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Richard Milward en Thomas Heerma van Voss c Remco Koers Large

Literature and music converge at Cross Border

30 November 2023, 00:00
Words by Kelsey Barnes

Lead photograph of Richard Milward and Thomas Heerma van Voss by Remco Koers

Earlier this month The Hague turned into a melting pot of music, literature, culture, and beyond, bringing together more than 80 authors and musicians from around the globe to share their work at Crossing Border.

The festival, which first began 30 years ago back in 1993, weaves together music and literature, completely blurring (or ignoring) the borders and restrictions that are placed on them. Readings and conversations are bookended by performances by rising and established bands or renowned authors hit the stage right after a slam poet or rock performance. It’s a festival that dances between the two worlds and, for that, keeps things effervescent.

On the first big day of programming, Crossing Border director Michel Behre explains to me that the festival was first started by his father Louis Behre all those years ago simply because he believed in the power of people connecting through culture. Now, since Michel has taken over, he’s seen firsthand how the festival has grown to adapt to changing needs due to an ever-changing music industry and the shift in how we consume books and culture. What hasn’t changed though is the ethos behind the festival — dissolving the borders between people and art, music and literature — still stands.

Lizette Ma Neza the Poetry Band c Remco Koers Large
Lizette Ma Neza & the Poetry Band by  Remco Koers

Later that evening an event aptly titled “You’ll Have To Scream Louder” is a true amalgamation of literature, poetry, spoken word and music by Dutch-speaking artists. Despite not exactly speaking Dutch myself, I attend just to immerse myself in the festival entirely. Sitting in the wooden tent called the HIDEOUT which, Behre explains, gets built every year in the middle of the city as the hub for the event, the language barrier almost seems to dissolve entirely as I watch and listen as attendees are gripped on every word read and song sung. I find the spoken word performance by Sjaan Flikweert the most powerful and poignant, with slam poet Lisette Ma Neza & the Poetry Band, who close the evening, ushering in what I should anticipate for the rest of the weekend.

Teju Cole c Remco Koers2
Teju Cole by Remco Koers

On Saturday I catch the conversations of two of the big authors attending the festival — Nigerian-American author Teju Cole and Zadie Smith. Cole’s new novel Tremor embodies what the festival ethos is by weaving a “mosaic of literature, music, race, and history to explore what constitutes a meaningful life.”

In the conversation with Mischa Blok, Cole explains what it means to be both a person in a dark, fraught world who is aware of what’s happening while also trying to be happy at the same time. As part of the conversation, Cole states, “Being in this world as an alert person means knowing that the world is a terrible place. How then shall we live? What is the possibility of happiness? Is it even okay to be happy? But happiness can and does coexist with the pain. This complexity doesn’t spoil our empathy or our enjoyment — it intensifies it.”

It's a statement that reminds me of Crossing Border's commitment to freedom of expression, a mindset that helped create their Fifth Wave evening. A night named after the Fifth Wave magazine, both the publication and Crossing Border give the space to independent Russian literature and Russian writers who oppose war, totalitarianism, and censorship in hopes to keep people informed about Russian writers in exile.

Zadie Smith c Jassir Jonas Large
Zadie Smith by Jassir Jonas

Zadie Smith's talk in support of her first historical fiction novel The Fraud, a story about a Scottish housekeeper in 1873 and a Jamaican former slave, is highlight of the festival. Smith speaks with Dutch journalist and presenter Aldith Hunkar about how it's the book she has waited her “whole life to write.” In the conversation, she mentions that readers tend to think about what hasn’t changed between modern day and the period the historical fiction book is in, but Smith sees it as a way to show how far we’ve come — almost indirectly touching on the same themes that brought Fifth Wave to realisation.

Another program of the festival that truly sets Crossing Borders apart from others is The Chronicles, the unique annual residency project for talented authors and translators. I catch the end of the Saturday evening gathering which features up-and-coming writers who, after writing one short story ahead of the festival, one on each day of the festival, and a final story to wrap up their festival experience, show their work. The relationship between author and translator — especially as a foreigner — is incredible to see firsthand, showing the deft skill required to balance providing a near-simultaneous translation.

Annahstasia c Remco Koers Large
Annahstasia  by Remco Koers

What surprises me most about the festival is how, despite so many others relying on social media and influencers and the like to prop up and promote themselves, Crossing Border is still based in tradition. Slipping away from poetry reading to a tiny gig back to the HIDEOUT again feels almost like you – alongside thousands of attendees – have the best-kept secret in all of The Hague. For musicians I don't know about, word-of-mouth from other attendees encourage me to see bands and artists such as Annahstasia, Lo Moon and Naaz, all of whom played packed rooms.

When I speak with Behre, I bring up Crossing Border's social media and marketing strategy. It's something that he said they are still trying to master, but opting to focus more on what actually matters to them: music, literature, and connection. Again, almost serendipitously, Zadie Smith’s own conversation eventually brings up social media, something she actively avoids using. Instead, she just wants to get on with her writing — a thing she feels like she was “meant to do.” It’s the same thread that connects all artists, authors, and Crossing Border itself to each other, boundaries be damned.

The next edition of Crossing Borders will take place on 30 October 2024

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