BECOMING A WRITER
At eight I was a devout little girl who swallowed hook line and sinker what I was taught in my parents’ small congregation of ultra-Christians. By age 12 I had lost all belief in fairy tales, including the bible, and had started to forge my way into the world as a critical thinker.
What really put doubts in my mind if I could believe adults was an event for the Saint Nicholas celebration, for short Sinterklaas. That year on December 5th Sinterklaas came to visit our home with his helper to hand out gifts. I was getting more observant and the thought was taking hold that I had heard those voices before. Afterwards, I commented to my mom how much the voice of Sinterklaas’ helper, Black Pete, sounded like my brother’s. “Is that right? I hadn’t noticed,” she said. The next day I discovered in my parents’ bedroom the book of Sinterklaas, from which the good bishop of Myrah had read to us about the good things—and especially the bad things—everybody had perpetrated over the year. The old man had been shaking his head, and his hands shook too, just like my friend Phyllis’ father, who—I now understand—had Parkinson’s disease. Then the penny dropped. I ran downstairs and asked my mom: “Was Sinterklaas Mr. Klaassen? And Pete Gus?” She laughed. “What makes you think that?” I told her. She then admitted that Sint and Pete were dressed up and don’t really exist, and the charade was an excuse for creating funny gifts and writing cheeky rhymes for one another.
Below a photo from a spoof on the Sinterklaas celebration at the addiction treatment centre. I am the black female Sinterklaas with the blond wig to the right.
That awkward time when your front teeth are missing and your mother cut your bangs.
It was the start of my loss of trust in anything that sounded magical or miraculous. I won’t bore the reader with the details of the next five years, other than that I started to scrutinize every statement of any adult, the stories in books, and definitively in the bible. I scrutinized the rules and started seeing the hypocrisy among people in our congregation. My conversion started with discovering that adults are imperfect, can and will lie, and are sometimes unfair.
As soon as I could read, I started reading books after bedtime under the covers with a flashlight, reading everything I could get my hands on. Especially interesting were the books of my eldest sister—eight-years-older. I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover at ten years old. Angelique of the Angels gave me a great education about female power exerted through her beauty and smarts, and through sexual favours, of course. Although the complete lack of sex education of children was the norm then, I started to understand love, physical attraction, and the beauty of equality from books. The idealist in me was taking shape, in spite of the reality of observing my elder sisters going through their adolescence, and my parents’ extremely controlling response, almost as bad as the father in the Rapunzel story. Only now I understand that their parental need to control may have been their way of dealing with their own traumas, in the aftermath of the dangerous war years.
My hunger for my own experiences rapidly increased. As I grew older, I continued exploring my own sexuality with a number of boyfriends. Unable to broach the subject with any adults, I got sidetracked, and started failing in school, where my presence was a mere nuisance to teachers. At my Christian high school, gender-discrimination was the norm in the 1960’s. The worst of it was my chemistry teacher, who refused to learn their names, calling every girl in the class simply Dora, but he loved the boys and knew them all by name. If he even spoke to a girl, it was with derision; they were becoming housewives anyway, and he went further by targeting me—a lively sort of student. As soon as I opened my mouth to chat with my neighbour, he would send me to the principal. This pattern continued throughout the year, leading to my suspension. I started skipping school. The VP wanted to pray with me. I politely declined the favour.
In my last year, my boyfriend was four years older, a poet and unemployed. Shortly after I went on the birth control pill— introduced 1968—I started running away from home. Birth control and medical exams were free for members of the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform. My mother had found the package in my room and went berserk. Like so many girls of my generation, I became the proverbial adolescent running away from home under the influence of a boyfriend. Make love, not war. Under great self-constraint, I stopped running, I managed to graduate, left home soon afterwards, and moved to Amsterdam together with my “unsuitable” boyfriend.
Those years have long gone. I participate responsibly in society like everybody else. I became obsessed with acquiring factualinformation. I work hard to match my decisions to the facts, constantly checking the integrity of my beliefs by reading a number of newspapers, watching different news channels online, and trying to debate world issues with my mostly reluctant Canadian friends. We can’t control the news; it happens. My escape from all this reality is to write stories, making it all up: disasters and happy endings, created from what is contained in the vast archive of my head. Doris Lessing said it aptly: “There’s no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth”.
Writing fiction takes me back to my childhood love of books. It allows me to take all I have learned, mix it up, and create a new narrative. I assign imaginary people with the roles that must be played as I want them to be played in the story. I can use all of my gifts. With my somewhat unusual experiences of living within various cultures on different continents, and understanding several languages, my frame of reference is different from the mainstream. Some of my friends noticed they cannot verify my words. More than once I heard: “You’re making that up” when I related a fact. “How do you know that?” requires me to be accountable about what I know, and I gladly explain.
I first wrote creative non-fiction stories about the people around me and their adventures, staying close to facts. That opened the gate to sharing my vision and world view. I ventured into fiction, “making it all up”.
Before I could fall into the abyss of feeling useless after my retirement, I was well on my way with my second novel.
My third novel—a story about World War II—is finished in two languages, which I am currently shopping around. To my delight, I am well on my way of becoming a novelist. Life is good. Creating is the life-giving force that allows me to live many lives, all within one lifetime. I can highly recommend it.
An event will take place on October 11 at 6:30 pm at the KELOWNA REGIONAL LIBRARY on Ellis Street. I hope to see you there. GUARDIANS’ BETRAYAL will be available. Cash only.
MEET THE AUTHOR: Johanna Van Zanten.
LISTEN TO HER READING FROM THE BOOK, ASK QUESTIONS, FIND OUT HOW IT CAME ABOUT.
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Link to KIRKUS review:
Review by Barbara Morrison, blogger