Five months ago, Astrid Roemer became the first author from Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, to win the prestigious Dutch-language literary award the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, and was praised by the judges for her “unconventional, poetic” works. But last week, the organisers announced that a ceremony for the poet and novelist, due to be attended by the king of Belgium, would be cancelled, after she came under fire for her comments about the former Suriname president Dési Bouterse.
While Roemer will still receive the £40,000 prize, plans for King Philippe to present her with the award in October have been dropped. Organisers said in a statement that “as a result of Ms Roemer’s recent views and statements”, a ceremony was “not appropriate”.
According to De Volkskrant, Roemer described Bouterse, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019 after being found guilty in a military court of murder for the execution of 15 opponents in 1982 after a coup, as “unforgettably brave”.
Bouterse is appealing the court’s decision and Roemer has declined to describe him as a murderer, telling Nieuwsuur: “I understand that people do not like that. But I tend to believe Dési Bouterse when he says: ‘I didn’t want civilian murders.’ I believe him.” The author also said she did not believe Bouterse should receive a prison sentence “after so many years, given his commitment to the decolonisation of Suriname”.
Her comments drew criticism from some Surinamese people. The chair of a committee set up to remember the victims of the 1982 murders said she was was “shocked and stunned” by Roemer’s statement. Lawyer Gerard Spong wrote that: “Dutch tax money should not be spent on any ground whatsoever on a person who spreads anti-rule-of-law views,” while chair of the Caribbean literature working group Rita Dulci Rahman, whose brother and partner were among the people killed in 1982, said she would not attend the ceremony.
Late last week, the prize’s organisers took steps to distance themselves from Roemer’s views. “The prize is awarded for the entire oeuvre of a writer in the genres of poetry, prose and/or drama. Personal views of authors are not taken into account when assessing their oeuvre,” they said. “We find Mrs Roemer’s statements so inappropriate that it is not appropriate to continue a festive award ceremony.”
Roemer wrote on Facebook that the cancellation was a “load off my mind”. “There would be protests during the ceremony and I do not want my guests to feel uncomfortable,” she told Nieuwsuur. “I have even been called an NSB member [the Dutch Nazi movement] while I have been resisting and writing about racism for 50 years.”
Off-White, Roemer’s English-language debut, is due to be published in 2022.