The Spui has a long history as a place of writers and reporters. Café Hoppe, to your left, has been the home of politicians, authors, and journalists for centuries. The square now has three bookstores and the University of Amsterdam library – and that pretty red and white building with the green accents used to be a library as well! In 2020, the bookstore Atheneaum was visited by a lauded but reclusive literary figure.
When journalist Cindy Kerseborn wanted to complete her documentary trilogy on Surinamese artists by profiling the sixty-something writer Astrid H. Roemer, she had to set off on a worldwide search. After a lifetime moving around Suriname and the Netherlands, Astrid had set off to spend years traveling the world with her cat, her laptop, and a backpack. Despite a brief foray into politics in the 1980s, it has often seemed that Astrid would rather disappear behind and into her words.
Astrid is a Surinamese poet, novelist, and playwright whose work was ground-breaking in its discussion of the lives of women and migrants, as well as the history of Suriname. As Cindy explained, “She was the first woman to explore the complex history of Suriname in a novel form. She did it in an intellectual and, at the same time, a sensual and poetic way.” Astrid plays with imagery, rhythm, and language, melding the flavors of Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and Suriname, as well as using Srnantongo, the Creole language that’s spoken by at least half the people of Suriname.
Astrid debuted in 1970 with a collection of poems in Dutch and Srnantongo called “Sasa; my present being”. She’s since published six collections of poetry, novellas, columns, and nine novels (as of 2022), of which a trilogy about the modern history of Suriname is perhaps the most beloved. She also wrote several popular plays, some of which were performed by her own theater group, Bruin Brood en Speel (Brown Bread and Play). In 2016, Astrid was awarded the Netherlands’ highest literary honor, the PC Hooft prize, becoming the first writer of Caribbean descent to receive it.
In 2021, Astrid became the first author of Surinamese descent to be offered the triennial Prize of Dutch Letters, a prestigious recognition of her entire body of work. However, the ceremony was canceled after her argumentative support on social media and in interviews for Desi Bouterse, the former Surinamese leader who was convicted of killing dissidents. It’s a difficult situation to understand, but Astrid’s comments about the court and the cancellation brought to mind an observation Cindy Kerseborn made years earlier: “In her world, everything that exercises power is perverse.”
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