“Maybe the only reason for my writing is my deep and everlasting longing for safety: freedom from danger in the environment, the society and in close and intimate relationships,” Surinamese writer Astrid Roemer concludes in her 1995 essay “In Search of My Own Voice.” “Maybe it is my very great need: my necessity for romantic peace, pleasure and happiness in my most tender moments and in my defenseless and powerless self.”
Roemer’s second novel, and first to be translated into English from Dutch, Over de gekte van een vrouw / On a Woman’s Madness (1982), is a narrative expression of this search for safety and refuge—though the result is less a discovery of “romantic peace, pleasure and happiness” than a continual refusal of the standard options offered by social norms. In On a Woman’s Madness, freedom is not a place but an activity, a kind of restlessness that never settles into safety but still insists upon the necessity of its seeking.
Roemer, born in 1947 in Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo, is perhaps the most prominent figure in contemporary Surinamese literature, which is a woefully under-translated body of work in comparison to Caribbean and Latin American writing in Spanish, Portuguese, and French. (A recent exception is David McKay’s translation of anti-colonial resistance leader Anton de Kom’s 1934 masterwork We Slaves of Suriname.) Though Roemer is the first Surinamese author to win the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (2021), the most prestigious award for Dutch or Flemish literature, and the P.C. Hooft Award (2016) for lifetime achievement in Dutch literature, she began her career on her own. “I financed the publication of my first novel [Neem mij terug Suriname / Take Me Back, Suriname] myself. I took those one thousand copies to the five bookstores in Paramaribo, the only ones there are—and they were willing to sell the book, even though they don’t specialize in literature.” By the time she relocated to the Netherlands in 1966, Roemer relays that “I was already a very well-known author in Suriname, because I had published three books ‘in eigen beheer,’ ‘under our own management’ as we called it, without a publisher.”
Over the course of her five-decade career, Roemer has produced a robust body of work that includes fiction, poetry, and drama—all of which inform this fragmentary, nonlinear, and often surprising novel. Roemer’s eponymous “Woman” is Noenka, pronounced roughly like nunca in Spanish or Portuguese, meaning “never” or “never again.” This attitude of refusal epitomizes her behavior from the outset, when she—seemingly without cause or warning—leaves her husband Louis after just nine days of marriage. Her decision becomes a local scandal; the headmaster at the school where she teaches orders her to return to her husband within thirty days. Noenka flees from Paramaribo to the town of Nieuw Nickerie. There she becomes the subject of further ridicule for carrying on an affair with a rumored womanizer named Ramses. Nieuw Nickerie is also where she meets Gabrielle, a married white woman and mother to two disabled children. Following Ramses’s sudden death, Noenka is institutionalized and returned to her husband.
The novel’s episodic construction—comprising many short sections but few identifiable chapters—almost ironically deemphasizes the protagonist’s capacity to drive the plot of her own life. It is divided into three parts; the latter two both begin with Noenka being committed to a mental hospital following some sudden, catastrophic development. In the first instance, Ramses’s death precedes a weeklong institutional stint she describes as “the overgrown clitoris of a blind woman who does nothing but masturbate.” In the second, she is remanded to psychiatric treatment by court order after (spoiler alert) Gabrielle murders Louis. These circumstances certainly highlight Noenka’s perceived “madness,” a kind of diagnostic tool for keeping wild women in check. But the novel’s structure also suggests that, despite attempts to take and maintain control over her trajectory, the watershed moments in Noenka’s life are the fallout from others’ actions.
The novel’s conclusion centers on Noenka and Gabrielle’s doomed romance; it is presumably because of this centrality of a lesbian relationship that On a Woman’s Madness has been heralded as a classic of queer literature. The work’s queerness—or rather, its treatment thereof—rests not so much in its elaboration of any kind of positive queer identity. Rather, it manifests as an almost compulsive rejection of heteronormative social structures. There is little implication that what Noenka (or Gabrielle, for that matter) needs to reach personal fulfillment is any particular kind of love, sex, or self-knowledge of sexual identity or sexual orientation. The protagonist realizes her love for Gabrielle “was as if I’d never loved before, it felt so unfamiliar and new.” But she also acknowledges in a later tussle with her newfound paramour that, “I don’t love women. I love you. Even more, I love what’s inside of you. The fact that you’re pretty and that you’re a woman doesn’t come into it. You know how much I loved Ramses. Louis, too, in my way.” What Noenka and Gabrielle seek is not a queer relationship in the strictest sense, but instead, a purposeful withdrawal from the institutions and social expectations that constrain them—namely marriage, but also monogamy.
Roemer dedicates the bulk of her novel to exploring what kinds of alternatives lie outside the bounds of a normative life for women like Noenka: marriage, career, childbearing, caretaking. The romance with Gabrielle seems no more important than the one with Ramses, and both signify a break from the dictates of heteronormative social codes. This imperative to seek out new possibilities is part of Roemer’s broader literary project. The author notes that one of her most important predecessors, Surinamese writer and poet Bea Vianen, writes from “an experienced Surinamese consciousness” but “does not elaborate alternatives in her oeuvre.”
What On a Woman’s Madness lacks is any account of why its characters—above all Noenka—must seek those alternatives in the first place. The protagonist seems perfectly aware of this absence, as she makes clear when told to return to her husband or risk losing her teaching job:
The inspector kept it short: married women who leave their husbands and cause all sorts of commotion are women who have no place at our Christian schools. Either I went back to my husband, or I would have to submit my resignation within thirty days.
[ . . . ]
“That’s not fair. My husband is abnormal!” I fought back.
“In what way?”
“That I can’t say.”
“In any case, you must have known that before the wedding.”
Noenka reaches the same non-conclusion in a later conversation with her mother, who asks her daughter’s reasons for ending the marriage. “I wanted to say something shocking in reply but changed my mind. The truth? I couldn’t even get a grasp on my reasons for leaving, I remembered nothing but the odious smell of my blood.”
Surely, a novel need not dwell on justifications for its characters’ actions; we do not have to know the exact nature of Noenka’s dissatisfaction with her marriage to understand why she might go in search of another kind of life. But absent any elaboration, On a Woman’s Madness largely advances a series of negative arguments—people and relationships have value in comparison to a worse alternative. Nonmonogamy and queer love may be good in and of themselves, but in the world of the novel their value largely derives from their structural opposition to heteronormative marriage.
The work’s broader narrative structure—constituted of this sort of overwhelming descriptive absence—reflects a similar tendency to leave seemingly important circumstances and relationships unremarked. Roemer begins by describing the significance of Noenka’s bond with her aunt Peetje, a character who never reappears, and makes little mention of her several siblings. These characters are thus like much of her life in the novel: present but not accounted for.
Roemer’s treatment of narrative time is also intentionally disjointed. Although the plot follows a largely chronological sequence of unfortunate events, the author introduces several unexpected temporal shifts, oscillating freely between present tense, childhood recollections, and extended dream sequences. The novel even opens with a “Postscript” (Naschrift) that jumps from 1875 to unspecified dates marked by the year “19xx,” dangling vague tidbits that foreshadow its conclusion. New sections begin without exposition with phrases like, “Another party:”, “A month later:”, and, jarringly, “The perpetrators are.” The latter represents a sudden revelation of information that brings the novel to a swift and dramatic end. The others, however, make large portions of the novel read like an accumulation of anecdotes. As with Noenka’s search for safety beyond the confines of heterosexual marriage, the novel restlessly explores its options without much narrative propulsion—it keeps going, but without ever being driven forward. Its circularity is formally interesting if dramatically bare, giving the impression that we are going nowhere fast.
The appearance of Roemer’s second novel in English is a major hallmark for the study of contemporary Afrodiasporic literature, and Lucy Scott is to be commended for tackling Roemer’s unsettled and often unsettling prose. Next year, Two Lines will publish Scott’s translation of another Roemer novel, Gebroken wit / Off-White, a family saga first published in 2019, giving Anglophone readers another opportunity to engage with the work of this crucial author.
© 2023 by Nicholas Rinehart. All rights reserved.