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February 19, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Digital Humanities and Dany Laferrière

I’m determined to attend the 2013 MLA conference in Boston as a presenter. There is a great call out right now that I’m trying to wrap my head around, to come up with the “perfect” proposal involving my dream DH project for Laferrière’s oeuvre.

One of my arguments about Laferrière’s habit of rewriting stems, in part, from his upbringing within an oral culture (hearing stories, voodoo myths, and tales at the knee of his beloved grandmother, Da), and from the influence of Jazz, what he calls the most American of musical genres (Jazz figures prominently in How To Make Love to a Negro). Oral storytelling and jazz rely heavily on the teller or performer, as well as the audience. Voodoo in particular is adapted according to historical circumstances, with the various deities appearing in different forms at different times (see Haiti, History, and the Gods, which has been an invaluable resource for me). Jazz, of course, was in no small part about the particular artist interpreting a piece of music at a particular moment, not to mention improvisation.

Why should it come as any surprise, then, that Laferrière is continually changing, updating, and we could even say, performing for a different audiences (see his movie adaptations, as well as children’s stories and newspaper writing) his work? This focus on performance is something that is difficult to convey in traditional media formats; we can record one telling and one performance at a time, as well as consume them only one at a time. While orality and performance are always evolving and changing, the recording of one performance in particular becomes static, set, and to a certain extent, permanent.

Is there a way, then, to use digital humanities to try and recreate some of that instability, uncertainty, and excitement that comes from viewing or experiencing a performance? While at the CWRC conference in Toronto, I listened to a presentation on such a project taking place in theater studies, developing spacial software that can recreate different performances and stagings of the same play, using old notes and reviews of the performances, as well as archival footage. There have also been projects that seek to be able to capture the differences in editions of a particular work, like the Digital Thoreau Project. Couple that with the racial element of his work, being able to trace the evolution of Laferrière’s image as an author, or compare how he has been portrayed in different countries and languages?

I think digital humanities presents us with an opportunity to interact with works differently. We can bring back elements of orality and performance, merging the aural with the visual and the experimental. Laferrière revealed in his interview with me for the book that he is working on a digital edition of his children’s book Je suis fou de Vava, and revealed that he is (once again) heavily reworking it for the new format. I think that I (or other academics) could create digital critical editions, but rather than focusing on footnotes and references, it could focus on performance - in other words, allowing the reader to experience different performances of a given text and even creating their own.

Dany Laferrière provides an interesting opportunity for digital humanities scholars; like Mark Sample describes as potential histories of Don Delillo’s work in the collection Debates in Digital Humanities, Laferrière presents to us accessible alternative narratives and performances of his work. But, the problems and challenges of doing this kind of work, as Sample as points out, are still present: copyright, permissions, cost, and lack of digitized resources. Laferrière’s work falls into the sort of black hole of digital resources: does he still have his drafts of his novels, typed on his trusty Remington? Is it possible to track down all of his essays and interviews in newspapers from Haiti, the US, Canada, France, and beyond? Does he archive his email correspondences? Are their electronic or even audio versions of his works? And, even if these materials did exist, would people have access to them, be free to work with them?

So, I dream of the possibilities and I learn how to build using my dissertation research. Laferrière has said that he will stop rewriting his work when he dies, so there’s time. Anything I build today would need to be continually and constantly updated (which is both horrifying and exhilarating, making me a massive masochistic nerd). But I keep building, anyway, at least building the resources that I will one day use to perform Laferrière differently.

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2 Comments

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  1. sdoubinsky / Apr 9 2012 10:47 am

    Yes, I think you are absolutely right in the Jazz aspect of Laferrière’s writing – and in this sense his reference to Kerouac and to American black writers does make a lot of sense. But I also think that his perception (or vision) of literature (or what we call “litearture” in the Western hemisphere) is set in the dynamics of storytelling and in the ever changing nature of fiction itself. As Blaise Cendrars put it once in his interview with Manoll in 1958, “I only know one form of truth, and that is fiction.” In my eyes, LaferrIére’s claime to be a “writer” and not a “Haitian writer” can be understood precisely though this notion…If I may say so…

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  1. #MLA13 Presentation – Background on Dany Laferrière and Performance « Chasing Laferrière – An Academic Odyssey

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