Laferriere, Dany 1953–
Dany Laferriere 1953–
The unconventional and controversial novelist Dany Laferriere has chronicled for North American audiences the nightmarish atmosphere of the Duvalier dictatorship that terrorized the Caribbean island nation of Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s. Laferriere experienced the terrible events of his homeland firsthand, fleeing Haiti for his life in 1978. Yet Laferriere has also trained a keen eye on his adopted North American home. Living first in Montreal, Canada, and then in Miami, he has produced novels and other less classifiable writings that satirize North American sexual attitudes and examine relationships between the races.
Laferriere was born in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on April 13, 1953. His father, Windsor, was a Haitian politician who ran afoul of the government and was eventually exiled. Many of Laferriere’s writings are autobiographical, and his 1991 novel L’odeur du café (The Aroma of Coffee) is thought to represent his own childhood; its central figure is a ten-year-old boy whose grandmother is steeped in Haiti’s traditional belief system. Laferriere became a journalist in the 1970s.
That was a difficult position to hold during the dictatorship of Haitian leader Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, one of a family dynasty of leaders whose power was ruthlessly guarded by a secret paramilitary police force known as the tontons macoutes. Laferriere co-founded a weekly magazine called Le petit samedi soir, but when his friend and associate Raymond Gasner was found murdered in 1978, he left Haiti and settled in French-speaking Montreal, Canada.
Despite that point of connection, life in Montreal was harsh and alien for Laferriere. During his first year there, he recalled in a book of poetic memoirs entitled A Drifting Year, he occasionally was forced to dine on “steak on the wing”—on pigeons he trapped in a city park. For several years Laferriere worked in a tannery—an industrial plant that processes animal hides—while beginning to write. His wit began to attract attention among educated Montrealers, and his situation improved rapidly. During a stint as a television weatherman he startled viewers by delivering the forecast in the nude. In 1985 Laferriere’s first novel was published; entitled Comment faire I’amour avec un Négre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired), it described, like many of his other works, aspects of his own experiences.
The novel’s central character is a young writer, named Man, who shares a Montreal apartment with an African roommate, Bouba, who spends much of his time listening to jazz and reading the Koran. Laferriere’s novel examines white North American stereotypes of blacks and focuses the reader’s eye on the experiences of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, framing these issues largely within a series of sexual relationships the two men have with white women in Montreal.
The book’s subject matter stirred some controversy, but it was positively reviewed and was soon translated into
At a Glance …
Born on April 13, 1953, in Port-au-Prince Haiti; son of Windsor Laferriere (a journalist) and Marie Nelson Laferriere (an archivist); moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1978; moved to Miami, Florida, 1990; married, Margaret; children: Melissa, Sarah, Alexandra.
Career: Novelist Worked as a journalist and co-founded journal Le petit samedi soir in Haiti, 1970s; worked in a tannery in Montreal while pursuing ambition of becoming a writer, late 1970s; first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro, published 1985; worked as weather forecaster for Montreal television station; published 10 novels by 2001.
Awards: Prix de la Caraibe (literature prize for the French-speaking Caribbean), for The Aroma of Coffee, 1994.
Addresses: Office—9440 S.W. 151st Ave., Miami, FL 33196.
English and published in the United States as How to Make Love to a Negro. Despite the troubles Laferriere had lived through and the serious nature of the issues addressed in his writing, much of his work is marked by a certain desperate humor (well captured by his regular translator David Homel), and How to Make Love to a Negro was no exception. Structured like many of Laferriere’s other books as a series of short, sharp observations, the book announced a major new talent.
Laferriere’s novel was made into a film that was shown without incident in French Canada, but its English title, intended as satirical, stirred protests when the film was released in the United States in 1990. The New York Times refused to run ads for the film, which fell out of sight after a few showings. That year, Laferriere gave up on Montreal’s long winters and moved to Miami, a city with a large Haitian population. He still speaks French much better than English and continued to play a role in Montreal’s literary life. “My heart is in Port-au-Prince. My spirit is here in Montreal. My body is in Miami,” he explained to the Montreal Gazette. “When I want political drama, I’ll go to Haiti. For intellectual discussion, I need Montreal. For real crime, there’s Miami.”
Laferriere’s second novel, Eroshima (1991) continued to explore the theme of interracial relationships, depicting a romance that develops between a black man and a Japanese woman. Many of Laferriere’s novels and other writings, however, have returned to his own experiences. Laferriere returned several times in the 1990s to a somewhat freer Haiti, and several of his books consist of innovatively structured reflections on his home country. Down Among the Dead Men (1997) is divided into sections designated as “Real Country” and “Dream Country”—the “real” sections depict Laferriere’s reunions with his mother and friends, while the dream sequences treat the Haitian rituals of voodoo and the widespread belief in zombies.
Behind all the wit and satire in Laferriere’s writing lies a concern with the effects of poverty on the psyches of the world’s downtrodden. “If we were really human beings,” a Haitian tells him after he asks about zombies, “do you think we could survive this famine, and those heaps of garbage and trash you see at every street corner?…Here, there are no good people or bad people—there are just dead people.” Laferriere’s 1996 novel Pays Sans Chapeau (A Country Without a Hat)—the title refers to the Haitian belief that no one should be buried in a hat, which might block the path of the deceased to the afterlife—is set in Haiti, and his first book of the new millennium, Le cri des oiseaux fous (The Cry of the Crazy Birds), is a depiction of the last 24 hours the author spent in Port-au-Prince before leaving for Montreal in 1976.
Not withstanding his focus on Haiti, Laferriere, who lives in Miami with his wife and three daughters, aged 20, 15, and 10 in 2001 (“our five-year plan,” he once explained to the Montreal Gazette), has continued to unleash sharp observations of North American culture. Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex (1994) was an uncategorizable mix of fiction, commentary, and satire in which Laferriere, among other things, imagines a conversation with author James Baldwin. Baldwin explains that he is one of only a few black people in heaven—the others “decided to choose hell… they felt more comfortable with the familiar.” Despite the failure of his initial foray into movies, Laferriere has been reported to be at work on several other film scripts, one of them an adaptation of his novel Dining with the Dictator.
Comment faire I’amour avec un Negre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro), 1985, trans. 1987.
L’odeur du café (The Aroma of Coffee), 1991, trans. 1993.
Le gout des jeunes filles (trans, as Dining with the Dictator), 1992.
Cette grenade dans la main du jeune, est-elle un arme ou un fruit? (trans as. Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?), 1993.
Chronique de la derive douce (trans, as A Drifting Year), 1994, trans. 1996.
Pays sans chapeau (trans, as Down Among the Dead Men), 1996, trans. 1997.
Le charme des apées-mide sans fin (The Charm of the Endless Afternoon), 1997.
Le cri des oiseaux fous (The Cry of the Crazy Birds), 2001.
The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), June 8, 1996, p. H1; December 13, 1997, p. H3.
Maclean’s, December 26, 1994, p. 35.
Ottawa Citizen, November 9, 1997, p. E4.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1993, p. 87; October 31, 1994, pp. 57 58.
Toronto Star, November 8, 1997, p. M18; January 9, 1999, Entertainment section.
Washington Post, July 6, 1990, p. N43.
World Literature Today, Spring 2001, p. 307.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—James M. Manheim
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