INTERVIEW: Connie Palmen on the horror Ted Hughes had to face

Mohammed Saad , Sunday 19 Mar 2017

Dutch writer Connie Palmen speaks of her latest novel, You Said It, that fictionalises the tragic relationship between Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes

Connie Palmen
Dutch Writer, Connie Palmen (Photo: Courtesy of the Writer)

Dutch writer Connie Palmen has earned international acclaim for her eloquent literary style, her works translated into 20 languages. At the heart of her style is a relentless pursuit of “fictionalising an existing story”, as for her, fiction is not fantasy or lies, and biography is a dangerous genre.

From this vision came her latest novel, “You Said It,” which was recently translated into Arabic by Tunisia's Lamia Makaddam, and deals with the troubling relationship of Sylvia Plath and her husband, the great British poet Ted Hughes, to whom she gives a voice, to tell his side of the story.

Connie visited Egypt recently to launch her book during the Cairo International Book Fair and made sure she visited Hussein and Gammalya, where Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was born.

Palmen spoke to Ahram online about her book and her experience with Egyptian audiences.

Ahram Online: Can you walk us through the journey of translating your book “You Said It” into Arabic?

Connie Palmen: The translator and I met one and a half years ago, and that was the moment Lamia Makaddam asked me if I would agree that she would translate my novel You said It. As with a lot of other languages — Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese etc — it was clear that I would not be able to read and eventually correct the translation. My Arabic publisher told me that it is very good and I trust him.

AO: Why did you pick the tragic life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to be the subject of your novel?

CP: For years I had been reading all the biographies of Sylvia Plath, and it always struck me as a horror for Ted Hughes to be the passive second subject of the biography. For 35 years after Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, Hughes had to endure reading stories told about his love, his marriage, his children, his unfaithfulness, stories told by biographers who wrote about him as if they knew more about his life and love for Plath than he himself. He became a character in the fabrication of others. And he abhorred it.

AO: In your novel, you give Hughes a new voice to tell his own side of the story, even though he rarely spoke of it. How did you build narrative?

CP: He only spoke once, and that was in the only way a poet will speak if he is as honest as Ted Hughes: through his poetry. The 88 poems in Birthday Letters are his side of the story. The poems structured my novel. I studied them and their interpretations, and of course I read everything there was to read from and about him. Since he took care of the literary estate of Plath, he delivered her work with some beautiful and loving forewords. They gave me a lot of insight into how he looked at her in a professional way, as a poet.

AO: What is the line that separates your novel from being a biography of the two great poets; how did you walk on that thorny line between the novel and biography?

CP: Since I started writing in 1991 I have always tried to change the way critics and readers approach the novel. Fiction is not something that has to do with fantasy or lies or things we make up; fiction is of huge importance in our daily lives. So it is not necessary for a novel to make things up if you show how fiction works in the daily life of a character. What makes it a novel is the technique of telling. It was pretty hard to use a theatrical form — the monologue — to write an exciting novel.

AO: Have you read any Arabic translated novels?

CP: I know the novels of Naguib Mahfouz.

AO: What was your impression of Cairo International Book Fair in February, and how did you find your audience?

CP: To be honest I was astonished. So many people, such a vivid atmosphere, so many books. During the presentation of the novel I was guided by my translator Lamia Makaddam and the honorable professor in English literature Bahaa Abdel Megid. The audience was wonderful; they even understood my jokes.

AO: Are you currently working on a new book, and are there any plans to translate more of your books into Arabic?

CP: I would love to see all my books translated into Arabic.

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