This article is a translation of a previous post on The Postcolonialist. Translation provided by Addie Leak, a freelance translator based in France.
Moreover, the idea itself of classifying writers by language is already for me a rather provincial idea. I’m not a French-language, nor a Francophone writer, I am a writer. – Dany Laferrière, interview with Pénélope Cormier, The Postcolonialist, October 10, 2013
Great changes were on the horizon. It was the end of March 1789. The Estates General had been summoned by King Louis XVI, and the forty “Immortals” of the Académie française gathered in an “secret extraordinary session” to decide what steps to take with respect to the historic assembly that would soon begin. In the eyes of the Perpetual Secretary, Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), their very honor as academicians was at stake, for the silence they had kept up to that point had been interpreted “as a guilty lack of concern, or as humiliating incompetence.” Certain of the role that should be played by the institution, founded by Cardinal Richelieu a century and a half before, Marmontel laid a sizeable challenge to his colleagues: “Guardians of genius, wit, taste, light, and skill, Literary Citizens, we owe it to the Nation to light its way, to mark out the path that will lead it most surely to complete regeneration.”
At the end of a stormy debate pervaded by a strong feeling of helplessness—“Let us resign ourselves to our future obscurity,” sighed one member—a resolution was nonetheless taken: to delegate to the Estates General a representative invested with “all the necessary powers for the restoration of Literature and Taste.” The measure was accompanied by a declaration that called for the renewal of the Académie, and an increase of its powers. The provisions of this text are less significant, for us, than its major presupposition: the fundamentally national character of the institution and the responsibilities that pertained to it. In other words, the Académie’s linguistic mission, which consisted “in giving certain rules to our language and rendering it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences,” was merged with the destiny of France.
A few weeks ago, we learned of Dany Laferrière’s election to the Académie Française. It’s the first time a writer born in Haiti has been accepted into the ranks of those men and women (but especially men) who sit beneath the Cupola of the Institut de France; it’s also the first time a Québécois has received this honor. Facing five rivals, one of them the teenager prodigy Arthur Pauly, Laferrière won handily, with 13 of 23 votes. He also succeeded in this feat on his first attempt, thereby becoming, as has been said in a playful allusion to his first book, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired ), a “academician without getting tired.” Like that of his candidacy a few weeks earlier, the news was announced with great pomp. Something new is afoot on the Quai de Conti. A revolution perhaps?
Leaving to others the job of interpreting this noteworthy event, I propose here to situate it—certainly a much more modest task, but not one to be taken for granted, as Dany Laferrière has always wished to be unplaceable.
Having left Haiti in 1976 under the threats of the Duvalier regime, he has experienced the torment of political exile as well as the intoxication of America, which he has roamed from his adopted Quebec to Miami, where he resided for several years. The trajectory that is traced and retraced in his “American autobiography,” a cycle of twelve-odd novels, is recorded with staggering humor and unfailing tenderness mixed with unflinching lucidity, chronicling the combination and scrambling of identities of a man who willingly qualifies himself as “an American writer” in the continental sense and even as a Japanese writer, as his 2008 book proclaims. Although it is Haiti, and more precisely his childhood in Petit-Goâve with his grandmother Da, that are the beating heart of his work, Laferrière’s rejection of labels stands as the the sign of his oft-asserted writerly liberty. And displacement has been one of its sine qua non conditions. Even when he attempts to resolve L’ Énigme du retour (2009) (The Enigma of the Return ), he continues to affirm the imperative of departure: “Only a journey without a return ticket can save us from family, blood, and small-town thinking.” Being and writing, indistinguishable activities for Dany Laferrière, are movement. And here he is moving one more time.
From all points of view, the writer possesses all the requisite qualities for sliding into seat number two, previously warmed by Hector Bianciotti, who died last year. Le Figaro reminded us of the criteria formulated by the historian Jacques Chastenet (1893-1978): “One must have talent, notoriety, and good company.” Where does Laferrière fall in this? His literary star has not waned since he debuted, in spite of the uneven character of certain works, which cannot help but occur when someone writes so much. His books are published in Québec and in France (with Grasset), and L’ Énigme du retour (2009) (The Enigma of the Return ) won the Prix Médicis. In Quebec, Laferrière is a well-known media personality, a journalist on television after having been a journalist in Haiti; on the scale of all the Francophonie, his is an active and inescapable presence in the literary universe. After the grande séduction of the reading public, it was the turn of the Company members to fall under the Laferrière charm during the traditional candidate visits. Bolstered by an impressive career, he thus presented, still according to Le Figaro, “the right academic profile.”
Admittedly, getting elected to the Académie Française is not like landing a literary prize, not even one of the most prestigious. This honor does not necessarily represent recognition of an author’s importance: the cases of Balzac and Zola, respectively turned down two and nineteen times, have often been cited. In principle, putting together a scholarly academy confers the institutionalized right to act on a specific field (cultural, scientific, etc.) by contributing to establish its values. The Académie Française styles itself as the guardian of the French language’s very essence, its so-called quality. As such, it is clothed in a sacred character that, let’s say, the Académie Goncourt (its rival a century ago) does not possess. (Though let’s not forget that Laferrière’s candidacy was backed by Bernard Pivot, now president of the Académie Goncourt.) And, in the manner of Nietzsche’s dead God, its sacredness is a vestige of the past insofar as the Académie Française is itself a highly ceremonious relic of “the State recognition of the Grand Siècle.” (In the years following 1789, this is without a doubt what provoked its disbanding by the 1793 Convention, followed by its integration into the Institut National as a scholarly society before being completely refounded by Bonaparte a few years later.) Gaining access to the Académie means inscribing one’s present into an undying past: it is in this that the immortality of the forty Immortals consists.
An immortality that is doubtless fragile in the contemporary context. No actual revolution may be at work, but isn’t it nevertheless true that a more general crisis is taking shape? Bernard Descôteaux from the Montreal daily Le Devoir advanced this hypothesis in an insightful editorial: “Could it be [...] that in choosing Dany Laferrière, the Immortals were announcing a new preoccupation with the French language’s immortality?” It’s no secret to anyone that its pretense of having authority in matters of linguistic usage is something of a joke. By dint of attacking windmills like the feminization of professions, it has contented itself with fighting losing battles, attracting adjectives like “retrograde,” stained with the political conservatism it has often embodied. For Descôteaux, the Académie Française seems totally out of synch with the collective Francophone world, its demographic evolution as well as its linguistic realities. The journalist hopes that the non-conformist Laferrière will jostle worn customs instead of “falling into line.”
Some predict a real turning point. Frankétienne, certainly the greatest Haitian author alive today, announced his reading of the event during Haiti’s Foire Internationale du Livre: “If a writer like Dany Laferrière, a black Haitian, can manage to get elected to the Académie Française, that really proves that that institution, which was a closed box, has now been opened.” The effects of this “closed box” now being opened in such a manner and of the stronghold of linguistic purism now being ready to “accept hearing from other voices” could go beyond the symbolic level, Frankétienne thinks, if Haiti can reap some benefits from plans to promote culture and education. Something that Laferrière must ardently wish, as well.
We should stress that this is not the first time a person of “foreign” origin has donned the green habit. Until now, however, these Academicians from elsewhere have had solid ties in the Hexagon, beginning with the great Senghor, who kept his French nationality in spite of being the founding father of Senegal. However, unlike Assia Djebar, Amin Maalouf, and the bilingual poet Michael Edwards, elected earlier this year, Laferrière has never lived in France and, faithful to his vocation as a nomadic writer, he has declared his intention not to move there. He will thus be the only truly non-French academician.
This is what he was anxious to highlight when he reacted to the results of the election from Port-au-Prince, where he’d gone to await the announcement: “I offer this entrance into the Académie to Haiti and to Québec. These two countries have structured me.” Besides the de-centering desire expressed by the discursive projection of his academic triumph outside of France, the choice of the word “country” reveals itself to be meaningful. Québec hasn’t exactly managed to establish itself as a “country”; at the same time, the politics destined to assert its national specificity have made its apparatus of language planning a serious—and much more progressive—rival to the Académie Française. As for Haiti, the “Black Republic” clearly exists as a country since it won its independence in battle in 1804, ripped away from a France that had become pro-slavery again under Bonaparte. Today, the country of Toussaint and Dessalines chafes under the UN protection that was imposed in 2004 with the expulsion of President Aristide.
Historically speaking, the mages of the Cupola could never be accused of ignoring Haitian literature and intellectual production. Though the diplomat and writer Demesvar Delorme (1842-1901), Francophile to excess and a friend of Lamartine, never gained the entrance he dreamed of, several Haitians have been celebrated since the beginning of the twentieth century, the last of whom was Jean Métellus, recipient of the Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2010 and resident of France. This provided recognition that Haiti has produced great French-language writers, but such a gesture of recompense is not the same as welcoming a Haitian as an equal into the bosom of the awarding institution.
That is the great triumph of Dany Laferrière. Yet how does one keep complete independence as a writer while transforming oneself into an academician? The author asked to become a member of the Company: it’s a wish that he needed to formulate explicitly in his candidacy letter, submitted to the Perpetual Secretary, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse. To do that, he had to have fit himself into a more traditional mold without losing his own form. The scrutiny now past, he has the liberty to decide on the impact of the election. He’s working the issue subtly, with infinite finesse: that is to say he accepts the academic stature while pretending to (re)define its terms.
In addition to his refusal to set up residence in Paris, he has also touched upon the proverbial “immortality” conferred by the state of academician. In Haiti, listeners of Emmelie Prophète-Milcé’s show on Radio Magik 9 heard an amused rejection of the qualification “Immortal.” The Le Nouvelliste newspaper reported his comments: “If they’re grafting immortality onto my name, maybe it’s got to do with the French language,” he said, adding, “The members of the Académie Française are not immortal; if they were, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The feint is clever. The sobriquet “Immortals” comes from the motto instituted by Richelieu, “To immortality.” The Académie’s website reminds readers that it “is a reference to their mission as bearers of the French language. It is this language which is immortal.” Suffice it to say that the newly elected member is only repeating the conventional explanation, with the exception that he attaches this curious “maybe,” making his witticism pass for personal interpretation: “maybe” the immortality belongs to the language and not to a human being? Or is it its very longevity that is (very subtly) targeted? Since this was an oral remark, we would be wrong, maybe, to insist too strongly on this point. Nevertheless, his remark brings us back to the fact that Laferrière has never brandished any banners promoting the French language. For him, language is an instrument: if he writes in French, it’s simply by the chance of his own existence. He has professed this linguistic agnosticism countless times, including in the interview I cited in the epigraph. In the same interview, he also denies the idea that “because we speak the same language, we necessarily have underground solidarities.” Here, the entire Francophone ideology is rejected.
There is nothing in this that should surprise us. After all, Laferrière was one of the signatories of the famous “Manifeste pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français” (“Toward a ‘World-Literature’ in French”), which “signs the death certificate of so-called francophone literature,” described as the “light from a dying star,” the fading gleam of a colonial reminiscence characterized by a centralized logic and its marginalized peripheries. The Académie is, of course, one of its mainsprings. Its lineup of prizes bears witness: on one end, we have its Grand Prix de Littérature and its Grand Prix du Roman, rarely (that is, practically never) attributed to writers from the ex-colonial “Francophonie,” and, on the other end, its Grand Prix de la Francophonie, destined to “crown the œuvre of a francophone person who, in his country or on an international scale, has contributed in a distinguished way to the maintenance and demonstration of the French language.” The surprising thing, then, is that Laferrière can go along with such a division of work.
Perhaps it’s necessary to return to the promise of immortality, however little the writer claims to cling to it. After all, death is a preponderant theme in his œuvre, across all his works. Wasn’t the catalyst for his writing the assassination of his friend Gasner Raymond by the Tonton Macoutes? By fleeing Haiti, Laferrière himself escaped a similar fate. Later, it was the death of his father, another political refugee, which would haunt him. Following the earthquake in January 2010, Tout bouge autour de moi (2010) (The World is Moving Around Me ) offered up a poignant testimony of a disaster that took the lives of countless Haitians.
“In every effort there is a natural ignorance of death,” once claimed Jacques Roumain (or rather, the narrator of Fantoches ). In Laferrière’s work, one can see, to the contrary, that an over-consciousness of mortality pushes his pen forward—as though ceasing to write would already mean death.
A few pages of L’Art presque perdu de ne rien faire (2011) are dedicated to this theme. “In making someone immortal, we make him deader than ever” in the sense that he “will live more in the media than in the hearts of the people.” The literary glory that one may have wished for in Antiquity, when “the work alone could render an author immortal,” has been supplanted by the media consecration that consists in “creating an event rather than simply broadcasting it.”
What is there to say, then, about the media-created event that is Dany Laferrière’s élection to the Académie Française? Will it replace the writer’s actual works? Is it the author who needed the institution, or was it this institution that needed the author—so disdainful of outdated notions regarding French—to guarantee the language’s immortality in this era of rupture for a France-centered francophonie?
All efforts to respond to these questions should take into account diverse and often highly relative conceptions of death. In J’écris comme je vis (2000), a collection of interviews with Bernard Magnier, Laferrière explains the specificity of “Haitian death,” characterized by an “absence of disappearance” or a “possibility of living in another time and space”; even after departure for the “pays sans chapeau,” or the kingdom of the dead, the living continue to speak of a deceased man as though his life had never stopped. That immortality, which has nothing to do with the French language and even less to do with its Académie, is an immortality that the writer has a right to as a Haitian. In a Haitian perspective, these kinds of things matter a great deal, given the extreme precariousness faced by much of the population on a daily basis, a situation that translates into an average life expectancy significantly beneath that of surrounding countries.
Dany Laferrière has never lost sight of these realities: the auto-fictional narrator of Pays sans chapeau (1996) (Down Among the Dead Men ) hears of a Haitian village that is being studied by American scientists because its inhabitants keep living after having been deprived of food. A sad immortality.
In Haiti, as in Québec, the writer’s triumph was heartily greeted. President Michel Martelly rolled out several warm platitudes expressing the hope that Laferrière’s œuvre would remain “eternal in the memory and personal experience of all Haitians.” The enthusiasm of Emmelie Prophète-Milcé in front of her microphone was even more palpable: “It’s been a long time since something so good has happened in Haiti,” she smiled. As the third anniversary of goudougoudou approaches, this is no small thing. For Gary Victor, one of the most original voices in contemporary Haitian literature, who recently discussed the matter in Le Nouvelliste, “it’s an example that proves to our youth here in Haiti that work, resolve, and intelligence pay off.”
In the midst of an explosion of pride, some still have questions. In the same daily, Frantz Duval asks, “Do we have to leave in order to fully succeed?” Many readers, as evidenced by the comments thread, echo his disillusionment. “To leave means to succeed… in leaving,” says one of them.
Unless—maybe—it means to better return.
- This quotation and those that follow have been taken from the minutes of the Séance extraordinaire et secrète de l’Académie françoise, tenue le 30 mars 1789, à l’occasion des états généraux. (gallica.bnf.fr).
- “Statuts et règlements de l’Académie françoise,” 22 February 1635. (http://www.academie-francaise.fr/sites/academie-francaise.fr/files/statuts_af.pdf)
- “What history will remember is that Da’s grandson entered the Académie without getting tired.” Petit-Frère, Dieulermesson, “Dany Laferrière a tourné la page,” Le Nouvelliste, 12 December 2013. (http://lenouvelliste.com/lenouvelliste/article/125129/Dany-Laferriere-tourne-la-page.html)
- “I need this liberty because at heart I’m not Haitian, or Québécois, or someone from Miami, not even my wife’s husband or the father of my children, not even Marie, my mother’s, son: I am me, this person here, who’s facing up to his life and who will face up to death alone.”“J’ai besoin de cette liberté parce que, fondamentalement, je ne suis ni haïtien, ni québécois, ni quelqu’un de Miami, ni même le mari de ma femme ou le père de mes enfants, ni même le fils de Marie, ma mère ; je suis moi, cet individu qui est là, qui fait face à sa vie et qui fera face à sa mort seul.”“Chronique de la dérive douce, entrevue réalisée avec Dany Laferrière, par Ghila Sroka,” August 1994. (http://www.lehman.cuny.edu/ile.en.ile/paroles/laferriere_derive.html)
- Trans. David Homel (London: MacLehose, 2013), 27.
- Ducas, Sylvie, “Prix littéraires en France : consécration ou désacralisation de l’auteur ?” COnTEXTES 7 (2010). (http://contextes.revues.org/4656?lang=en)
- “Si yon ekriven kou Dany Laferrière, c’est-à-dire nègre haïtien, kapab eli nan Akademi fransèz, cela prouve vreman ke enstitisyon sa a, ke te yon bwat fèmen, kounye a li ouvè.” Story available on the TéléKiskeya YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z90pnAijbp8)
- “[...] aksepte yo tande lòt vwa [...]”
- Trans. Daniel Simon. World Literature Today, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Mar.-Apr. 2009), pp. 54-56. The French is available at http://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2007/03/15/des-ecrivains-plaident-pour-un-roman-en-francais-ouvert-sur-le-monde_883572_3260.html
- Amin Maalouf, elected in 2011, also signed this text.