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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. 

September 9, 2013 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

One of my Laferriere Essays Online

Bessette, Lee Skallerup (2012) “Telling Stories from Haiti: Dany Laferriere and Authenticity and Authority in Autobiography,” disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory: Vol. 21, Article 3.
Available at:

Download it from here!

August 8, 2013 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Chronique de la Dérive Douce Versions Compared

This post was originally done for the 2013 Day of DH. I figured I should put it here, too.

This is not Big Data. This isn’t even medium-sized data. This is two versions of the same novel, one from 1994 and the other from 2012. The book is Chronique de la derive douce, by Dany Laferriere. I spent a month digitizing and cleaning up the text, and today, I was finally able to run it through both Juxta and Voyant.

I was most interested by Juxta because it would highlight exactly what’s changed and what hasn’t in the text. What shocked me however was just how much the new version changed; I knew it had doubled in size, thus there was a significant portion added, but Laferriere went in and tinkered with the original text, something he hadn’t done in his other “new” versions of his work.

What did I learn from Juxta? First off, the text wasn’t as clean as I thought. As I was working on the document on different platforms (the mac at home and a PC at work), some of the commas and quotation marks were off. Plus, in the original version of the book, certain parts had the words broken up at the end of the lines, divided by a dash, while the new version didn’t. I made the executive decision that formatting was less interesting to me than the actual words themselves. So I went back and cleaned up the text some more.

What I ended up with was a great side-by-side comparison of the text. But first, how much had the text changed? A lot.


While it was processing the text, it said it was processing over 10000 changes. Great. That’s what a close-reading, textual scholar wants to hear.


You can click on the picture to see a larger version, but this is just how much the first page changed. The epigraph changed. The first verse changed. And I have to say that I probably wouldn’t have noticed these changes in the first verse (clearly, I noticed the epigraph) unless I was able to visualize it like this. The content of the verses are still pretty much the same, but subtly changed. It’s not like a wholesale addition or subtraction. Just…different.

Now we come to the heat map to see where the changes in the text have taken place. Conclusion? EVERYWHERE.


The last line of the book didn’t change. There isn’t anywhere else in the book that hasn’t changed somehow. This is going to take a lot longer than I thought. But what does Voyant have to say about my piece? Quite a bit actually.

First off, the number of words? Almost literally doubled.


I was really interested in the peeks and some of the words that appeared more frequently in one version versus the other.


Relative to the text, the words, “filles” and “fille” and “femme” (girls, girl, woman) and “chambre” (room) decrease in terms of their density from the first to the second version, but the word “temps” (time) increases. Here it is put another way:


This is actually REALLY interesting and possibly significant. I’d have to look at when and where a little more closely in terms of how they map within the two texts, but this shows me that his relations (as well as his room) becomes less significant, while the concept of time becomes more important or significant. This is a suspicion that I had long had about the revision, and this just confirms it.

I’m pretty excited, and I am grateful for Stefan Sinclair for helping me with some of the pickier aspects of Voyant. I’m going to be doing more work in here to study the two texts, but certainly, this is a great place to start.

August 6, 2013 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Presenting Dany Laferrière: Essays on his Works

It’s finally here! My edited volume, Dany Laferrière: Essays on his Works, has been published by Guernica Editions.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated this space, but I’ve been busy working on this book, as well as my other book. Hopefully I’ll have more time this semester to use this space to talk about Dany Laferrière and my research.

Please, take a look at the book, order it for your library, or buy it today! Feel free to contact me if you would like a review copy.



December 31, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

#MLA13 Presentation – Background on Dany Laferrière and Performance

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 finwhen 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 Lodyansusing tools initially developed to preserve and study oral histories. You can see the Storify I prepared for the presentation here.

December 31, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

2012 in review

The 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.

Click here to see the complete report.

November 19, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Orality, Performance, and Laferriere

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.

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