And you, do you read Belgian?

Laurent Moosen
Laurent Moosen studied philosophy. He heads the letters department of the Ministry of the French Community of Belgium. He also teaches the history of Belgian publishing and literature to future librarians.

It is through this deliberately absurd question that French-speaking Belgium presented itself for a spotlight at the Geneva book fair in 2019.

Under this label, a national and international promotion campaign for French-speaking Belgian books has been organized every year since then (
Neither a language in its own, nor an ersatz of classic French, Belgian can be read, in words and images, laughed (at itself), belched or murmured, in rainy weather but also, sometimes, under a bright sun. A misguided Frenchman, willingly mocked, Belgian nevertheless offers an incredible space of expression for authors capable of freeing themselves from the Parisian salons to take paths that are undoubtedly more uncertain but far more fruitful.

For a long time, French-speaking Belgian literature hesitated to be born : how could it exist so late – Belgium is a recent country, born in 1830 -, being so small, so unconvinced of its existence, its legitimacy, and with such intimidating neighbors ? So we had to be cunning, like Thyl L’Espiègle, this young hero to whom Charles De Coster gave, more than 150 years ago, the character that he considered to belong to the Belgian citizen : orphan – and therefore free ! -, sarcastic, mocking, rejecting all forms of authority and good-natured. Ruse, therefore, by exploring less established genres, by sabotaging language, by slipping into the interstices between critical recognition and popular success, notably through comics or thrillers…

Undoubtedly the most significant development to remember in recent years is the tremendous revival of poetry, which in particular offers a special place to women : the prize list for the first French-speaking Belgian work bears witness to this and revealed talents which have since fully asserted themselves: Charline Lambert, celebrated for her poem Chanvre et lierre (éditions du Taillis Pré) in 2017, which retraced the journey of Ulysses in the mode of heightened sensitivity, has since published several poems, both in Belgium and abroad, and is now hosted in the « Espace Nord », the heritage literary collection which brings together, in a rich catalog of 450 pieces, the best that is done in French-speaking Belgian literature, from the origins to the cutting edge extreme of contemporary writing ( Maud Joiret, awarded in 2020 with Cobalt (Tétras-Lyre), plays with incisive writing, carried by references deliberately borrowed from the most immediate and sometimes the most brutal everyday life, to make a renewed language resonate. Her second book, Jerk (L’Arbre de Diane, 2022), with its breathless poetic story that runs like a youth cut to pieces, gave rise to notable public performances. In 2023, she was invited for residencies in Japan (Kyoto Writers Residency) and in Quebec. Ana Ayanoglou, winner in 2021 with Le fil des traversées (Gallimard), French woman living in Belgium for several years, forges a close link with elsewhere and in particular Central Europe where she taught French but also… Belgian literature ! These authors know each other, like each other, read each other. They are not a single voice, they are a chorus which today imposes Belgian literature as essential in the field of literary possibilities, in the echo chamber of current poetry.

As for men, we can naturally think of Antoine Wauters, recently awarded the Prix Rossel, the most important literary award in the private sector in French-speaking Belgium, for an poetic story which questions his origins and his childhood in countryside, near the city of Liège, in his journey as a writer and a man : Le Plus Court Chemin (Verdier, 2023). Though the author first became known as a poet, he has since traveled between prose and poetry with ease.

We must also mention Célestin de Meeus, winner this year of the triennial poetry prize from the French Community of Belgium for his fifth book Cavale Russe (Cheyne Editeur, 2021), a poetic epic, a crossing of borders which takes him first to Vladivostok and in which he also  evokes in unvarnished way all the limits of Belgium: […] Flemish infinities in a narrow thought / and Walloon valleys without altitude […].

The most prestigious prize awarded to a literary author in French-speaking Belgium is the quinquennial literature prize, also called the “career crowning achievement”. Unsurprisingly for those interested in our literature, it was Caroline Lamarche who was the last winner in 2020. Also juggling with genres – story, (short) novel or poetry – we can mention, in addition to the superb La fin des abeilles (Gallimard, 2022) which evoked the end of his mother’s life, the impressive L’Asturienne (Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2021), a story of his family’s industrial past, between Belgium, France and Spain, and whose decline echoes her fragile condition as an author.

Our creators and our publishing houses therefore seem to have freed themselves from the complexes of the past – even if the battle was tough! – and to offer a lush panorama which opens up to the public complete journeys into all the artistic adventures of the moment, from graphic novels to poetry including children’s literature. They also explore the burning questions of a society in perpetual transformation: breakdown of the family framework, ecological transition, quest for identity, criticism of traditional economic and social models, etc.