- By Simone Atangana Bekono; translated by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- January 23, 2024
A Black Dutch girl is driven to commit a shocking act of violence.
Can pervasive racism make you crazy? For those who never have to live with it, the debilitating effects of everyday racism can easily be discounted. Sticks and stones and all. But those who have lived under the ugly shadow of racial bullying know that words can hurt so much they break your mind, as is the case for Salomé Atabong, the Dutch protagonist of Cameroonian descent in Simone Atangana Bekono’s debut novel, Confrontations.
A newly inducted inmate in “the Donut,” a juvenile detention facility that puts the institution in institutional racism, Salomé must acclimate to the rhythms of incarcerated life:
“The corridor has a curve in it. Or rather, the entire corridor curves. We take a right and continue to go right, past door after door, across lino floors with black sole marks, until we get to a large metal door.”
The Donut is not a place of rehabilitation but of punishment, cruelly confirmed by her assignment to the behavioral therapist Frits van Gestel, whom she recognizes from a reality-TV show called “Hello Jungle” that features white Dutch people interacting with rural Africans. His appearance on the show, where he states that “he’d always had respect for ‘primitive life here in Africa,’” resounds in her mind every time she meets with him.
Sentenced to six months for an act of violence that is alluded to but not revealed until the final pages, Salomé adjusts to prison while reviewing the events that have brought her there. After entering a prestigious school, she finds herself an outcast, the “posh” students snickering at her name on the first day. One of five “foreigners,” and the only Black student, she gets called a monkey, an ape, the N-word, and more.
When she cries about the bullying, her father, a Cameroonian immigrant who is undergoing chemotherapy, presents her with a punchball, telling her, “You must follow your fist…As if you’re punching right through the enemy.” He models how to respond to racist insults by threatening a neighbor with death and smashing his car windows. Salomé’s white Dutch mother, meanwhile, is at a loss over how to guide her daughter other than to give her classic books by white authors. And her sister, Miriam, assiduously avoids home to hang out with friends and date boys who sometimes get violent with her.
In the Donut, Salomé forms a friendship with another Black inmate, tattooed tough girl Marissa, who moisturizes, combs, and braids Salomé’s neglected hair, so dry it breaks off. Marissa also dispenses advice on surviving the facility. “You don’t get it, man,” she says. “You mustn’t make it so difficult for yourself. When you start crying you don’t get punished, right.”
Salomé’s only other Black female ally is her aunt, a divorcee in Barcelona, who talks to her about the eviscerating effects of colonialism and patriarchy and tells her she is intelligent and special. “Aunt Céleste’s someone who finds everything racist. From Cameroon’s national debt to Spanish soaps. And if it’s not racist, it’s sexist.” Salomé’s father calls it moaning and says what’s important is to work hard.
Some years earlier, Salomé’s family visited relatives in Cameroon, where Salomé felt at home. When it was time to leave, she thought, “How can I go back to the Netherlands after I’ve seen this?” Back home, she talks of Cameroon as a paradise. “Everything was hotter, more beautiful, more colourful, sweeter, more, more, more. The picture’s so lovely that you begin to believe it.”
When a center for asylum-seekers is built in her neighborhood, her Dutch schoolmates see the Black Africans as indigent beggars. Someone mistakes Salomé for an asylum-seeker and welcomes her to the Netherlands, to which she replies with thanks. The cognitive dissonance grows.
Short chapters mimic the distracted attention span of an intelligent and troubled teen, the first-person, present-tense narrations of Salomé’s months in detention punctuated by flashbacks of the touchstone events that drove the introverted, bookish girl to commit an act of shocking violence. Though translator Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen renders a stream-of-consciousness logic to the narrative, the language is occasionally clunky, with renderings such as “a table football table,” “Miriam had gone AWOL again, for a change,” and “the fat ring around his ring finger.”
Salomé often imagines two Salomés existing in parallel timelines, one who is living her actual life, and another who “gets top marks for translations in Greek, is on holiday, plays the piano from memory.” But even after Salomé is released from the institution, that other Salomé remains out of reach. Like the corridors of the Donut that perpetually curve right, Salomé is trapped in a hostile world that points her in only one direction.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.