Bibi Dumon Tak

When did you start to write?

My first book was published in 2001. I studied Dutch and taught speakers of other languages.

How do you find the subject matter for your books?

You should view my oeuvre, which now comprises about 15 titles, as a long ribbon of books strung together. Any one book actually elicits the next. I never think ahead and trust that, when one is finished, the next will come. The subject matter of one picks up from another.

You often write about animals. Did they interest you from the time you were young?

Yes. My mother and younger sister were also interested in them, very much so. It is probably hereditary. We are the type of people who catch spiders and wasps under a glass and then release them outside. Yet I will never say that animals are my best friends. This is because it is far too easy to do so. You don’t need to do much for a friendship with an animal but with a person you do.

You also like cows. How did you come to do so?

I think that it is simply because I came into contact with them. My father is a Zealander and we spent all of our holidays and many weekends in Zeeland in a small cottage surrounded by cows. What some girls have with horses is what I had with cows. I could not stay away from the meadows. Looking back, I think that those animals were a type of natural drug to me. When I was a child I was very active but attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder had not yet been invented. You were simply sent outside to get rid of your energy.

Cows still make me feel very much at peace. If I were to live in a rural area, I don’t think that I would ever write a book again. My younger sister had this really bad with horses. I must say “had” because she is no longer with us. She was a real horse girl from the time that she was very small. Although we did not have any money to go to a riding school, my mother managed to pick up an old saddle for a bargain following which she placed it over a beam in the garden and my younger sister went and sat on it. This happened until my mother married another man and there was money available to go horse riding.

Did your sister find a great deal of support in those animals when she fell ill?

Yes, most definitely. When she fell ill, her cat always lay next to her. When she died, her cat, Raya, remained at her side without moving. My mother’s small dog, whom my sister adored, also continued to lie at her side. It was heartbreaking but beautiful, both at the same time.

For how long was your sister ill?

Two years, although probably much longer. She behaved the same way as my dogs do at the vet: her eyes remained fixed on the door handle. When my sister went to the doctor, all she did was stare at the door and look at her watch. “How long is this going to take?” she almost always asked. She seemed to be cheeky but it was fear, just like most animals at the vet.

I know that there is currently a tendency for doctors to be required to tell their patients loudly and clearly what their condition is and that they have to tell them whether they cannot be cured and will die. They no longer need to beat about the bush, as they used to do. I would prefer a more animal-like approach. Of course, lying is not an option but, if a patient wishes to sit facing the door, allow them to do so and give them a way out in the form of hope. If you are doomed anyway, why should you die there and then if there is still a spark of life left? If your time comes, most people really surrender to it. This is what happened to my younger sister, just as is the case with a wounded animal. Within two days she was dead.

Your sister had two children. How are they doing now?

Actually, no one really knows how they are doing. My sister’s former husband has custody of them. No one is allowed to see them, at least, nobody associated with my sister’s life. Their friends, the neighbourhood kids, my sister’s friends, my mother, myself, all of us have been cut off from them. They have new telephone numbers, the post is torn up, they may no longer come and pet their cat and emails are not answered. It is madness that this is allowed to happen and that we cannot do anything about it. The father enjoys sole rights and the children are loyal. They depend on that man far too much to rise up against him.

That seems to me to be quite awful. Did you have a close relationship?

We were very close. My mother looked after my younger sister every day while she was ill. I did so a number of times a week. The time that we spent together was so unbelievably intense. The children spent more time with my sister than with their father. We had a very close relationship with each other. The children were allowed to attend the funeral service but not the condolence gathering. We saw then once more after that day but since then never again.

Following her death anger sometimes displaced grief. I still have to guard against anger getting the upper hand. I miss my younger sister and I miss her children. I miss an entire family which disappeared from one day to the next.

And now?

Now we need to endure a very long night before we reach the day. And I am taking my mother with me. Her life may not end this way, so full of despair. And we have agreed that that will not happen. I have never seen someone who has so much courage. My younger sister was an afterthought. My mother brought her into this world and also led her out of it. I now know that life is about many things, important things, such as persevering and letting go, forgiving, falling and rising. More than anything, it is about courage, about being courageous. And I believe that everyone is capable of this, however despondent you may sometimes feel you are. You may lose everything but never courage.