You know Marlon James and Edwidge Danticat. Now meet Astrid Roemer.

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You know Marlon James and Edwidge Danticat. Now meet Astrid Roemer.
The author Astrid Roemer in New York, Nov. 17, 2023. Roemer’s books bring Suriname, on the South American Caribbean coast, to the world — her 2019 novel, “Off-White,” will be released in English this month. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Anderson Tepper

NEW YORK, NY.- For many readers in the United States, the literature of the Caribbean is a familiar one: Take Marlon James, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz, for starters.

The Dutch Caribbean still seems an unknown territory, though, and Two Lines Press decided to publish “On a Woman’s Madness,” a novel by Dutch-Surinamese author Astrid Roemer, without quite knowing how it would be received.

When the book — a fever dream of personal liberation set in midcentury Suriname, a former Dutch colony on South America’s Caribbean coast — was shortlisted for the National Book Award for translated literature last year, it was a pleasant surprise for both the publisher and the author.

The jury’s recognition of “this brash, lush, experimental book about a queer Black Surinamese woman” felt like a victory, said CJ Evans, Two Lines’ editor-in-chief, even if Roemer and the translator, Lucy Scott, didn’t win. Days after the festivities, Roemer, 76, was still basking in the glow of her success, her finalist medallion around her neck. “This is what I’ll be wearing when they bury me,” she joked.

This month, Roemer’s introduction to American readers continues with the release of her 2019 novel, “Off-White,” translated by Scott and David McKay, which echoes earlier themes — the racial and sexual dynamics of Suriname’s multiethnic society — but with a larger scope, examining several generations of a Surinamese family in the years between World War II and the 1960s.

Reading “On a Woman’s Madness,” originally published in Dutch in 1982, and “Off-White” back-to-back offers a look at Roemer’s evolution over four decades, Evans explained over email.

The experience also highlights the universality — and the endurance — of her work.

“Her questions of race and misogyny and sexuality, and the global and personal effects of colonization, aren’t alien to the current literary landscape in the U.S.,” Evans said. “But encountering these themes from the incredibly complex and diverse history of Suriname, I think, expands that conversation.”

“On a Woman’s Madness” had a powerful effect when it first came out in the Netherlands; Roemer was embraced by university students and feminists, she said, who were “trying to find tenderness in their own lives.” But she was also labeled a lesbian — which she wasn’t — and harassed. “It was rough, dirty, painful,” she said.

Noenka, the book’s protagonist, is fiercely independent, abandoning an abusive marriage for a series of love affairs, including an all-consuming passion for another woman. “Noble and naked, I wanted to lead my own life,” Noenka says in the book. “I would not allow myself to be preyed upon.”

In the years that followed, Roemer’s career took flight. By the late 1990s, she had settled in The Hague and produced a monumental trilogy she dubbed “Impossible Motherland.” She was “riding high,” she said, but also felt the need to escape what felt like an insular literary world in the Netherlands.

Roemer also felt personally targeted. She had been critical of Suriname’s military regime — an outspokenness that, she believed, may have motivated the repeated break-ins at her house.

So Roemer slipped away, laying low in Scotland — first in Skye and then Edinburgh — and, later, across from a Belgian monastery. It was a period rife with misinformation about her whereabouts. According to Wikipedia, she traveled the world for 15 years with “just her cat, laptop, and backpack.” (She did take her cat.) In truth, she was working on several projects — a memoir, a libretto, poetry, another novel. “It was one of the best, most productive times in my life,” she recalled.

When Roemer returned to the Netherlands years later, the literary establishment began to recognize the quality of her oeuvre, which had long been deemed “too exotic” for the Dutch audience, said Karin Amatmoekrim, a novelist and an essayist who was born in Suriname.

In 2016, Roemer was awarded the P. C. Hooft Award; in 2021, she won the Dutch Literary Award. She is the only Surinamese author to win either of the country’s two most prestigious honors.

The prizes acknowledged Roemer’s vital body of work, but also helped shine a light on a generation of Surinamese writers who had succumbed to exile, madness and suicide, according to Raoul de Jong, author of “Jaguarman,” a memoir tracing his father’s Surinamese roots.

“There was a whole system in place to keep voices like hers silent,” de Jong wrote in an email. “The recognition, to me, is not only for Astrid, but also for all these writers who are no longer here but whose books still exist.”

Roemer, who moved back to Suriname three years ago, appears to have come full circle: She first left the country in 1966 as a 19-year-old fledgling writer. After years of violence and turbulence, Suriname — like Roemer — seems to also have achieved a degree of peace. Even the new president has “told me he likes my work,” she said with a laugh.

Roemer often marvels at the extraordinary nature of her journey. “When I published ‘On a Woman’s Madness,’ I was a young woman and I didn’t know how the literary scene in Holland would react,” she said. “But now that I’m older, I feel like, Wow, it’s so strange and good that I had the courage to do that.”

Revisiting the novel in translation has been a moving experience, she said. “It’s like it is blooming again now,” she said. “The English translation has given me some insight; the English words and sentences are telling me my story again.”

The translations have also helped Roemer’s books forge new connections. She’s particularly thrilled to be claimed by other Caribbean writers. “When ‘On a Woman’s Madness’ came out last year, Caribbean people really noticed me,” she said. “They told me that this is ours.”

She also feels an affinity with Black American writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who were formative influences on her. Both writers came to the Netherlands in the early ’80s and Roemer, a young journalist, was able to meet them. Indeed, “On a Woman’s Madness” can be seen in relation to “Tar Baby” and “The Color Purple,” which came out around the same time.

For de Jong, Roemer is part of a larger tradition of the Americas, and her work, and its recognition in the United States, helps place other Surinamese stories in a broader context.

“I know that I’m part of a much longer story, and by looking at the strength that people like Astrid have, I find strength, too,” he said. “Despite all opposing forces, she did manage to find us. And that’s the great thing: In the end she won.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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