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A Conversation with Dany Laferriere

The past dozen years have been good to Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who has garnered critical and popular success in France with novels such as Broken Glass and Memoirs of a Porcupine; earlier this year he won the Grand Prix de Littérature Henri Gal (awarded by L’Institut de France by recommendation of the hallowed Académie Française), in recognition of a body of work that includes nine novels, a half-dozen volumes of poetry, and four essay collections; and though his best-selling-author status, charisma, flamboyant personality, and trademark gavroche cap have made Mabanckou a natural media darling and poster boy of French integration-through-writing-in-French, the author is fond of paraphrasing Frantz Fanon and his resistance to the notion of being hemmed in by “the fact of blackness.”

Mabanckou lives in Santa Monica, and teaches at UCLA, but he is often on the road, attending literary festivals and events the world over (his work has been translated into over a dozen languages). Early this year in Port-au-Prince he crossed paths with his old friend Dany Laferrière, the Haitian writer (and former TV weatherman!), whom he has known since the ’90s, when Mabanckou was starting out and Laferrière was already well known. Laferrière, who is a (baker’s) dozen years older than Mabanckou, published his first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, in Canada in 1985. He has since published over twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, and has also enjoyed critical as well as popular success in France, where, in 2009, he was awarded the Prix Médicis for L’Énigme du retour. Though he currently lives in Montreal, Laferrière spent most of the ’90s in Miami, and subsequently wrote with great passion about the United States, going so far as to say that he considers himself American, having lived since 1976 in North America (he returned to Montreal in 2002).

While at the Festival Étonnants Voyageurs in Port-au-Prince, in the early days of February 2012—two years after the horrific earthquake that devastated Haiti, on January 12, 2010—Dany Laferrière and Alain Mabanckou stayed at the Karibe Hotel, a two-tone building nestled in the hills of the city, with gabled roofs, a majestic marble lobby, and an outdoor courtyard lush with foliage. As the two literary friends set up shop in the courtyard’s open-air gazebo, under a shady tangle of cedar, pine, and mango—and throughout their conversation—workmen could be heard rebuilding the partially demolished hotel.

—Philippe Aronson


DANY LAFERRIÈRE: Over the last two decades or so, I have noticed that third-world writers—that is to say, African and Caribbean writers—have been traveling more and more extensively. They get invited hither and thither because they write in French. Some of these writers meet at various book festivals and literary gatherings, and become friends, and when writers become friends, they emulate each other. If your buddy publishes a book, it motivates you to write another book. You feel glad for your pal, but you don’t want to get left behind. I wonder how you feel about that.

ALAIN MABANCKOU: I agree. I, too, have seen how travel motivates, stimulates, or makes us emulate one another, but I have also noticed writers from whose books the element of travel is entirely absent. The characters don’t go anywhere and the books don’t, either—when in fact a book is an entity equipped with feet, which can walk, and the book of a writer who travels has the breath of life, which comes from movement. Paradoxically enough, many of these French-language writers who obtain travel grants and get invited here and there are high priests of inertia. You get the impression that they have never been anywhere; or maybe they leave their imagination behind while traveling, when they should probably take it with them in order to create living and breathing characters. I cannot imagine a book of mine devoid of travel. Otherwise it might as well be a boat moored somewhere forever.

DL: Very true. If you travel—broadening the scope of your knowledge and experience—and this does not come out in your books, you’ve got to wonder about your stance as a writer, and your vision of literature: is it fixed? Does it contain exclusively literary influences? Are we simply reenacting ancient codes, or are we truly striving to bring movement both to ourselves and to the books we carry within us? It is true that there are writers who travel the world while remaining inert, in the sense that travel doesn’t appear anywhere in their writing. I’m not saying that a novel should be a succession of cities—not at all. But travel is a window onto the world; it’s like letting fresh air into the house, leaving the library behind, freeing ourselves of literary and intellectual references in order to make way for new references, thus introducing into your book the noise of the world. How does this idea fit into your work, Alain?

AM: I think it’s very important. Travel poses the same question as James Baldwin did when he spoke of “experience,” that is to say: is the novel no more than the sum of the people you’ve met? How does a novelist manage to take into account all the people whose paths he has crossed in the course of his life, to transform them and set the stage, so to speak, to make something happen, with the sound you were mentioning earlier—and the fury, too. And of course there are writers who travel solely through their imagination without ever actually going anywhere. Many of the writers who have written about traveling around the world have never actually done it; some can describe an invented city so well that the reader believes he is visiting a real place. In fact, I have heard tell of certain writers who prefer to write about a city before actually going there, which they do once the writing part is over in order to see if their imagination was truly faithful to the reality of the place, and maybe also to experience firsthand the difference between dream and reality—which is the basis of fiction.

DL: It is true that dreaming is a form of travel. A taste for dreaming is what made us all read those adventure novels that have always had such a tremendous effect on teenagers.

Tagging along with Dumas on his travels through France in The Three Musketeers… when they had to stop at an “inn,” even if you didn’t know the word, you still understood what was going on. The Musketeers would arrive at an inn and they would call out to the innkeeper and ask if they could eat, and if their horses could be fed, etc. This taste for travel in literature made many of us want to travel, too. So it’s normal that this should find its way into our literature, that we might enable a reader on the other side of the planet to go places. For me, travel is intrinsic to literature. In the greatest novels—Ulysses, The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master—you always have movement, this idea of setting out to destinations unknown, with the narrator describing everything he sees as he goes along. And, of course, we mustn’t forget that life itself has often been compared to a journey.

AM: That’s very interesting. And how about a novel in which the journey, for the writer, would be a way of describing things he did not see—that is to say, what was lacking in his imagination when he tried, for example, to create a wholly invented space? It would make for a strange kind of accounting: a novel in which absence, the void, or some other thing we thought existed did not in fact exist. When I think of different types of travel, I also think of fantasy writing, like in One Hundred Years of Solitude, when Melquíades enters the village of Macondo on a flying carpet. It’s like all of a sudden you’re in the middle of The Thousand and One Nights. It’s magical—even if one should always be wary of seeing things through a tourist’s eyes, because a tourist goes somewhere for the experience, whereas a writer travels in order to make sure things are as he imagined them; and since he can never be certain of that, there could perhaps blossom, from his fingers, a novel of disillusionment, a novel as reverie, as a sort of solitary walk, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it. And it may very well be that writing and traveling are essentially the same thing.

DL: Absolutely. Even if you look at this idea on a concrete, physical level, we all know that in certain countries where people live in great misery or are suffering at the hands of dictators, more and more often when these young writers get grants to travel and go to festivals, it’s like a little breathing room for them, an escape from their daily hell. I have seen many writers who were at their wits’ end—they couldn’t take it anymore, they thought they were experiencing writer’s block, when in fact it was life block they were in the throes of. The life they were leading was suffocating them, and they didn’t have the energy to create. But then, all alone in rooms on the other side of the planet, far from the strife they experienced daily in their countries, they found they could write. Prison might have played that same kind of role in hard-boiled black American fiction of the ’50s. Prison got those guys off the street and prolonged their life spans. I’m not saying I’m in favor of locking people up, but there is something to be said for the fact that, once off the streets, many of these kids started frequenting the prison library, and some of them became writers. I’m thinking of Chester Himes, for example. In the prewar years, hospitals fulfilled a similar function for European writers, such as Moravia and Thomas Mann; they all began to write because they got sick and had to convalesce in these hospitals, which is where they were able to write. Therefore, the notion of travel must also include a smattering of inertia; after all, there is something to be said for embarking on a journey in one’s own head.

AM: Yes. I believe interiority is also essential as far as traveling is concerned, since the internal journey may well be the deepest one of all. For example, I like the idea of imagining someone who is actually traveling—everything that is roiling inside of him—and when he finally reaches his destination, when he finally sees the reality of where he is, the trip itself gets mixed up in various happenings and adventures. I’m thinking of all the great texts of literary history, such as The Odyssey, and I think that we have now come to the very heart of literature—though that’s always a delicate thing to try to define.

DL: Absolutely. And I would like to point out one of the most important things about travel: the return. We all remember The Odyssey, when after having been all over the world and seen all the things he has seen, the sight of Ithaca makes Odysseus break down and cry. Which is a way of saying that the ultimate goal when one travels is to come back home; the return is always enigmatic, since there can be no journey without it. The return reveals how profoundly our interior landscape has changed.


AM: Meeting people, connecting, becoming one with one another; I believe that courtesy owes its existence to the fact that people meet. Derek Walcott called it “the courtesy of exchange.” It may well be the most extraordinary invention of all time. In the past, communicating was difficult; if you wanted to meet someone who lived far away from you, it was a hassle. There was no “crossroads.” This state of affairs made certain connections impossible. When I think of meeting people, I think of geography. Geography brings people together, mixes things up. And then there is another kind of meeting, that of the cultures that define us— meeting a person who is different from you. When this happens, something new appears on the scene, and it’s called an exchange. I believe this world is based on exchanges. Everything hinges on who oversees these exchanges, culturally speaking; that is perhaps why smaller nations may very well dominate future cultural exchanges, for I am sure we still have many things to contribute to a civilization that believes that it has already invented and understood everything, and that everybody else has to more or less conform to its definitions.

DL: There is another sort of meeting: the encounter of two individuals. This is a very moving thing, and it can happen anywhere. Let’s say, for example, you go to a dinner party with friends, and all of a sudden you find yourself having this magical conversation with someone who understands and shares your vision of the world; the encounter is so spontaneous and so vibrant that neither of you wants it to end. This kind of connection can last for years. It’s thrilling, and it reminds me of ours—though I can no longer remember when we first met. What I do remember is the joy I feel when my friend is around, and to know that even more than the long, satisfying conversations, the truly magical thing is to share secrets.

AM: And I would also add, my friend, that the most fulfilling encounters are often the most unexpected. I am referring to when we met for the first time in the flesh. It was the ’90s, and I was far from thinking then that a few years later we would be so in tune with one another in terms of art and aesthetics… we form a sort of literary family, and we nourish our friendship through the creative process, since a friendship that is not nourished—that is not watered if you will, and well watered indeed—dries up and withers. Many friendships are like a fruit that was ripe but wasn’t picked at the right moment to savor all it had to offer, and therefore yielded nothing.

DL: I like your use of the word yield. The idea that there must be a fruit, a flowering, a promise of sorts—these are moving moments, the beginnings of something, the joy of being together. When we met for the first time, we realized that we had a lot in common, an emotional connection. There was something unsaid here—and all of a sudden I realized how deeply important your mother was to you. I wonder if this idea of the enigmatic return from a journey is not, in fact, less important than talking about your mother. Your source of strength. By the way, someone once said that I understand you better than most because I grasp how deeply solitary you are. It’s not just about sharing the same opinions, be they practical or political; there has to be some subterranean thing, this sympathy of feeling. This exchange of ideas has found its way into our books, and has perhaps even created a common goal. Our friendship has produced this literary flowering.

AM: I would like to add that some friendships start off with a certain imbalance. When I think back on the first time we met, you were already a successful author, whereas I had just begun writing little poems nobody read. I had maybe thirty-five or forty readers, at least twenty-five of whom were friends I would force to buy my poetry. But the fact remains that when I saw you, I saw myself and thought, Here is the example I would like to follow. And when you saw me, you remembered starting out as a writer, paying your dues, when you were typing up the first pages of novels the reading public would get to know later. You saw a budding writer, and it was like in a relay race: you turned around and handed me the baton, which I grabbed, and you effectively said, “Listen, you can run as fast as me, and in fact you are going to overtake me, but I’ll catch up over there and you can hand me back the baton.” And that’s what we are doing now: we’re winning together through our friendship, laying down foundations for the future. Friendships such as ours rarely occur in the world of French-language letters, which is so rife with jealousy and antagonism; there is a definite uneasiness between writers in France. But we keep on moving on, like in the fable by the French author Florian—the friendship between the quadriplegic and the blind man—that is to say that I, as the quadriplegic, lend you my eyes, and you walk for me. Together, we are slowly making headway.

DL: Absolutely, and the moment I met you, your behavior revealed to me the kind of young man you were. Because for me, a writer is not solely what he writes. The thing that strikes me first and foremost is his posture, how he holds himself in the world, and you were being discreet, off to yourself, yet ready to pounce; I could see that the sound and the fury was not your thing, and I said to myself, He is hiding something that will one day explode into light. For instance, when I started out, I didn’t want to go to my own book launches. I thought I should remain invisible. I didn’t ask people for advice. There was something in me that I wanted to protect—this boundless energy I barely managed to contain when I was in public. I could hardly hold my horses, keep them from jumping and galloping all over the place, so I protected them to make them stronger, and I could see that even if you were present that day at the book fair, you were also absent. The other thing that struck me and made me believe that you might actually be a real person was that you seemed lucid. Many of the African and Caribbean writers I used to know were egomaniacs: it was as if they had triumphed before even beginning, and if you think you’ve made it when in fact you have not even started, you won’t go far. But you, you said, “Listen, I’ve published a book, and RFI [Radio France Internationale] hasn’t even asked me for an interview.” You said this openly, whereas everybody else was dissembling, walking tall, talking about all the interviews they had given, and here was someone who was saying, “Oh, no, this is not working out for me; I’m not getting anywhere.” And I thought, This is exactly what I used to feel: a sort of dissatisfaction—neither resentment nor bitterness, rather a voracious appetite for life.

AM: And you know, Dany, I believe that friendship has been at the heart of many great things: for example, Aimé Césaire and André Breton got to know each other in Martinique, which is why Cahier d’un retour au pays natal became so widely read. And for example, the fact that the three major figures in black francophone literature—Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Léon-Gontran Damas—all met in Paris is not a fluke, just as you and I meeting in Paris is not a fluke. We didn’t meet in your country, we didn’t meet in mine; we met on neutral ground, as it were. You come from the island of Haiti, I from the continent of Africa. Our meeting encapsulated not only the history of the black world, but also added to the mix a country with a somber African colonial past. In any case, I believe that our literature suffers from a lack of these kinds of encounters. They are all too rare.


DL: We don’t have a large body of correspondence between African writers, or Caribbean writers; we haven’t given a lot of space or thought to what I might call a certain “parallel literature,” that is to say, correspondence, travel narratives, diaries. For me, these kinds of things are the very foundation of a society’s literature. A literary tree cannot grow without fertilizer. Our literature, our books, need to be nourished from below, as it were, from some subterranean source. Correspondence not only sheds light for critics and scholars, it also allows writers to develop and express the goals they have set and their vision of literature, and through the responses and criticism they get, to see themselves more clearly and find the resources to carry on.

AM: Yes, Dany, I also believe that correspondence is a part of literature that is often overlooked. Writers write, though rarely to each other, so initiating a correspondence will allow us to further examine our common artistic aims. I have always loved getting to know writers through their letters, because the intimacy of a letter allows you to witness a writer’s days and ways; he is writing, he is walking, he is digressing; one finds, in correspondence, things one never sees in a novel, quite simply because the letter writer is addressing himself to a specific person. When I write to you, Dany, I know now that once our correspondence is published, others who will read our letters will be able to walk in our shoes: the reader will be Dany Laferrière and Alain Mabanckou, and vice-versa; that is the playful side of correspondence that I really like. It seems like a forgotten art, in a way. And it’s true that our correspondence will be a kind of innovation in our French-language literature; there is nary a book of correspondence between the founders of the negritude movement: Senghor, Césaire, and Damas. It would have been great for the current generation of readers to be able to read what those three were saying to each other, to hear their voices out side of the poetry they published. What did they do on this or that Monday? Did Senghor like dancing in nightclubs? Did Damas smoke cigars? Did—I don’t know—did Césaire favor silk neckties? For me, these kinds of details make correspondence one of the essential parts of a writer’s work—even if we’re living in a time when messages are getting shorter and shorter, almost telegraphic. Well, our correspondence will allow us to flesh things out some, and show a little humanity.

DL: Correspondence is intimate, as you said; it allows entry to the very heart of a person; you get to see the writer up close and personal. Humanity is very important, because for me, a writer is not simply a machine that writes books. A writer is a human being. It’s a shame that Senghor’s human side will forever elude us. The only things we know about him, we know through the biographical slivers in his poems. The interesting thing in correspondence is the tone, which is very different from a writer’s official, public tone; it’s intimate, it’s someone talking to a friend and confidant, with day-to-day stuff inevitably seeping in, because writers talk about what they do, the people they meet, the literary festivals to which they are invited. And sometimes the writer is in a hotel room in this or that town, and he is cold or hasn’t yet had breakfast or lunch, or is having problems writing his latest book. Here and there precious information can be gleaned. And not just for scholars—the reader is granted access to the core of a human being, unlike in the author’s “official” books. So I think that embarking on this correspondence with you will be a groundbreaking initiative in our literature: an active correspondence between two writers, which will allow the young people who follow our careers and who are passionate about literature and who read us—and who perhaps dream of becoming writers—to see the people behind the words.

AM: I also believe that this correspondence has something of a testament-like value. It’s strange: each time I write a letter I have the impression I’m sharing my “last wishes.” I believe certain writers can be understood only through their correspondence. For example, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot—you almost get the impression that they wrote their letters with a smile on their faces, thinking, I will be in heaven when you read this. I love it when I get a letter from you. I love it when you describe the reality in which you find yourself at the time of writing, and I am always struck by the way you manage to describe the world as a whole through the minutiae of your daily existence. I also believe that a body of work without a correspondence lacks something essential: the writer’s humanity. The confessional parts of a novel are not necessarily a confession, whereas a letter is always a confession, a hand held out to a friend. I would also like to add that our correspondence will help future generations understand where we were coming from.

DL: Much like in painting, correspondence gives you depth of field, a linear perspective: you have the foreground, the background, the middle distance, and these details allow you to see the big picture, as it were. In correspondence, it’s the same thing: you see that the writer is not only a person who writes novels or poems but also someone who writes about what he is writing—this depth of field reveals all the work that goes into our craft. It’s often in letters that a writer will talk about his pain, his anguish, the difficulties he has been coming up against in his writing… All this is well known in the Western world, but it hasn’t yet been integrated into our culture. Correspondence gives the reader a first-row seat in the literary arena. A writer can write all sorts of things; if for whatever reason he needs to take a break from his novel, he can correspond with a friend, or keep a journal, thus continuing the writing process—and no writer’s block! He can write all sorts of things that are peripheral to literature itself, and that may, in time, blossom into novels and poems and essays; so I believe it’s important that we who come from faraway lands understand what lies behind us, and what informs our temperaments. It is also important to interact about everyday life, because I believe that you don’t write through remembering alone. It’s important to describe this courtyard, for instance, at the Karibe Hotel, where we are sitting under tall trees; and we know with utmost certainty that two years ago, January 12, 2010, the earthquake hit while I was sitting right here; everything was shaking, and from your location you kept posting information about me, and when I got back to Montreal I was in a haze for a few days, and then I wrote you a long letter, the first in which I discussed what I had experienced during the quake.

AM: Whenever I think of Haiti, I think of our friendship, our mutual understanding. If I feel as close to Haiti as I do, it is thanks to literature first and foremost. I always had two island nations in mind whenever I searched for Africa outside of Africa: Haiti, of course, and then, by ricochet, Guadeloupe—since my firstborn son is also part Guadeloupean. I discovered Haiti through writers such as Rodney Saint-Éloi, who lives in Montreal, and Louis-Philippe Dalembert, who lives in Paris, and other writers, such as Jean Métellus, who have become my friends. All of these guys give off a kind of African vibe. In Congo-Brazzaville, we used to listen to a Haitian singer called Coupé Cloué. He was really popular. He had this song called “Allez vous-en” (“Go Away”), and in the bars of Congo-Brazzaville this was the song they would play at closing time. In Congo, people knew this song better than the national anthem. Everybody was convinced that Coupé Cloué was Congolese. And then there was a time when Claudette et Ti Pierre were in vogue; they had a song called “Camionette” that was super popular. The whole country was amazed by the extent to which Claudette et Ti Pierre resembled our own bands. I finally decided to come here, to Haiti. So I did. This is my third visit, and I now understand why Haitians sometimes consider me as a brother. Coming here humbles me, it’s sobering; I keep searching for any hidden scrap of Africa, though I needn’t, since Africa is everywhere. Every time I come to Haiti I feel like I’m coming home.

DL: You know, when I went to Bamako—on my first trip to Africa—I was captivated. I didn’t know where I was; the resemblance between Bamako and certain neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince was so strong. I could see it in the streets, in the way people walked… everything in Bamako reminded me of Haiti, despite the ocean and the intervening centuries that separate the two places. I was very moved by my time in Africa. I didn’t want to succumb to admiration— I had hoped to view Africa with an unsentimental eye. I was invited there as a writer, so I was curious to see if I would have anything in common with the African writers I met. And I did, not only with the writers, but also with the students; everything was so congenial to me: the scenery, the sounds and smells of the city. And I remember the first time I walked out in the courtyard of the hotel—it was the Hôtel Liberté or something—a mango fell at my feet. And I thought, Wow, the thud of a mango: I could be in Haiti.

AM: When I came here to Haiti for the first time, my head was so full of myths and clichés, because in truth, all that Africans know about Haiti is voodoo, animism, music— that’s it. But what I’ve been discovering about this country, which I have been getting to know better and better, is its cultural power. You sense that people here have a great thirst for culture, which for me means that the country can only move forward. Arguments break out here over nothing, and it’s the nothing part that makes this country exceptional. You see it in the poverty, but this country has modified the definition of riches; a nation’s riches are no longer quantified through property and real estate, but rather through its cultural baggage. To come to a country where heroes fought such important battles… The world’s first black-led republic: that’s what Africans see in Haiti. When Africans come here, it’s like they’re on a pilgrimage. The thing that struck me the most in Haiti was the idea that Africa was no longer Africa—since we Africans have stopped loving Africa and no longer feel joy at having a continent with deep roots. In order to find that lost Africa, nowadays you have to go to other parts of the world. I come to Haiti to recoup. When I return to Africa, I look closely at what we have lost. If one day we decide to reclaim all that, perhaps we’ll have to go to Haiti, to Guadeloupe, to French Guiana, and those countries that are all mini Africas, each with its own individual qualities.

DL: I left Haiti in 1976, when I was twenty-three, and have been living in Montreal for over thirty-five years. My first book came out in 1985, and I have traveled extensively ever since. I have met all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of sensibilities. And now I know that Haiti has given me a real gift. It’s in my DNA: there’s not a drop of despair in my blood. Haiti is a land of devastation, sadness, and pain, yet the music here is joyous. That paradox is deeply embedded in me. I sometimes find myself forced to console people I meet all over the world who are saddened by the situation in Haiti. I want to say to them, “Don’t worry about the Haitian people: they are very tough.” Haitians have a kind of wild, unbridled optimism, a death-defying energy. Haiti will never die. These are not merely words. I have never felt this way about any other country. Despite military dictatorships, coups d’état, floods, hurricanes, misery, poverty, chronic illnesses, when you come to Haiti, the thing you notice is the incredible energy that emanates from the people. Nobody looks at you with that total despair you see in the eyes of the people living in the black neighborhoods of the American South. There might be reasons for that: racism, the KKK, the impossibility of climbing up the social ladder; young people are hindered, the system keeps them in a bind. But like I say, I don’t see that despair in the eyes of my countrymen; whereas other people from the West, you talk to them for an hour and get a sense of a bottomless anguish, and you think, What is going on? How can a society that is so successful collectively be such a failure on the individual level? And how can Haiti—a society that has failed collectively, but that individually is a total success story—be exactly the opposite? After the earthquake, the entire world was able to see how quickly Haiti got back on its feet and carried on with life. I am not saying things aren’t bad. People are still living in tents, the situation is in many ways worse than before, but the apocalyptic predictions bandied about in the Western press after the quake have simply not come to pass. One only need come here to see that despite the tragedy, life has indeed gone on in Haiti.

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