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Saturday, November 17, 2018
AMSTERDAM, Apr 27 1999 (IPS) - The visual impact of the center of Paramaribourban hub of Suriname, the former Dutch Guyana, wedged into the northeast coast of South Americais enormous.
An intense tropical sun pours down on streets lined with 19th- century houses and maroon woodwork, the dirt lots tucked in behind are rich with mangoes and frangipani and sidewalk cafes seat editors of the mofo koranti, the local grapevine.
This is the setting for Clark Accord’s novel The Queen of Paramaribo (De koningin van Paramaribo).
Published to great acclaim in the Netherlands and in the Dutch Caribbean islands, the best-selling novel is based on the life of Wilhelmina Angelica Adriana Merian Rijburg, a legendary Surinamese prostitute, better known as Maxi Linder.
Accord’s characters are, for the most part, fictitious, but their words carry us viscerally into the heat of the day: eyes roll expressively, the sweat is wiped off brows of those engaged in grassroots transactions, women dress to accentuate and seduce.
Every street has a history and a texture: “Outside dusk was falling. Bits of conversations and smells left over from the day wafted inside now and then with the cool evening breeze: the shrill voices of women hanging over window ledges, calling to each other across yards, wolf whistles from boys sent spiralling off towards the passing girl of their choice, like mating calls, the piercing bark of a dog guarding his territory as if his life depended on it…”
Maxi Linder grew up in Paramaribo in her mother’s care, well provided for by her father, who was a gold prospector along inland rivers.
Suriname’s vast rainforest interior is home to small Indian and Maroon communities, and the towns scattered along the Atlantic coast are home to descendants of native Indians, Africans, East Indians, Javanese, Chinese, English, Scottish, Dutch, German, French Huguenot, Jewish and Lebanese settlers.
These people have been arriving and departing and intermingling for over 350 years. School children do their homework in Dutch, which is also the language of the Parliament. Paramaribo is a town of splendour and sorrow, of colonial legacy and homegrown struggle.
These extremes are personified in the person of Linder, whose lifetime spanned the first eight decades of this century.
Much has been published about the history of Suriname, but nothing was ever written down about the life of Maxi Linder. Accord researched the book in the only way possible, by talking to those who knew her and recording this oral history.
By organising the book in chapters written from the perspective of these inviduals, the book mirrors the way Maxi Linder lived, as “the talk of the town.”
The dialogues are peppered with Sranantongo, the Surinamese language that many children in town were forbidden to speak in the colonial years. The women see men as children, sexual prey, or tickets to a better material life; the men regard women as mothers, sisters or whores.
Maxi Linder herself was raised in a virtuous home, but after being raped in her teens by a trusted Uncle’s figure, she hardened into a working prostitute and she sustained the role for fifty years.
She was flamboyant, tough, foul-mouthed. Wild accounts, many of them true, circulated about her exploits. Linder caused men to tremble with desire in her presence, and she made everyone shake in fear of becoming the target of one of her notorious tirades.
She strutted through town, outrageous and stylish, never making a secret of the source of her income. “You see this body?” – Maxi gracefully followed the contours of her body with her hands- “This body is worth a fortune. The amount I earn with this is beyond your wildest dreams.”
Dreams in the educational sphere did come true, thanks to Maxi. Unknown numbers of children had their school years, in Suriname and later in the Netherlands, financed by her.
Sometimes she offered, in other cases she was pursued, once her reputation had been established, as Lady of the Night and benefactor. There were those who refused to accept money of such impure origin, but they are peripheral to this particular story.
As much as this is a story of high and low life, it is a story of mixed blessings: U.S. troops were stationed in Suriname during World War II, to protect the bauxite reserves so vital to the Allies.
Prostitution flourished at the time, but as the exchange of sexually btransmitted diseases grew, so did the protestations from the U.S. Commanders. Eventually all of Paramaribo’s women of the night were rounded up and detained, including Maxi Linder.
This resulted in the loss of the house and land which had been purchased for her by her father.
The troops withdrew after a time, but she would not be forgotten. The story goes that when a neon sign was imported from the USA for a landmark local theatre, the package arrived with a small card which read “Greetings to Maxi Linder, Queen of all Whores”.
Through the years, a significant part of Linder’s income came from the pockets of sailors and businessmen, of all nationalities. She was able to send money to her charges in Holland with trustworthy sailors.
And envelopes were delivered to her at the end of the month for services rendered. But many of these men were eventually well- connected, and at a certain point the link with Maxi Linder proved too risky. She died in poverty, and most people in the singing, clamorous crowd at her funeral were women.
Clark Accord was born in Paramaribo, and the book has been enthusiastically received there. Accord finished his education in the Netherlands and has evidently honed his visual talents as a successful make-up artist on the international fashion circuit.
He describes himself as a “Surinamese-Amsterdammer of the nineties.” The publication of his first novel in the Netherlands was cause for celebration in both Suriname itself and within the sizable community of Surinamese descent in the Lowlands.
It has been published in German and Finnish. And the English translation can’t be far away. There’s no shortage of Surinamese subjects in circulation in Holland, but most of them are related to social, political and economic stress in the former colony.
So is The Queen of Paramaribo, but the focus has been shifted from real-life corrupt officials and sleazy businessmen to real- life, hard-working mothers, sisters and prostitutes, many of whom supported family and neighbours in times of need.
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