Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dany Laferrière

This review first appeared in Imprint (1993).

Dany Laferrière
An Aroma of Coffee
Coach House Press, 1993

This is a beautiful, warm-hearted little book. Set in Haiti in the recent past (30 years ago), its scenes of sun and surf make for envious Canadian winter reading. The texture of its narrative, broken into titled segments and told in the voice of a nine-year-old, recounts an age of innocence filtered through the tragic knowledge of what the last 30 years have brought to that island state.

The author is himself a victim of that history. A journalist in the 1970s when Haiti was under Duvalier, Laferrière went into exile in Montréal after a colleague was found murdered by the roadside. That was 1978. His first book, How to Make Love of a Negro (published in English -- Laferrière writes in his native language, French -- in 1987), was started shortly after.

A second book, Eroshima, was subsequently published. The first two books followed in the tradition defined largely by Henry Miller: working-class poet obsessed with sex and a plethora of spiritual matters. An Aroma of Coffee continues the spiritual meditation, though the age of the narrator reduces the sexual discussion to a few words on the sparks of first love.

On the surface this third book appears to be very different from Laferrière's first two (if Miller's poetics turn you off, you need not fear this book), but common themes unite them, along with the author's deep curiosity and compassion for life.

The action in the novel takes place over the course of a summer's vacation. The nine-year-old narrator is under doctor's orders to rest and he finds himself under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Da. Da is the neighbourhood sage. She sits on her porch drinking coffee. She takes note of the people who cross her path and strikes up conversations with many passers-by.

It is mainly through Da's eyes that we come to know the community, but this is a fragmented story. We are told many points of view, which are often contradictory, and we are trusted to make our own sense of the whole. Which is to say, we are trusted to know that the whole is unknowable, and yet it is well worth exploring.

The book is divided into 38 chapters. Each reveals a particular theme. There are, for example, chapters which bear the titles: Bodies, Sex, Romantic Love, God, Time, Night, and The Mad Cyclist. At the end of the chapter called Time comes this quotation: "Augerean breathed in the aroma of the coffee before he took his first sip. Everything else is just a matter of time."

An Aroma of Coffee won the 1991 Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe. The back cover of the book explains: "for this story's contribution to the poetics of daily life, the symphony of a people's imagery and individual imaginations: the echo of popular song, the freshness of personal experience, the quiet bursts of humour, ever present."

Add to that list the sun and the surf and you have a really good book. I can't wait for Spring!


This review first appeared in Id Magazine (1995).

Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?
by Dany Laferrière
Coach House Press

If you are a (male) black writer (named Laferrière), why must you write about sex?

Three reasons.

First, because your book will create a sensation, people will buy it, and you will become famous.

Second, because beautiful women, particularly blondes, will want to sleep with you.

Third, because you are a serious writer and you use the metaphor of interracial sex (white women, black men) to explore the power relations created and perpetuated by racism in North America.

But reader beware. Dany Laferrière's latest novel does not answer the question its title proposes. Laferrière is a novelist, not an essayist, and like a good novelist should, Laferriere leaves the answers to the English teachers and other folks foolish enough to pretend to know them.

Why Write About Sex? returns Laferrière to the territory of his 1987 debut, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. In the same way that the first book was superficially about "how", the second book is not really about "why," though readers should prepare themselves for later books on "what", "when", "who", and "where."

How to Make Love, about a poverty stricken and sex hungry immigrant writer living in Montreal in the early-1980s, propelled Laferriere into the spotlight. A flurry of adversarial encounters followed. And now we have the latest book, which attempts to answer questions like the one included on the cover flap: "Is it possible to be a writer when women stop you on the street and ask you to justify the title of your first book?"

The largest problem with Why Write About Sex? is that readers unfamiliar with How to Make Love will be left wondering what all the fuss is about. If they return to the original text, then good. It's a book worth returning to. But this situation begs the question: if Laferriere explained himself in the first book, what is left to say?

In parts of Why Write About Sex? ,Laferriere comes off sounding like a sore loser. The first book gave the impression that he wanted to be the next Henry Miller; the new book reveals how far Miller has fallen out of favour.

At one point Laferriere has a character challenge his narrator. Feminism has changed everything, he says. But the narrator defers. "No," he says. "Everything is as it's always been."
Sorry, fella. It ain't so.

Large sections of this book, however, take Laferrière into new territory. The "interviews" with Spike Lee and Ice Cube alone are worth the price of the book. The book also showcases Laferriere's "cosmological eye" as he travels across the United States on a bus trip, recounting his observations for a large American magazine.

These passages reveal the best of his journalistic style. The passages are also surprisingly similar to the life depicted by the aforementioned Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, one of Miller's more socially acceptable volumes.

Laferrière has fun with serious questions in this book. The unconventional structure he's chosen allows him to cover a lot of territory, though critics of How to Make Love will likely be unsatisfied by the inclusion of Erzulia, a young black woman and a fiercely independent female voice who breaks into the narrative throughout the book. That's too bad.

The praise he heaps on James Baldwin will hopefully cause lineups at local libraries. The publisher should take note of some missing dialogue at the bottom of page 101.


This review previously unpublished.

The Drifting Year
by Dany Laferrière
translated by David Homel
Douglas & McIntyre, 1997

Down Among the Dead Men
by Dany Laferrière
translated by David Homel
Douglas & McIntyre, 1997

Dany Laferrière burst onto the (English) Canadian literary scene in 1987 with his brilliant debut, How to Make Love to a Negro (released in French in Quebec in 1985). Since then, six new books have appeared, each adding, like the units of Jack Kerouac's ouvre, a new chapter to the unfolding story of Laferierre's "I". The latest instalments, The Drifting Year and Down Among the Dead Men, point in opposite directions away from the middle.

The Drifting Year recounts Laferierre's first year in Canada after he ran away from Haiti fearing for his life. (A colleague in journalism had been murdered.) The book serves as a prelude to the narrative of How To Make Love, though it provides little new information and lacks the frenetic lyricism that made Laferrière's debut so enjoyable.

What is new about A Drifting Year is Laferierre's decision to tell the story in short paragraphs, some of which/are broken up/to look like poetry. It isn't poetry, it's pretentious, and it only irritated this reader.

Laferrière (or is it translator David Homel?) has always had a strong ear for the rhythm of language, and he may one day write decent poetry, but he gains nothing by experimenting with form here.

A Drifting Year ranks with Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy as a nostalgic view of poverty told by a "seeker" narrator. Novelist Russell Smith called Laferierre "above all a diarist" in the Globe and Mail, but unless we are naive readers surely it is more appropriate to label Laferrière, with Miller, as a propagandist for the self-examined life lyrically led.

A Drifting Year is yet another example that Laferrière's ambitions lean in this direction.

Down Among the Dead Men, Laferierre's second new book from Douglas & McIntyre, recounts Laferrière's first return visit to Haiti in 20 years. The autocrats who wanted him dead are gone, and the United Nations' troops patrol the streets.

Laferrière's mother tells him how the cemeteries have been emptied and that zombies populate the country. Laferrière's "I" meets up with old girl friends, old buddies and a handful of voodoo gods. This is a book that could have been a lot better.

Laferrière outlines some of the conflict between Haiti's native mythologies and those of Christendom, symbolized in part by the U.N. troops attempting to impose (Western) order on (Haitian) chaos.

But the conflict is incompletely explored, and it is not embedded in the narrative, which is supplied by Laferrière's largely superficial responses to "the new Haiti."

Where Laferrière's talents come through most is in the interaction between his characters. The portraits of his mother and aunt are precious, and his friends and girlfriends are vigorously drawn. Laferrière, like Miller, is a writer in love with humanity, and, like Miller, his ability to communicate the charisma of his characters is one of his strengths.

The women in Laferrière's earlier book, Dining With a Dictator, remain his major achievement (unlike some of his other women, the sex objects of How to Make Love, for instance). If he can harness his character-building skills, generate a narrative with conflict, and drop any ambition to be a pseudo-philosopher, Laferrière may produce a major work yet.

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