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  • Ted van Lieshout as Transformer
  • Jan Van Coillie (bio)

“If there is one word that characterizes Ted’s work it is this: Transformation.” I fully agree with these words by Aidan Chambers. Transformation is such a fundamental issue in Ted van Lieshout’s work that he is constantly searching for new ways to transform his themes into words and images. He does this so intensely that he might transform the view of his readers and maybe even society.

Transforming the Self

Most of van Lieshout’s characters wrestle with change. At the same time, they are looking for something to hold on to and for recognition. The protagonist in his first book, Raafs reizend theater (1986), enters a travelling theatre company consisting of marginalized people who find respect amongst each other. The rhymed story Weggedaantje Stippelmuis (1992) is a variant of Andersen’s “Ugly duckling.” Stippelmuis comes from a chicken egg and is rejected by his father. Finally, he dies in a mouse trap and transforms into a ladybird.

The “I” in van Lieshout’s poems, too, is constantly searching for recognition and love. This searching is typical of growing up, a process that van Lieshout describes as turbulent and confrontational. Coming-of-age implies transformation and this in turn is accompanied by uncertainty and fear. Van Lieshout expresses these feelings in a most penetrating way in Mijn botjes zijn bekleed met deftig vel (1990). Inside the first person narrator, a storm rages, but on the outside, nothing can be seen because “skin overcasts the raging.” He is intensely aware of the fact that he is changing and tries to preserve himself. The poem ends with an invitation: “My little bones are covered with respectable skin / And the one who takes the trouble to stroke it / Hears that it talks: thank you so much, thank you so much” (55).1

According to the blurb, Multiple Noise (1992) contains poems that “deal with searching, with developing and changing.” Sexuality plays an important role, together with the search for a home and for someone who loves him. And again, this search is accompanied by fear: “It is the fear to lose, to / get / lost, misplaced, gone missing” (Hou van mij 63). In Papieren museum (2002), the ugly-duckling-motif appears again. The narrator wonders why he cannot get up one lovely day and “be transformed from what he was / in the one he’s meant to be / in something beautiful / at least? When everything is moving, / when everything becomes new, why does the mirror / listen so slowly when I look in it?” (158).

That van Lieshout succeeds in expressing his feelings and experiences so intensely, mainly results from the fact that he writes about himself. He characterises his collected poems Hou van mij (2009) as “a portrait of a youth, in which I shaped my own thoughts. I myself am the model for the child I describe” (Leysen).

When a child, van Lieshout lost his father as well as his older brother. Part of his work can be seen as an attempt to cope with this loss. Using paradoxes and precise words, he tries to communicate his clashing feelings: “I always always / and everywhere and every time / must do everything always on my own. I don’t / mind that you died, but you have / left me terribly on my own, haven’t you? Even though. I know you did not die on purpose” (169). In Begin een torentje van niks (1994), he dedicates his poetry to his father. For him, he built a tower of words “in twenty lines, for us a little house to live in” (77). The death of his [End Page 30] older brother is still more difficult for van Lieshout to come to terms with: “How can it be that I stay on my own just like that. / As if someone has chosen randomly, / has not taken care of who of us it was. / How much closer can death be?” (12). In 1996, van Lieshout transforms his brother’s death in the novel Gebr. In that novel Lucas, the protagonist, not only discovers a different brother but also himself, and his homosexuality.

Another radical childhood experience was the...


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