English Language and Culture
"Literature is about the human condition, it’s about us, it’s about our struggles, it’s about our existence, our relationships. I’m very interested in those kinds of important, big questions."
Maryam Hassouni is best known as an actress. She has appeared in numerous films and television series since beginning her career with Dunya and Desi in 2002, including most recently Flikken Rotterdam (2016-). In 2017, she published her first Dutch-language children’s book, Hoekjes van Geluk. Maryam completed her Bachelor's in English Language and Culture at the UvA English Department in 2017.
You have a background in acting, so what made you want to come and study English at the UvA?
Studying literature helps me with acting. When you act you have to read scripts, you have to analyse scripts, you have to analyse characters; so I can use my degree in acting, it’s not a waste. A lot of people ask me what I’m going to do with English, but in fact, literature is very important; it’s about the human condition, it’s about us, it’s about our struggles, it’s about our existence, our relationships. I’m very interested in those kinds of important, big questions, and when I’m acting I try to – not answer these questions – but use them in my character.
Now, when I read a script and I’m not happy with it, I have the language to say “well, you know, I don’t like this character because she doesn’t have enough agency, she’s too passive”. I have the language to talk with the writer or director.
So as an actor you’re no longer a tool in someone else’s hands?
Sometimes that sucks for the director, but it can also add something. If you work with people who like to collaborate, to work together, then it’s better for them to work with actors who also speak the language of the writer or the director, to help make a better product.
A lot of our students have jobs as well as studying. How did you find balancing work and study during your degree?
When I went back to school I wasn’t really acting much. I thought it was the end of my career, and I was going to start a new career, but ironically, the moment I went back to school amazing parts came along. I made a decision to finish the degree though, because I really enjoyed the programme, so before committing to any project I would say, “I’m a student now, so that’s the number 1 priority for the next three years; if you can schedule around school, I’ll work with you, otherwise you should find another actress for this part”. I was surprised that the producers were very supportive. Sometimes, in my second and third year, I would study and shoot two different projects at the same time. I would be at school, then for two weeks I would go to Thailand to work on a project, and then come back and go for ten days to L.A. to shoot there, but my schoolwork was always with me. On the set, they’d create a place for me to study, and at school sometimes I’d have my scripts with me, and when no-one saw me, I’d study my lines!
I think you can manage to do other things, but school was always the number one priority. That’s why I was able to do all the other stuff; if I had to make a choice, I knew what to drop. The moment you feel like it’s too much, your choice should always be school first. It’s so important. It sounds clichéd, but education is freedom.
That word freedom can be interpreted in a lot of different ways – how do you understand it?
To me, freedom is an open mind. We live in a society where everyone puts forward their opinion, but when you write an essay you are trained to put your opinion aside, to read what other people have said about a topic, and then you can have your own conclusion, but based on all these other ideas. It’s freedom because it puts you outside your head, you have to understand someone else’s point of view – it’s like acting in a way, because you have to be able to get into the head of a character.
So freedom is not about being more yourself, some idea of expressing ‘who you really are’, but about getting outside yourself?
Yes, letting go. Language is also important here. That’s why I really liked linguistics. In the end, language is a tool, but studying it gives you the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position, to think about what they really mean.
One of the other students in your class found a piece of advice you gave helpful – do you remember what you said?
It was about writing the thesis. It’s a creative process, so I said in class that if you get stuck, just leave it, take a walk, go to the movies, get inspired, go out to abide in the world, and then start all over again! When you’re stuck, you shouldn’t be forcing it. And that for him was very helpful. When I was 18, 19, 20, I would force everything, but I wouldn’t get the best results. Now I see everything as a creative process. So the way I approach education is the same way I approach all these acting projects. If I get stuck in a character because I can’t really understand her, or her dramatic line, I will leave it, chat with my friends, drink some wine, and come back, and then I have the solution. If you see an essay as your project, as creating a little piece of art, it’s easier to write and to deal with.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone preparing to study English at the UvA?
I would say it’s not only about literature, but also linguistics. You’ll be reading amazing novels, but everything you learn in linguistics adds something to the literature, because it’s all language, so don’t see any part of your studies as a waste of time! When writing essays, linguistics helps you analyse at different levels. I had so much fun with phonology – it’s like a puzzle, and very helpful with literature. The more you know about language, the more you can have a diverse interpretation of a text.