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June 10, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Dany on Laferrière: Reading “New” Interviews, Narrative Essays

I’ve recently come across two new (for me) books on/about/by Dany: Conversations avec Dany Laferrière by Ghila Sroka (2010) and Un art de vivre par temps catastrophe, based on the talk Dany gave at the University of Alberta in 2009. I’ve found a number of quotes that will help me build my arguments in my research.

Ma position d’écrivain, c’est de faire entendre la voix de ces anonymes désarmés qui se retrouve face à une élite économique toujours assoifée de sang, d’argent et de pouvoir. Mais comment parler de tout ça dans un roman sans l’alourdir? C’est ce que je me dis chaque matin en entrant dans la petite chambre où je travaille. J’y arrive en plongeant dans la vie quotidienne qui, tel un fleuve, emporte tout sur son passge: les drames personnels comme les événements historiques. Il suffit de suivre la vie (sans protection) d’un individu ordinaire pour que se déroule une époque sous nos yeux. De plus j’ai pour principe de ne jamais céder le premier plan au dictateur. Mon but c’est exposer dans ses multiples facettes, la vie des gens dont la dictature empêche l’épanouissement. Cet aspect moral tisse en filigrane la trame  de mes romans. (Un art 9-10)

[My position as a writer is to allow the voice of those who are anonymous and oppressed by the economic elite, always hungry for more blood, money, and power, to be heard. But how to talk about that with writing a “heavy” novel? It’s what I ask myself every morning when I enter the room where I work. I do it by diving into daily life, a river that carries everything in its journey: the personal drama along with the historical events. You only need to follow the life (without protection) of an ordinary individual to see an entire age unfold. Plus, I have it on principle that I never give the primary importance to a dictator. My goal is to expose in its multiple facets, the lives of people for whom the dictatorship has limited their development. This morality weaves through all of my novels.]

Si dans la vie  c’est impossible, c’est la propre même de la littérature d’intervenir dans le déroulement de la vie. Il ne faut voir dans l’artiste un banal admirateur de Dieu, mais plutôt son rival. À force de manipuler la réalité, on finira, espère-t-on, par la changer. Et par toucher à un élément fondamental de la vie : le temps. Le temps structure notre vie. Et il est linéaire : de la naissance à la mort. Une ligne droite. D’où notre rétience parfois à avencer. Mais le poète refuse le temps linéaire. Il ne le voit tout simplement pas ainsi. Le temps est plus borgésien, alors labyrinthique. On peut s’y perdre. (Un art 26)

[If it’s impossible in life, then it’s up to literature to intervene in how life unfolds. An artist can’t be perceived as just an admirer of God, but His rival. By manipulating reality, we will finish, one hopes, of changing it. And by touching a fundamental element of life: time. Of our apprehension at times of moving forward. But the poet refuses linear time. He just doesn’t see it that way. Time is more like what Borges describes, a labyrinth. We can get lost.]

Je parle de tendresse, aussie. C’est dans Le goût des jeunes filles que, pour la première fois, on a donné la parole à des femmes d’une classe sociale défavorisée – c’étaient des jeunes filles qui habitaient la maison en face de chez moi -, presque des prostituées. Ce n’est pas moi qui ai parlé en leur nom ; elles se sont exprimées librement tout au long du livre, on dit leur misère, leur bonheur, leur façon de voir la vie. J’ai voulu leur redonner leur dignité humaine, montrer aussie ce que la dictature avait fait de la femme haïtienne. C’est un des rares livres haïtiens à voir douze femmes comme personnages principaux. (Conversations 46)

[I also speak of tenderness. In Le goût des jeunes filles, for the first time, women from the lower classes are given a chance to speak, young women who lived across the street from my house. These young women were almost like prostitutes. And it wasn’t me who was speaking in their name; they liberally expressed themselves throughout the novel, talking about their misery, their joy, they outlook on life. I wanted to give them back their human dignity, show what the dictatorships did to Haitian women. It is one of the rare Haitian novels that features 12 women as main characters.

The first and last quotes have quite a lot to do with the project I am now working on, which is understanding the different rewrites of Le goût des jeunes filles; why does Laferrière create an entirely new character, a upper-class woman who is “slumming it”, and insert her first-person diary account of those same events? I think it has to do with the question of authenticity; is the upper-class woman’s voice a more “authentic” view of the women than the lower-class males? Is form also an issue, as the upper-class woman’s diary, once published, goes on to become a world-wide phenomenon while Laferrière’s novel remains in relative obscurity?

More generally, looking at Laferrière’s entire oeuvre, I think it’s interesting to look at his rewriting in terms of the labyrinth of time as he describes it in the second quote. I’ve always suspected that one of the reasons why Laferrière is so elusive in terms of his identity and story is because it allows him to control his own life, control that his father and so many of his friends and family lost to the dictatorships. If superstition lead Da to tell Vieux Os never to reveal his true name, lest that person own your soul, a more pragmatic reason lead Dany to become known as Dany rather than Windsor Kléber Laferrière after his father: fear of Papa Doc. His name, his writing, and his life are his own, and it would seem that he’s going to do whatever he feels like doing with them, in reality and in “fiction.”

I’m going to re-read the extended Le goût des jeunes filles; I’ll let you know how it goes.

PS Sorry about the rough translations. I was going for quick-and-dirt. Maybe I’ll come back later and clean them up.

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