Lieve Joris

by David Swatling


Lieve Joris is one of Europe's most acclaimed travel writers. She doesn't write fiction. Her Radio Books story is a touching personal account of dealing with the care of her elderly father.

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Lieve JorisBorn in 1953, Lieve Joris grew up in a large Catholic family in the small Belgian village of Neerpelt. She studied psychology and then worked as an au pair in the United States. In 1975 she moved to The Netherlands and enrolled in the Utrecht School of Journalism.

Joris has won numerous awards for her books about Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Many have been translated into French, German and English. Her latest work Het uur van de rebellen (The Rebel's Hour) is her third book about Congo, Belgium's former colony.

Missionary tales
She developed an interest in Congo at an early age. Her uncle worked there as a missionary. When he visited his family he would bring back stories that fascinated Joris. She made her first trip there in 1985 when it was still called Zaire. She spent six months travelling through the country.

In 1987 Terug naar Congo (Back to the Congo) was published. She wanted to go back and write more but the political situation became too unstable. So she first travelled to surrounding African countries and wrote Mali Blues in 1996. It earned her the Belgian triennial award for Flemish prose as well as the French Prix de l'Astrolabe.

Joris returned to Congo in 1997. "The first time I felt like a bird flying over the landscape," she says. "This time I wanted to land."  While writing Dans van de luipaard (The Leopard's Dance) a third Congo story emerged.

Lieve Joris in EnglishBoy from the east
An interest in the Tutsi people led her to meet a man she would call Assani, a boy from the East. He rose from young village cowherd to fearsome rebel leader in the bloody conflict that engulfed his country. She thought: This is a man I should try to follow.

"Assani felt naked as a baby on his arrival in Kinshasa. For years he'd been driving around in the east in a pickup with eight soldiers, armed to the teeth. Now he stepped off the plane with just a few bodyguards. The sky above the city was milky white. He'd forgotten how hot it could get here - the tropical heat fell like a clammy blanket and he was struck by the sickly reek of palm oil and putrefaction..."

Critics have noted Joris' striking ability to relate major historical events by accumulating little stories. "The key to understanding the societies I'm staying with is time," explains Joris. "My great ambition is to become invisible. And the longer you stay somewhere, the more invisible you become."

Calico cat
Joris freely admits she doesn't write fiction. So her contribution to Radio Books is a touching personal story about her father. After the death of her mother who suffered from dementia, she discovers her father has the same disease and must make some difficult decisions regarding his care.

"During a family gathering at my older sister's house the calico cat crawled up into his lap. The way papa ran his hand through her thick fur, over and over - it was the first time since my mother fell ill that he'd paid attention to anything. We knew what we had to do: that evening Bollie travelled home with him, squealing in her basket."

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Bollieke by Lieve Joris was translated by Liz Waters. She also translated The Rebel's Hour, which was published earlier this year by Grove/Atlantic.

The series Radio Books is an initiative of Flemish-Dutch Huis de Buren in Brussels, in association with the Flemish radio broadcaster Klara and Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
Procurement Consultant
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