Shaken and Stirred
Dany Laferrière’s memoir of the Haitian earthquake.
Illustration by Nicole Georges.
On Jan. 12, 2010, the Haitian-born novelist Dany Laferrière was in Port-au-Prince, having traveled there from his home in Montreal as a member of the advance team of a French literary organization called Etonnants Voyageurs, or Astonishing Travelers. Etonnants Voyageurs sponsors an annual festival at St. Malo, a medieval town in Brittany, celebrating French and international writers. The group has also organized festivals in Israel and Mali, acquiring some familiarity with challenging situations abroad. Their first festival in Port-au-Prince, planned as part of bicentennial celebrations of Haitian independence in 2004, was postponed thanks to the violent collapse of the Haitian government that year, and eventually took place in 2007. Most members of the 2010 advance team had helped organize the 2007 event as well. By 2010, things in Haiti were finally looking up.
“Life seems to have gotten back to normal after decades of trouble,” Laferrière writes in his surprisingly calm and measured new memoir, The World Is Moving Around Me.
Laughing girls stroll through the streets late into the evening. Painters of naïve canvases chat with women selling mangos and avocados on dusty street corners. Crime seems to have retreated. In lower-class Bel-Air, criminals aren’t tolerated by a population exasperated by everything it has gone through over the last fifty years: family dictatorships, military coups, repeated hurricanes, devastating floods, and random kidnappings.
For the first time in a decade or more, political turmoil had receded from the Haitian consciousness, leaving space for the country’s extraordinary rich reserves of literature, music, and visual art to claim attention. In the background of Laferrière’s street-level observations there were more promising developments. President René Préval’s administration looked far more stable than any of its recent predecessors, while Obama’s administration in Washington was far more friendly to its Caribbean neighbor than previous U.S. governments had been. The new empowerment of the Clintons, Hillary as secretary of state and Bill as United Nations special envoy to Haiti, bids fair to clear a new pathway toward durable economic development, again for the first time in 15 years or longer.
That afternoon, Laferrière was in a restaurant. He had just ordered the lobster. “I was biting into a piece of bread when I heard a terrible explosion,” he writes. “We had between eight and ten seconds to make a decision. Leave the place or stay. Very rare were those who got a good start. … The three of us ended up flat on the ground in the middle of the courtyard, under the trees. The earth started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind. The low roar of buildings falling to their knees. They didn’t explode; they imploded, trapping people inside their bellies.”
Laferrière always has two items on his person: his passport and “a black notebook in which I write down everything that crosses my field of vision or my mind.” The World is Moving Around Me is constructed as an anthology of these immediate impressions, recorded from the moment when “We slowly got to our feet like zombies in a B-movie,” to begin exploring a country that had just had its recent hopes of progress sliced out from under it. “In less than a minute, some saw their lifelong dreams go up in smoke. That cloud in the sky a while back was the dust of their dreams.”
After Edwidge Danticat, Dany Laferrière is probably the best known Haitian writer on the North American continent. His reputation in the United States is hampered by the fact that he writes in French and his works appear here only in translation. Despite a long-standing and fertile collaboration with translator David Homel, some things inevitably do get lost: for example the title of his seminal work, How To Make Love to A Negro Without Getting Tired (Comment Faire l’Amour avec un Nègre sans Se Fatiguer) was, in its first English-language edition, truncated to How To Make Love to a Negro. First published in Montreal in 1985, this book covers some of the same ground as works like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, though in a distinctly different manner.
“Put black vengeance and white guilt together in the same bed and you had a night to remember!” Laferrière wrote in How To Make Love. “Those blond-haired, pink-cheeked girls practically had to be dragged out of the black dormitories. The Big Nigger from Harlem fucked the stuffing out of the girlfriend of the Razor Blade King, the whitest, most arrogant racist on campus … The Young White Girl gets off too. It’s the first time anyone’s manifested such high-quality hatred toward her. In the sexual act, hatred is more effective than love.”
There’s plenty of anger here to be sure (much of which was reflected back on the author), but something else to leaven the vitriol: Laferrière’s slyly witty, satirical tone, finally more reminiscent of Ishmael Reed than Cleaver. Like many Haitian and Haitian-American writers, Laferrière regards the extremes of human folly he reports with a particular eye-of-the-hurricane calm. Developed by a core of Haitian intellectuals as well as by many ordinary Haitians, this attitude is a survival response to the whirlwind forces of their general situation, and also turns out to be quite useful for living through the ravages of the 2010 earthquake psychologically intact.