Writer Astrid Roemer: 'The cabal has been exposed'

Astrid Roemer: on Tuesday she would be the first Surinamese writer to be awarded the Prize of Dutch Literature: the highest award for Dutch-language literature, a prize that is awarded every three years. After the prestigious PC Hooft Prize that Roemer (74) already received in 2016 for her entire oeuvre, and after her comeback as a writer after being ‘less of a trace’ for years, this award ceremony should be a grand and festive event. However, the presentation by the Belgian King Filip was canceled in August when there was a lot of commotion about Roemer’s statements about ex-president Desi Bouterse.

She wrote on social media this summer, the day after the award of the Prize of Dutch Literature, that the Surinamese community desperately needed Bouterse to become more self-aware and that he will eventually get a statue. “Merci Man,” she wrote praising Facebook. Roemer also refused to call Bouterse, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the December murders in 2019, a murderer. Her statements – which she says she made “because she comments on all the anti-Bouterse jargon that refers to the December 8 murder trial” – fell wrong with a group of Surinamese mainly living in the Netherlands, including relatives of victims of the December murders.

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Incited by, among others, lawyer Gerard Spong, who demanded that the jury withdraw the prize and drew the comparison with an “NSB member who would receive a prize after the Second World War”, the award ceremony was reversed. Roemer will receive the prize itself, with a sum of 40,000 euros, because it was awarded to her for her literary work, not for her politically related statements. She donates the certificate to the Literature Museum in The Hague.

Mentally touched

It has “touched her mentally”, she says in a conversation in which she looks back on a turbulent time, but also looks at her life now in Suriname. “Such an action by diaspora Surinamese, intended to deny me what makes me happy, affects me in a mental sense. The ‘December 8 Murder Lobby’ is pushy and silly. Still, it doesn’t take away from my happiness about the price. I will enjoy the day of the original award ceremony, October 12, as a child sucking on a chocolate popsicle.”

From Suriname, where Astrid Roemer only answers interviews in writing because she is “in isolation” to be able to write, there is now and then fire in her answers. She sometimes uses capitals and exclamation marks, for example when talking about the action to stop the award ceremony. “Dutch politicians are sensitive to this kind of post-colonial fanfare,” she writes. “Symptoms of decolonization? Yes, they think: ‘ROEMER IS OURS AND WE DETERMINE WHAT WE DO WITH HER’. But time will deal with this pressure group. I hardly know these guys and what they would be doing at the royal award ceremony of a laureate who happens to be a compatriot remains a mystery. I am relieved that the cabal has been exposed.”

The jury report, praising her work as “unconventional, poetic and lived”, she will read again and again when she needs comfort, she says. “I dedicated the award to my mother. Beautiful, isn’t it?! A literary prize should not be a burden to a laureate, but should give wings!” And she was not awarded the oeuvre prize for expressing opinions, she wants to make clear, but because of her literary work. “I have often been asked as a regular columnist by Dutch newspapers and magazines, but I have always declined for fear of crazy reactions from my compatriots. Yes, I know my people. I am not made of granite!”

In the meantime, the writer is trying to look ahead and is trying to ‘settle’ again in her native country, where she has been living for two years now. At the age of twenty she left for the Netherlands and until her return in 2019 she mainly knew Suriname from holidays and family visits.

Her presence in Suriname can also be understood, she says, as a form of grieving. Her mother, with whom she had an intense bond, died in 2019. “I feel astonished how the weeks slip through my fingers like sand,” writes Roemer, “a process associated with mourning my deceased mother. I am on a journey in the metaphorical sense, towards the last twenty years of my existence. I hope to spend that time mainly in Paramaribo, with the heritage and footprints of my dear mother. And I have at least eight more books to write.”

Astrid Roemer
Photo Wouter Van Vooren

We are maybe ten minutes apart as the crow flies, both in the Surinamese capital Paramaribo. The dry season has arrived. Early in the morning the sun is still soft, the sky a radiant blue, and the chirping of hummingbirds and girl brie is heard. Since the death of her 95-year-old mother, Roemer has lived in her apartment in a place where several seniors live, that’s how she describes her place of residence. She spends her days according to a fixed rhythm and work schedule in which she takes care of her body, her environment, moves and writes. “Every new day with me resembles the past day and marks the next one,” she says, “and that feels good. In this way I create a lot of space and stability to think about all kinds of issues that keep me busy. Even more, I stayed in Suriname to celebrate my connection with the territory, my blood relatives, old friends and compatriots. Kind of a thank you. Somewhere I try to pick up what has been left behind.”

How do you experience Suriname today?

“I look at the Suriname of today with the eyes of an older lady. It is a different country than what we glean in the Netherlands in the form of memories and all kinds of emotions with which we try to calm our phantom pain. The territory of Suriname worries me because it is still abused as plantation land with cheap labor that mainly benefits foreigners. Impoverishment is an asset in every area and everything that we produce as excellent, from people to products, goes to the rich West: the Netherlands, America, and so on. This move erodes the morale of our residents and turns government policy into a farce. And yet the Amazon coastal region of my native country remains beautiful, but it is mainly the people with money who enjoy it. I can hardly get fresh oranges because all the fruit is bought everywhere by juice manufacturers and so it is with vegetables. Daily life is not easy for families. Everything threatens to fall apart. My heart breaks. I wish young people a beautiful and promising life in their own country.”

Tragedy of festive ceremony

Yet Roemer is also hopeful and positive about the Suriname she is experiencing now. This is how she writes at the end of August on a website of the Caribbean Letters working group the piece ‘The tragedy of the festive award ceremony’, in which she gives her vision on the canceled award ceremony, but also elaborates on the situation in Suriname and states: “I do not wish to drown in the long-running December murder trial. I look for patterns of growth and development. And I find it. The runaway slave laborers and the indigenous have largely left their villages that were former refuges deep in the Amazon rainforest to seek and find refuge in the coastal city of Paramaribo. They effortlessly claim what has been withheld from them for hundreds of years. Retarded city dwellers can no longer be fooled into thinking that it is their historical heritage that keeps them lagging behind. The Dutch language is fearlessly used by everyone with loanwords from various other mother tongues. Sometimes it sounds ridiculous and outside Suriname you can’t do much with it. But I call that emancipation and the impoverishment that I also observe is for me a by-product of a decolonization forced by the military.”

You have been a pioneer in writing about decolonization, racism and the position of black women since the 1970s. Themes that are now much more on the agenda in the Netherlands. How is it in Suriname?

“Well, how do people in Suriname deal with all those emancipatory political themes. Everything in Suriname is party politics and something else is difficult to intervene. All those macho heads that demand attention from the media and the public: terrible. I understand that here it is mainly the women who organize themselves in working groups to work on these themes. Because it is the mothers, the women, who keep society livable and pleasant and who doggedly continue to take care of them, also in the professional field. Moreover, the Netherlands participates in the form of contact with family and friends: there is an ocean between flying for hours, but social media make everything bridgeable. The Netherlands and Suriname are like family. Young people with roots in the ex-colonies have learned from my generations that a ‘good life’ in Suriname is more something for after retirement. Yet in Suriname you can become intensely happy, form a family and be truly liberated from the fact that you are a ‘stranger in Europe’ anyway, as you are in the Netherlands. At the same time, a ‘privileged existence’ looks different in Suriname than in Europe, but there is an entire continent of South America open to future generations.”

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