. The difficulty in writing about grief is that it is drenched in clichés. Emma wanted to break out of those, but considers that too great a claim for what she eventually did in the book. It is impossible to understand something through the thick layer of clichés and nostalgia; the ways of knowing grief have already been decided. Emma gives the example of the industry around death: there are few options for tombstones (white, black, grey) and even fewer for what to do with the body; cremation or burial? And because there is so much stuff we think we need to do after someone passes that we do not actually need to do, funeral directors can profit off the cliché, off the fact that we are alienated from grief. It is important, Emma thinks, to find new forms of understanding what grief is.
This wish to understand grief was crucial in the creation of the book. Emma states, “I always felt like I wanted to touch on grief, but my head would blank out if I thought about it,” until she realised that she could write about it from that perspective. When asked by her publisher Chaos to write more essays in order to make a book, she did not think she could do it. However, she received a set of new editions of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books for Christmas that year, one of which she gave to a friend. Said friend was happy that it was a small book, because that meant he would read it. So, Emma decided to write a small book, in which important thoughts could be shared, but that would not force you to invest days of your life into it. Emma does not claim to have all the answers, though; she wrote this because she needed it for herself. The idea of processing or understanding or knowing what a ritual would be is something that these essays subvert.
Grief is frustrating, too, in the same way that our lives during the pandemic are frustrating; there is a loss there as well, both of people and of “normal life,” of expectations. We are frustrated about losing things. When grieving, you know you will feel sad about your loss in the future, yet you are still surprised every time it happens. Grief does not always have to be melancholic, though, as Emma also points out in the first essay. In an interview with Just Kids’ author Patti Smith, Emma realised that the book was all about grief, and the memory of her husband. The content of the book was such that she had never noticed it as being about grief, it was not melancholic and sentimental. There are different forms of grief, Emma says, and that is great!
A problem occurs when everyone grieves in a different way, yet everyone grieves alone. When asked, Emma admits that she does not know how others grieve, because it is something people do not talk about. While writing the book, and people would ask what she was working on, even people that she knew quite well would tell her stories that she never knew about. While she was working on rituals, for example, many people told her that they had similar experiences to hers; however, even though many people experience the same thing, it is difficult to speak about it to other people. Oftentimes, friendships and relationships suffer when one person – or both – are grieving. It is hard to be faced with someone else’s grief, and there is frustration in the fact we don’t know how to handle it. A former friend told Emma that their relationship fell apart because she was not able to see her friend’s grief while she was grieving.
In response to a question from an audience member, “Considering that you are expected to react to losing someone, do you think that a lack of rituals or response to someone’s passing is a ritual in itself?” Emma quickly pens the thought down and says she has not considered that yet. “The awkwardness, the silence, all of that can be seen as a ritual.” She might want to write about that more, though.
The most interesting question, though, was asked by our teacher Mia’s daughter: “Do you believe in spirits?” Yes, Emma says, one hundred percent. “I believe in them in the sense that I think everything that we have language for is true or exists in some way. Anything we talk about exists in some way, otherwise we would not have language for it. But I don’t have the relationship with spirits that other people might have, though I’m jealous of those people who do.” She would like to, though, because she remembers her mother saying “As soon as they install a phone connection in heaven, we can talk again.” Some people have that phone connection, and sometimes when Emma misses her mother, she is upset that that connection is not there. She believes she could learn, though, and is completely open to learning to be more connected to spirits.
Thank you, Emma, for your reading, and your thoughtful answers to these questions! You can find more information about Emma on her website.
Read Jane Singer’s review about Ook ik ben stukgewaaid here!
Annika van Leeuwen is the head of RevUU’s PR and Marketing team. She’s currently enrolled as a Master student in literature at Utrecht University. When reading, she focuses on how books deal with themes such as gender, race, and sexuality. She will not read only Literature, but she will deal with any book as if it’s literature. As a reader, she’s mostly interested in fantasy books, although she also thoroughly enjoys some Jane Austen.
Photo by Annika van Leeuwen
Dokter, Lea. “Life and Other Stories.” RevUU, Spring 2021.
Hoogenraad, Laura. “Welcome to the Self-Help Era.” RevUU, Autumn 2020.
Meyeren, Emma van. Ook ik ben stukgewaaid. Essays over rouw. Uitgeverij Chaos, 2020.