A Conversation with Lisa Weeda: Home, Eastern Europe and the Art of Writing

Ahead of Subtext’s event with UCL’s Centre for Low Countries Studies (LCS), Samuel Tan speaks to Lisa Weeda, writer-in-residence with the LCS for 2019. Based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Lisa has worked on a variety of projects, ranging from a chapbook entitled De Benen van Petrovski to a virtual reality production with Studio ZZZAP, as well as a debut novel to be published by De Bezige Bij. In this interview, Lisa delves into the deeply complex issues of home, belonging and the creative process.

Hi, Lisa! Do tell: what are you currently working on?

At the moment, I am working on a roomscale virtual reality production with Studio ZZZAP. As a team, we create a story where a virtual reality user can see and be part of the household of the Ukrainian elderly woman Nina. You join her for an interactive experience of about 15 minutes and get a sneak peek of what it is like to live her daily life in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine in the July 2014, when the war just started. I am the director and made up the story, which is a spin-off of a short I wrote for literary magazine De Revisor in 2016. We tried to translate the literary form into a moving, 360 degrees storyboard, where one can move around on a floor of 3 by 4 metres.

Also, I am working on my debut novel. I signed a book deal at publishing house De Bezige Bij in the Netherlands one and a half years ago, when I already had some plans and research done. Now, I am getting closer and closer to the shape that the novel will have in the end. It is great fun and terrible at the same time – it is both nerve wrecking and a party. I just met up with my editor (Suzanne Holtzer) last week and had a great meeting. She is a wonderful editor, strict and smart, sharp also.

I’ve read that you’ve published a chapbook, De Benen van Petrovski, in which you explore the notions of home and identity as you recount your trip to Ukraine. Would you say that your background forms a large part of your creative process, or are there other factors that are also at play when you write?

I think De Benen van Petrovski is an example of what I love to create most: a combination of research, fascination for a certain subject. In the case of De Benen van Petrovski, it was the former Palace of Culture in Dnipro, where I was able to sneak in by paying the guard 100 hryvnias and asked him to give me a tour of the place: built in 1926 – the early Soviet days – it was an old building in total decay. It had been a palace meant for the Soviet Workers, where there was room to see movies, go to the theatre, act yourself, lend books, so on. I also explored my Ukrainian family history: my great-grandmother was Russian, and my great-grandfather was a Don Cossack son. I love to research crazy facts, like the Palace, where I found Petrovski’s legs on a pedestal. No torso, no head. He was the one who co-created the collectivisation, a period of strict reform, which led to great starvation and hunger in the Ukrainian part of the USSR, called the Holodomor. And yes, in between I talked with youngsters about the identity of Ukraine in 2016, about the Maidan revolution and about family history – both mine and others. I think my family history, and, by extension, the concept of home or displacement is fascinating. For my new novel, I am working on another Palace history (Palace of the Soviets) and diving even deeper into our family history. It will be more fictional than my previous work, although I again stepped on a ship and the train for this piece of work. I think I never really actively think about what kind of themes I write about; I generally love to explore all kinds of crazy facts and stories and try to combine all these elements to see where it takes me. Right now, for the new novel, I would like to think it is about repetition of certain events in history – we all know this happens. And the Palace of the Soviets is the vehicle, the building to house all the other elements, I think – I hope!

I can’t help but think there are so many things about this world I’ve yet to discover or come to understand, and Eastern Europe is definitely one of them. And I agree with you completely – I think it’s really important to address history and past events, especially with the current political climate.

Perhaps you’ve been asked this many times before, but as an aspiring writer myself, I’d love to know: why do you write?

Coming back to addressing events in history, I choose to not make my work political in a way. I do not write about picking a side in the debate nor do I have all the knowledge about a conflict, war, or events in history. I also do not portray this in my work. In general, my work is about asking questions and not being afraid to doubt your position or knowledge. Like with the feeling of home or belonging, I also ask myself: where do I belong, can I belong. But I choose to never write this down in an explicit way, nor do I write down explicit opinions about events in history or recent events in politics. Politics is for the journalists – well, yes, I have an opinion on this, but that is a different conversation – what happens in the homes of people, in families and generations, is what one can write about and tell stories about. The work that comes out of that – the telling of stories – can be put in books, films and theatre, which can then be returned to the world, where all kinds of things happen on a political level – to be held up against that world as a mirror, so to say.

I love that you tell me you are an aspiring writer, and my question to you is in response: do you write? If so, you are not an aspiring writer. You just write. As do I. I do not see myself as the mystical writer. I look for stories, try to find new connections and write about it, experiment with form et cetera, and explore a world of stories through writing. Why I write? I started studying theatre and film, back in 2007 at the University of Utrecht. I liked to learn about all kinds of theatre and film, went to festivals, saw a crazy number of movies, plays, operas, modern dance, ballets. But in the end, we all were just reproducing the views of others and adding just a little bit of ourselves, sitting in a dusty room, not transforming the stories that happened right outside our doors into something new with all the knowledge we gained. Not for me, I decided, and I auditioned for Creative Writing at the art academy at the ArtEZ School of Arts. I already wrote, and I had worked on some short films and theatre when I was in university. I got to work with a lot of people who now actually work in film, music, theatre – these people never pursued a scientific career. I was accepted to ArtEZ, and there my ‘free time’ writing turned into serious studying and harsh learning – I loved that. Here, I also had the right space to turn my writing into something I would love to do as a profession.

I keep going in circles, looking for an answer to your question. I do not know why I write. I know I love stories. To me, writing is not just working on a story and typing it down. It is creating concepts, based on strong stories, for different forms of media. In December 2018, I released the documentary photography project called OSELYA, which is about a community in Ukraine where former homeless people live and work together. I did this together with photographer Robin Alysha Clemens. It is a project where non-fiction and photography come together, where we as a pair worked on the concept of the story, even before beginning to shoot and interview in Ukraine. In this, writing feels like the thing I know best and do best. It is the thing I return to in the end, I think.

In the projects you’ve recently been involved with, a lot of your work seems to cross the lines between different media and art forms, such as the OSELYA photography project and interactive VR experience with Studio ZZZAP. Have you faced any difficulties when the different art forms come into contact with each other, or would you say it’s actually a boon to engage with intermediality?

Intermediality already had my interest when I was in Art Academy, where I decided to build a small exhibition on my grandmother’s life: pictures, text, taped interviews. I love the that power different media have as a specific part of themselves. Like audio: it is so intimate, and it surrounds you completely. Film is the master of show don’t tell: what is not in the image is also a story. I love different media. When mixing photography and writing, you work with a different story arc, with other ingredients: the way in which you give information and look for extra layers in a story changes. In VR it is the same, but with a story 360 degrees around you: there is no frame to choose as in film, so one can direct the view of the viewer. We have to steer you through the story with audio, with the movements of our character, with timing, music, interaction with the user (who also has some agency in the story). So, the possibilities are endless and different. I think working with different media has taught me a lot about writing stories and focus. When I returned to writing during the VR project, I had more views on structure and form, which is a plus, I believe. There are endless possibilities to tell stories, and it is a lot of fun to challenge yourself as a writer, by working with others who approach stories from a different perspective and with different techniques.

Lastly: if you could work with any artist (writer, musician, filmmaker, and so on), dead or alive, who would it be, and what would you work on?

This last question is a great one. I would love to travel through Belarus, or any other former Soviet state, with Svetlana Alexievich, the journalist and writer who collected hundreds and hundreds of interviews with people from the USSR, all concerning different topics related to the Soviet Union. She won the Nobel Prize, and I love the works ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ (about women in World War Two) and ‘Zinky Boys’ (the Afghan War). The way she collects history through stories told by people is incredible. There are so many voices that are never heard when big events happen, and these voices she collects. I would love to travel with her, learn to interview better, just to see her work, write, think and compose all the voices she collects in a book.

Lisa will be speaking alongside Subtext editors and contributors on 5 March 2019, Tuesday, 6:30pm at 25 Gordon Street, Room 105 (Public Cluster) at UCL. Join us as we explore the implications of identity, community and the creative process. Refreshments will be served throughout the event.

Interviewed and edited by Samuel Tan

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