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Astrid Roemer

Astrid H. Roemer was born in Paramaribo, Surinam, in 1947. She emigrated to the Netherlands in 1966, where she made her debut as a poet in 1970. She now has a considerable oeuvre to her name, including poetry (Noordzeeblues, North Sea Blues, 1985), a play (Dichter bij mij schreeuw ik, Closer to Me I Shout, 1991), a novella (Levenslang gedicht, Lifelong Poem, 1987) and several novels. Her two latest novels, Gewaagd leven (Daring Life, 1995) and Lijken op liefde (Looks Like Love, 1997), were greeted with universal enthusiasm by the Dutch press.

In Dutch the word ‘lijken’ has two meanings, and as a result this book’s title can be read in two ways: it can mean ‘approaching or looking like love’ but it could also mean ‘love buried under dead bodies’. In this novel, set in Surinam in December 1999, we follow the life of Cora Sewa, a housekeeper whose opinion is seldom or never asked but whose discretion is often required. Someone who has eyes and ears but is expected to keep quiet about what she has witnessed.

Astrid Roemer, though, does give this voiceless woman a chance to speak, something that will come as no surprise to those familiar with the rest of Roemer’s oeuvre. She often chooses Surinamese women as her main characters to show, in no uncertain terms, just what male-dominated society suppresses and represses. In Roemer’s hands, the personal story of the housekeeper, who twice in her life has been indirectly involved in dubious murder cases, becomes an example of the inextricable entanglement of the personal and the political. Stories from the past - about independence, the political murders of December 1982, Desi Bouterse’s regime - are used to show how this complex mixture has always dominated Surinamese society, even in the days when the country was a Dutch colony. Corruption, sex scandals and murder are the order of the day.

The fairy tale of a virgin servant girl in a tropical paradise is shattered. The woman’s learning process is illuminating and painful at the same time. In Roemer’s view, Surinam will not enter the new century unscathed. But she lets the hope of better times - of love’s victory over the bodies - shine through. Cora’s life story is significant for everyone, the authorities, the repressed, and all who read this book.

Source: http://www.nlpvf.nl/6books/roemer.htm

Astrid H. Roemer meets Alice Walker in Amsterdam
Roemer, Astrid H.
Spring 1995, v18, n2, p242(6)
in Academic Index (database on UTCAT system)
COPYRIGHT Charles H. Rowell 1995

I. The Dream

It's on a day when it's pretty hard for me to get out of the city; my friend and I were on extremely good terms with each other, my work as a city council member and author was moving along incredibly, and my mother was within heart's reach.
However, persistent and charming as my publisher Jos Knipscheer can be, he managed by way of my answering machine of all things to make me feel sensitive about his reception in honor of Alice Walker. Obviously, I'd received the invitation weeks before, but I couldn't find any reason to place myself in the throng around the writer.

While we are busy dividing the tasks - my friend, her son and I - my mother calls to say that she'd finally made some moksi-alesi again and that she's coming over with a helping for me.

She sounded a little disappointed when I made it clear to her that I was just about to leave for Amsterdam - and that I'd very much appreciate her delivering three helpings to my address, because my beloved plus a family member were staying there, to make my yard presentable again, as it happened.

After some contention of a practical nature, I hung up - and while I'm already anticipating my enjoyment of the Creole stew with which, late in the evening, I will finish Friday, I take cordial leave of my friend in the hallway.

On the train I let my thoughts as well as my feelings loose on Alice Walker - and the receptions arranged on her behalf. It makes me think of my own reluctance when I receive invitations from abroad, and of my longing sometime to be able and willing to indulge them.

Compelling is the sorrow the instant Orsyla Meinzak flashes into my mind - this Surinamese woman of the theater who had pretty much imposed on me to write her a monologue for the personage that Alice Walker had rendered so engagingly, Sister Shug.

Night after night Orsyla M. was on the move to bring this character to life on various stages throughout The Netherlands. She had even flown down to Paramaribo (Suriname) to perform Purple Blues.

One evening, while Shug was caught in the stage lights, absorbed in a retrospective, Orsyla Meinzak collapsed onstage in Amsterdam, deathly ill. A day later she died in a hospital in her town, alone.

Thinking of the success Ms. Meinzak had had with her favorite character, and the recognition it is to be hoped she had brought with her beyond Life, I approach Amsterdam. Always, always something happens to me; a vexing sense of excitement, comparable only to the vibrations of being in love. For, I love The Hague, where I live, and Amsterdam and I have something beautiful together.

In this emotional state I let myself be driven to my destination on the Singel canal. Chance would have it that I end up with a black cab driver who wasn't in the mood to heed even the most basic rules of propriety. He keeps belching beer stench with no apologies, and at the slightest provocation slings obscene language at fellow travelers on the road.

So, upon arriving at the Publishing house In de Knipscheer, I paid the fare in a hurry and made my way from the taxi to the canal-front building in somewhat of a daze.

Ms. Walker had just arrived by water, and although I first met with acquaintances and friends, paying them proper and fitting attention, I set course for the spot where I kept seeing bright flashes light up momentarily.

There she stood. She isn't the girl on the book jackets; and she isn't all glamour and chic like Toni Morrison; and she isn't provocative and flashy like Buchi Emecheta; and she didn't lose herself in all her American dollars.

She is there, extremely soberly dressed, and only her most alert gaze betrays her affluence.

Although she appears to be listening attentively to still more compliments, she is taking in her surroundings, and I find it difficult to show myself to her.

So often I myself have stood like that: vulnerable, and longing so for an invisible person amongst the guests, a kind of angel who will constantly protect me.

Soon enough I espy the man and the woman who are keeping a careful eye on her.

When Jos K. went over to her, I went also, and he introduced us to one another in a way that made us uneasy: Alice, Buchi, Astrid - the three women who are doing very well on my list.

And we black women had at that moment little to say, besides what I felt it my duty to say, namely to let Alice Walker know what a honky our publisher is. Flushing, he left us, and Alice W. asked me to come sit with her at the round-table discussion.

It is an unforgettable experience: Astrid beside Alice, so close, as if it had never been any different.

I know the sound of her voice, the rhythm in which she uncouples the words, the silences, and I know her answers before she utters them.

It was as if we had stepped out of the same dream to touch base momentarily with others, and then to depart, content, to move back into the dream.

At one point she has to laugh and she carefully lays one of her hands on my fingers and it becomes even more obvious that we're outsiders.

What did the questions posed her matter to me: sitting around Alice Walker are women who came to meet her, and Astrid Roemer had to be among them.

On the way home, at first the discussion rages on among Ellin Robles, Ineke van Mourik and myself, a hefty argument on the relationship between Love and Sexuality.

Sitting on the worn plush, I understand that the event that afternoon obviously should stir up such a conversation. Alice W. talked to us about the values that make us literally and figuratively human.

Contemplating my appeal for romance, I nibble on a piece of chocolate from the cake I managed to pick up en route at the Americain Hotel on the Leidseplein for my love, a silent sign of sweet longing.

At the same time I think of Anja Knipscheer, who played hostess so open- heartedly and warmly. I can see her before me: El K. with her short hair, looking so terribly youthful; I realize how restrained and attentive she has remained all these years. I think of the brothers and how through thick and thin they all keep at it together.

We have all grown older - more experienced and often harder on each other. And yet, we know how to come to terms with one another at important moments, like this late afternoon with Alice Walker.

Completely inspired, I let myself be driven to my house: first, spoil my lover with chocolate cake, and then sit down to my own meal - after all, moksi-alesi is the dish with which my mama acknowledges me as her daughter, because she knows I love it and also that I'll leave the same dish untouched at anyone else's house.

However, while I'm arranging the wedges of cake on a porcelain platter with dollops of whipped cream and the breath of my devotion, I inquire in staccato tones about my rice dish. Then I feel the blow: your mother thought you'd appreciate it if she just gave your portion to my son and me - after all, you left for Amsterdam.

The fire that had kept me comfortable now flares up into a blaze: haven't my nearest and dearest understood yet that, first and foremost, I cherish myself?!

Furious - cursing and spitting - I went to lie down in the tub: hot water, sea salt, lavender. There was a wound that had to be cleansed here: why does everybody always think that I don't need anything!?

Abruptly I broke off all contact between the outside world and myself. My girl friend moved around like a cloud of smoke. Had I vented my fury, she would have disappeared. But how could she have stilled this hunger for my mother's "pabulum pot"?!

Sobbing, I slid between the sheets - and for comfort, my thoughts sought out the memory of Alice Walker. I found the book she had signed for me in big, spiky letters - and opened it.

At once I glided to the temple: warm coral-red, the color of the earth, painted decorations along the top - of which many, turquoise and dark blue, seemed like Indian symbols for rain and storm.

And - I must have fallen asleep, been out for hours, and woken up again by a great feeling of pleasure that encircled my heart, as if the blood was becoming warm and effervescent: a feeling like an orgasm, but with its center at the muscles of my heart.

Shreds of dream images came back to me: women wrapped in colorful cloths standing around my bed, their brightly painted faces motionless but their eyes, their eyes are mirages like the Caribbean Sea, like the streams in the depths of my homeland, and a dizzying feeling of connection wells up in me:

Miss Lissie, Carlotta, Zede, Arveyda, Fanny, Mama Celie, Mama Shug.

I slept too long. But I was healed. And shoot, it was Mother's Day when I was able to show my face to the world again.

II. The Massage

According to her own testimony, other celebrities once thought that she was "disturbed," but since she has acquired worldwide distinction with her books, both friend and foe call her eccentric. But why should she hide her emotions when young members of The New Amsterdam theater group sing a rain-song for her so that she can see a fragment of a multiethnic culture that heals both one's fellows and one's environment? And how can I refuse when, at a friend's, she irresistibly offers to massage my feet? In everything she does with conviction, Alice Walker is very open-hearted and wonderfully unpredictable.

I often fall in love - in my opinion, the capacity for this has grown with my experience over the years. A kind of surrendering to actual living is what it is: not yearning anymore for what isn't there, but being absorbed in the now. I am terribly rooted in the present and have the strong feeling that neither the future nor the past exist.
I have learned to cut back on the future and the past, thus on things that keep me away from my own moment. I really feel much richer than before, complete in my own life.

Up till I was sixteen, I lived in houses that leaked. I had an aggressive father and ditto brothers. I know what being poor means. But I have always experienced Nature as the most reliable and supportive certainty that a person has. The balance of the nature within myself with nature all around me - that is harmony. No longing for the accumulation of material goods, just the passion to experience Beauty, Purity, Goodness. Fame, fortune and recognition have not essentially changed me in this regard.

Still, I once thought that I would die of desperation at about thirty. In this sense, my daughter (24) is a blessing. She has taught me to "love unconditionally" and to feel solidarity with younger women. She helps me put up with life, because I think she's fascinating. Her presence in my life has set something in me free whereby it has become possible for me to see so much more of society's lies. Because of her, I have promised myself particularly always, always to be honest, and to write about my experiences with her because the mother-child-daughter relationship is vulnerable and rigidifies through lies and rituals. We have to see each other's "nakedness," and thus her identity as well as mine develops. Inevitably it's the drop of water that reminds me of the ocean.

It all seems pretty spiritual, but really it's just so natural. I am connected to nature, and I feel spiritual. For me there is no beginning and no end. There are only circles. The so-called Primitive Peoples, Natives, Aboriginals, even went naked because they knew they already possessed everything - since there's no such thing as actual possession. Civilization failed in this. Accumulating, saving, in short, forever collecting only leads to the destruction of nature and, in the end, of human beings.

I find it hard to believe that the Black Race is lost - but we are having a very, very difficult time of it. The Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are seriously making themselves heard again, and just now that we're at our weakest. We have been misled by bizarre incidents that have structurally eroded our people all over the world down to their roots: poverty, drugs, disease and starvation. It is also high time we tried our very best to understand ourselves. Why can we manage to live together in harmony only sporadically and briefly? We are "scattered" - that is more catastrophic than living in the diaspora. As soon as one of us achieves freedom, wealth, recognition, we become detached from our disciplines, our ancient and instinctive tradition of "a sense of community." We have been living "confused" for centuries, and often enough we have had to start all over from the ground up. We know our patterns. It's high time to break them down - otherwise we blacks will remain victims of our repressors for hundreds of years to come. The tragic thing is that the promises of a life with dignity we make our children, we don't realize ourselves.

Our task is to enhance our tools with what strength we have developed through our talents - but that's a hell of a job. Black people aren't used to being loved - and our defense is to keep escaping affection. We are used to never-ending struggle. Instead of running to one another, we run away from one another. I, too, suffer from this, but I have been fighting it successfully. I have to stay connected to my community to feed it with my strength and with my spirit. There isn't any black community without people like us. Besides, through our work we have organized self-knowledge that guides and protects us.

I don't place my hopes on Leaders. Experience has taught me that we can easily lose them through violence, death, imprisonment, or corruption. A person is autonomous when that person has become her or his own "leader." The gain derived from this "leadership" should be shared with others and with the community. It helps when people who have developed this "leadership" become known. This has a stimulating and healing effect on the black community that has amassed an enormous experience of pain, hatred, repudiation, fear, and suffering. Oh, how painful it is to see all of this reflected in each other's eyes. This is how a new kind of flight behavior originates. We must fight this.

Myself, I'm beyond the "state of sadness." I have developed my "leadership" and use it as a "sharer." Now I'm moving towards a state of "serviceability." That's why I write the way I write: out of sadness. I can write about "evil" because I feel happy - and so strong that I can attack the demons in life so that I can share something of my experiences with others, and maybe so that they can then manage those demons themselves. Through my publications I am expressing my loyalty to my community, especially to those closest to me. When I write, I think endlessly of the people I love. My background is tremendously varied: individuals that can only be reached through that which is simple, direct, emotional, and others who are touched by the extremely abstract, plus all kinds of variations in between. What causes me to Vibrate is creating something that is accessible to the most ordinary, and complex enough for the most extraordinary amongst us - and my work always has to be useful, because that is my tradition: utility. In this way, I remain serviceable: a servant is what I want to be.

Writing for me is a natural and fluid process. I write in a notebook with a pen, and preferably in bed, as I did as a child. Oh - you should come see my "cabin." Two years ago I had a room with washing and toilet facilities outside it - no kitchen. No guest room. But my books' selling successfully and my selling film rights have placed me in a position to build a place to live - on a hill: a captivating view with curious light, and everything right within reach. These conditions fit perfectly with the atmosphere I needed to write Possessing the Secret of Joy, my latest novel about female circumcision.

It's true, a lot of money can make life a little easier. But even where this is concerned I'm a "sharer." At first I made mistakes, and so learned to spend my money sensibly, to find a balance in sharing - not stinting on myself and not burdening others by "overgiving."

Oh, the family never has enough; they stay needy without even showing concern or interest in my health or my work. But something like that, too, demands learning experiences. People often don't know what to do with their money when it suddenly comes pouring in. And American society offers attractive possibilities: Cadillacs, villas, sophisticated drugs.

Last night I dreamed about my mother. I can still feel it in my heart - pain mixed with nostalgia. She really lived like an Amazon and did everything excellently. Always on the go. The past six years this woman has been a total invalid. She can only lie on her back. It hurts her so much because she has become what she never thought she'd be: helpless and in need of help. I stepped away from her suffering with difficulty and a lot of pain, but a dream like that brings her suffering so close.

My mother and I. My daughter and I. The tulips standing on the table. Oh, so fragile the circle of life is. I have no words to express our being with each other. That's how life comes together in an eternity of incomprehensible circles - right now.

Translated from the Dutch by Wanda Boeke