If Not the Father
A moving novel about a complicated father-daughter relationship
At the age of eleven, Karin learns that her father is not her real father. Her mother tells her, ‘He’s your little brother’s and sister’s father, but not yours.’ Karin finds out that her biological father, Eric Lie, is a taekwondo grandmaster who lives in Suriname.
This news – that her stepfather, an unreliable drunk, is unrelated to her – comes as a relief to Karin, empowering her to break free of his influence completely. She takes her mother’s last name.
Karin realizes that she wants to travel to Surinam, the country she left as a toddler. But she also feels enormous apprehension, ‘I knew who I was in the Netherlands but had no idea who I would be in the country where I was born’. Eventually she musters her courage, and although she’s delighted to be back in her native country, it’s not always easy for her to build a relationship with her father and the rest of her Surinamese family.
Eric is a flamboyant cult figure, yet despite his often erratic behaviour, he welcomes his daughter and sets out to show her Suriname. He takes her out hunting in the wilderness, which she finds terrifying. A charming womaniser, he has eight children by different mothers. Karin strikes up friendships with some of them but finds it awkward to socialise with her father’s ever-expanding family tree. With new relatives popping up at every turn, it’s sometimes hard for her to figure out who is really part of her family.
The author offers an unsentimental account of fumbling intimacy, reservations, divided loyalties and false expectations, but also of love and affection. Karin remains level-headed and tries to keep her distance, yet at the same time she yearns to discover her true identity. So she decides to write a biography of Eric Lie, which forms the second part of the book – an honest, warm-hearted portrait of an unconventional, adventurous man.
‘Men wanted to be like him; women wanted to be with him.’ Her father’s life story alternates with reflections on being a writer and on relationships between parents and children, in particular, fathers and daughters.
In If Not the Father, Amatmoekrim tells the gripping, intimate story of her reunion with her father and her country of birth, adroitly expressing the universal longing to find a narrative in our parents’ history.