For several decades now, the Haitian author Dany Laferrière—whose books include How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired, Dining With the Dictator, Heading South, and I Am a Japanese Writer—has been a defiantly original, iconoclastic writer, impossible to pin down or categorize. His off-kilter blend of fiction and personal history explores issues of race and identity, sex and belonging, political oppression and exile. From the distance of his adopted home in Montreal, he’s continued to revisit memories of his Haitian youth—his journey from the small village of Petit-Goâve to the cultural hotbed of 1970s Port-au-Prince, the legacies of the Duvalier regime, and his ultimate flight to the cold and foreign land of Canada.
At 4:53 PM, on January 12, 2010, as he sat down for a meal at the Hôtel Karibe in Port-au-Prince, Laferrière’s world was forever changed. Laferrière was in the country for a book festival and also up against a publisher’s deadline to submit a manuscript on writing tips and technique when the devastating earthquake struck. (Haitians dubbed the quake “Goudougoudou,” a made-up word that mimics the reverberations it made.) Within moments, much of the city came tumbling down, including schools, prisons, and the Presidential Palace. Over 300,000 people were killed and a million lost their homes. “The fateful hour that cut Haitian time in two,” Laferrière calls the episode. “I understand now that a minute can hold the entire life of a city.”
Having miraculously survived, Laferrière is overcome by a mix of emotions—awe, sorrow, guilt, a woozy sense of terror and instability. “When it comes in such unexpected and massive fashion, death will not easily leave us,” he writes. “It’s so enormous that instead of casting us into sadness, I feel something like drunkenness come over me.” And after a few days camping out in the hotel’s yard with other guests, Laferrière begins to venture out into the city to assess the damage and record survivors’ tales of trauma and woe.
Out of these encounters grew this idiosyncratic collection of vignettes and observations, sketches and meditations. This is Laferrière’s own take on the cataclysmic effects of the quake, both political and psychological. But it is also an opportunity to air his views on the history of the country itself, its natural and man-made misfortunes; on the act of writing and the power of Haiti’s distinctive cultural forces to renew the country and re-imagine its destiny. “People are looking for a way out,” he observes. “Which makes me think that when everything else collapses, culture remains. The people who are still moving will save this city.”
Laferrière’s style is thoughtful and understated, as he roams chaotic Port-au-Prince neighborhoods like Delmas and Pétionville and meets up with old friends and family. There are touching side stories here, reunions with radical comrades from the ’70s like the Creole poet-of-the-people Dominique Batraville (“the man sums up this untamable city”) and leading Haitian writers Frankétienne and Lyonel Trouillot. But, increasingly, the book turns into a family tale, and Laferrière’s narration centers on his visits with his mother and sister; his ailing aunt, Renée; and, perhaps most revealingly, his young nephew who happens to be an aspiring writer. “Completely taken aback, I listened as he explained in great detail that this is the event of his generation, not mine,” Laferrière says, as the two of them argue over “ownership” of the experience through literature. “Mine was the dictatorship. His is the earthquake. And his sensitivity will speak of it.”
In the end, this small, hushed book—in many ways very different from anything he’s written before—is Laferrière’s response to both the earthquake and his nephew’s prompting. It is, then, something of a book of writerly advice after all—on how to process reality, how to reassemble in words and portraits a land of the living and dead. Reading this book three years after the quake, amid Haiti’s faltering reconstruction, Laferrière’s vision of a potentially reborn country may seem innocent and illusory. And yet it is hard to resist his faith in Haiti’s resilient cultural life—its writers, musicians, healers, and artists who’ve historically expressed Haitians’ mix of joy and pain. He finds inspiration especially in the so-called “naïve” landscape painters whose work sought “to show nature in its splendor when all around there is desolation.” Laferrière’s book can itself be seen as an example of this, a ringing affirmation of his conclusion that “culture is the only thing that can stand up to the earthquake.”