The anyisa headgear which Surinamese women traditionally wear was much more than a colorful square piece of fabric folded over their heads. You can send a message with it. The folding way indicated the wearer’s mood, whether she came in peace or on a collision course. If the anyisa was placed straight or skewed upside down, it had a purpose.
Roline Redmond concedes The Doorsons also importance to the headgear when it comes to her family history. Halfway through her quest, she finds one of her great-grandmother Constantia’s ancient anyises. Her aniseis would have been kept in a wardrobe that had been passed on from relative to relative after her death in 1925 and had ended up in an uncle’s crowded house in Suriname, but he had no idea where the colorful fabrics had gone. After his death, his wife Redmond hands over a gray-brown cloth. The cloth with scratches and ink stains could not possibly have been an anyisa of her proud great-grandmother, she thinks disappointed. But then she realizes that the messy piece of fabric is a couple’s pro toto; a picture that stands for her family’s miserable story. The reduced, discolored, and stained cloth that the woman presents represents Surinamese descendants of slaves’ inability to preserve their own culture.
The Doorsons is therefore much more than the reconstruction of a family history. It appears from the book’s epic opening sentence: ‘This is the story of a small family in an unknown land, whose history was also unknown, partly because it was taken from them from above, and partly because they themselves have forgotten it.’ Redmond repeatedly emphasizes that the Doorsons are an ordinary family, a Surinamese family average, where no unusual deeds have been performed and nothing remarkable has been left behind. When it comes to source material, initially there is only her grandmother’s tattered cardboard genealogy book, ‘thumbs up for my equally insignificant family history’. There are traces of her family in the archives, but they do not make her really wiser. And the family itself, like so many Surinamese families, has no documents either. They have become prey for fungi, moths or forest worms or even ‘thrown in the trash’.
To learn more about his family history, Redmond follows various clues that can reduce you to a strategy of shrinking and a strategy of increasing. Reducing the dimensions consists in a meticulous search for objective sources that support the family stories. ‘He who begins with fictions,’ she writes, ‘has given up the search for the true facts of events, and our incomplete history does not yet tolerate fiction.’
This book is nominated for the Brussels Prize. The shortlist of five books is discussed in this series. The winner will be announced on June 18 in a live broadcast of the NOS radio program For tomorrow†
Reducing also means that she will focus primarily on her three ancestors, the family matriarchs: her great-grandmother Constantia Augustina Doorson, who was a market woman in Paramaribo; her grandmother Paulina Magdalena Wijks, cleaning lady; and her mother Annette Josephine Wilson, who supported herself as a seamstress. Her great-grandmother was reportedly born on July 1, 1863, on Sarah’s cotton plantation in Coronie, northern Suriname. It was exactly the day that slavery was officially abolished, but the new Freemasons were not yet really free, for another ten years there was talk of slavery in disguise. It was not until 1873 that most slaves were able to leave the plantations; often they went to the capital, leaving relatives, living and dead, who leave the graves without writing, for they had not learned to read and write in slavery.
A hallmark of Creole culture, Redmond notes, is that there is no flashback
An increase is inevitable if one considers that Afro-Surinamese had a different definition of family than the usual one. The close circle of relatives also included the people whose ancestors had been on the slave ship from Elmina and who worked on the plantation. And because nothing tangible has survived except the family booklet, and the older generation has mostly died or is suffering from increasingly severe memory loss, it is obvious to seek refuge with relatives and relatives where material can be found, even if they are further away .
Redmond soon encounters Léon Dessé, a former metal worker who lives with his wife in a workers’ hut in Utrecht. He is a descendant of Anthony Dessé from Guadeloupe, the owner of plantation Sarah. His father was born in Paramaribo and was the son of a freed slave, giving him ‘a tan’. Léon was confronted with racism as a child. Little was left of the plantation’s wealth after it was swept away by disasters – fountains and a major fire. Redmond describes that she feels a strange mixture of closeness and distance for him. ‘After more than a hundred years of equalization, wealth and poverty are not far apart anymore.’
In Suriname, Edmund Doorson-Vriesde, born in 1923, is still alive, the grandson of a brother of his great-grandmother. He was a fisherman and knew Willem Wijks, a son of great-grandmother Constantia, who was the most successful fisherman in Paramaribo, but ended up in a mental hospital. His rich catches enabled Constantia to flourish as a fishmonger in the market – the market women then formed ‘the mighty guild of independent women’. To her surprise, Edmund has written his autobiography, which shows that he was a member of the Surinamese parliament.
Redmond also finds hard data about the legendary uncle Pee, Petrus Doorson, who according to family history was a notorious fighter, “first-class wrangler”. He wore heavy silver chains and a large gold pocket watch and, according to myth, could catch bullets by hand. Police archives help her separate facts and fiction: Uncle Pee was the leader of a group of people who stood up for union leader Anton de Kom – who later became the author of We are slaves of Suriname† Once, in a fight around De Kom, when the police threatened to shoot, he had torn up his coat and bared his chest and said: ‘Here, shoot it, then we will at least get rid of our misery.’ She wonders why in the family stories he has become ‘a joke character wrapped in gold’.
A hallmark of Creole culture, Redmond notes, is that there is no flashback. Because of the history of forced departure from Africa, the descendants of the slaves do not want to go back to the past. At the same time, there is still the tradition of the verbal chroniclers, who were highly regarded storytellers in West Africa. ‘Griot’, was the old word for them, but in Suriname it has been distorted to ‘griyo’ and it has taken on a negative connotation. Gríyo’s family transfer has become villainous and independent, presenting a false past and obscuring the past. Therefore, Uncle Pee has been transformed into a joke character in the tradition.
In her book, Roline Redmond wants to bring the African tradition of griot back to life. She wants to be a ‘business lesser’ in the sense of Anil Ramdas, a person who retrieves reliable memories from an ‘unsmined universe’. The business rememberer, in the words of Ramda, ‘revives the collective memory of simple, ordinary and unimportant people so that these people are not forgotten. So that they are not thrown out of history ‘.
And that is exactly what ambition does The Doorsons to an unusual and impressive book. Decades of work went into it, Redmond went through every possible archive to find information about her family, she was guided by the stories of the most diverse relatives, but more than one family story emerges from her book about how reality for her family must have felt . What it was like to be a fisherman, market woman or washerwoman after the abolition of slavery when life in Suriname was poor. How her family lived in Paramaribo and searched for food. She has brought ordinary people, who have suffered the necessary shock of history, from the darkness of oblivion and brought them back to life.