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November 6, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Chronique de la Derive Douce

Dany Laferriere just recently revised and republished his book Chronique de la Derive Douce, first published in 1994. The English translation (still only of the first version) was published in 1997 as A Drifting Year. The story is 366 short verses about the first year Laferriere lived in Montreal (1976, after all, was a leap year). I haven’t had a chance to read the expanded version (it has almost doubled in length. Laferriere himself, in an interview promoting the book, talks about how he decided to rewrite the book, with the hindsight of 35 years of living in Montreal and North America.

What’s interesting, too, is how the book is framed as “L’enigme d’arrive” to capitalize on the popularity of L’Enigme de Retour.” Laferriere is nothing if not smart about how to market himself and his books.

But even more interesting to me (as I am interested in how Laferriere rewrites, revises, and adapts his works is this TV special from 1988. It aired on TQS, the television station he worked at as a weatherman. It is an hour-long special called, “Etes-vous raciste?” (Are You Racist?). It is, as the host describes, a retelling of Laferriere’s arrival to Montreal and subsequently the racism he faced. It is certainly anachronistic (what are those puppets?), but it is an interesting re-telling of his first year in Montreal, as retold (and retold) in Chronique.

I found it serendipitously while looking at another Laferriere video on YouTube (there are, if you search his name, 244 results). Again, one hears echoes not only of Chronique, but also Les annees 80s dans ma vielle Ford.

I have my work cut out for me if I even want to get this book written.

November 6, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

How To Make Love to a Negro and Covers

I was poking around the internet, looking to see if the new ebook version of Je Suis Fou de Vava has been released yet (Laferriere alluded to this project in his interview with me) when I came across the following video, from 1985, promoting his novel Comment faire l’amour avec un Negre sans se fatigue. It’s an interview with Denise Bombardier (whom he imagined being interviewed by in his book). It’s in French, and it features a very, very young Laferriere.

I’ve been meaning for a while to take a look at the various covers of the book, so I figure this was as good an opportunity as any. Here is the original cover, from 1985, VLB Publishers:

This was the general format for all of Laferriere’s covers at VLB – the title in typewriter font with a painting on the lower right-hand corner. This cover, one would imagine, recalls the house of one of the Miz that Vieux visits, filled with “exotic”  artifacts collected by her father. I wish I had a better picture of it, but this is a screen capture from the above interview; searching amazon reveals no cover photo for this particular edition.

Here is the cover in France, by Serpants des Plumes:

I’m not entire sure how I feel about this particular cover. It certainly calls attention to the race issue, and potentially the comical nature of the book as well. But, well, wow.

Then there is the popular “J’ai lu” mass-market paperback edition that borrow the cover image from the movie poster.

This, like the movie poster and most other promotional materials from the 1989 movie emphasizes the…sexual nature of the book. I particularly like the visual of this album cover, featuring the music from the movie.

Notice how “amour” (love) is the woman’s breasts. And the darkening of the pubis. Only in France (seriously, the album cover in North America is the movie poster. Apparently a ridiculously large phallus is more acceptable than the female form).

Now, in mass-market paperback in Quebec and France, the cover looks like this:

The emphasis here is the inter-racial elements of the book. This is the same type of imagery that is found on the cover of the Italian translation:

More interesting to me, however, is the emphasis on the English translations’ covers:

Here the emphasis is on the author himself, as a writer. The book really is about a writer trying to find his voice in his new home. The sex doesn’t come up at all, nor does the inter-racial aspect. The latest republication, with the full titled restored, no longer has any picture of visual to guide the reader:

Although it is hard to see, it does feature a blurb from the original review in The Village Voice. This, of course, emphasizes the literariness of the book, in contrast to the title.

I’m fascinated by how Laferriere’s books have been literally framed by the cover art selected for them. I’m going to go through and look at all of the books (at least the more interesting ones). In terms of how Laferriere has re-written and revised himself, so too has he been re-written and revised by other factors.

The book is a finalist for the latest Canada Reads competition. If you’re interested, you can read my essay on the problems with the English translation on



November 2, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

DH2013 Abstract

Things have been quiet over here at Chasing Laferriere for the past few months. I’ve been teaching five courses this fall, revising my dissertation for submission, and pulling together the manuscript for the edited volume of essays on Laferriere. But November is Digital Writing Month and Academic Writing Month, so I’ve committed to working on my book and publishing the work I do here. It will be almost like a tumblr, I guess.

But first, in the spirit of transparency, I’ve decided (with the blessing of my collaborators) to post the abstract for the 2013 Digital Humanities Conference here. It has a lot to do with access, race, gender, marginalization within the field of DH, which are all questions that I address when looking at Laferriere’s work, so I think it fits. It also reflects the shift I am making in my research towards DH, especially as it relates to Laferriere’s work and my research on him. I think it’s a really important panel and will be great. But we’ll see.

So, here it is, our submission:

Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?
Roundtable Panel Proposal for DH 2013

As digital humanities and practices of open access and collaboration have become more prominent within academia, so too have their critique. Often these criticisms come from humanists who remain deeply skeptical, if not overtly hostile, to technology and moving from books to bytes (or, as put in a recent screed, “data”). However, critique must also come from those of us inside DH who have begun asking questions about who can access the infrastructures, knowledges and culture of DH.

The exciting possibilities of DH also must allow for the examination of the field’s human aspects. With that in mind, this roundtable draws attention to the fraught relationship between DH and those who have been marginalized and silenced within traditional power structures both within and outside of academia. As illustrated by Amy Earhart, in her essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, the promise of open and egalitarian access to materials has largely turned into a funding arms race prioritizing the same texts and projects long favored by academia. This leads us to the the question of who has access and the ability to really do digital humanities. Is DH egalitarian, or is it opening the door to a new elite?

At the heart of this question is the very definition of “digital humanist.” Ernesto Priego, in a recent post, outlined what he calls the new “super-humanist” who can quote literary theory and create DH interfaces from scratch. Are these super-humanists, armed with large research grants, hardware, and human capital, becoming the “face” of not just DH but the humanities in general? If this is, in fact, the presumptive definition of “digital humanist,” what roles are available to academics and aspiring academics without access to the resources, support, and training that seem to be necessary to be a successful digital humanist? How are gendered, racialized, and queer bodies represented or not represented in such an articulation of DH? How can we begin to address multiple forms of privilege that proliferate in DH? Does DH challenge existing authority structures that define in-group and out-group status? Is it a tool for dismantling those structures?

The participants in this panel (all of whom have committed to attend DH2013 if the panel is selected) will be offering their unique critical perspectives on the current DH moment. Lee Skallerup Bessette will look at the implications and challenges for contingent faculty; much of the discussion around re-training has focused on current graduate student. What about those who completed their PhDs 5-10 years ago and are now struggling to make ends meet, let alone retrain and join in on collaborative DH projects. Roopika Risam will examine the role of racialized and gendered labor in DH. With women and women of color taking on disproportionate service responsibilities, how do we negotiate our DH labor and commitments to social justice in relationship to gendered and cultural presumptions about our role in DH? In what ways do the demands of the academy encourage, contravene, and prohibit us from carving out empancipatory spaces in the DH community? Liana Silva will consider the idea of safe spaces for graduate students to try, fail, and try again. The traditional humanities classroom (and, by extension, the papers written for those classrooms) has commonly been considered the privileged space where that trial and error can happen. Some, like Lisa Spiro, have mentioned that the digital humanities embrace failure. Can the digital humanities become a different place for students to try out new ideas? Or will they try to perfect DH in the pursuit of an academic position? Can they afford to try new things? Jarah Moesch will explore through queer theory how digital humanities itself functions as an organizing principle that frames how race, gender, sexuality, and ability are embodied – (how particular bodies are both understood and articulated) focusing on the impetus on ‘making’ and ‘coding’ for humanities folks, while the comp sci / engineering / STEM folks are not required to think about, learn, or even consider how their designs create structural inequalities in (computer) code. Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli will consider practices in place to mitigate default heteronormative reading practices in DH, and will explore what it means for a digital humanities project or a digital humanist to be read and recognized as queer. She will also raise questions about what happens when LGBT and queer histories (which are linked to material, embodied, radical and subversive activist practices) become linked to an institutional server and elite institutional access protocols. Tressie McMillan Cottom will bring her experience in digital community building, higher education research, and sociology to bear on questions of how the macro processes of competition and structural change in the academy. Through case studies of two representative case studies of conflict in which DH figured prominently, she interrogates how DH can be used as both a tool of democratization and marginalization.

August 22, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Ready, Set, GO!

It’s time to get this book started. You can read the book proposal here.

I’m immersing myself in the “theory” that I need as the framing mechanism for the book.  I’m looking at research dealing with the new version of the self-made celebrity, the postcolonial autobiographical narrative (autofiction, alterbiography, etc), adaptation, rewriting, and improvisation and performance.

I came across two links today on my Twitter timeline that indicated that I should be getting started on this project. One is about author China Miéville comments about the future of the novel:

[Miéville] and his fellow writers should “be ready for guerrilla editors”, he said, adding: “In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?”

There was, he said, a “blurring of boundaries between writers, books and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction“.

This are the kids of things that I see happening with Laferriere’s oeuvre, considering it’s what he’s done himself. Which mix, which adaptation, which version of Laferriere’s work are we getting? And why can’t we make our own? Isn’t that what scholarship is, after all, is making sense of that which is complex and difficult, interpreting that which is challenging? Why not have mashups of Laferriere’s work?

Another is based on the work done by an Intro to DH class on Transmediation, which as far as I can tell, a fancy way of saying, “adapting for different media and mediums.” I jest, but it is a useful term for my work in Laferriere, as he reinterprets himself depending on the medium. From newspaper to radio to tv to film to kids books (and soon an electronic version of his kids’ books), Laferriere has been practicing transmediation throughout his career. So this is a great term and potential theoretical approach to his work, too.

Let’s get this started.

June 28, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

More on MLA 13 and Other News

I was just informed today that our panel, Building Bridges Within Digital Humanities” was selected to be included in the MLA 13 Presidential Brochure as a part of his theme, “Avenues of Access.” What does this mean? Instead of being lost in a long, long list of sessions, our panel will be highlighted and promoted by the MLA and the President himself (at least relative to the other, non-selected panels). Although I linked to the Google Docs file previously, I’m including the complete proposal below.

Oh, and my book on Dany Laferriere and life writing is now under contract at Wilfred Laurier Press. I have until October 1 2013 to get it done. Go me!

Building Bridges within Digital Humanities

In an email sent to the Humanist Discussion Group, Domenico Fiormonte railed against the UCL infographic meant to visualize DH internationally, stating the following:

“I wonder how data about the rest of the world were collected. As it is, this infographics reflects a vision of Digital Humanities as a big Anglo-american Empire with small satellites here and there. It is mono-lingual, mono-cultural, and, above all, poorly researched. Numbers cannot tell an inclusive and respectful story of Humanities Computing, Informatica Umanistica or Digitale Geisteswissenschaften. Dense cultural issues cannot be represented like this. It is not just a matter of being “included” in or “excluded” from a family, it is a sense of an entire international community being flattened and misrepresented.”

The monolithic view of the Digital Humanities Fiormonte criticizes has been reflected in recent scholarship in DH: the book Debates in Digital Humanities, while invaluable, is focused almost exclusively on the United States and projects being done in English. Ernesto Priego indirectly provided an important counterpoint to the book in his blog post, “Globalisation of Digital Humanities: An Uneven Promise.” In it, he points to how we not only need openness, but also “reliable multilingual metadata” for things like academic blogging. Browsing the Digital Humanities panels at the 2012 MLA conference reveals very few DH panels focused on languages other than English, and those that did tended to be grouped together linguistically, potentially reducing their appeal to a broader DH audience. To an outsider, this seems to recreate the linguistic ghettos of traditional departmental and disciplinary divides.

The purpose of this roundtable is to bring together digital humanities scholars working in a variety of languages and approaches. It seeks to find ways to build bridges between the “Anglo-American” center of DH with the rest of the world of DH, both within and outside of the US borders. Because the Digital Humanities seem to reinforce traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries while simultaneously claiming interdisciplinary and international status, this roundtable hopes to appeal to a broader DH audience as well as traditional scholars in linguistics, comparative literature, and translation, in the hopes of introducing DH tools and approaches to an audience that has yet to embrace DH (or be embraced by DH).

The panelists for this roundtable represent different approaches and linguistic backgrounds, as well as a more international focus for DH research. Ernesto Priego will be talking about “geographies of knowledge production,” moving beyond the anglo-centric scholarship coming out of the USA and the UK, and bringing forward the work done in other languages. Mark Fortin continues the conversation, looking at issues of translation, digital editions, and ethnographic indigenous modernisms. Alex Gil brings comes to these questions with the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Caribbean context in mind, working on how to include this richness in digital spaces. Brian N Larson is working on using computer programs to bridge these sorts of linguistic divides, while Sophie Marcotte provides us with a case-study of how digital archives may be used to preserve and share the works of a particular author, in this case, Franco-Manitoban author Gabrielle Roy. Lee Skallerup Bessette (who may not be able to participate in the panel as she is being considered as a speaker on other special session panels) will round out the discussion by talking about how digital humanities may be used in the research and understanding of literary translation. Trent M Kays, who will be chairing the panel, comes to digital humanities from a composition and rhetoric background, looking at how digital tools have reshaped and rewritten how we communicate.

By bringing these seemly disparate (at least according to traditional disciplinary boundaries) researchers together, we hope to show how bridges can be built between languages, cultures, and geographical regions in and through Digital Humanities. As put by Amy Earhart in her blog post reflecting on the 2012 Day of DH:

“Disciplines govern our academic lives, from our graduate training, to our positions in the academy, to the type of work produced and valued, to our ability to advance in our careers. Universities continue to organize knowledge groups into traditional subject areas so it should come as no surprise that we find it difficult to work outside traditional structures. We pretend disciplinary boundaries don’t exist to our peril. Instead of shying away from such complexities, we should embrace the heady dissention.  I would love to have an interdisciplinary DH.  I hope that we might work towards such connectivity.”

May 16, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

All About Me: Identity in Laferrière

First, some good news. I will be presenting on Dany Laferrière and my idea for a digital project related to him work at the 2013 MLA in Boston. The first is a roundtable that I put together, Building Bridges Within Digital Humanities, will be focused specifically on how DH can be used to enrich our understanding of translations and translating. The other panel, Accessing Race in the Digital Humanities, will deal with the performative aspect of Laferrière’s work, relating it back to jazz, and how DH can bring back these elements.

I’ve also finally tuned in the manuscript for the collection of Laferrière essays, including the interview I did with him over email. I’ll save the final set of ten questions for the book, but I want to focus here on the answer to my last question, about blogging and digital media:

I want to ask you what you think about new, digital mediums that writers have access to, like blogs and other forms of social media. Do you think that this is an opportunity for readers to really get to know the writers behind the opinions, as you have put it? Or, conversely, is it still important to be published in traditional ways, on paper (another sentiment you have expressed)?

First, a little background. I thought of asking this question because of the perfomative aspects of his writing and his general persona. He is and is not his narrator, Vieux Os. He is an is not the person we see on TV. I liken him to a trickster, and I think that it isn’t an accident that Legba appears frequently in his writing as an image. The Internet is continually evolving, changing, mutating, much like his own revisions, adaptations, and mutations of Laferrière’s own corpus. In particular, he has worked in other media (film, TV, radio, print journalism), so I thought that perhaps there was an opportunity or interest in these new medias. But, alas, I was mistaken.

Les blogues ne m’intéressent pas.  Je ne vois pas l’importance d’écrire à des gens en particulier. Quand j’écris c’est pour des gens dont j’ignore l’identité.  Le lecteur se rend en librairie quand cela  lui chante.  Et il lira mon livre s’il veut.  Il n’est pas obligé de m’écrire non plus.  La littérature  circule librement.  Les blogues, c’est un univers plus étroit.  Plus étouffant, je dirais.  Je trouve  le livre, dans sa version de papier, plus libre et plus moderne.

Blogs hold no interest for me. I don’t see the relevance of writing for a particular audience. When I write, I remain ignorant of my audience’s identity. The reader will go to the bookstore when they are drawn there. And they will read my book if they want to. And they are under no obligation to write to me, either. Literature circulates freely. Blogging is a narrower universe. More stifling, I’d say. I find books, printed on paper, are freer and more modern.

I am fascinated with this answer. I’m not sure, yet, what this says about his attitudes towards writing or his identity as a writer and artist, but I think it’s really a lot to unpack. But it certainly, for me, brings up a lot of questions about my online identity, who I write for, and if blogging really is “freer” or if it’s as Laferrière puts it, more stifling.

April 13, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Copyright Madness

In my never-ending quest to be a Laferrière completist (which at this point I think is impossible* but I carry on), I finally tracked down a VHS copy of Laferrière’s little-know Radio-Canada 30-minute TV special, Voodoo Taxi. But, as you can tell, it’s not actually from Radio-Canada/CBC, it’s from an American distribution company, Beacon Films. Which, apparently, doesn’t exist anymore.

It should also be noted that it is an English version of the show, not the original French.

I was hoping that the library would be able to make a digital copy for me. Turns out, they are much stricter on copyright than I am – they refused to make the copy for me. Now, this is an inter-library loan and an nominally important part of my research (if only because of its rarity, it’s never been studied/written about, which, as any good academic knows, is academic gold). They are trying to purchase a copy for me, but I’m not holding my breathe. The company doesn’t seem to exist anymore and there is no record in the CBC/Radio-Canada archive of the show’s existence. Now, maybe if I physically looked in the archives somewhere I would find it, but I’m not going to be in Montreal or Toronto anytime soon.

I was thinking about my current predicament as I read Fun With Copyright over on the EMiC blog (which I am a member of for my Anne Hébert work). I’ll probably scour the databases for information on with whom and where the copyright might reside. I’ll probably email Radio-Canada, just for fun, although I’m not holding my breathe on that one.

Or, I could just play it through my computer and capture it. I don’t want to distribute it, I just want to study it! How is this different from photocopying a book because it needs to be returned to the library? Wait, it’s not and I’m not supposed to do that either?

Fun with copyright indeed.

Update: I was, in fact, finally able to dig through the CBC website and found where Voodoo Taxi could be purchased (or wait, maybe not, but at least there’s proof that it exists somewhere in the CBC archive)! But, it seems, not in French, as the equivalent site over on Radio-Canada turns up nothing.


*Why is it impossible? The number of interviews that Laferrière has done over the year in print, on tv, and on the radio is staggering. I don’t know if it would be possible to ever track them all, not to mention the various TV and radio projects he has contributed to as an “editorialist” – basically paying him to show up and talk about whatever he wants to in his unique way. Each profile I read of him, I find another layer, another possible “source.” It’s infuriating. And this isn’t even getting into the hundreds of La Presse editorials he wrote during his “break” from writing novels. Which I have, but have yet to read. Argh.

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