Eric Lie is a seventy-one-year-old taekwondo grandmaster living in Paramaribo, Suriname. He is the most highly decorated martial artist in his country and is considered a living legend by many. As a passionate hunter of wildlife and women alike, Mr Lie fathered many children. One of them is writer Karin Amatmoekrim. In her memoir Unless the Father Amatmoekrim tries to discover the man behind the myth, hoping in the end to find her father.
I was eleven years old when my mother told me that my father’s name was Eric Lie and that he lived in Paramaribo. It had not so much been a notification, as it had been pure magic. My mother had closed her eyes as she unfolded the story, her hands plucking at the air, reaping from her memory the description of a man I had never heard of before. She unveiled a new truth – that the father I knew was not my blood, and that my true father was living in Suriname, and that my old father, suddenly proved to be my stepfather, a common sailor on an ocean liner, but in reality a man who fully dedicated his days to drinking, a reality that was at the time inseparable from our own lives, and that my true, my real father was a famous sportsman in my native country. It was the day that the police had come to our house and forced my father, excuse me, my stepfather, to leave. My mother and I had cleaned up the mess his drunk visit had left behind and we went to bed, together, me joining her on the large king-sized mattress, under the blanket, which was welcoming and heavy on our bodies. She lay on her side, her face towards mine. Her eyes were closed, but I could tell she wasn’t asleep because she was gently shaking her legs, a habit she had when she went to bed a soft and soothing motion that calmed us, her children, and herself. In a documentary on the nature channel I once saw how an elephant mother softly cradled her child with her trunk. The smooth voiceover told me the mother did so to appease the child and that the rhythm of the lulling movement she made kept pace with the rhythm of her heartbeat. I thought about that, and about how my mother just lay there silently, and about how she seemed even younger than before. She was only twenty-eight at the time, but to children their parents always seem old, no matter what their actual age.
At that moment she opened her eyes and looked straight at me with a gaze I had not seen before. ‘Your father,’ she said. Then she stopped. I turned on my back, and I waited as she silently searched for the words. I looked at the ceiling, which was divided in two by a straight line of light that came in through a gap in the curtains. I listened to her breathing, soft and steady, and couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. She kept shaking her legs softly, comfortingly. Nothing indicated that she was nervous about what she was about to tell me. And yet I felt something was about to happen. Something great.
‘Your father,’ she said again. ‘Didn’t you ever wonder why you look so different from him?’
I shook my head without considering the question. I wanted her to get on with it, I needed her to skip steps, to hear what it was that was keeping us awake in that dark bed, under those heavy blankets. She studied my face, and I waited impatiently, careful not to say or do anything that could delay the revelation.
Then she said, ‘He is the father of your brother and your sister, but not yours.’
I held my breath for a short time. Then I let it escape through my nose.
‘Karin?’ my mother asked.
‘Yes,’ I answered, and my voice sounded normal, there was no emotion in it. I had laid my hand flat on my stomach in an attempt to feel if anything had happened, if anything in the depth of me had been changed by my mother’s words. There was nothing.
‘Yes,’ I said again, and I turned my head to the side so I could look her in the eye.
‘Do you want to know who your real father is?’
I nodded. She closed her eyes again and started talking, and while she told me the story her hands moved, her slim brown fingers, which I admired so much, gently touching the blanket, waving through the air. I wondered what it was she was looking for. Was it something she could hold on to, or was she conducting her words, the story? Did she charm the elements, moulding a whole new father, a father just for me? And she spoke of a famous sportsman, a grand master in the arts of taekwondo, a word I had never heard before. And she spoke of his love for her, and of how much she loved him, once.
I thought about my stepfather the sailor. The giant that came and went as he pleased, who laughed because he drank, until he drank so much that it made him cry, big, old, salty sailor tears across a crude, white face that I never recognised as not my own, for the love of a child is loyal, does not ask questions. Drink, laugh, drink, cry, cry, scream, break things, make them fall apart.
My mother asked me how I felt.
‘I feel fine,’ I answered. I laid my hand on my stomach again, tried to feel something. Somewhere deep down, but distinct, existent, there was a sense of relief.
‘Is there anything you would like to know?’ my mother asked.
‘Not really,’ I answered. I was tired and longed to see the end of this day. ‘Or maybe I do. Yes. I do have one question.’
‘What is it?’
‘What’s his name?’
She paused for a moment, it was as if she had to gather something, I don’t know, courage maybe, and finally she said,
‘Eric Lie. That’s his name.’
By Karin Amatmoekrim
Translated by the Author
Extract from UNLESS THE FATHER
Published by Prometheus (2016)
Karin Amatmoekrim is an award-winning Surinamese-Dutch writer with Indonesian, Chinese, African and Native American ancestry. She is the author of six novels, a memoir and numerous essays and short stories. Her work explores cosmopolitanism and notions of home and identity.