- Suriname, Sweet Suriname
One should never judge a book by its cover. Yet an exception can be made for Gloria Wekker's Politics of Passion: Women's Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora. With its close-up of a pretty black woman in sultry repose, perhaps in a prelude to a kiss, the cover issues quite an invitation to what is, in the end, a fine ethnography of passion.
Wekker studies the sexual practices and subjectivities of black women in Suriname and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands. Her focus is "the mati work," which refers to women's sexual, spiritual, and emotional bonds with other women, as well as to the mutual responsibility and obligation that characterize their intimate relationships with each other. The combination of page-turning ethnography, theoretical relevance, and often biting political critique makes for a wholly worthwhile book.
There are multiple referents for the politics invoked in the book's title. Most fundamentally, there is the character of the mati work itself: women do truly care for their sexual partners, but they put a premium on jealousy, competition, and dominance in their relationships. These qualities are often built in because of the age disparity that characterizes most young women's first same-sex relationships. Women in their fifties, sixties, and older attract much younger women. Such age differences are eroticized while also forming the basis of a series of power imbalances between lovers. Many "matis" also engage in sexual relationships with men, both for the children these relationships provide and for men's economic support. A further instantiation of the politics of passion lies in the national and global forces that produce Suriname's poverty relative to Western countries (most significantly, the Netherlands), and Afro-Surinamese women's poverty relative to their male counterparts. Economic conditions in Suriname make immigration to the Netherlands a goal for many, and women who succeed enter into a different [End Page 406] culture of same-sex relationships. Wekker stresses that the mati work and lesbianism, a European construct, are not synonymous. As Dutch citizens, black women of Surinamese parentage hold substantial power over their immigrant Surinamese lovers as they struggle to attain permanent legal residency and citizenship, as well as gainful employment. Finally, there are the myriad politics of describing black women's sexual culture at all. For centuries, black women worldwide have been pathologized through discourses about their sexuality, but precious little has been written about their actual sexual lives from their own points of view. In filling that gap, Wekker takes direct aim at racist representations circulating within the Netherlands and at the ethnocentrism of recent queer theorizing. Wekker, a Dutch citizen of Surinamese parentage and a lesbian herself, is also poignantly reflexive about her own involvement in mati women's lives.
As a corrective to the ethnocentric tendencies of gay studies—most notoriously, Dennis Altman's contention that same-sex cultures around the world are all basically inspired by the example of gay Americans—Wekker offers local understandings. She takes gay scholarship to task for the primacy it gives to identity over behavior as the pivot point of same-sex orientations. Culturally speaking, identity may be the rightful focus in the United States and much of Europe (although this, too, is debatable) but not so in Suriname. There, Wekker argues, women do not act on a notion of an essential, singular identity—in the sense of "I am"—but on religious (Winti) ideas about how their individual sexual propensities are determined by the relative influence of differently gendered spirits. That being the women's understanding, Wekker goes on to posit, crucially, that the mati work is a contemporary expression of a cultural orientation toward gender and sexuality dating back to preslavery West African societies. Here, by necessity, she enters the realm of conjecture. And she is in fine company. Many legendary anthropologists of the so-called New World, such as Melville Herskovits, Richard Price, and Sidney Mintz, paved the way for this analysis...