A Central Voice in Caribbean Literature

Media and Memory in the Novels of Astrid Roemer

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Yra van Dijk Leiden University LUCAS, Faculty of Humanities the Netherlands Leiden

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Ghanima Kowsoleea University of Amsterdam Communication and Marketing, Faculty of Humanities the Netherlands Amsterdam

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This essay explores the complex ways in which narrative may signify in the contemporary Caribbean cultural context. Specifically, it is concerned with a trilogy written by award-winning Surinamese author Astrid Roemer, set in the years of independence of the Caribbean country after 300 years of Dutch occupation. The analysis focuses not on the usual postcolonial themes but on structures of signification: allegory, materiality and media of language, affect, and the function of objects. Roemer’s texts demonstrate the relation between discourse and physical violence, her language being tied to material media, bodies, and earth. Not just postmodern, but posthuman too, the Surinamese narrative is characterized by the attempt to connect objects to language, objects to emotions, or nature to memories. Language brings us in touch with Caribbean reality and memory, all the while questioning its capacity to do so through allegory and metaphor.

Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly, one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.

Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (1997)

Autumn 2019, Paramaribo. Young writers sit in the city’s literary café, talking about the work of Astrid Roemer, the most important living Surinamese author. They have read her novels, but have trouble understanding them. At 813 pages, the Onmogelijk moederland trilogy (Impossible Motherland, 1996–98)1 is a most challenging read. The unusual style, the dense and achronological narrative, and the intertextual references all contribute to a rather opaque text, “unassimilated” into the usual literary form.2 Given that critics rarely know what to do with this oeuvre, and that there is little academic criticism of Roemer’s work,3 it is no wonder that these readers were stranded. How can we explain an author from a small Caribbean community whose texts her readers have trouble making sense of? Why so much noise on the line? In order to gain more insight, this article explores the complex ways in which these three novels denote the function of signification structures in the contemporary Caribbean cultural context.

In 2016, Astrid Roemer (b. 1947) became the first Surinamese author to win the Dutch-language literary lifetime achievement award, the P.C. Hooftprijs. In 2021, she was awarded the three-yearly Dutch-Flemish Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, which is considered the most prestigious literary award in the Dutch-speaking world.4 This was the culmination of a long career as a widely read author of prose and poetry. The publication of her migration novel, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Take Me Back, Suriname, 1974), saw Roemer hailed as an important voice from the former colony. She gained widespread acclaim with Over de gekte van een vrouw (On the Madness of a Woman, 1982), a feminist novel set in Suriname, about domestic and colonial violence and its effects on the female body.5 This was followed, a decade later, by the aforementioned Onmogelijk moederland trilogy, which she calls her “triplets”: three novels about the search for a Surinamese identity in the shadow of past violence.

The series is set in the years following the Caribbean country’s independence, after 300 years of Dutch occupation.6 The three books present partly overlapping events: the first novel, Gewaagd leven (Daring Life), focuses on an adolescent struggling with family ties; the next book, Lijken op liefde (Looks Like Love), is about a Hindu-Creole woman seeking the truth about a hideous murder; and the third, Was getekend (Signed), tells the life story of a man found as a baby in a leper colony. The three narratives form a combination of temporalities, in which different times seem to slide over each other; simply put: if one tries to reconstruct the lives of the protagonists in real time it does not add up. Their various experiences of the period of decolonization are more than a transition, a passage “from one stage (before) to the other (after)” (Mbembe 2001:15).

Hélène Cixous (1993) describes how all writers have an “inaugural scene,” “a scene with a picture.” For Roemer, this scene is a violent event at the heart of the trilogy, a brutal murder around the time of Surinamese independence in 1975: a Dutch woman is slaughtered, her unborn child cut out of her belly. The birth of a nation represented as the death of a mother and child. The author returns to this scene throughout her trilogy. The path to the future is a descent into the past—down the road of history that can explain this violence—and a search for the truth about the killer of the mother and her baby. Yet, a clear account of the events is never provided: different stories swirl around the murder scene, and many characters are complicit or, at least, feel as if they are. The “truth” to be found, it is argued here, is not so much a juridical truth as knowledge about creating meaning in a violent, postcolonial context. Meaning itself is challenged in Roemer’s work, which questions the stability of concepts or symbols. Anyone reading, or having read, the bulky Onmogelijk moederland trilogy,7 seeking to determine meaning amongst the intertexts, allegorical characters, and complications will be disappointed. Here, it is not only the cultural, historical, or environmental predicament of the Caribbean that is at stake, but also the question of how to narrate it at all.

This essay is an attempt to offer an interpretation of the trilogy from a self-reflexive perspective, reading it as a story of signification. This implies a viewpoint of the thematic readings that is often seen in postcolonial studies. Diaspora, memory of slavery, the nation state, the environment, and most of all “identity” are analyzed in literary studies of and about imperialism (see Boehmer 2005; Thomas 2017). We find studies of the representation of landscape, for example, or of relations between humans, nature, and technology.8 Classic colonial themes such as exile and racial and ecological violence are connected to the inequalities of modernism, “progress,” or technology. In the context of Caribbean literature, born out of a culture whose language and people were violently imported from Africa and Asia and confronted with European culture in a new space, we must, of course, add hybridity and creolization to these central colonial themes.9 Purity, authenticity, and originality are constantly undermined fictions. Rather than binary oppositions between new technology and nature, one encounters hybrid constellations in Caribbean texts, where nature, culture including colonial culture, and technologies “infect” each other. The parallel with ecosystems is obvious since these, too, are “dynamic, unstable and open systems” (Hoving 2017:40).

However rich these analyses, they also reveal a paradox. The problem with the focus on representation is that both traumatic histories and natural effects largely escape language. Therefore, we take a metadiscursive stance here, paying attention to illegible texts, silences, and more iconic forms of representation and communication. Roemer’s extremely self-reflective trilogy speaks of language, of myths and stories, and of the possibilities of signification. In her chapter “Metaphors as Communication Structures,” Van Meyeren contends, “Roemer radically releases her metaphors from reference points, to a point where the density of her stories itself becomes the plot.”10 Here, we take this further, demonstrating that Roemer’s trilogy is a late-postmodern exploration of ways to connect words to worlds, to bodies, and to ecologies. Apart from being mythological and intertextual, the work is also concrete and political, full of what Roemer calls “reality matter.” It narrates the recent history of Suriname and the position of women living there in an allegorical style, explicitly criticizing political and patriarchal violence. But what does it mean for narratives to be both realistic and to signify in such intentionally opaque ways? And in what sense are these strategies specifically Caribbean?

This metaperspective fits into a poststructuralist tradition, in which one shows interpretative restraint, avoiding a linear approach to “meaningfulness” (Johnson 1987:18). Roemer’s texts are the opposite of the integrating and rather mummifying undertaking that is meaning-giving. Her texts have this in common with other contemporary Caribbean authors, such as Wilson Harris or Boeli van Leeuwen. Such texts are neither postmodern in the classical sense, nor magical realist, but they are certainly not realist either. It therefore seems an obvious choice to use postmodern Caribbean theory to understand Roemer’s work better. Her baroque style and content point to Benítez-Rojo’s concept of chaos, and her emphasis on relation is reminiscent of the work of Édouard Glissant (Van Dijk & Bawdy 2020). Just as convincingly, it has been argued that their lack of closure, pointing instead toward a future, mimics Benítez-Rojo’s “metonymic displacement toward scenic, ritual, and mythological forms.” Especially recognizable in Roemer’s novels is the concept of mestizaje (see Kowsoleea 2020:13). However, reading Roemer as a postmodern explosion of intertexts and meanings would mean doing injustice to the realism and the political critique that permeate her works. The power of guns, whips, and shackles, while always implied in discourse and representation, is not reducible to the “violence of the letter” (McClintock 1995:16). Rather, it is to be found in the “planned institutional violence of armies and law courts, prisons and state machinery.”

Consequently, an anti-essentialist approach remains rather unsatisfactory. The critique of the image of the Caribbean as an unchartable chaos corresponds to the critique of a nostalgic emphasis on the authenticity of the region: neither viewpoint provides an answer to the contemporary, political, and neoliberal situation of the Caribbean (Penier 2012:28–30). Or, as Achille Mbembe contends: “Every representation of an unstable world cannot be automatically subsumed under the word ‘chaos’ ” (Mbembe 2001:8). For Roemer, Suriname is not part of an endless “meta-archipelago,” but very much a historic and national space with frontiers and limits.

Indeed, Roemer’s work seems to be searching for a way out of the “soup of signs” and limitless textual referencing.11 The reality of Surinamese independence requires something else. Rather than the fragmented domain without a center described by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Roemer tries to connect signs to local and historical “facts.” Where Benítez-Rojo sees an “aesthetic of pleasure” “to divert excesses of violence” in Caribbean poetics (Benítez-Rojo 1992:21), Roemer describes violence as the core of Surinamese society—and as the basis of all creation. More importantly, her texts and writing produce an affective experience of violence for the reader. This essay contends that arcane and painful writing is not only an expression or redemption of past pain or trauma, but also a self-reflexive demonstration of what it means to write in a Caribbean context.

This stance, which straddles postmodernism and realistic political engagement, will be explored using Roemer’s trilogy as an example, and also used as a frame for understanding other Caribbean texts beyond postmodernism. Rather than using terms from European literary history (late postmodernism or metamodernism), it is based on Caribbean and postcolonial theory.12 The effect is a clearer view of the subversive character of these narratives. They reproduce or deconstruct a symbolic order that creates and naturalizes hierarchical categories of race, sexuality, class, human versus animal. The metahermeneutical perspective gives a sharper view of how literature undermines the “inventedness” of such categories (McClintock 1995:10) and how it can function as a critical counterdiscourse.13 Hence, Roemer’s self-reflexive texts demonstrate the relationship between discourse and physical violence; moreover, it is why her language is tied to material media, bodies, and earth. We will proceed in three steps through the stages of a critical form of analysing literary signification—allegory, materiality, and media of language—and, finally, the affect and function of objects.

1 Allegory

It is not uncommon to read Caribbean novels as national allegories. Indeed, Fredric Jameson (1986) proposed doing just this in his essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” For Stephen Slemon, allegory serves as a postcolonial deed of resistance and a way to reappropriate history, since it allows for a transformation of imperialist myths.14 The development of “self” in stories and the integration of this self into the nation state can be read as a form of “discursive emancipation” (Strongman 2008:7).

But Walter Benjamin pointed to the sadism of the allegorical writer precisely because of this appropriative strategy: “The allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them … : the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement” (quoted in Owens 1980:69). For this reason, postmodern authors such as Roemer create allegories that reflect on their own ritual, static, and repetitive character. Apart from appropriation being a fitting form for postcolonial texts (Ashcroft et al. 2000), there is another reason why allegory makes sense as a structure for this trilogy about the independence of Suriname and the tumultuous years around it. Astrid Roemer writes about concrete and political turmoil, but she refuses to provide moral judgements or factual information. Instead, she wants her texts to produce “something beyond the regular frames of knowledge.”15 Allegory makes that possible, since it ties the fictional to the factual, never choosing one over the other. This makes reading Roemer’s work a singular experience, which Cixous has described as: “both true and not true. We must constantly have one foot in one world and one in the other” (Cixous 1993:27). The allegory thus works like a dream: it is a translation of a repressed or forgotten story, usually in the form of fragments or distortions. We are asked to read the old text through the new one. This is an apposite form for expressing the predicament of living a life scarred by an older story of colonial violence and simultaneously creating a future; that is to say, building a fiction on older facts.

In the first part of Roemer’s trilogy, Gewaagd leven an adolescent, Onno, comes of age during the years of Suriname’s struggle for independence. It is quite plausible to understand his story as an allegory for the growing autonomy of the nation. Initially, Onno thinks he is “nobody”, since he is born into a colonial situation: “The feeling that he was an orphan, had nothing to do with his blood relations, but with his relation to his country of birth.”16 His father explicitly takes on the role of the colonizer in this allegorical structure, for example in a scene where he demands that Onno, his youngest son, come and see a parcel of land he has bought, while play-acting his allegorical role of colonizer. His son is asked to take the place of the colonized subject: “Today I am colonizing a piece of paradisaical territory. You are the native who is after revenge, all right?” (Roemer 2016:22).

The explicitness of the allegorical form makes it a meta-allegory, which we propose reading as a commentary on the politics of meaning itself. Looking more closely at how the allegory is presented reveals a critique on the appropriation that is part of its form. It is the patriarch, the violent Michael Mus, who “writes” the allegory here, directly associated with his imperialist attitude. His children hate him but are connected to him by historical bonds and blood ties.17 Moreover, the dependence of Mus’s wife, whose attempts to leave him fail, is also clearly described as an allegory for imperialist relations (Roemer 2016:111). The allegory is thus folded in upon itself, ironized and reflective, until it ceases to have any other meaning than performing the allegory. Such a reading is confirmed by the fact that allegories reappear in the other two parts of the trilogy, whose protagonists can equally be read as symbolic of the emancipating nation state. The repetition of the structure seems to deny the possibility of an original meaning of progress and the future.

The storyline, too, gives little reason for hope. Onno is in revolt against his father. Indeed, he has wanted to kill his father ever since he witnessed him orally raping his mother. Violence against women and girls recurs throughout Roemer’s trilogy: young girls are raped or abused by uncles, stepfathers, and street gangs. Such events are narrated in a cursory fashion, as if they are just a fact of life. This violence is equaled by desire; specifically, a desire in the characters for more harmonious relations that can never be achieved (Roemer 1996:41). Relationships between men and women, relationships with the land, are all historically charged with trauma.

Onno’s father was a religious man but turns to the military, becoming an army preacher. This can be read as a commentary on Suriname’s recent history, in which the military gained power under the rule of Desi Bouterse.18 Onno’s brother, Hagith, follows his father into the jungle. Onno, meanwhile, longs for a life in the Netherlands—as did many in that period of Suriname’s history. Ultimately, he is estranged from his native country after years of domestic and political violence. On the point of leaving for the Netherlands to finish high school, he causes a car crash, killing three people and wounding two children. His brother takes the blame, serving as a scapegoat, and Onno hides in a church in town. In the trilogy’s second novel, Onno is a side character, living in the Netherlands, highly educated, and pursuing a career.

The story of Onno’s childhood and recent events in Suriname are interspersed with spoken “messages” to his brother. It becomes clear that theirs is a biblical story, an allegorical reference to Cain and Abel. The competition between brothers for the love of a great patriarch is the basis for many stories, many beginnings and here it is analogous to the competition between the different cultural groups that inhabit the country. The novel can be read as a foundational narrative, and as a critique of such beginnings, of a “first family” that produces only violence. The family is a power structure in Roemer’s work. Desires are mediated by power: “negotiation, refusal, mimicry, revolt” (McClintock 1995:15). The power conflicts at play between the two brothers are an allegory for the corrupting power of the colonial system, which distorts and overturns any natural order of succession by birth.

Fratricidal strife is omnipresent in the young nation. Thus, the story of the foundation of Suriname is linked to other founding narratives, themselves a form of meaning-making. René Girard described Cain and Abel’s story as a “mimetic crisis,” a crisis that often culminates in murder: “A murder takes place in many of these stories as the culture commences” (Duyndam 2008–9:238). This is what we see in Onno (with his palindromic name) and Hagith. Four puppies that belong to their father are drowned in a primitive murder, displacing their desire to kill the father himself. The dogs reek of faeces and so does Hagith who takes care of them: the killing signifies a form of purification from the rapist father. His sons start delineating their own identities by this act of abjection which is necessarily violent.

That the youngest son Onno is the “chosen” one (being born with a caul) also coincides with the Cain and Abel story: it is a breach of the natural order (Duyndam 2008–9:241). The youngest is put to work, destined to a life of responsibility: “Being chosen to care, and being accountable for the fulfilment of this task: the concept of responsibility cannot be better defined,” says Joachim Duyndam, linking the biblical story to an ethical sense of responsibility (Duyndam 2008–9:241). The unexpected election of Cain leads to a catharsis. Could the idea of a shared responsibility between the brothers be such a catharsis in Roemer’s story? Neither of them is innocent. The first part of the trilogy is driven by a desire for murder: Onno thinks about it constantly, but ends up accidentally killing innocent people. The fact that Hagith confesses to be the driver responsible for the deadly accident is one of the more ethical and hopeful moments in Roemer’s work.19 Possibly, it suggests that Suriname will end up with a more flexible national identity that allows for collective responsibility, for creolization, and border-crossing (Phaf-Rheinberger 2003:412).

Roemer’s allegorical narratives reference more than religious texts from a Western cultural archive; the traditional religion called “Winti” also features. Indeed, transculturation is at the heart of Roemer’s oeuvre (Hambuch 2015:39). In Roemer’s own perception, Winti has the character of a “metaphorical language” (Roemer 1996:42). She calls it “an invisible substance” (Roemer’s italics), a survival strategy with a “political, revolutionary power”: a form of communication going back to the days of slavery. She defines this as “writing back,” and suggests that literature, too, functions like Winti and has the power to give communication a local meaning. This local and personal significance of universal, allegorical, or biblical narratives is thus how we can understand the political quality of the literary text: creating a connection between the abstract universal and the concrete historical. Roemer emphasizes that this is also demanding of herself, as an author: “I have to generate an incredible strength in order to re-order and re-create the chaotic system of information from the outside and inside world” (Roemer 1996:43). These systems of information are an additional level on which this Caribbean oeuvre signifies: foregrounding media and the materiality of language.

2 Media and Materiality of Language

In Gewaagd leven, Onno’s brother, Hagith, becomes a reporter and in this role he joins the military commandos that operate from the jungle. Through his persona, we learn that peripheral spaces are charged with power structures in the postcolonial Caribbean situation. The jungle is a place where it is impossible to remain neutral: the journalist’s eyes have become “tubes” that can show “anything anytime” (Roemer 2016:173), and his texts have affected his physical appearance too: “as if his reports for the newspaper were stored in his body: his skin was tight and undamaged like parchment.”20

Official language is not associated with any form of truth. Similarly, the generic shift from narrative to messages that are present throughout the trilogy deconstructs the opposition between fact and fiction.21 Historical information is provided, but when an encyclopaedia is cited, one is invited to read it as an epistemological critique and a reference to Anton de Kom’s canonical Surinamese text Wij slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Suriname, 1934), which also targets the oppressive colonial structures of historical knowledge and education.

Onno’s revolt is also represented by a media-metaphor and references to institutional language. He decides that, unlike the Bible that his father uses in any way he wants, he is not pliable: “He is not a text, anonymous and manipulable. He is voice, direct and vigorous.”22 In the voice, body and soul are linked in a “prosody of affect” (Roemer 2016:83). Kaseka, a Winti way of narrating is mentioned,23 and the author gives all her characters a specific voice. An example is the father figure in the third part of the trilogy, Was getekend: he leaves out the final n of many words: “a trace of black difference” (Gates 1988:46).

This emphasis on voice and speech does not mean that there is a binary opposition between speech and writing, however. In the complex three-layered narrative structure,24 the “conversations” that intersperse the novel are much like written letters. The text constantly reminds us that “discourses and representations have materiality” (Mbembe 2001:5). The novel opens with somebody being tortured by words, and Onno’s father’s words are compared to the lashes of a whip, a metaphor that once again evokes the violent plantation history.25

Language has weight and material presence. Roemer points this out to us, not just by emphasizing voices and embodied speech, but by giving texture to her own language through a personal style. For example, she manipulates stock phrases, or deconstructs standard combinations, thus appropriating the Dutch language by amputating its idiom.26 Language is the vehicle, the medium, and inseparable from the content, which is why Roemer demands so much attention for the materiality of the text—for example, through unexpected quotation marks that seem to say nothing, other than the realization that we are speaking in a language in which everything is already an echo, and so everything has already been said. Lauren Derby reminds us of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, who said that “heavily textured and often oblique language, then, is a form of resistance that is quintessentially Caribbean, a form of anti-writing that we must see as one of the ‘small voices of history’ that are characteristic of the region and yet are frequently silenced from the historical record” (quoted in Derby 2014:124).

As such, antiwriting, the lack of transparency in these texts is a political gesture, as is the emphasis on the signifier. Words themselves are imbued with a physical and affective quality, as is the interpunction.27 Language is not an abstract and symbolic form, but is altered and influenced by its contact with media, objects, bodies, nature, or emotions, to borrow from Sara Ahmed’s argument in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Ahmed shows “how emotions work to shape the “surfaces” of individual and collective bodies. Bodies take the shape of the very contact they have with objects and others” (Ahmed 2004:1). We assert that Roemer does the same with the language in her novels: plying words and interpunction materially to bring them closer to what they signify.

This emphasis on the signifier results in a momentary pause in the reading process, and the “grasping” of meaning is problematized. An ethical stance is demanded of the reader, who is asked to respect and halt in front of the alterity and singularity of the text. The swift and transparent meaning of the imagery is suspended, and, to use a concept of the Martinican literary theorist Édouard Glissant, its meaning remains opaque. As he posits in Poetics of Relation, this opacity of the text is related to the Other’s “right to opacity” (Glissant 1997:189). Glissant states that our desire for understanding is a claim for transparency and a longing to “grasp” meaning that would diminish the singularity of the Other (Glissant 1997:90).

Certainly, the density and form of language in Roemer’s poetics has such an ethical character. According to Roemer, she attempts to connect her language to her values. She describes this not as a pleasant experience, but rather like discovering that your uncle is your father: “That is how incestuous the language that I know and use is. So full of coils and lapses. So much penetrated with power abuse and ostracism” (Roemer 2004:80). Conspicuous in her work is a distortion of the grammatical word order: for example, placing objects at the beginning of the sentence, rather than the more conventional subject that one would expect in Dutch. This emphasis on “things” is connected to a worldview that respects not just the symbolic order, but also the material order of things.

The same is true for Lijken op liefde (1997), the second part of Roemer’s trilogy. It is a novel that foregrounds objects as well as the material carriers of language. The focus of the book is an elderly woman, and we follow her on a quest for the truth about the “inaugural scene” at the heart of the trilogy: the murder of the pregnant An Andijk. An’s death is mentioned in the first book; indeed, all the characters of the trilogy know each other. The narrative of the second book describes a journey that is itself a search for meaning. The fact that the quest is dominated by detours, mirrors the confusion that the reader experiences.

Cora Sewa, of Hindu-Creole descent and married on the Jericho plantation to the natural healer Herman Sewa, goes in search of the secret behind the two murders in the 1970s. When An, the pregnant Dutch “concubine” of a politician is murdered, Cora—a cleaner—helps cover the tracks. Not only does she clean the house after the deed, but she also prepares An’s body for burial. Cora never touches the hush money she receives after this involuntary involvement, and it languishes in a Dutch bank account somewhere. An’s lover gives Cora the key to a Dutch safe, which she does not open for a long time, not even when he, too, dies in mysterious circumstances. Years later, Cora decides to actively face her trauma and acknowledge her complicity, and she travels to the Netherlands to open the safe.

Instead of cleansing the past and her own conscience, Cora’s journey becomes a balancing act between good and evil, guilt and innocence, inside and outside, language and silence. Thus, Cora is not only a psychological or realistic character, but also an allegorical character. She is described as being of mixed heritage: a combination of different Surinamese ethnic identities and, therefore, a representation of the people of the country. As Roemer herself explains in an essay about her work, ethnicity is neither natural, nor an authority, rather it is “a particularity, as are gender and class” (Roemer 1996:37).

As a caretaker, a symbol for the archetypal Surinamese woman, Cora must also seek purification from colonial history, from “the evil that was sown, grown, harvested in the age of slavery” (Roemer 2016:347). What matters is holding the past to account, so that it can “come back to life.” Cora’s search for the truth coincides with a fictitious national tribunal—a kind of truth and reconciliation commission—that is held while she is in Holland. In her usual style, Roemer interweaves fiction with reality. The murder of 15 men by the Bouterse regime in December 1982 is real, the tribunal is not. It was not until 2019 that Bouterse was found guilty of these murders in court. By interweaving Cora’s quest for truth with this national quest to make the culprits stand trial, the story takes on the character of a double testimony. As the reader gains more insight into Cora’s role in the murder, her husband is in the court in Paramaribo testifying about his role in the corrupt political present. Language is used as the vehicle, of both lies and deception. At the same time, language seems to be the route to healing the national trauma. Both the informative and the phatic functions are foregrounded in this part of the trilogy, and language is what keeps Cora and her husband connected. The kind of space described here is charged with pain, magic, and contradictions and calls for the constant “practice of connecting and disconnecting” (Hoving 2017:115). The material media of language—papers, written letters, and spoken letters—are central to this alternation.

When Cora sets out on her journey, she decides to record “spoken letters” for her husband, in the tradition of the oral culture of her native country. But the seven “cassette letters” also emphasize the affective nature of her marriage. Conversely, her husband’s voice is “loaded with experiences” and “wells up” from his body (Roemer 2016:223). Spoken letters produce both affect and delay, more so than normal letters. Media theorist Bernhard Siegert, following Derrida, describes the letter as a delay of significance. Within this delay, anything can happen and the message may be distorted. The meaning and the message become unstable, but both are also possible through the hermeneutical reader of the letter. Letters are thus metaphorical for the distance and delay entailed in “arriving” at whatever meaning. An’s letters to her lover, which Cora eventually finds in the Dutch safe and reads, have undergone a similar delay. Moreover, Cora is “affected” by them—“as a conception that has become completely undesirable” (Roemer 2016:284).

The genre of the love letter read by a third party, in this case by Cora, also suggests a tension between public and private space. The intimacy of the letters is further disturbed by the fact that the interpreting reader “eavesdrops” and is privy to the letters. The same applies to the letters that Cora records for Herman, which the reader “overhears.” The lack of privacy indicates that the intimate relationship between Cora and Herman has been poisoned by the public character of their actions. In the first scene of the novel, Cora has hidden the microphone of her tape recorder in her blouse, so that she can talk to Herman during her flight, but it is discovered by a customs officer. We can read this as a foreshadowing of the tribunal, later in the novel, in which Herman will have to make his intimate practices public. In this way, Cora (and Roemer) involves her audience in her testimony, making it aware of the highly politically charged space in which the information circulates.28

Like Roemer’s novels, Cora’s recorded travelogue is both personal and public. The oral character of her report to her husband indicates changeability and instability, unlike a written story. However, the technological purpose of the recorder is to register. In this respect, her letters have much in common with the genre of Roemer’s own novels: the meaning is unstable and fluid, but the registration of the material text is fixed. Neither text makes a claim to the truth, but both describe the detours people take to get closer to it. Both the novel and the letters presume a reader/listener, but are monologic and thus are akin to messages in a bottle, without any certainty of arrival. The medium of the recorded letter works self-reflexively and thus mirrors literary meaning-making itself.

Like Cora, the reader gains insight in the course of the narrative. This discovery is relational: Cora’s travels and conversations with those who knew An Andijk bring her closer to the meaning of the past and of her own complicity. Her exchanges with the now deaf Onno Mus, who reads her lips, are particularly fruitful.29 Again, we see relational and embodied speech with noise and delay. The novels thus require a different attitude from the reader, an ethical stance in which meaning is not grasped discursively, but rather embodied and felt affectively. At those moments, the story is more than “just” text, coming closer to something “real,” albeit unable to coincide with reality. The search is for “affect” rather than secondary meanings. Affect is a collective name for moods, emotions, and attitudes, and it builds a bridge between the physical and the conscious. The effect of such texts on the reader is thus also in the domain of affect. In her study of female Caribbean writing, Elina Valovirta refers to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who called this affective reading “beside”:

Perhaps, then, “beside” is a location for a writerly and readerly orientation as well: a text is a space for the unleashing of desire, a reaching for an object that is realized only in the act of its reading. An attempt to orient oneself by inhabiting textual spaces, then, becomes an attempt to exist … beside one another

Valovirta 2014:185

By letting Cora’s quest and that of the reader coincide, the reader cannot escape her own complicity. Roemer shows that individual and collective guilt are intertwined, and how many Surinamese were unwittingly or unknowingly complicit in forms of violence: against men and against women.30 But if language is saturated with abuse of power and with exclusion, how can the writer use it without becoming complicit herself? In Caribbean novels, a form of narration is sought without participating in the violent effects of discourses that legitimize postcolonial and global violence. Apart from opacity, lingual distortions, and foregrounded materiality of the words of the media, there is final strategy in Roemer’s texts: tying language to experiences and to objects.

3 Language and the Material World

Deconstructing the central position of the symbolic order of language, Astrid Roemer’s stories undermine the opposition between the world of words and the tangible world. Through the foregrounding of objects, nature, and animals, she demonstrates that nature becomes part of a cultural archive and has a place in the construction of memory and in a future of hybridity. Likewise, she refuses to assign gender roles to such oppositions: men are as much associated with matter (fire, wood, water) as are women.

Every part of the trilogy opens with resistance from the material world. In the first book, on his way to his mother, Onno feels the concrete of the embankment and the wood of the bridge press against his thighs. We are warned: “The element resists … as does language or thought” (Cixous 1993:5). The other two books open with a similar emphasis on matter and materials. Lijken op liefde begins with the end of the story, when Cora’s journey is already over. Suriname’s past has been processed “by artists into an impressive aluminium monument. Right in the centre of Paramaribo. There are always flowers. Fresh. Or made of paper, silk, plastic. On the Jericho plantation, the morning dew and the evening air have smelled like humus for centuries”. In this prologue, the text implies how it should be understood. It is as an attempt not to allow time and history to solidify into a monument through this story, but to do justice to its multilayeredness and its volatility (Van Dijk 2020:233–34).

The amount of material (aluminium, silk, plastic) in the prologue is striking, but the material is not at odds with the immaterial and with nature, rather it is inextricably intertwined, just like the air that smells of the earth. Nature is not innocent of or free from violence, as becomes clear from the ambivalent term “nature healer” used in Lijken op liefde to describe the profession of Cora’s husband Herman, a descendant of the Fanta-Akan tribe. A mystical bond exists between people and their environment, at least in the person of Herman and other natural healers: “They do not see a person as a spirit and a body. They see a person rather in relationship with his environment. They say, man is not body and mind but a quality” (Roemer 2016:307).

The ambivalence of the term “nature healer” is fully exploited: the novel leaves open the question of whether it is nature that heals or that should be cured. It takes Cora a journey crossing two continents to find out exactly what Herman is “curing”: he terminates unwanted pregnancies. These are the result of the many extramarital relationships in the narrative, all of which are linked to corruption, violence, and murder. Herman’s illegal profession, the ambivalent abjection he causes, can also be read at a metaphorical level and linked to the political situation in Suriname itself: “something had to be done to turn the city inside out and force the guilty to confess and do penance” (Roemer 2016:254).

Immaterial things such as thoughts, memories, and smells appear to be rooted in the material world. Roemer’s metaphors tie the two together, as in this example where a destructive emotion is linked to a material imbued with significance in colonial plantation history: “It was as if the need for disruption of daily life had breezed in like fluffs of cotton” (Roemer 2016:191). This is characteristic of Caribbean writing, as Caribbean ecocriticism has shown (DeLoughrey, Gosson & Handley 2005) and as Van Meyeren (forthcoming) explains in her essay on Roemer’s use of water metaphors: “Water is used to wonder how, in an overtly poststructuralist sense, discourse relates to matter—or the other way around.”

Roemer’s constant references to water, fire, and wood emphasize the “intra-activity” between matter and language, making it clear that meaning emanates from the relation between them. Knowledge, too, is a product of human relations. The truth about the past is not written down anywhere, but is as described above, the intangible product of Cora’s journey and the relationships she establishes along the way: in the conversations she has had and the insights into her own personal past and that of her Hindu mother (Hambuch 2015:45). Therein lies a different form of knowledge and truth than that of more rational, Western “truths”—a knowledge that is relational. It is not the individual subject that matters, not Cora, but the relationships she enters into or explores. They are inherently meaningful, without words, and revolve around care and affect.31

Roemer’s novels convey the idea that ethics lies in disinterested relationships of care. In fact, even without metaphysics, there is something that touches on the sacred. An important difference with Glissant’s theory of relation is that the “sacredness” of the relationships in Roemer’s trilogy does not mean that they are beyond violence, on the contrary. Horizontal relationships are repeatedly disrupted by sexual violence. This principle is applied even more rigorously in Roemer’s 2019 novel Gebroken wit (Off-white). It is a novel that describes nothing but care, affect, and relationship—a radical experiment in meaninglessness. The only thing that still bears meaning is the network of relationships in the book—usually between women, or mothers, and children. One risks interpreting this as a turning away from the symbolic order. Men and women come to take different positions vis-à-vis the symbolic order in Roemer’s novels, which is not to say that women are forever relegated to the domain of the Real.32

Gender relations are reconsidered: men can be healers and nurturers, too.33 Men, be they traditionally masculine or transgendered, are afforded a similar healing role in the aforementioned texts, as segregation dissolves and traumas become reworked in the form of solidarity between the sexes (Valovirta 2014:144). Moreover, female fertility is not free from deadly consequences: these novels are teeming with miscarriages, abortions, and stillbirths.

To the casual reader, the story of Gebroken wit may seem like a friendly three-generation women’s tale with a lot of chatter about cooking or polishing the church silver, but the chatter is deceptive. A sister traumatized by incest is locked away in an institution, and female solidarity appears to be a sham under the threat of patriarchal violence. Men are once again the aggressors, but presented as victims of the history of slavery, too, in which the Creole population was denied a family.34 So, the emphasis on the affective and material of the relationships, from cuddly toys to chicken soup, does not mean that relationships are only sweet. “Caribbean creole culture was born in the shadows of the twin ignominies of industrial capitalism and colonial biopower, which is why resistance has long had to take place in small, concealed, everyday activities” (Derby 2014:123). It is the women that clean and polish and who are associated with purification. One of Cora’s bosses compares her to a coral reef: “primary beauty and in that capacity necessary for a healthy environment” (Roemer 2016:224). Just how mistaken he is we find out only later when Cora is indirectly responsible for the severe burns and scars that his son sustains on his face. The expat child is forever marked by his “passage” through Suriname.

And this son is not the only man in Roemer’s work whose body is mutilated or abject. Anne McClintock has clearly demonstrated how abjection is an imperial strategy, and she discerns abject situations, objects, zones, agents, as well as psychic and political processes. To understand colonial power structures, it is necessary to see the connection between these levels, she argues. It is exactly in narrative that the entanglement of different levels of abjection can be demonstrated. This becomes most clear in the third and final part of the trilogy.

As we have seen, abjection is society’s reaction to elements that threaten its purity: and this is the subject of Was getekend. Its protagonist was found as a baby in the “primeval forest” near a leper colony. Ever since, he has had an “intense longing for the rainforest,” fueled by the wood fires that his foster father, himself the illegal son of a Maroon and an American, built for him. This book is about “Pedrick the Third Abracadabra,” and if this does not sound enough like a fairy tale, his nickname is “Ilya”: il y a, in past tense: il y avait, ‘once upon a time’, indicating that he is a figure made from language. Ilya’s foster mother is from the Netherlands and tells him Grimm and Andersen fairy tales “to teach him to see different versions of reality.” This foundling is typical of those Roemer characters that are formed more by discourse, by cultural environment, and (foster) parents than by unknown origins (Roemer 2016:434). Such poststructuralist critique of origin is illustrative of Roemer’s search for meanings that are produced in a trace.

Ilya’s diverse ethnic background makes him another allegorical personification of the new Surinamese citizen. The story begins on the eve of national independence in 1975, when Ilya is feverishly looking for “a place for himself.” He finds it in Het Perceel, a parcel of land for a house, garden, and agricultural plot. Ilya develops an upward mobility that detours from the typical Western model: he abandons his job as a teacher and builds his success explicitly on local ways—trading local goods, harvesting local plants such as bananas that become the source of a destructive conflict with the government which imports powdered cow’s milk for babies instead. He builds his fortune on the land itself, with trips to the interior and to historical locations in the country, and he develops his land and house into a haven for his wife and “The Child,” Junier, whose twin sister dies at birth. She stays alive however in the stories that Ilya makes up about her. The Child is followed by another Child, who is given the fairy-tale name Rozemond. He adopts another girl, and when she becomes a mother, he adopts her baby too, thus taking his role in a system of shared care.35 But the long and happy life that should follow is not in store for Ilya and his family. Corrupt politicians make the flourishing market trade impossible; strikes paralyze the country and the nation hits rock bottom with the December murders of 1982 that result in mekunu, a bloodguilt that continues for generations, across Suriname. Even after independence in 1975, the Netherlands continues to attract Surinamese, and Ilya watches with sorrow how the country is emptying out. The pain caused by mass emigration becomes clear when someone counts Ilya as one of the “stragglers.” He reacts furiously: “He has not lagged behind. He hasn’t even stayed.” Still, he ends up losing his mother and childhood friend in an airplane crash, alluding to a crash that actually happened in 1989, killing 178 passengers—a national trauma. He symbolically loses his children too, since they do not return to him after migrating to the Netherlands. Liberation comes with loss in these novels, and the emancipation of the Caribbean country is paralleled by amputation.36

But Ilya’s son Junier becomes an artist. His paintings express a new harmony. Roemer seems to argue in this book that Suriname does not need accusations or tribunals, but the purifying effect of literature and the arts, which gives this trilogy a more or less hopeful conclusion after all. Like art, stories and narratives create memory and connection. Reading aloud is a performance of this affective and relational quality of narrative, and Ilya even reads aloud at the grave of his friend.37 Stories are traveling and moveable texts, like the fairy tales that the Grimm brothers wrote down and that stem from oral culture. They provide an intertextual culture that has produced Ilya. His life coincides with a tale from the start, like ancient texts, with a baby in a wicker basket. The trilogy develops from Cain and Abel in part I, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge in part II, to Moses in part III. The first Bible books themselves, the Torah, were thought to have been written by Moses. Later, Ilya uses the selfsame basket to keep all the letters that he receives from the Netherlands: the founding narrative of the new nation is still attached discursively and emotionally to the country that colonized it for so long.

This does not mean that tales function here as intertextual “clues” to the central meaning of the narrative. What they provide is not so much symbolism or metaphor, but metonymy: a contiguous relationship with the past. Stories confirm that humans relate to each other and to their ancestors through language. A character in the trilogy asserts that the Grimm brothers were not saints, but “language scientists who wanted to collect and record for prosperity this wisdom, orally passed on” (Roemer 2016:506). Language itself has no magical force, but language use does. The power of Grimm is not in the tales, but in the experience of Ilya’s mother reading them to him: in the relational quality of narrating and an embodied voice and embodied listener.

4 Conclusion

What is it that we have demonstrated? Our analysis of a major Dutch-Caribbean work of literature started from a meta-hermeneutical question about the structures of signification, which implies a focus on allegory, on the represented media, on language, and, finally, on the relation between the symbolic and the physical world.

These categories clarify how the self-reflexivity of the novel is not just a postmodern game, but has a political and cultural effect. Self-reflexivity shows how representations, media, and discourses can both destabilize and naturalize hierarchical categories of gender, race, sexuality, class, and nationhood. Self-reflexivity is found in the materiality of language, in metaphor, and in the way in which affect, material culture, and nature are foregrounded to produce meaningful relationships and to undermine patriarchy. We have seen how the political critique of the novels is interwoven with the ways in which they signify: relating discourse to physical violence, media, objects, and bodies. Discursive processes are questioned. Western structures of signification, such as allegory and intertextuality, are employed critically, making room for more hybrid forms of textual relations. Unlike classic intertextuality, in postcolonial intertextual references the source text is out of sight, or it is regarded ironically, critically, perverted, or obscured. Snakes on the gate of Ilya’s paradise in the third part of the book might be a biblical reference, but could also point to local beliefs that snakes announce fertility (Roemer 2016:474). Metaphorical meaning does not stand still, and Western and Caribbean meanings turn out to be tightly connected.

We therefore argue that, apart from understanding Roemer’s trilogy as novels about “the integration of minorities” (Hambuch 2015:53), we should read them as a self-reflective text on the politics of writing and reading in the context of trauma following a violent history of colonialism and slavery. Rather than being thematic, Roemer’s stories are subversive in their unconventional structures of signification.

A receptive, affective, and noninterpretative reading attitude is necessary to appreciate the work of Astrid Roemer. An interpretative reader, looking for closure and meaning in the traditional sense, will end up frustrated. Information about the traumatic past38 is by no means always stored in words or texts, but, as we have seen, also in bodies, objects, or even smells. Characters looking for a “key” to grasp the truth about the past emerge equally frustrated.

Roemer seems to argue in her trilogy that Suriname has no need for accusations or tribunals, but rather deserves art and texts that describe relationships and that are also relational, in Glissant’s sense of the word. They show a world in which meanings shift, where even healing can be a metaphor for murder. Hence the role of the reader becomes crucial: it is in relation to these texts, while reading, that we give meaning to the past. Meaning and connection lie not so much in the text, but above all in the painful and complicated and repeated reading of it.

This is not as positive as it sounds. Literature can affectively narrate pain and trauma, and teach us to “think with pain,” as the motto of philosopher and writer Maurice Blanchot has it.39 The focus on these three novels from Suriname demonstrates what the trauma of uprooting, slavery, and colonial occupation has meant for possibilities to give meaning to past events. Some scholars have pointed to the fundamental intertextuality of literature from the region, a result of creolization and mimicry. Added to this is a new development towards the posthumanist narrative, characterized by the attempt to connect objects to language, objects to emotions, or nature to memories. This is how the ephemeral gains reality and weight, how language brings us into contact with a Surinamese reality, all the while questioning its capacity to do so. We have seen how this was done using allegory, metaphor, and within words too. The truth, in the end, seems to lead to violence and death. Hope is only found in narration and in collective rituals of remembering—in the art of remembering.

Even if Astrid Roemer’s novels did not transmit easily to the young Surinamese readers gathered in that literary café in Paramaribo, we have demonstrated why “comprehension” does not have to be the primary objective of readers of her trilogy. Rather than grasping her texts, reading them should be the recognition of the impossibility of signification itself (Van Meyeren, forthcoming). Thus, the reader can embrace the experience of being part of the meaningful relation between author, reader, text, and the physical world.


We will use the Dutch titles of Roemer’s works, since unfortunately her novels are not yet translated. All quotations from the novels and autobiographical works are translated by us. A list of English-language translations of fragments of her work is found following the References.


She calls this “speaking like a stranger in your own language” (Roemer 2004:193).


Important work on Roemer was done as early as 1993 (Redmond). See also Moor 1999, Hoving 2005, Van Kempen 2016, and Van Meyeren forthcoming. We would like to thank Isabel Hoving and Emma van Meyeren for their valuable comments on this article.


After Roemer publicly defended former president Bouterse, who was convicted in 2019 for the so-called December murders, killing 15 leaders of the opposition to the military regime, the Taalunie (Dutch Language Union) decided to give Roemer the prize, but to cancel the award ceremony.


See Phaf-Rheinberger 1985 for Roemer’s views on the reception of her early novels and the difficult route to publication she encountered.


See for example, Phaf-Rheinberger 2003 for an overview of these events in relation to the language and literature of the Creole culture.


Gewaagd leven appeared in 1996, Lijken op liefde in 1997, and Was getekend in 1998. It was not until 2016 that the books were published in one volume under the title Onmogelijk moederland.


See DeLoughrey, Gosson & Handley 2005. A very fruitful example is the interpretation of natural metaphors in Roemer’s work such as the function of water or “wet wood” (Hoving 2017; Van Meyeren forthcoming).


There is no Caribbean theory that does not start from this viewpoint. Compare for example, Gilroy (1993:187–223) for a clear explanation of the basis of this hybridity.


Here Van Meyeren (forthcoming) wants to “consider how the metaphors in this novel, especially the metaphors referring to water, are used to reflect on (im)possibilities of writing in a postcolonial context.”


Benítez-Rojo (1992:23) saw “two great orders of reading: one of a secondary type, epistemological, profane, diurnal, and linked to the West—the world outside—where the text uncoils itself and quivers like a fantastic beast to be the object of knowledge and desire; another the principal order, teleological, ritual, nocturnal, and referring to the Caribbean itself, where the text unfolds its bisexual sphinxlike monstrosity toward the void of its impossible origin, and dreams that incorporates this, or is incorporated by it.” The latter form of reading seems highly applicable to the work of Roemer, in which origin is questioned and which does not invite a rational form of understanding.


See McClintock (1995:10–11) for a justified critique of the term postcolonial, which suggests a form of progress.


Slemon (1987:11) reads postcolonial literary texts as “productive of an interventionary, anti-colonialist critique,” and as a “counter-discourse,” a “possibility of discursive opposition or resistance to it.”


Slemon 1987:9. For Jameson (1986:69), they are particularly allegorical “when their forms develop out of predominantly Western machineries of representation, such as the novel.” He states, “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” See Kowsoleea 2020.


In the autobiographical text Zolang ik leef ben ik niet dood (As Long as I Live I’m Not Dead 2004), Roemer writes that she intends to describe events “outside the regular frames of knowledge” (“Wat ik zal trachten weer te geven is een gebeurtenis die zich heeft voltrokken buiten ordinaire kenniskaders om … het is niet iets dat zich laat kennen”).


Roemer 2016:155 and 157. The Dutch original of this specific quotation has the same unusual phrasing with the repetition of “relation”: “Het gevoel dat hij een wees was had niet met zijn bloedverwanten te maken maar met zijn verwantschap met zijn geboorteland” (Roemer 2016:157).


“Hij was geschrokken toen hij haar hardop had horen denken: onze vaders, broers, zonen, minnaars, echtgenoten nemen wraak op de geschiedenis door deze stad die het koloniaal gezag aan ons heeft gegeven genadeloos te mishandelen en met de grond gelijk te maken … Onze mannen lijken intussen sprekend op de kolonialen die gebiologeerd door eigenbelang ongevoelig zijn geworden voor de nood van anderen. Onze vrouwen passen precies in de voetafdrukken van de huisslaven van vroeger: bevoorrecht, werklustig, vertrouwd, boosaardig.”


See Phaf-Rheinberger 2003 (mainly pp. 410–13) for the political background of Michael Mus’s endeavors and the significance of his Maroon background and creolization.


Duyndam refers to Roemer, too, in this context, remarking that she read Levinas. Kowsoleea (2020:28) interprets this biblical allegory as an exploration of a future without violence.


“Het was alsof de verslagen voor de krant in zijn lijf werden opgeslagen: zijn huid was strak en ongeschonden als perkament” (Roemer 2016:173). The genres and media presented in the novel are also a reflection of discursive reality in a postcolonial nation: “Suriname has become a language, transformed into stories, stories, stories. Newspaper articles. Letters from home. Phone calls. Occasional visits. Many Surinamese living in Holland have said to me: You give Suriname back to us. But I thought: I’m not giving Suriname back to them. All I’m doing with these two books is adding two new chapters to the story that Suriname has become to us” (Niemöller 1998). Roemer demonstrates that the country has become a discourse for those in diaspora, and that her narrative cannot help but revive it.


Kowsloeea (2020:23) mentions that the epistemological violence at the basis of Eurocentric historical stories is demonstrated and used as a source of resistance in this novel: a re-appropriation of one’s own country and history.


“Hij is geen tekst, anoniem en manipuleerbaar. Hij is stem, direct en vitaal” (Roemer 2016:127). Roemer herself described in an interview the different genres in this novel related to the agency of her character: “The Master’s Bedroom contains three different types of texts. One for the things over which Onno has absolutely no influence, though they do influence him. Another for when Onno is speaking, and these are very personal. And a third for the narrator” (Niemöller 1998).


See Armstrong (2000:116): “A noticing of affect is a noticing of the body which speaks.”


Which Phaf-Rheinberger (2003:208) brings in relation to the “tori-telling” tradition.


“Het ritme en het geluid van zijn vaders woorden hadden iets van zweepslagen. Hij kon ze voelen op het voorlijf van zijn moeder: klets-klats, klets-klats” (Roemer 2016:88). At the start of the novel, we hear how somebody gave “met woorden een spaanse bok” (Roemer 2016:11); Spaanse bok being a torturing instrument from the days of slavery.


“Zangles geven was zijn lust” (Roemer 2016:511); “Naar zijn gevoel liep alles haar naar hartenwens” (Roemer 2016:535); or “hij was een man van de daadwerkelijkheid” (Roemer 2016: 542).


Emma van Meyeren remarks, for example, how many colons the latest novel has. See the podcast, accessed August 9, 2021.


Postcolonial literature is often marked by the discursive representations of the technologies of modernity and of “phallic domination” (Mbembe 2001:13): motorboats, cars, typewriters, and guns.


Cora and Onno evoke the ancient “three-monkey symbol,” represented by a statue of three animals that “see, hear, and speak no evil.” Cora owns a version of this statue (Hambuch 2015:51).


Roemer (2004:186) compares her trilogy to a cathedral, where the reader’s conscience can be “cleared out.”


One of the author’s primary intentions with this book was giving violated women a voice. She wanted to supplement the political and historical debate on Suriname (1965–2000) with a woman’s perspective: “Actually, the bloodbath that occurred in December 1982 is constantly being held up for judgement, although not in a formal sense. Of course it’s a male thing. It was men killing other men. What about other forms of violence in Surinamese society, which have never been given a voice because the victims are female?” (Niemöller 1998).


As McClintock points out, Lacan suggests this with his theory. The writing is “female” in the thematic emphasis on wombs, pregnancies, and fertility. But it is female too in its metaphors. The relation between the ex-colony and colonizer is compared to a relationship between lovers, for example. Hambuch reads the trilogy in connection to other Caribbean writers: “The concepts of ‘motherland’ and ‘mother tongue,’ which have been analyzed thoroughly in the context of other Caribbean women writers, provide a leitmotif throughout the trilogy” (Hambuch 2015:41).


Often, men are healers, helpers, and nurturers in Roemer’s work, as in other Caribbean women’s fiction (Valovirta 2014:143).


As Roemer (1996:38) claimed in an essay: “They were denied by history the possibility of being responsible for others in a family bond.”


Roemer (1996:39) points elsewhere to the historical basis of this shared parenthood in the community.


Read by Phaf-Rheinberger (2005:233) as symbolic for Ilya’s liberation, since the plane crashes against a kankantri, a wild silk tree which has an important function in legends, Winti, and local medicine. The kankantri accident is, Phaf-Rheinberger argues, connected to the violence of breaking from the colonializing country: “The kankantri, therefore, functions as a landmark between the inside and the outside world in Roemer’s novel. He is responsible for the disenchantment of Creole society of Paramaribo and the Surinamese coastal zones, populated by the phantoms of Dutch modernity in the past and present” (Phaf-Rheinberger 2005:234).


For Roemer, reading too is embodied in this manner. She uses metaphors such as “digesting” a text in a “metabolic event” (Roemer 2004:136).


“Er is immers niets mis met Suriname als grondgebied: de tragiek zit in het feit dat etniciteiten met een traumatische geschiedenis, gedwongen worden er in korte tijd een welvarende natie van te maken, met een hoogontwikkeld en rijk Europees land als spiegelend voorbeeld” (Roemer 2004:209).


The motto is translated, and the original cannot to be found. Our translation of the motto reads: “Literature puts us before the nonrequestability and the irredeemability of the suffering that happened in an unmemorable past. Having no power over the memory, being handed over to forget, maybe that is literature, maybe that is ‘learning to think with pain.’ ” The idea of “thinking with pain” is from Blanchot’s essay on writing after the Holocaust: The Writing of the Disaster.


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  • Phaf, Ineke, 1985. Interview with Astrid Roemer. In Mineke Schipper (ed.), Unheard Words: Women and Literature in Africa, the Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Trans. Barbara Potter Fasting. London: Allison & Busby, pp. 201–10.

  • Phaf-Rheinberger, Ineke, 2003. Creole tori, the Waterkant, and the Ethics of a Nation: Cynthia McLeod and Astrid Roemer on Suriname. In Gordon Collier & Ulrich Fleischmann (eds.), A Pepper-Pot of Cultures: Aspects of Creolization in the Caribbean. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 399–416.

  • Phaf-Rheinberger, Ineke, 2005. Landscapes, Narratives and Tropical Nature: Creole Modernity in Suriname. In Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey, Renée K. Gosson & George B. Handley (eds.), Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, pp. 225–35.

  • Penier, Izabella, 2012. Modernity, (Post)modernism and New Horizons of Postcolonial Studies: The Role and Direction of Caribbean Writing and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century. International Studies: Interdisciplinary Political and Cultural Journal 14(1):23–38.

  • Redmond, Roline, 1993. Taal, macht en cultuur: Machtsverhoudingen in een Afro-Caribische roman. PhD dissertation, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands.

  • Roemer, Astrid H., 1996. Writing Back in the Diaspora: Surinamese Ethnic Novels. In Ineke Phaf (ed.), Presencia criolla en el Caribe y América Latina: Creole Presence in the Caribbean and Latin America. Frankfurt, Germany: Vervuert, pp. 37–43.

  • Roemer, Astrid H., 2004. Zolang ik leef ben ik niet dood. Amsterdam: Aspekt.

  • Roemer, Astrid H., 2016. Onmogelijk moederland. Amsterdam: Prometheus.

  • Slemon, Stephen, 1987. Monuments of Empire: Allegory/Counter-Discourse/Post-Colonial Writing. Kunapipi 9(3)., accessed August 2, 2021.

  • Strongman, Roberto, 2008. A Caribbean Response to the Question of Third World National Allegories: Jameson, Ahmad and the Return of the Repressed. Anthurium 6(2). DOI:

  • Thomas, Bonnie, 2017. Connecting Histories: Francophone Caribbean Writers Interrogating Their Past. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

  • Valovirta, Elina, 2014. Sexual Feelings: Reading Anglophone Caribbean Women’s Writing Through Affect. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

English-Language Translations of Works by Astrid Roemer

  • 1985. No Place Any Place. Trans. Anne Lavelle. The Other Paper 4(29):8–9.

  • 1995. Astrid H. Roemer Meets Alice Walker in Amsterdam. Trans. Wanda Boeke. Callaloo 18(2):242–47.

  • 1997. In Search of My Own Voice: Migrating to Security. Trans. Wanda Boeke. Journal of Caribbean Literatures 1(1):35–47.

  • 1998. Mirror of the Night: A Short Story. Trans. Susan Ridder. Thamyris 5(2):349–56.

  • 1998. The Master’s Bedroom. Fragment. Trans. Ina Rilke. Callaloo 21(3):493–94.

  • 1998. Looks Like Love. Fragment. Trans. Susan Massotty. Callaloo 21(3):501–6.

  • 2009. Collected Woe. Trans. Susan Massotty. Chroma 9:18–23.

  • Forthcoming. Off-white. Trans. Jan Steyn. San Francisco CA: Two Lines Press.

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