Young Writers, Old Works: Yelena Schmitz on the map of Dunkirk

In the exhibition 80 Years’ War, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam looks back at the Revolt that led to the division of the Netherlands. At the request of deBuren, eighteen young Flemish and Dutch authors each bring an artefact from the exhibition back to life. Over the past weeks you could read several of their stories in translation for the first time. Today YELENA SCHMITZ lets the map of Dunkirk speak for itself.

Jacob van Deventer, manuscript map of Dunkirk, c. 1550-1560, Royal Library of Belgium


Jacob was only twelve when he started climbing church towers on the sly. He found the highest point in the town and sat there looking for hours. In his pocket he always had a piece of paper on which he drew all the roads – he kept everything in notebooks. Jacob preferred looking down on streets to walking along them. Every day he sketched another piece, until he reached the limits of what he could see. Then it was finished.

Jacob drew me too. I am one of his two hundred cards. He went all over the country with his surveying tool and his paintbrushes. I still remember his hand very well. If you take a microscope you can tell that the dunes are hand-drawn. Very precisely. He was like that. Using watercolour, he looked for the right colour for the waves. Finally he wrote on my skin in black letters: ‘Dunkirk’.

From that moment I started carrying the town. I, a light piece of material, became the bearer of the town. Dunkirk has continued to stick to me and has never come off. We stick together. It has changed a lot in the years since Jacob, but you can’t tell that from me. I remain forever a drawing of a village with windmills. They have all gone now. From what I’ve heard Dunkirk has become one big industrial site. A perimeter of emptiness, filled with supertankers and shipbuilding. Oil rigs. There’s a stiff wind and no one stops for coffee or a waffle. Most people prefer to have a cup of instant coffee on the deck of the ship rather than on the pier. Have you ever been in Dunkirk? I’ve heard that recently more and more people are flocking there.  In tents. People from a distant sea flee into the dunes. Lots of tears are shed. The sea water is salty.

You can’t tell that from me. I remain as I was, lines, dots, planes. I so often feel flat. Le plat pays. I would rather have been a soil map. In the soil you find shells, bones and bombs. A paper flower or a bolt from a boat. You dig and dig in the bits of clay and suddenly a five hundred-year-old manuscript comes to light again. Just under the surface of the sand are a child’s sock, a pan, a tent canvas. Metre by metre you bring up what has been forgotten. You write it all down and map it. You make a legend of everything you cannot see from above. What was submerged, is exposed again. What should have been forgotten, turns out to be preserved after all. Windmill sails poke their heads up. The cockerel from the church tower floats to the surface. Down below much lies waiting.

I see everything happening from above. I remain just as I have been drawn here. A piece of paper, some material that has survived. I won’t let go of this. My heart lies deep in the sand. It pounds.

Yelena Schmitz © Marianne Hommersom


Yelena Schmitz (1996) is studying for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. She writes, makes radio documentaries and is a member of the writers’ collective and literary magazine ZINK. In 2017 she won the Nieuwe Types Prize for the best graduation piece in a Dutch writing course. She also won the Short Wave Radio Prize 2017 and was selected for the language development project Talent op Tilt (Talent Loses its Cool).