One of the most acclaimed authors of Haitian descent on this planet, Dany Laferrière was admitted as a member of the prestigious Academie Française, an institution for intellectual heavyweights that has been in existence for a more than two centuries. Laferrière’s novels have been noted by critics for offering glimpses of Haiti through the themes of exile and acculturation in Quebec that he repeatedly explores in his books. He found it necessary to pen The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake, chronicling his brief stop on the island during the catastrophe.
Laferrière’s tomes have earned him several awards, including France’s Prix Medicis Prize for his novel L’enigma du retour (published in English as The Return). Some literary critics have praised the author for his whimsical titles as much as his writing. Several of his books have been adapted for the big screen starting with How to Make Love to A Negro Without Getting Tired, and Vers Le Sud (Heading South).
Your last name is Laferrière. Do any of your ancestors have a connection of sort to that Citadel in Haiti that we all hear so much about?
I imagine that there is a link between me and the citadel because there aren’t too many Laferrières in Haiti. I think it was the architect of the citadel who was named Laferrière. I have not investigated this case because I’m not trying to come from a distinguished family, contenting myself with being an ordinary Haitian.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as a writer?
There is no great achievement in literature. This is different from sport: it is not as clear as a 100 meters race where you’re immediately declared the fastest runner, and the stadium stands up and applauds. We simply write our emotions and we hope that the reader will experience them the way we did. It’s the reader who determines the strength of a book.
Tell us about yourself. Your childhood, and stuff.
I don’t have much to add. I’ve told plenty in my books, and eleven of them, I believe, are translated into English, and in fifteen languages. You must read them, if you want to know me. I worked hard for almost thirty years to stop responding to such questions. Regarding my childhood, I have said everything in Aroma of Coffee. It is up to you to tell me about your childhood and see a link, if possible, with mine and your parents’.
What can you tell us about the writing of your book Aroma of Coffee?
I wrote The Aroma of Coffee after arriving in Miami in 1990. I saw the Caribbean decor of this town, the heat, the trees and it reminded me of my childhood. I sat in a small room and I wrote this book about my childhood in a month. At first, I was taking notes to see if I remembered this childhood spent with my grandmother Da in Petit-Goave. Then I realized that these small paragraphs were not notes, but burning images of my childhood. I published the manuscript as is.
Is there an author whose work that you so admired, that it pushed you to become a writer yourself?
There is no writer in particular who inspired me to become a writer. It’s the thousands of little details that give direction to someone’s life. It takes a tribe to help us finish what we start. These are writers whose spirit, style and heart we love. There are many in my case: Borges, Baldwin, Bulgakov, Romanian, Alexis, Tanizaki, Tolstoy, Diderot, Gombrowicz, Baldwin, Hemmingway, Marquez, Amado, Miller, Ducharme, Miron, Walcott, Carpentier, Chauvet, Woof, Rufo, Graham Green, Bukowski, etc. All of them helped convince me that this was what I wanted to do.
Out of all the books you’ve written, which one has been the absolutely most painful to write?
The book cost me my back is Le Cris des Oiseaux Fous. I finished it with the help of five pillows because of a terrible backache. I thought it was a physical problem when in fact it was the most emotionally painful book. In it, I mentioned leaving Haiti, my father’s exile, and the suffering my mother endured from seeing the two men in her life—my father and me—go into exile.
When you travel to Haiti, what are some things that come to your mind?
When I am in Haiti, nothing else comes to mind other than being in Haiti. Haiti is too alive to give you time to think. There is always something in the house, in the streets—in life—there. It’s when I’m not in Haiti that I harbor thoughts about Haiti. When I am outside of Haiti, Haiti is in me and I am in Haiti.
Your bio says that you lived in Miami for a time. Why did you ultimately choose to live in Montreal?
I first lived in Montreal after leaving Haiti for the first time in 1976. Then in 1990, I went to live and write in Miami (1990 to 2002). In 2002, I returned to Montreal where I’ve lived up to now. I didn’t choose it in 1976. I had to leave Haiti abruptly, as I was in danger of death, just after the death of my friend, the journalist Gasner Raymond.
What is the Haitian community like in Canada?
All is well in the community. It’s mainly based in Montreal, and increasingly in other cities like Quebec. Members of the community operate in all areas: taxis, hospitals—many nurses and doctors—engineers, workers, artists—actors, writers, painters—restauranteurs, shopkeepers.. It is very varied…The President of the council of the city of Montreal is a Haitian poet named Benjamin Frantz. The President of l’Union des écrivains Québécois—the Union of Quebec Writers—is a writer of Haitian origin Stanley Péan, and so on…We can say that after more than 60 years of presence in this city, [the Haitian community in Montreal] is a resounding success.
If you could talk to all the young aspiring authors of this world, what would you tell them?
Read, read, read without attempting to judge. Read to learn. And don’t be like those people writing blogs who give their opinion constantly when they haven’t yet written a single book. When one tries to write, when one tries to do something significant in any field, one becomes more humble. You develop more respect for others’ work. When you’re too hard on others, you’re digging your own hole. You’re always going to have this fear of not living up to your dreams. Instead, look at things this way: you’re a chick who’s trying to fly. You have to learn, take note of great sentences, write simple stories—not to publish, but to study range—like a pianist. Have self-restraint, but don’t be shy. Be absorbed in your work. And if you can’t take criticism, don’t show your work. Protect yourself—and when you’re ready—send it to a publisher—and not another writer, because he’ll be busy with his own books. He’s already given you everything a writer can possibly give—his own published works. As for me, I published through Memoire D’encrier, a book that chronicles my life as a writer and reader for young writers: Journal d’un jeune écrivain en pyjama [Diary of a young writer in pajamas]. It was picked up by [France-based publisher] Grasset. If you want to compliment a writer, don’t tell him he’s a great writer. Let him know by citing passages from his work that you’ve read his books.
You’ve said you are often asked why you don’t write in Creole, your first language.
My answer: Why don’t they translate my work in Creole? I’m referring to a bona fide translation of Aroma of Coffee and some of my other books (Pays sans chapeau, Le Charme des Après-midi Sans Fin, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous) done by a real writer of the Creole language. The art of writing is the same in any language: you must write constantly in that said language to achieve acceptable results. It’s not enough to be French to write a good book in French, just as it is not enough to be Haitian to write a good book in Creole. The language must work to make him [creatively] discharge. Instead of criticizing a writer for not writing in [his] native language—writers are essentially free beings—we should instead offer to translate his book. And after evaluating your credentials, and seeing that you are up to the challenge, he accepts your proposal. It’s not a matter of faith, it’s an art.