Toward the end of his chronicle of the January 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake and its aftermath, called Tout bouge autour de moi, Dany Laferrière entitles one of his sections “La notion de l’utilité”—the idea of being useful. That’s the dilemma that illuminates this painful, personal book: what does a writer do when confronted with such a disaster?
Added to that is survivor guilt, though Laferrière doesn’t put it so baldly. Not only has he survived the earthquake personally, physically, whereas his friends Georges and Mireille Anglade, and many, many others, have not, but he has prospered and grown famous as a result of having had to flee the country. Though his story is one of exile, not immigration, no one can pretend that the guilt isn’t close at hand.
Earlier on in the book, Laferrière sets the tone in a short exchange with his nephew that you can read on this site. After the first terrifying minutes of the earthquake, and the astonishment of still being alive, the younger member of the Laferrière family, barely a man but with big plans, asks Dany not to write about “this”—no one has yet devised a word for what happened on January 12, 2010. Of course, Dany is a writer, continually scribbling in his notebooks, and he can’t promise his nephew such a thing. But the question is raised: whom does this disaster belong to? Who gets to talk about the mess? Who has the authority, and on what basis?
To his credit, Dany admits that he doesn’t have the chops to do it. First of all, nature has already scripted the event without asking any writers balanced precariously on the earth’s trembling crust if they have an opinion. Besides, Dany notes, this tragedy is too classical for his pen. Aristotle has come to Haiti: there is unity of time (4:53 in the afternoon), place (the city of Port-au-Prince) and character: the two million or more inhabitants of the place. It would take a Tolstoy to depict that scene, and that’s not me, he willingly admits.
But Laferrière is Laferrière, and he does what he knows how to do best. Those telegraphic dispatches that illuminate the scenes around him often seem to be about himself but, actually, they are about everyone else. When faced with a grave situation, Dany replies with gravitas. Not pathos, but respect for others.
He is also acutely aware of his own precarious situation. Certain commentators in the French-language press in Quebec wondered out loud, just after the earthquake, why this voice of Haiti, this symbol, decided to accept evacuation when he could have stayed in that country, where fate had placed him, since he had traveled there for a literary event that, of course, never took place. Laferrière answers those ambulance chasers, then extends his story through the months following January 2010 to describe his return there later in the year. He notes that strange and indecent phenomenon of those who are sorry they missed the cataclysm. “You don’t become Haitian simply by dying,” he notes. If it were only that easy to take on a new identity!
Through these meditations, it seems to me, Laferrière is meditating on his own recent fame. Winning the 2009 Prix Médicis in France for a book he never intended to write (“fame is the result of a misunderstanding,” he once said to me, quoting Jean Cocteau), and that I translated into English as The Return (recently published by Douglas & McIntyre), has cast a light on everything he does. He’s not just a writer like many of us. He’s a writer who has become responsible for an entire country. The way some Jewish writers became responsible (or not) for an entire people after the Holocaust. That sort of weight would bring anyone to their knees. In Tout bouge autour de moi (“The World is Moving around Me”), he is weighing his responsibilities, and also his freedom to act by himself, for himself.
And he is doing it with his usual lightness and generosity, which is a real gift.
A somewhat different version of this piece appears in the November 2011 issue of Qwrite, the newsletter of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
Read David Homel’s translation of Dany Laferrière’sTout bouge autour de moi here, in the November 2011 issue of WWB.