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December 12, 2013 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Dany Laferrière, the Académie française, and Identity Politics

Great news today out of Paris. Dany Laferrière has been elected to the prestigious (and difficult to enter) Académie française. Basically, you have to get voted on, and that can only happen if someone dies, thus vacating a seat. He is the first Canadian and/or Québécois and/or Haitian to be elected to the group. He is now, to use the terminology of the Académie, immortal. And, he was trending on Twitter!

This honor was in large part possible because of his repositioning as a literary figure, rather than a media personality, during the rebooting of his career in 2006, as outlined in this 2010 piece in The Walrus. He was well-known, infamous really, with titles that provoked (How To Make Love to a Negro) and a media-savvy personality to match. These were smart moves for a poor, Black, immigrant writer to make in the mid-1980s in Quebec, in order to make a living as a writer. But a new approach was necessary to make a more lasting impact as a writer at the turn of the century.

And so he now sits with a select few, guardians of the French language, an honor he campaigned for:

Il dit arriver à l’Académie plein d’enthousiasme. «Ce sont des gens très sympathiques, très érudits, pas snobs du tout», a-t-il dit en entrevue à RDI. Cette entrée, qu’il avait lui-même sollicitée comme le veut la coutume, il la souhaitait ardemment. «Je me suis dit: on peut tout. [...] Je n’aime pas les portes fermées; je crois que c’était ma route, c’était mon chemin. J’ai tracé cette route.»

[He is enthusiastic about his arrival to the Académie: "These are very nice, very smart people who are not at all snobs," he put in an interview with RDI. He sought out this position, as is the custom, with conviction, "I told myself: we can do anything...I don't like closed doors; this was my path, my road. I followed it."]

Most people have been quick to embrace and celebrate this achievement, revealing at the same time the complex identity politics that have always surrounded Laferrière, his work, and how he is labeled. Haitians were quick to call out Canadian or Quebec headlines that identified the author as Canadian/Québécois/Montrealer that he is a Haitian first (one in French and one in English as examples). Other tweets bent over backwards hyphenating the preamble to his name in the announcement. This longer piece looking at the election highlights the American influences that shaped Laferrière as a writer, while Le Figaro in France notes, “D’abord, un grand écrivain,” [First and foremost, a great writer] which would seem to fit best with Laferrière’s overall goal as an author, as outlined in his book, Je suis fatigué:

Fatigué surtout de me faire traiter de tous les noms: écrvain caraïbéen, écrvain ethnique, écrvain de l’exile. Jamais écrvain tout court. (Je suis fatigue 44)

[Tired above all of all the names I am called: caribbean writer, ethnic writer, exiled writer. Never just simply a writer.]

This is not to say, however, that Laferrière being elected to the Académie is unproblematic in France. Browsing the comments of the article of the announcement in Le Figaro one finds a great deal of racially-motivated backlash. When I first saw the article, the first and only comment at that time started with, I don’t want to appear racist, but… Other comments have compared the election to the recent crowning of a bi-racial Miss France, another incident that has exposed the more racist tendencies in France. Others claimed that this election was simply a case of affirmative action or political correctness.

Never just a writer, indeed.

These are just my initial thoughts and observations about this appointment; I’m working on a longer piece about his evolving relationship with France and the French literary establishment. But I’ll be tracking the reactions to Laferrière’s election to this French institution over the next week or so, just to see. 

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