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XXI. An Academic, Writing: Wandering Over Space and Time

Apr 29, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

While Dany Laferrière’s entire “Autobiographie Américaine” takes place over the course of many, many years, each individual piece occurs in a very specific place and time. It’s a summer during his childhood in Petite-Goâve, a weekend when he is a teenager in Port-au-Prince, or a few months living as a poor immigrant in Montreal. He writes with a real sense of immediacy—all of his books are written in the present tense. There is very little “looking back” during the main narratives. Everything that happens is happening within the “now” of the story.

This changes in his more recent novels. In I am a Japanese Writer, he is confronted with the specter of memory invading his current present. His award-winning The Enigma of the Return goes back through and over his life both in North America and Haiti while dealing with his father’s own life in Haiti and in exile in North America (but I’m saving that for the conclusion of the book). His most recent rewrite is of his 1994 work Chronique de la dérive douce (A Drifting Year). The original book was 366 short verses, representing his first year in Montreal (which was 1976, symbolically enough, a leap year). His 2012 version has more than doubled in length.

Laferrière also explores the idea of hindsight and experience in his revision of Chronique though the eyes and voice of the narrator. What is interesting is that unlike his other revisions, which stay within the time frame, his revision of Chronique is still written exclusively in the present tense but shifts between the present of 1976 and the present of when the revision is being done (2011). His narrator now not only wanders the streets of Montreal, he now wanders through time.

In writing my book, I find myself wandering, too, through time. I have been reading and writing about Laferrière for over ten years now. It was an overheard conversation, remembered when working on a course syllabus that first led me to read his work. From there, my fascination with Laferrière bloomed and blossomed into the book I am currently writing. As I go through and go over all of those things that I have written about Laferrière (teaching notes, conference presentations, articles, abstracts, marginalia), it is like being transported through time. I find myself reliving the moments during which I read and thought about his work. Often incomplete memories, they are nonetheless telling in where and how I was at that moment as an academic. The more I read of Laferrière, the more I wanted to try and understand his works. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see where I went “wrong” but also understand exactly why those mistakes (or, perhaps, critical lacks) happened. For example, Chronique always struck me as a beautiful, poetic journey as a counter to painful narratives of exile, but it also acts as a strong criticism of the capitalist and exploitive (not to mention racist) systems that existed and still exist in Quebec.

One of the keys that really highlighted this critique was a fascinating 1988 TV special that is basically another re-telling of his first year in Montreal, but is titled, Êtes-vous racistes? (Are you racist?) and presents a much more caustic and critical view of his experiences, versus the softer, although still critical, picture of Montreal in 1976 through the eyes of a newly-arrived, Black immigrant. By incorporating this third version of the narrative into my analysis, I can present a clearer, more complete understanding of the “deeper truth” Laferrière is seeking.

Clearly, working on a project for ten years changes your perspective on an author and their work. That I keep coming back to Laferrière’s work, to me, speaks to the richness of his writing, and that it continues to “speak” to me, even after all this time. Like Laferrière, I am continually trying to get to the “deeper truth” of his work. Laferrière has created and recreated a life worth reading and studying, and it’s been a great journey, albeit a different one than perhaps I expected ten years ago when I picked up his debut novel on a whim. I didn’t know then that I would be building my academic career off of it.
 

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