I am a part of a roundtable at the 2013 MLA conference in Boston. Because I have less room in a roundtable presentation, I’m including some background information on Laferrière’s more performative aspects here.
I have long suspected that Haitian writer Dany Laferrière’s practice of rewriting, revising, and continually adapting his work stems from his childhood spent in rural Haiti, where storytelling informs his experiences as much as the novels he finds hidden in his grandmother’s house. For example, his experiences in the book Le charme des après-midi sans fin, when he is stuck in his grandmother’s house due to a government crack-down (couvre-feu); Vieux Os (his fictional alter-ego), hears the different versions of why the government has chosen this moment to isolate the people in their houses, who the government is after, and who, ultimately is arrested and why. But this is just one example.
Another clue was his use of Jazz in his first novel, Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer. I’ve written about this before here on this blog, but I think it bears repeating how both the performative aspect, as well as the connection between the aspects of the Haitian culture his grew up with and aspects of African-American culture. Improvisation, collaborations (something that Laferrière himself has practiced in the adaptation of his work for the big and small screen, as well as the children’s books), and performance are are elements that his work has in common with Jazz.
This is what has informed my thinking about Laferrière’s work and my upcoming novel. In Boston, I will be talking about a way DH can bring orality and performance (two elements that are usually ignored in literary studies) back to the forefront and at the same time potentially stoke interest in a long-neglected Haitian tradition of the Lodyans, using tools initially developed to preserve and study oral histories. You can see the Storify I prepared for the presentation here.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. Thanks everyone for reading!
Here’s an excerpt:
The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.
Some preliminary thoughts about my upcoming MLA presentation on Laferriere. These idea about orality and performance have been turning around in my head for some time now and will probably inform much of the theoretical underpinning of my book. I’ve been doing some ebook reading (which, by the way, ebsco ebooks are the WORST) and I think I’ve finally managed to gain some shape or form to my ideas around how DH can be used to reclaim certain forms of orality and performance found in postcolonial writers such as Laferriere. It also helps me to explain why Laferriere writes, rewrites, adapts, and transmediates so much of his work.
The first book I browsed was The Power of the Written Tradition by Jack Goody, a respected anthropologist who has spent his career studying oral cultures. While he posits that that literate cultures are superior to oral cultures, he nonetheless, through his writing show how performance is an important element of the oral, as well as how religious practices that weren’t written down were more malleable, evolving according to the requirements of the particular culture and circumstances. Certainly, I can see how this relates to Laferriere insofar as his adaptations seem to be reactions to changes in time and audience. Instead of stable meaning, we are constantly shifting our view and understanding of his work. I’m excited by this find, even if it is an ebook. He also authored Myth, Ritual, and the Oral, which I have ordered through ILL.
The next is Orality: The Power of the Spoken Word by Graham Furniss which takes the exact opposite view of Goody in regards to the importance and (ahem) power of the spoken word/oral tradition. I’ve ordered the book through ILL, but I can tell that this book will further my understanding of the nature and features of orality, features that I hope I can find/match in Laferriere’s own work. According to one review, Furniss deals with the “magic of the moment” and this idea of performance. I also discovered theorist Walter J Ong (a student of Marshall McLuhan), and shockingly our library has some of his work. I’ll be off to check that out this afternoon.
Finally, I came across Kimberly Blaeser’s book George Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition. Vizenor is a Native-American writer who is shockingly similar to Laferriere, down to the use of Haiku and other elements of Japanese arts and culture in his writing. Vizenor manages to recreate some of the performative elements of oral traditions in his writing, using (among other things) the trickster figure. I have argued in other papers (albeit briefly) that Laferriere sets out to use/recreate the trickster of Voodoo spirituality, Papa Legba (going so far as to name one of his characters Legba, but also referring to him in some of his books). I’m hoping that some of her critical insight can help inform my interpretations of Laferriere’s work.
But, in the spirit of Digital Writing Month, I also wonder if some of what I will be reading about orality and performance isn’t also useful in understanding digital writing. Recently, when discussing #TvsZ, Jade of Jadedid suggested The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies so we can all brush up on our performance studies theory and understanding the performative nature of online writing. I think that some features of orality have come back through digital writing (impermanence, malleability, contextual nature, performance) that weren’t possible with printed, static text. This is why even though Laferriere eschews digital writing, I’m reading so much theory on it to inform my understanding of his work.
Blending the old with the new. That’s why I love this project so much.
Dany Laferriere just recently revised and republished his book Chronique de la Derive Douce, first published in 1994. The English translation (still only of the first version) was published in 1997 as A Drifting Year. The story is 366 short verses about the first year Laferriere lived in Montreal (1976, after all, was a leap year). I haven’t had a chance to read the expanded version (it has almost doubled in length. Laferriere himself, in an interview promoting the book, talks about how he decided to rewrite the book, with the hindsight of 35 years of living in Montreal and North America.
What’s interesting, too, is how the book is framed as “L’enigme d’arrive” to capitalize on the popularity of L’Enigme de Retour.” Laferriere is nothing if not smart about how to market himself and his books.
But even more interesting to me (as I am interested in how Laferriere rewrites, revises, and adapts his works is this TV special from 1988. It aired on TQS, the television station he worked at as a weatherman. It is an hour-long special called, “Etes-vous raciste?” (Are You Racist?). It is, as the host describes, a retelling of Laferriere’s arrival to Montreal and subsequently the racism he faced. It is certainly anachronistic (what are those puppets?), but it is an interesting re-telling of his first year in Montreal, as retold (and retold) in Chronique.
I found it serendipitously while looking at another Laferriere video on YouTube (there are, if you search his name, 244 results). Again, one hears echoes not only of Chronique, but also Les annees 80s dans ma vielle Ford.
I have my work cut out for me if I even want to get this book written.
I was poking around the internet, looking to see if the new ebook version of Je Suis Fou de Vava has been released yet (Laferriere alluded to this project in his interview with me) when I came across the following video, from 1985, promoting his novel Comment faire l’amour avec un Negre sans se fatigue. It’s an interview with Denise Bombardier (whom he imagined being interviewed by in his book). It’s in French, and it features a very, very young Laferriere.
I’ve been meaning for a while to take a look at the various covers of the book, so I figure this was as good an opportunity as any. Here is the original cover, from 1985, VLB Publishers:
This was the general format for all of Laferriere’s covers at VLB – the title in typewriter font with a painting on the lower right-hand corner. This cover, one would imagine, recalls the house of one of the Miz that Vieux visits, filled with “exotic” artifacts collected by her father. I wish I had a better picture of it, but this is a screen capture from the above interview; searching amazon reveals no cover photo for this particular edition.
Here is the cover in France, by Serpants des Plumes:
I’m not entire sure how I feel about this particular cover. It certainly calls attention to the race issue, and potentially the comical nature of the book as well. But, well, wow.
Then there is the popular “J’ai lu” mass-market paperback edition that borrow the cover image from the movie poster.
This, like the movie poster and most other promotional materials from the 1989 movie emphasizes the…sexual nature of the book. I particularly like the visual of this album cover, featuring the music from the movie.
Notice how “amour” (love) is the woman’s breasts. And the darkening of the pubis. Only in France (seriously, the album cover in North America is the movie poster. Apparently a ridiculously large phallus is more acceptable than the female form).
Now, in mass-market paperback in Quebec and France, the cover looks like this:
The emphasis here is the inter-racial elements of the book. This is the same type of imagery that is found on the cover of the Italian translation:
More interesting to me, however, is the emphasis on the English translations’ covers:
Here the emphasis is on the author himself, as a writer. The book really is about a writer trying to find his voice in his new home. The sex doesn’t come up at all, nor does the inter-racial aspect. The latest republication, with the full titled restored, no longer has any picture of visual to guide the reader:
Although it is hard to see, it does feature a blurb from the original review in The Village Voice. This, of course, emphasizes the literariness of the book, in contrast to the title.
I’m fascinated by how Laferriere’s books have been literally framed by the cover art selected for them. I’m going to go through and look at all of the books (at least the more interesting ones). In terms of how Laferriere has re-written and revised himself, so too has he been re-written and revised by other factors.
The book is a finalist for the latest Canada Reads competition. If you’re interested, you can read my essay on the problems with the English translation on Academia.edu.
Things have been quiet over here at Chasing Laferriere for the past few months. I’ve been teaching five courses this fall, revising my dissertation for submission, and pulling together the manuscript for the edited volume of essays on Laferriere. But November is Digital Writing Month and Academic Writing Month, so I’ve committed to working on my book and publishing the work I do here. It will be almost like a tumblr, I guess.
But first, in the spirit of transparency, I’ve decided (with the blessing of my collaborators) to post the abstract for the 2013 Digital Humanities Conference here. It has a lot to do with access, race, gender, marginalization within the field of DH, which are all questions that I address when looking at Laferriere’s work, so I think it fits. It also reflects the shift I am making in my research towards DH, especially as it relates to Laferriere’s work and my research on him. I think it’s a really important panel and will be great. But we’ll see.
So, here it is, our submission:
Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?
Roundtable Panel Proposal for DH 2013
As digital humanities and practices of open access and collaboration have become more prominent within academia, so too have their critique. Often these criticisms come from humanists who remain deeply skeptical, if not overtly hostile, to technology and moving from books to bytes (or, as put in a recent screed, “data”). However, critique must also come from those of us inside DH who have begun asking questions about who can access the infrastructures, knowledges and culture of DH.
The exciting possibilities of DH also must allow for the examination of the field’s human aspects. With that in mind, this roundtable draws attention to the fraught relationship between DH and those who have been marginalized and silenced within traditional power structures both within and outside of academia. As illustrated by Amy Earhart, in her essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, the promise of open and egalitarian access to materials has largely turned into a funding arms race prioritizing the same texts and projects long favored by academia. This leads us to the the question of who has access and the ability to really do digital humanities. Is DH egalitarian, or is it opening the door to a new elite?
At the heart of this question is the very definition of “digital humanist.” Ernesto Priego, in a recent post, outlined what he calls the new “super-humanist” who can quote literary theory and create DH interfaces from scratch. Are these super-humanists, armed with large research grants, hardware, and human capital, becoming the “face” of not just DH but the humanities in general? If this is, in fact, the presumptive definition of “digital humanist,” what roles are available to academics and aspiring academics without access to the resources, support, and training that seem to be necessary to be a successful digital humanist? How are gendered, racialized, and queer bodies represented or not represented in such an articulation of DH? How can we begin to address multiple forms of privilege that proliferate in DH? Does DH challenge existing authority structures that define in-group and out-group status? Is it a tool for dismantling those structures?
The participants in this panel (all of whom have committed to attend DH2013 if the panel is selected) will be offering their unique critical perspectives on the current DH moment. Lee Skallerup Bessette will look at the implications and challenges for contingent faculty; much of the discussion around re-training has focused on current graduate student. What about those who completed their PhDs 5-10 years ago and are now struggling to make ends meet, let alone retrain and join in on collaborative DH projects. Roopika Risam will examine the role of racialized and gendered labor in DH. With women and women of color taking on disproportionate service responsibilities, how do we negotiate our DH labor and commitments to social justice in relationship to gendered and cultural presumptions about our role in DH? In what ways do the demands of the academy encourage, contravene, and prohibit us from carving out empancipatory spaces in the DH community? Liana Silva will consider the idea of safe spaces for graduate students to try, fail, and try again. The traditional humanities classroom (and, by extension, the papers written for those classrooms) has commonly been considered the privileged space where that trial and error can happen. Some, like Lisa Spiro, have mentioned that the digital humanities embrace failure. Can the digital humanities become a different place for students to try out new ideas? Or will they try to perfect DH in the pursuit of an academic position? Can they afford to try new things? Jarah Moesch will explore through queer theory how digital humanities itself functions as an organizing principle that frames how race, gender, sexuality, and ability are embodied – (how particular bodies are both understood and articulated) focusing on the impetus on ‘making’ and ‘coding’ for humanities folks, while the comp sci / engineering / STEM folks are not required to think about, learn, or even consider how their designs create structural inequalities in (computer) code. Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli will consider practices in place to mitigate default heteronormative reading practices in DH, and will explore what it means for a digital humanities project or a digital humanist to be read and recognized as queer. She will also raise questions about what happens when LGBT and queer histories (which are linked to material, embodied, radical and subversive activist practices) become linked to an institutional server and elite institutional access protocols. Tressie McMillan Cottom will bring her experience in digital community building, higher education research, and sociology to bear on questions of how the macro processes of competition and structural change in the academy. Through case studies of two representative case studies of conflict in which DH figured prominently, she interrogates how DH can be used as both a tool of democratization and marginalization.
It’s time to get this book started. You can read the book proposal here.
I’m immersing myself in the “theory” that I need as the framing mechanism for the book. I’m looking at research dealing with the new version of the self-made celebrity, the postcolonial autobiographical narrative (autofiction, alterbiography, etc), adaptation, rewriting, and improvisation and performance.
I came across two links today on my Twitter timeline that indicated that I should be getting started on this project. One is about author China Miéville comments about the future of the novel:
[Miéville] and his fellow writers should “be ready for guerrilla editors”, he said, adding: “In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?”
This are the kids of things that I see happening with Laferriere’s oeuvre, considering it’s what he’s done himself. Which mix, which adaptation, which version of Laferriere’s work are we getting? And why can’t we make our own? Isn’t that what scholarship is, after all, is making sense of that which is complex and difficult, interpreting that which is challenging? Why not have mashups of Laferriere’s work?
Another is based on the work done by an Intro to DH class on Transmediation, which as far as I can tell, a fancy way of saying, “adapting for different media and mediums.” I jest, but it is a useful term for my work in Laferriere, as he reinterprets himself depending on the medium. From newspaper to radio to tv to film to kids books (and soon an electronic version of his kids’ books), Laferriere has been practicing transmediation throughout his career. So this is a great term and potential theoretical approach to his work, too.
Let’s get this started.