By Geoff Wisner
On October 28, the Haitian-born author Dany Laferrière appeared on a panel presented by NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge and UnionDocs, with the support of the Villa Gillet and France’s Conseil de la Création Artistique. The subject was Featuring Disaster: How We Picture Catastrophes, and Laferrière was among those commenting on clips from several Hurricane Katrina documentaries and from Hollywood disaster films including Twister and Armageddon.
Laferrière, born in 1953, became a journalist during the Duvalier regime but fled Haiti in 1976 after a friend was murdered. He has made his home since then in New York, Miami, and primarily Montreal. Best known for taking on the explosive subject of black men and white women in novels like How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired and Heading South (both made into movies), he became an authority on catastrophe when a major earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. He was staying at the time in a hotel in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville.
Laferrière’s most recent books are L’énigme du retour (published in English as The Return) and Tout bouge autour de moi (The World is Moving Around Me). Laferrière agreed to be interviewed after the event. My thanks to him as well as to interpreter Isabelle Dupuis and David Bukszpan of Buxus PR, who arranged the interview.
Geoff Wisner: Am I right that The Enigma of Return grew from your return to Haiti after thirty-three years?
Dany Laferrière: No. The Enigma of Return was born during a trip to Haiti but I had already returned prior to that trip. But it was the first time I was in Port-au-Prince truly as a writer. When I go to Port-au-Prince, when anyone returns to his or her own country after a long period of time, they always want to know what happened during their absence. And they ask people. And I feel like people are telling me all sorts of things. They don’t really take it very seriously.
And they’re right, you can’t! You can’t feel things just because people are telling you things. So for The Enigma of Return I had decided not to ask them, because I believe the landscape can say much more than people can. I looked at people as though they were part of the landscape, as if they were walking trees. I tried to write exactly what I saw, as would a primitive painter.
GW: I learned tonight that you began writing your latest novel almost immediately after the earthquake. Did you know right away what you wanted to say?
DL: I had my notebook with me, and no one knew anything about the earthquake in Haiti. We’re not like Japan or San Francisco. People didn’t know if it was going to come back, if there were going to be others, nothing. So the first idea was to write, so as not to lose my mind. Writing is a process that enables you to concentrate and to bring together all the pieces, and at that moment I was just writing anything, just to write. And it helped me to become the narrator. In my mind, to me, the narrator never dies.
GW: The narrator never dies! That’s good.
DL: There you have your title. I believe that’s why Americans always want to tell the story of the world. They believe that when you master the story or the tale, it is as if, if something were to happen, they would be the first ones informed.
GW: It seems that a lot of your work is on the border between fiction and nonfiction. Did you consider writing your new book as nonfiction, since you were a personal witness?
DL: I really don’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. I believe my issue is style, my thing is style, and for me style is not about mastering language, it’s about the posture of language, how you carry yourself in the world, at what angle you’re looking at the world, how you look at the world.
That’s what style is for me. It’s character, it’s how you see things, and you can find this in a conversation, in a narrative tale, in an algebra theorem in mathematics. It’s always there. I remember Gogol used to say, “I will know who somebody is once I know how he ties his necktie.”
GW: I understand Gogol is very difficult to translate because of the subtleties of his style. Do you think you are difficult to translate? You’ve worked with David Homel on several books. Are there issues that have come up in taking your work into English?
DL: Me, I am very easy to be translated! Because I don’t read any other language, I wouldn’t know if I am well translated or not.
I believe translation also has to do with the translator’s personality. There are some people who believe that a style that is very dense is very difficult to be translated. Others think the opposite, that what is difficult is a very fluid style, like Hemingway’s style. You have these paranoid translators. As soon as they see it’s very simple, they say, “Oh, there must be something underneath all that.” I believe the translator reveals himself in his approach to translation.
I’m not a difficult writer to be read, but it doesn’t mean that I’m easy to translate, because when people read you easily, the translator thinks he has the same feelings as you do. He feels so close to what he’s reading that he brings that onto his emotional territory.
GW: Do you know your translator personally? Do you work with him face to face?
DL: No, no, no. David Homel is the one I know the best. Sometimes he translates as if I were Haitian, other times he translated me as if I were an American writer. I remember when he started translating my first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, I told him, “See, it’s easy to translate because it’s an American novel. Only the words are in French.” And he thought it was a joke, but when he translated it he told me, “You were right.” It is true, because you attach yourself to words in order to define a language, whereas culture is much stronger. When I read Hemingway in French, it’s French, but I know he’s not a French writer. Words aren’t the only thing that define.
GW: You’ve spoken of reading Henry Miller and Kerouac and others when you were beginning as a writer. Are there writers today that are especially important to you?
DL: Oh, many. But the greatest in my mind is Borges, because he has a capacity to subvert reality and language. He can easily give another color to a word we are already familiar with. He sent a script to Hollywood, and he said, “They didn’t like my dialogue, they didn’t like the narration, they didn’t like the characters, and they refused my script with enthusiasm!” Here the word enthusiasm is new.
What I like is that at the beginning you think he is creating paradoxes but afterwards you realize that everything he’s saying is true. True in the sense that he truly believes it. It’s a state of mind that’s at the service of the sensibility, and that’s very rare because our mind often tends to snuff sensibility.
Read an excerpt from Tout Bouge Autour de Moi, in the November 2011 issue of Words without Borders: Writing from the Caribbean, over here.
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