Leeuwarden: City of Literature

Kanal in Leeuwarden
© Alexandra Tacke

Do you know the frisian language - and even frisian literature? Maybe not yet, but UNESCO City of Literature Leeuwarden in Fryslân is about to change that! Ernst Bruinsma, director of the City of Literature office there, told us about multilingualism, Frisian literature and international projects.

What makes Leeuwarden a City of Literature and since when does it have the title?

In 2019, just a few months before Covid, we got the title. The city and the province of Fryslân have a rich literary history, and are emblematic for both the Netherlands and other countries when it comes to multilingualism. But we may be in danger of losing this unique position. High-quality Frisian literature is still insufficiently visible at local and international levels, especially contemporary literature. This creative form is still very often overlooked, both in terms of the language policy and in relation to the other art disciplines.

Ernst Bruinsma
© Alexandra Tacke

More about the UNESCO City of Literature Leeuwarden

How did the idea for the application come about?

For us, it was a logical step after we were European Capital of Culture in 2018. Therefore, we see Leeuwarden City of Literature as a legacy of our activities in 2018. When Leeuwarden was chosen to become European Capital of Culture, there was absolutely no doubt that language would play an important role in the programming. The programme, as became quickly clear, wouldn’t be just about Frisian or Dutch, but actually revolve around multilingualism. The main mission was to share the wealth of languages in Fryslân, with each other and with the world. It was a stage which brought languages to life, and where visitors could explore and immerse themselves in what language meant to them. The Capital of Culture year certainly injected some energy into Fryslân’s literary landscape, but this momentum has to be constantly refreshed. The goal of Leeuwarden UNESCO City of Literature is to get the public to see and hear that writers and artists from Fryslân are extremely engaged in social developments, and have an opinion to share on the subject. We don’t want to isolate the Frisian language, but want to make it heard in interaction with the rest of the world. We want people from all over to discover and work with the Frisian language, and in this way encourage the young generations to realise how special multilingualism is.


We want people from all over to discover and work with the Frisian language, and in this way encourage the young generations to realise how special multilingualism is.


Menschen lesen Page against the Machine
© Alexandra Tacke
City of Literature Leeuwarden
© Alexandra Tacke
Bücher auf Rezept
© Alexandra Tacke
Kind liest im Liegestuhl
© Alexandra Tacke

Which international relations emerged for your city after joining the Creative Cities Network? Which specific international projects could be initiated as a result?

Meeting the other cities on the annual meeting is very important. Essential, I might add. From that moment on we participated in several small international projects and other COL’s participated in – for instance - our project Happiness Delayed. A special one is maybe Page against the Machine, initiated by Norwich. As I’ve said before: ‘Reading opens up new worlds. A book lifts you into a time and space that is bigger than yourself. Sharing that sizzling feeling with each other is an important reason to organize this day together with other UNESCO Cities of Literature. During Page Against the Machine, people in different time dimensions and in different places in the world will read and share stories. In this way, a basically solitary activity such as reading and absorbing a story becomes a valuable shared experience. And bigger than Leeuwarden.’


“Reading opens up new worlds. A book lifts you into a time and space that is bigger than yourself.“


Do you know the city of Bremen? What do you associate with Bremen?

I know Bremen from a single visit, many years ago. I went to see the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker. (There has been a beautiful exhibion of her works in Friesland too, in 2013.) Until now, I never saw Bremen as a City of Literature. But in The Netherlands we don’t know that much about German literature. Except maybe the Giants from the past.

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