Defying molds: A humourous celebration of self
Literature Alive Storyteller Dany Laferrière
By Tumelo E. Phali | Posted: October 16, 2005
Almost every word that he utters sparks with humour. Be warned though, for sometimes the lambent wit gives way to brutal honesty with such deep intelligence that one is left feeling shallow. Meet Dany Laferrière, the unpredictable and celebrated Haitian-Québecois writer and literary commentator.
Laferrière was born in the fifties, the son of a well-known and influential figure -- his father was a journalist and a diplomat who later became the mayor of Port-au-Prince. He might have had a normal, easy-going life in Haiti had Fate not forced him to flee his country for Canada. As a result, he completed his studies here and worked for some years after as a journalist and cultural chronicler in Quebec.
Today he is a writer, at home in the world wherever he may find himself -- in Canada, Haiti, America or Africa. But the vibrant landscapes of his native Haiti almost always show up in his work, as if they were a magnetic centre to which he gravitates. While some critics may think of him as controversial, bizarre or even as an attention seeker who is out to shock the world, Laferrière's unique style accurately reflects his literary values.
His first novel was Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer literally translated as “How to make love to a negro without getting tired”. Published more than ten years after he arrived in Canada, it was a comical exploration of sexual stereotypes that Blacks and Whites typically hold of each other and of themseves. From this first published work, Laferrière demonstrated an irreverent approach to subjects that are usually considered untouchable across all races and religions. He showed his resolve to spread his creative wings as far as they could go. Demand for the book outweighed the harsh criticism that some leveled at it. It was translated into more than ten foreign languages - including Spanish, Korean, Dutch and Swedish - proving that Laferrière’s work had touched a nerve in a diverse readership. This success supported an argument he had already begun to emphasize -- that good literature has no limitations.
In all his work Laferrière strives to define the individual's humanity through means that go beyond and differ from one's origins. He refuses to be simplistically portrayed by those who wish to see him merely in terms of his language, ancestral roots and heritage culture. He will not accept the belief that these attributes alone can circumscribe a person’s identity. He stands firmly against putting too much importance on them.
His book, L'Odeur du café (1991), won the Carbet de la Caraïbe prize. In it, Laferrière opens up a variety of issues and themes, such as: coming of age, sexism, mysticism, and Haitian indigenous ritual practices. He also examines other aspects of life in his native country and provides links to his childhood through actual places, names and factual anecdotes. Chronique de la dérive douce (1994) records his earlier days in Montreal.
Similarly, in Le charme des après-midi sans fin (1997) Laferrière appears to write more for himself than the reader and it seems as if an awareness of the reader hardly features in his writing process. For him, writing is a medium through which he is able to harness his senses and gain a better perspective of his purpose and direction within his world.
In J'écris comme je vis, Laferrière continues an intimate look at his own past and contemporary life experiences. Starting with his earliest days, he bares his human weaknesses, gives us the usual stinging takes on society, discusses women he has known and his travels across the seas, and includes morbid subjects like death and demons. L'Oeil du cyclone published in 2000 is also strongly autobiographical.
Le cri des oiseaux fous was inspired by and dedicated to the memory of the murdered Haitian journalist, his friend Gasner Raymond. It is a tale of good times spent with friends that evolved into a weird and cruel climate in Haiti when Raymond was hunted down and killed. Laferrière had to flee his homeland to escape a similar fate. This brave confrontation with a painful past won him respect in literary circles and earned Laferrière the Marguerite Yourcenar prize in 2001.
His work in film includes Woodoo Taxi (1998),with Alberto Manguel and Le goût des jeunes filles, directed by John L'Ecuyer and starring Lansana Kourouma. The film, which tells a story of a 15 year old Haitian teenager and his adventurous weekend, was actually adapted from Laferrière’s autobiographical book of the same title.
Comment conquerir L’Amérique en une nuit a multi-collaboration and 2004 release produced by Danie Morin, was written and directed by Laferrière himself. Starring Michel Mpambara, the film has been described as a cross-cultural ‘immigrant comedy’. It tells the story of a young man captivated with everything American and his uncle who is steeped in everything Haitian.
Laferrière usually says that he is not overly concerned with whether people get his message or not. He continues to make the point that literature is bigger than cultural, racial or continental classification. His greatest wish is to be given more space than many of his critics are willing to concede to him at this time because he needs to stretch his creative wings as far as they can reach. He will risk offending others – in a jovial kind of way, of course!