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An Interview with Dany Laferrière

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Dany Laferrière during the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori. Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

Dany Laferrière’s novel The World is Moving Around Me was a finalist for the 2016 Gregor von Rezzori Prize. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, Dany Laferrière worked as a journalist in Haiti before moving to Canada in 1976, where he also worked as a journalist. His books include How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Heading South, and The Return, for which he was awarded the Prix Médicis.

I had the opportunity to interview Dany during the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, Italy. We spoke about about the vocation of writing, and his experience as a witness to and then recorder of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. His responses are translated from French. 

Words Without Borders (WWB): How did you begin writing? How did you become a writer and has your relationship to writing changed over time?

Dany Laferrière (DL): How I began to write is different than how I became a writer. They are two different things. Many people write but they do not become writers. To become a writer is a job. It involves planning and it affects all parts of your life. Even what you eat—being a writer means not eating food with too much rich sauce to avoid taking a long afternoon nap! It’s like being a professional athlete. And a writer must choose between being a sprinter who writes a book, and being a writer who creates an oeuvre. If you want to create an oeuvre, you have to be careful not to put all your energy into the first book. You have to have a vision for the long term. For example, Marcel Proust. Once he started, he knew that he would not get out of bed before the end of the search. And he knew that it would take his entire life. So he went bit by bit. When you first begin to write, you might think it will take a month to finish a book because that is the longest stretch you can conceive of. It takes time before you see that to finish the “book”—that is to say, the oeuvre—can take forty years.

In the beginning, the writer is a reader who writes. He writes because others have written before him and he loves what they wrote. He starts dreaming that he will write a great book like the writers he loves. But then he sees that he cannot write that great book—it will, perhaps, be only a good book. And either he will be discouraged, or he will continue. And if he wants to continue, as Truman Capote said, he receives the whip. He must flagellate himself in order to go beyond simply having the desire to write and some talent. Talent isn’t enough. It takes courage.

For me, I began writing when I was very young, and simply to see if I could recreate the things that I had read, if I could make small stories from the great stories by the great writers that I had read. And then at some point, I realized that it was the only thing that I knew how to do—to write—and the only thing that would allow me to live in every sense—material, social, and in terms of love. And travel. The book travels and if people like the book, the author follows. But the book makes the trip first—it is amazing, as a writer, to be loved by people you do not know.

WWB: The World is Moving Around Me, which is nominated for the Premio Gregor von Rezzori, grew out of your experience being in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. Did you know immediately that you were going to write about that experience and did you have in mind what form the book would take?

DL: No. I had my notebook with me and I started to write. I just began to write down the things I observed, and it had nothing to do with thinking about writing a book that I would publish. I wanted to know if literature could be important enough to deal with an earthquake, with a catastrophe. I continued to write because I had the impression that I was the only one writing at the time of the earthquake, about the earthquake. So for me it was very important that I continue to report things exactly as they happened, the exact reality—if that exists—of what occurred. I wanted to stay very calm, and writing helps me to be calm, and to observe things without commenting on them. I felt that the thirty or thirty-five years I had spent writing served me in that moment, because I had to be good enough at the job to not think about the form or the style in the moment in which I was writing, and so I could instead focus on observing.

As a writer I also had the ability and the freedom to interpret things I had not seen. For example—and this is something that no journalist had witnessed and so they could not speak about it—I knew that at 4:53 p.m., at the time of the earthquake, people are usually showering in the hotels because they go down to have their first rum punch at around 5:30 p.m. The earthquake occurs and one is naked in the shower. So what does one do? Leave the shower—and then what? One leaves the tap open. And the first problem after an earthquake is the water pressure. So imagine all those hotels with many showers, all of those faucets left on and the water left running—none of the journalists spoke about it. Nobody showed a single tap running, which was a big problem after the earthquake. Later when people read the book they said, “It’s true. It happened to me. I was making food for my children who were coming home from school, and I didn’t turn off the faucet.”

I wanted to write about that time before help arrived, before the journalists arrived, before the army arrived . . . to the theater where all of the actors who were there took part in a play—a bloody play, but a play.

It was important that someone who was there write about the events. The only people who experienced the earthquake were in Port-au-Prince. We were the only ones there at the time of the earthquake. Some were dead. Others were alive. It was between us. No one from the outside was there. I wanted to write about that time before help arrived, before the journalists arrived, before the army arrived, before the people of the provinces arrived to the theater where all of the actors who were there took part in a play—a bloody play, but a play. That was very important because if you were not there in the moment when it happened, you could not say that people had laughed, for example, because you did not have the right. But I could. I was there and therefore I had the right to say that my neighbor had laughed. I saw heroic acts and I saw ridiculous gestures. I saw the daily gestures of life, so I could talk about those small gestures.

It was also important that someone who knew the people—who knew the people before the earthquake—could write about them. Otherwise, as we have seen in the media around the world, all that is spoken of is the dead, the wounded, the fallen houses, but not the people. We don’t see the people in those stories because most of the journalists who came to Haiti were not journalists who had spent time in Haiti. All they knew was what they had seen of the event. So what could they say of the actual people of Haiti—about what they were thinking? About how they lived? They could only say, “Haiti is a poor country and something bad has happened.” But I witnessed the event, and I knew the people who were there on the ground. They were human beings who had a life, who had a lineage, who had parents, who had children, who had lives. They were not poor or rich. They were people and these people had humanity. So it was important that someone who knew them write about the event. I had not only seen the person who was dead—I knew how he was dressed, where he came from, what neighborhood, what he was like. I was one of them. For me that was important. To be one of them, it was not nationalism. It was just a deeper knowledge than another journalist or a writer could have.

That was why I began to take notes. But I did not begin to write the book until a month later. I was the best-known writer in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, so all the major newspapers—the New York Times, Le Monde—asked me to write things. I did one interview with Le Monde but I refused all of the others. I did not want to be the person to tell this, to be the voice. And then I did not want to write. But it took hold of me. It took hold of me and I wrote. The earthquake happened on January 12, 2010 and my book came out around March 12, 2010. It was very fast. And, in fact, I spent a month without writing. But once it took hold of me, I wrote the book in eight days, and I sent it to my publisher who published it right away. So it was not my idea to do it. It happened. I did not do it for a good cause. I did it because I am a writer. The story was there, and I was simply not able to hold it back.

Image: Dany Laferrière discusses his memoir book with Alba Donati. Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

WWB: At the festival, when you were discussing the form and structure of the book, you spoke about no wanting this to be a “big book” or a “great book”—not wanting it to be a book in which the narrator was constructing the story or creating a grand arc. 

DL: Yes. I did not want to write a “great” book. Not just in terms of the size but also in terms of the orchestration—I did not want it to be 800 pages and with long passages on the history, independence, a sort of sweeping portrait of Haiti. I did not want to write that book. And for me, it was very important not to write a book with a large voice speaking, but to write a book that included all of the small voices that I heard, the echoes, the different stories, the humor, seriousness, drama, ridiculousness, weakness, strength, and everything that makes an event real. An event, even if it is tragic, is not lived in a tragic way. It is lived in a human way. I wanted to write a real book, and not a book for my own glory or fame. I did not want to profit off of this event by writing a “great” book.

The form was important, too. The book has an exploded form, like the explosion of all of the things on the surface of the Earth. This is what happens when the Earth trembles. It was important that that book have all of the small plots, all of the small chips. The book was for me like a glass being dropped on the floor and exploding, and every small piece is a burst of life.

And life is exactly what an earthquake is. First the Earth is more alive than ever, it moves and shows you it is alive. You forget—you think it is the floor. But no. It is an animal. This is an animal that can move. So the Earth moves, people move, things change, the revolution is here. Everything had fallen in Haiti—the National Palace, the Palace of Justice, schools, universities, the houses. The system was broken because of the Earth. It created a revolution.

An event, even if it is tragic, is not lived in a tragic way. It is lived in a human way.

And there were people who seemed extremely happy with this new freedom. Like my mother, for example. She had not slept under the stars since childhood, and she found that sleeping under the stars was something extraordinary in a city like Port-au-Prince where it is so hot. Inside it is warmer at night than during the day because heat is trapped in the concrete houses. And it was that night that my mother noticed that she had spent her life in this oven and that she could sleep beautifully outside. So it was important to me to show things like that. When there is an earthquake, it is geodesic energy. This is the Earth, that’s all, and it gives energy to people who do extraordinary things. We saw in the city that even the thieves didn’t steal. That they returned to homes to save people. It was extremely powerful and revolutionary. Instead of profiting by stealing or killing, the killers didn’t kill and the thieves didn’t steal. And there was a kind of total, child-like excitement.

So before we noticed the misery and the pain, the pain of the people who were lost, before that, we noticed the revolution of the cosmos. Everything changed—the day became day became night, night became day. The Internet didn’t exist, phones didn’t work, the radio didn’t work. If you wanted to speak with someone, you had to speak with him in person. And this change was exciting. I even said it in my book—my God, the revolution is here. We should jump to continue this change, to do something with this change. When other people arrived, the people who did not live it, they brought a different discourse, a conversation about the poor country, a pity speech, a discourse completely outside of the reality of what happened. So for me, it was very important that someone speak about what had happened, speak about that energy before the discourse became a tearful, compassionate speech of lament.

WWB: I was struck by your description of the presence of life, and the importance of writing about it. The journalists were writing about death and the loss, but you spoke about life.

DL: When I went outside for the first time after the earthquake I was in a car with friends and another car pulled up next to us and a young man stepped out and said, “I salute the living.” He drove all around Port-au-Prince, and every time he saw someone alive, he said, “I salute the living.” The first word that I heard, the first comment, was about life, not death. As soon as the international cameras arrive, we heard a long speech about death. That’s what’s different. It’s not their fault—one cannot talk about the life if one didn’t experience the risk to pay for that story. But for me, it was a revolution. And there were so many dead people, the only thing to do was to live with joy.

Read more dispatches from the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori.

Read Dany Laferrière’s work on WWB:

Published Jun 23, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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