A post by Peter Jordens.
In a book review for De Volkskrant, Persis Bekkering writes that Netherlands-based Surinamese author Astrid H. Roemer is completely back with Gebroken Wit [Off-White], a big, moving family novel that plays in postwar Paramaribo. Like a Caribbean Virginia Woolf, she hops between the inner lives of her characters. […]
Roemer, who was especially successful in the eighties and nineties with novels such as Over de gekte van een vrouw [About the Madness of a Woman], was the first Surinamese author to receive the Dutch P.C. Hooft Prize [for lifetime achievement in Dutch literature] in 2016. That became the year of her ‘comeback’: since then she has published regularly again, first a not so impressive autobiography, then the nice novella Olga en haar driekwartsmaten, and now, finally, a sizeable novel which solidifies her comeback.
In a wide-ranging story we read about the approaching end of grandmother Bee Vanta in Paramaribo who has smoked a few too many thick cigars in her almost 70-year-old life. While her granddaughter Imker cares for her devotedly, Bee’s lives as a mother and grandmother float in her mind’s eye. Her deathbed disrupts the fragile balance in the Vanta family―her children and grandchildren whose inner lives we come to know one by one. These characters reminisce and look ahead, as future and past intertwine. […]
Gebroken Wit [is] a true family novel, in which the small lives of almost-accidental people embody centuries of history. And like the better family histories, Gebroken Wit is a moving book, perhaps Roemer’s most accessible novel to date. She builds the story with impressive control. It starts in a homely and tender way, with the rituals of the strongly religious grandmother and the fragrant dishes that Imker cooks for her―rarely have I read a book that makes me so hungry. And then, slowly, we get to hear the family secrets: a history of abuse, incest, and deceit. The women in particular suffer. Nowhere are they safe, least of all with their closest relatives. Still, with so much the more courage, fun and hope, the youngest ones try to build a better future. Roemer lets her readers decide whether they will allow themselves to be convinced by the optimism of this youngest generation or will anticipate a lot of pain and sorrow for the teenagers Babs, Heli, Audi, and Beekeeper too. […]
The title’s term Gebroken Wit, literally Broken White, or Off-White, is how grandmother Bee describes her family: they are neither black nor white. They bear the color of a history of violence, [they are] “the children of fathers who were rooted in a Europe of which they know nothing other than Jewish refugees, pastors and missionaries, soldiers and neglected plantations.”
Amsterdam: Prometheus, April 2019