Literary Boroughs #36: Ghent, Belgium

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The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the thirty-sixth post on Ghent, Belgium, by Éireann Lorsung. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Ghent (Gent in Flemish/Dutch; Gand in French) is the largest city in East Flanders and the third- or fourth-largest city in Belgium, depending on whose information you believe. If you visit, perhaps you will be struck by the way that, over six centuries, the Flemish have built all kinds of beautiful houses right next to one another, so you have a 16th-century canal house abutting an art deco townhouse which shares a wall with a minimalist 20th-century construction. Or maybe you will wander by the canals, observing the gold finials that adorn the tops of the old workers’ guilds on the Kraanlei, listening to the Spanish-speaking tourists and the West Flemish dialects and the guide on the riverboat in his nearly perfect English pointing out the smallest house along the canal, which used to be a tax-collector’s house and is now a café. Ghent is a city which enjoys itself. It is full of these cafés (which serve beer, wine, spirits, food, and warm drinks), and tea- and coffeeshops, full of museums and theaters and bookshops and independent boutiques. Its literary scene happens in and around these hubs, contributing to a sense of gezelligheid, or communal coziness.

What the City is known for/what makes it unique:

Ghent is known in Belgium (and beyond) especially for the Gentse Feesten, a mostly free ten-day music and arts festival which takes place throughout the city in July of each year. Its medieval architecture and the Van Eyck altarpiece in St Baaf’s Cathedral are also notable. Joseph Guislain, a founder of modern psychiatry, built a hospital in Ghent which is still in use and which now also contains a remarkable collection of art and artifacts pertaining to psychiatric care. Many buildings are adorned with poems—painted on the walls, metal letters attached to bricks, printed on plexiglas.

Resident and affiliated writers:

Hugo Claus (d. 2008), Herman Brusselmans, Tom Lanoye, Erwin Mortier, Geert Verbanck, Suzanne Lilar (d. 1992), Annelies Verbeke, Paul Hoste, Geert Vermeire. A very extensive list may be found on Literair Gent (a good place to start for all kinds of information about past and present literary culture of Ghent).

Literary references:

Not too many that I can find in contemporary English-language literature (I would love to hear of novels, stories, plays, poems that refer to/are set in Ghent). The Flemish movies Brasserie Romantiek and Broken Circle Breakdown (both 2012) are set in Ghent. Then there’s Adelaide Anne Proctor’s 290-line poem from the mid-19th century, “A Tomb in Ghent”, George Payne Rainsford James’s novel Mary of Burgandy, or The Revolt of Ghent (1830s), and Robert Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”. There’s a reference to Roland, the bell in Ghent’s Belfort, in Longfellow’s “The Belfry of Bruges”.

Where to learn:

There is a university (Ghent University), which offers undergraduate and graduate courses in literature (English, Dutch, and other languages), although no creative writing courses as yet. There are courses in translation through Hogeschool Gent. KASK (the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten) offers courses (BA, MA) in drama. Ghent’s Poëziecentrum offers non-credit courses throughout the year, as does Davidsfonds (not all literature-oriented).

Where to find reading material: 

The bookshops in Ghent are wonderful! Top four:

  1. Paard van Troje, on the Kouter, a beautifully designed, relaxing space with its own small café (about ten tables). The huge windows let in light; the books are perfectly chosen. There’s a wide selection of English novels, some poetry in English, and some non-fiction collections and volumes, as well as the shop’s mainstay Dutch books (everything: cookbooks, philosophy, politics, history, literature, artists’ books…). Thoughtful selection of CDs and DVDs near the front of the shop. Large children’s section. Fine coffee and tea; light food; beer. The owners are dedicated and friendly.
  2. Limerick, which is near Sint-Pieters Station (Koningin Elisabethlaan 142), carries books in Dutch, French, German, and English—everything from philosophy to comics. Children’s books, too. And magazines. Great place to stop on your way to catch a train.
  3. The English Bookshop, a secondhand bookshop on the Ajuinlei (15), run by a transplant from the UK. They buy and sell English-language books. Good for a browse; you will definitely find things to take away.
  4. Epic!, a comic shop with a huge selection of Dutch and English comics, graphic novels, art books, and things in between.

On Sundays, there is a second-hand book market on the Ajuinlei.

The city libraries in Gent are very good and carry books in several languages. The Central Library (Zuid) has a lovely ‘Boekcafé’, with reasonable prices, serving drinks and light food under a 1950s ceiling decorated with lights in the shape of constellations. You don’t have to be a member of the library to go in; café is one floor up from the ground floor. There is also the University library.

Where to get published:

SMAK, Ghent’s contemporary art museum, publishes books and magazines. The Poëziecentrum publishes Poëziekrant (information here and here). Academia Press publishes academic books. There is a student magazine (Simile) out of the University’s English Department. Our press, MIEL, is now based here; we also publish the journal 111O. Opportunities of all kinds are available to look through on Creatif Schrijven, which is based in Antwerp (not Ghent, obviously, but not far, either). The Flemish Funds for Literature offer support for translators and writers.

Where to write:

Coffeeshops are generally welcoming (note that in Flanders ‘café’ refers to a bar), but there are some particularly nice ones in Ghent. Most places will expect you to purchase more than one drink if you stay a while, and most are table service. Barista has two locations (order at the bar in both), both good for people-watching; their Meersenierstraat location is right on the canal. Labath can be very busy; it’s a lively and warm café run by real coffee-lovers. A few outlets for computers, but not many. The café at Paard van Troje (above, under bookshops) is really nice but generally packed. All three serve food and hot and cold drinks.

There are many museums in the city, and all are good for inspiration: SMAK, MSK, Design Museum, Museum Dr Guislain, MIAT. Many offer student discounts; people under 26 years receive €1 entry in city (not private) museums.

A walk by one of the city’s canals will provide you with benches and views. There are trains here, too, for long or short rides, depending on the amount of internetless travel you seek.


Vooruit offers a year-round program which includes readings. The central library hosts ‘De Paarse Zetel‘, a reading series. On Uit in Gent, the city’s culture and events website, you’ll find plenty of literary happenings. Omfloerst is a poetry collective which sometimes hosts events. Individual bookshops, including the two Ghent locations of the chain Standaard Boekhandel also offer readings and book-signings.

Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By
(Milkweed Editions, 2007) and Her Book (Milkweed, forthcoming 2013).
Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, diode, Free
Verse, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, and The Pinch. With Jonathan Vanhaelst,
she runs MIEL, a micropress ( She edits the journal
111O ( Twitter: @MIELbooks.