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June 20, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Le goût des jeunes filles: Legitimacy and Life Writing

I’ve finally finished re-reading all of the versions of Le goût des jeunes filles (one small section towards the end of Éroshima, the original novel from 1992, the movie adaptation from 2004, and the expanded version of the novel also from 2004). For me, the changes would seem to not only push our expectations of what life writing is, but also question how we differentiate through a hierarchy of legitimacy those different forms.

In Éroshima, for example, Laferrière imagines a scene in Port-au-Prince where V.S. Naipaul is hanging out and driving around with some young girls who are clearly running the show. He is there to write a piece for Rolling Stone magazine on the changes that are going on in Haiti. Naipaul is a fascinating choice, given that his own (early) work was semi-autobiographical, while he also wrote first-person travel narratives, and often used irony, identity politics, and class issues in his writing. I’m still trying to work out why Laferrière chose Naipaul. What about his “outsider” perspective on India after growing up in the Caribbean? Is this trope repeated when Laferrière himself is called upon to comment on America at the beginning of Cette grenade… because he is “the flavor of the moment”? And, the chapter juxtaposes Naipaul with “Douanier Rousseau” or Henri Rousseau, who was known as a Primitive Painter. Rousseau painted exotic jungle landscapes, even though he had never traveled to Africa. There is an artistic mode in Haiti known as the Primitive Painters, and Laferrière has often expressed that he wishes to be known as a “Primitive Writer” in the vein of his Haitian painting counterparts. The question of legitimacy and who speaks/writes/paints the lives of Haitians becomes tangled in this seemingly simple four-page scene.

In the novels and movie that follows, Naipaul is replaced by Papa, an older Tonton-Macoute (civilian police force/enforcers for Duvalier). The writer from Rolling Stone’s magazine is still present, looking to cover the new music coming out of Haiti. There is also a photographer from Vogue magazine, looking to capture one of these beautiful young girls on film. These girls, it is revealed, live across the street from the narrator, Laferrière’s alter-ego Vieux Os. When his friend Gégé plays a prank on Vieux Os, convincing him that the Macoutes are out to get them, Vieux hides at Miki’s, the ring-leader, across the street from his own house. Vieux has watched the house and the girls from afar and is now plunged into their lives. Each girl “confesses” to Vieux at one point or another in the narrative their hopes, dreams, and fears. These are lower-class women, so heavily impacted by the dictatorship, both economically and personally. These are the women that Laferrière wants to re-humanize.

It is jarring, then, to watch the movie, which becomes largely about the men. One would imagine that cinematic expectations require that the story become a coming-of-age narrative for Fanfan (one of Laferrière’s other alter-egos, seen also in the movie comment conquerir l’Amerique en une nuit), but it is nonetheless interesting to note that in the movie, Papa gets his own voice-over narration (not present in the novel), while only Miki gets one for the women. Violence also becomes much more predominant in the movie adaptation. I have a book chapter forthcoming on that particular subject, but needless to say, the movie becomes a very different animal than the novel(s).

When I first picked up the extended novel and noticed that a first-person journal written by one of the girls in the story had been inserted in the narrative, my immediate reaction was that Laferrière was perhaps compensating for the subdued female presence in the movie. But two things make that reading difficult to justify: 1) the journal is written by an upper-class girl who was “slumming it” with Miki and her friends and b) the novel end with an entirely new passage devoted to the passing of one of his aunts, the aunt that at the beginning of both narratives chastises her nephew for not being “honest” and completely accurate in his books. His aunt takes him to task specifically in regards to his portrayal of her father, his grandfather. But as Laferrière points out to his aunt, a father and a grandfather are two different people. Who, then, has the “right,” the “authority,” or the “legitimacy” to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves? And, once his aunt dies, does this in a sense liberate Laferrière to be even more creative in his life writing?

The diary is also a complex text to unpackaged. As far as I can tell, it is a complete work of fiction on Laferrière’s part; I have been unable to find a “real” equivalent. While the first-person narrator of the journal claims to be obsessed with Miki and her friends, she spends little time actually talking about them, instead focusing on the social workings of the Golden Circle of the small upper-class of Haiti. She is dismissive and belittling of Miki and her friends, objectifying Miki and holding herself superior to her friends. But she is also a victim of the dictatorship, albeit a very privileged one, as she never has to worry about the Macoutes as her friends (and Vieux) do.

But what puts the purpose on the new diary over the edge for me is the interview at the end of the entire novel that reveals that the book (published in English) has become a runaway bestseller, and the writer named an important voice in understanding Haiti. The final pages is an interview she is doing with Vibe magazine. This celebrity is something that Laferrière’s work had not yet received. And, juxtaposed with Laferrière’s narrative, one sees how limited and limiting her view of the events during that time really are. But, she has written a journal while Laferrière has written a “novel”. The journal concerns itself with the rich and the privileged, while Laferrière’s narrative concerned itself with the poor and disenfranchised. Laferrière is also speaking for the women, so to speak, while the journal is written by a woman. Does class matter more than gender? Does form matter more than content? It is also revealed that the journal has been altered at the request of the editor and publisher. It has also been translated from French to English.

These are the questions I am working through for my essay, due at the end of the month. Go forth and ponder. Leave your comments and insights and wish me luck!

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