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February 19, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Digital Humanities and Dany Laferrière

I’m determined to attend the 2013 MLA conference in Boston as a presenter. There is a great call out right now that I’m trying to wrap my head around, to come up with the “perfect” proposal involving my dream DH project for Laferrière’s oeuvre.

One of my arguments about Laferrière’s habit of rewriting stems, in part, from his upbringing within an oral culture (hearing stories, voodoo myths, and tales at the knee of his beloved grandmother, Da), and from the influence of Jazz, what he calls the most American of musical genres (Jazz figures prominently in How To Make Love to a Negro). Oral storytelling and jazz rely heavily on the teller or performer, as well as the audience. Voodoo in particular is adapted according to historical circumstances, with the various deities appearing in different forms at different times (see Haiti, History, and the Gods, which has been an invaluable resource for me). Jazz, of course, was in no small part about the particular artist interpreting a piece of music at a particular moment, not to mention improvisation.

Why should it come as any surprise, then, that Laferrière is continually changing, updating, and we could even say, performing for a different audiences (see his movie adaptations, as well as children’s stories and newspaper writing) his work? This focus on performance is something that is difficult to convey in traditional media formats; we can record one telling and one performance at a time, as well as consume them only one at a time. While orality and performance are always evolving and changing, the recording of one performance in particular becomes static, set, and to a certain extent, permanent.

Is there a way, then, to use digital humanities to try and recreate some of that instability, uncertainty, and excitement that comes from viewing or experiencing a performance? While at the CWRC conference in Toronto, I listened to a presentation on such a project taking place in theater studies, developing spacial software that can recreate different performances and stagings of the same play, using old notes and reviews of the performances, as well as archival footage. There have also been projects that seek to be able to capture the differences in editions of a particular work, like the Digital Thoreau Project. Couple that with the racial element of his work, being able to trace the evolution of Laferrière’s image as an author, or compare how he has been portrayed in different countries and languages?

I think digital humanities presents us with an opportunity to interact with works differently. We can bring back elements of orality and performance, merging the aural with the visual and the experimental. Laferrière revealed in his interview with me for the book that he is working on a digital edition of his children’s book Je suis fou de Vava, and revealed that he is (once again) heavily reworking it for the new format. I think that I (or other academics) could create digital critical editions, but rather than focusing on footnotes and references, it could focus on performance – in other words, allowing the reader to experience different performances of a given text and even creating their own.

Dany Laferrière provides an interesting opportunity for digital humanities scholars; like Mark Sample describes as potential histories of Don Delillo’s work in the collection Debates in Digital Humanities, Laferrière presents to us accessible alternative narratives and performances of his work. But, the problems and challenges of doing this kind of work, as Sample as points out, are still present: copyright, permissions, cost, and lack of digitized resources. Laferrière’s work falls into the sort of black hole of digital resources: does he still have his drafts of his novels, typed on his trusty Remington? Is it possible to track down all of his essays and interviews in newspapers from Haiti, the US, Canada, France, and beyond? Does he archive his email correspondences? Are their electronic or even audio versions of his works? And, even if these materials did exist, would people have access to them, be free to work with them?

So, I dream of the possibilities and I learn how to build using my dissertation research. Laferrière has said that he will stop rewriting his work when he dies, so there’s time. Anything I build today would need to be continually and constantly updated (which is both horrifying and exhilarating, making me a massive masochistic nerd). But I keep building, anyway, at least building the resources that I will one day use to perform Laferrière differently.

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February 15, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Recent Interviews

These are only four of the many, many (many) interviews Laferrière has done in the aftermath of his Prix Médicis win and the publication of his most recent novel, L’Art preque perdue de rien faire (which I am still trying to get through).

First up is a Canadian Press story about Laferrière’s reaction to winning the literary prize. Next is one that gives us the reaction of various other Haitian authors to his win. In English, we have a piece about experiencing first-hand the earthquake in Haiti and, in what should be the introduction to my book of essays on Laferrière, a great piece about his recent literary life and new-found fame (rather than infamy). All four of these profile/pieces/interviews provide a new element of insight in the literary life of Laferrière, a new glimpse into his work.

Which is the central frustration when it comes to being able to write a brief introduction to the author, not to mention compile any sort of meaningful critical bibliography; I almost just want to write, if you’re looking for a good interview with Laferrière, Google it, because any list published here will be outdated the moment it is sent from my computer to the publisher’s.

Interestingly, Laferrière’s television appearances have begun to start popping up on YouTube. Boreal, his publisher in Quebec, even created short videos of him reading his latest book as a promotional tool. In this lengthy interview from the TV show, Tout le monde en parle, Laferrière laments that adult readers have forgotten the simple childhood pleasure of reading out loud. I would invite you to search for pieces from Laferrière on YouTube, but here, listen to him describe “L’art d’aimer.”

February 14, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

How To Read Laferrière Without Getting Tired

The essays have been revised and resubmitted. The interview has been conducted. I am now in the process of writing the introduction and biography for the collection of essay. My catchy title for the intro is the title of this post. But I wonder, should it be read or should it be study?

Reading Laferrière is easy; his books are accessible, entertaining, thoughtful, and generally (to my mind) just a pleasure. And, let’s face it, unless you’re a completist like me, wondering if you’ve read the right or most recent version of his books (he’s re-written Tout bouge autour de moi and in the process of re-writing Chronique de la dérive douce, plus just released a new book). But if you are an academic, interesting in studying Laferrière, it’s exhausting. I can’t keep up, really.

Laferrière talks about one of the reasons why he gave up writing, that people (particularly academics) didn’t “read” him properly. Part of the reason why is because we (academics) need a finite subject on which to write about. For better or for worse, it’s easy to fit Laferrière’s “Haiti” books into a studies of literature of repression, nostalgia, Haitian history, postcolonial, or Caribbean literature in French while treating his “North American” books as immigrant literature, race relations, class studies, etc. And what do you do with/about his movies, his newspaper writing, his interviews, his children’s books, etc?

Can I even begin to write or talk about his in the “right way” in my introduction?

And then, his biography. How can you distill into 3-5 pages a life that has been written and recoded over 20 books, movies, and book-length interviews? And, understanding that Laferrière’s own attitude towards “the truth” in his own life writing, how much should I include or clarify? Do I point out that he fudges the dates and details in Le goût des jeunes filles to fit his “movie”; Papa Doc didn’t die on a Monday, as he does in the novel. Some of his more recent paperbacks include a timeline in the back, outlining the basic dates and events of his life, but how much do I fill in from the books themselves? Anyone who is reading a book of essays on Laferrière would already be familiar with his work and thus his life, no?

I still think that I called this blog the right thing, Chasing Laferrière. As long as he’s alive, he told me, he will be writing new works and rewriting his old ones. Which means I’ll always be chasing him. Now, I’m also inspired to start trying to chase down his old writings in Haiti, done before he fled to Montreal. I also want to go through his weekly columns from La Presse that he wrote during his break from writing novels. And now that I’m getting into digital humanities, I might still be chasing him for years.

At least it gives me something to do.

November 3, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Finding Where I Fit In

The essays have been collected. I have Laferrière’s email address. I’m formulating the questions. I’m trying to figure out how to write a ten-page introduction to this whole collection and how I am going to adapt my two essays on Éroshima into one essay for the collection. I am currently trying to write one final essay from my list from the summer for submission (once again, because of an extension that I didn’t even ask for but was offered to me).

This past weekend, however, I was at a conference back in Toronto. Unlike my experience in Sherbrooke (by the way, the paper that I presented there has been accepted for publication!), I felt really disconnected, awkward, and like I just didn’t fit in the same way I felt when I was in Sherbrooke. It got to the point where I was feeling dispondant: these were ostensively my people, people who did Canadian literature, who were doing digital humanities, challenging how we do research, share research, work in higher education. And yet. I was so moved (and not in a good way) I wrote the following on my iPhone:

I’m starting to feel insecure. Academics of Canadian literature wearing the uniform of the Canadian academic: floovog shoes, locally designed, eclectic dresses, funky but tasteful jewelry, probably also locally made. I’m in my mass produced jeans, sweater and scarf. And, I feel like I did years ago as a grad student: out of place, awkward, over-enthusiastic, verbose. It’s a feeling I didn’t have in Sherbrooke, in French. In English, in Canada, in academia, I don’t fit and my rough edges scratch and repel. So many of the people here know me (and seem to admire/respect me) online, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve disappointed then in real life. And while I long to connect to their work and community, I wonder if it would work, because I am so out of place.

I don’t think I would be doing what I do, both academically and in my blogging, had I stayed (or returned) to Canada. Being isolated in a place where one expects to be isolated is hard but for me empowering; I was free to do what I wanted to do. To be isolated in a place where one should and could fit wounds and warps; here, I would have been too wrapped up in either trying to fit or, like right now, lamenting and obsessing that I don’t. I become too self-conscious, too self-aware, and it paralyses me.

It had been so long since I’ve been back to Canada for an English-Canadian conference, that I forgot these feelings, these incongruities, this reality. Or at least my perception of it. In English, growing up and during my PhD, I was spoken over, spoken for, and when I tried to speak, often punished. I want to speak the way I speak when I’m in French, or when I’m in the States. I want this place to be home. It has never been nor will never be home.

So I read about home, by authors from home. The fiction I consume and create obscure and replace the reality. It makes me sad. I don’t know what else to do. I’ll leave, the negative feelings will recede, life will go on. But I will miss a place, an opportunity, a imaginary that I’ve always longed to be a part of.

But then on the last day, the day of my presentation, Lori St. Martin gave a keynote presentation. She talked about growing up and not fitting in and finding herself in French. She ended her talk stating that here she was, herself and happy. I almost burst into tears. Lori was animated, excited, enthusiastic, full of asides, digressions, and giggles. In a strange, circular coincidence, Lori was also the keynote speaker in Sherbrooke. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel like I fit in there. I do my own thing. If I fit, then I fit; if I don’t, well, that’s ok, too.

July 26, 2011 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Moving Forward/Coming Full Circle

I finally finished that paper on Laferrière’s rewriting of Le goût des jeunes filles. I had, in fact, given up, but then the deadline was extended, so I plunged in and wrote over 10k words in five days. This is an essay, however, that has been almost five years in the making; I first presented on the subject in Hawaii at the 2008 International Auto/Biography Association Conference. I actually used parts of the presentation for my paper. I’ve back back to where I started as well as moving forward (having finally written and submitted it somewhere).

But there’s more to it than that. You can’t write or talk about autobiography without also talking about Philip Lejeune (whom I briefly met while at the conference in Hawaii; he was the keynote speaker, talking about the issue of translation in life writing. I had been working on the life writing (archives) of translators, so I went up to him and told him that good work was being done in Canada on this very topic. But I was so nervous and awestruck that I basically word vomited what I had to say and then ran away. Being in my first trimester with my son probably didn’t help either). Finding out that he now has written extensively about diary writing (the addition to Laferrière’s narrative takes the form of a journal) was perfectly symmetrical. There was one thing that was bothering me, and that was, how did I know about Lejeune and his “pacte autobiographique” to begin with?

It finally dawned on me that this interest in autobiography and life writing started way back in CEGEP (Quebec’s transitional two-years between high school and university) when I took a course in autobiography. My teacher, Ms. Cote, was excellent (I also took a course in detective fiction with her). It was there that I first read Lejeune and about his pact. I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for my essay in that class (we read Maya Angelou, This Boy’s Life, and…I don’t remember). It’s actually surprising to me that I don’t remember because I remember just about every English essay I’ve ever done (seriously). I do remember wanting to take the class because I had been keeping a personal journal all throughout high school, thus was very interested in the concept of “life writing.” Imagine my surprise when I read Lejeune for my present project and he revealed that he, took, became interested in autobiography because of his own diary-keeping habits.

But the connections continued. Whose name should pop up in his comments about diary (particularly electronic life writing, aka blogging) but Régine Robin. I wrote one of my first graduate-level essays on her “autobiographical” novel La Québécoite. It was the most difficult and challenging book we had read in class, and I was completely inspired by it. And overwhelmed. I had the worst case of writer’s block trying to write the paper; I had nightmares about staring at a blank computer screen! But the paper eventually got written, and I am still pretty proud of the results (for a first-semester MA student, that is). Nonetheless, life writing has apparently been an interest of mine before I even became conscious of it.

So it does look like I’ve come full-circle while moving forward, all at once. I’m now so far from that kid who started college more than 15 years ago (!!), completely overwhelmed and unprepared. But those English classes in college helped me see that I loved literature, loved not just reading but writing about it, too. Everything (ok, not everything) has come together to create my most recent paper, and is helping to shape my (eventual) book. I think it’s kinda neat, actually. Lejeune said that we can never know, when writing a journal, when and where the end will be. Indeed, I couldn’t have guessed it would have ended here.

Not ended. But ended up.

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!

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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