“The Low Roar of Buildings Falling to Their Knees”

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 4 2013 11:38 PM

Shaken and Stirred

Dany Laferrière’s memoir of the Haitian earthquake.

The World Is Moving Around Me

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.

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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.

The confessional qualities of Laferrière’s memoir are muted, though he does let us know that, while riding out the initial shock on the heaving surface of his hotel courtyard, he “wondered if the earth would gape open and swallow us up. That was my childhood terror.” He speaks, in general, of “those who are deeply damaged inside but don’t know it yet. … Those people have hidden the screams inside them. One day they will implode.” More personally, he writes in the days following the quake:

I felt a good strong shock. My breath gone. Sweating already. … My legs were weak. I went back to the table once I’d gotten hold of myself. The same atmosphere as before. Nothing indicated there’d been a tremor. I can’t be the only one who felt it. People are going to mention it. I just need to wait. The conversations were as lively as ever. Finally I understood that my body had shaken, not the earth.

Author Dany Laferrière
Author Dany Laferrière

Courtesy Douglas and McIntyre.

Laferrièrre has a lucid plain-style which may remind American readers of the best of Ernest Hemingway, specifically Hemingway’s commitment to writing about the actions that produce emotion, rather than about feelings themselves. Francophone readers may be more immediately reminded of Céline. The style is well adapted to conditions of shock: “We gaze at Port-au-Prince with the stunned air of a child whose toy has just been accidentally stepped on by an adult.” In the face of overwhelming catastrophe, Laferrière’s simplicity is disarming:

She’s the first thing I see on the road to Pétionville. A mango vendor sitting with her back against a wall, a dozen mangos spread out before her. This is her livelihood. For her, there’s nothing new. It doesn’t occur to me to buy from her, though I love mangos. I hear Saint-Éloi’s voice behind me: “What a country!” These people are so used to finding life in difficult conditions that they could bring hope down to hell.

In the international press and aid-worker communities, the aftermath of the quake provoked more nattering than usual about the extraordinary and admirable resilience of the Haitian people in times of crisis, crisis being their near-constant condition, almost needless to say. Simultaneously, there was a rise of complaint about that increasingly well-laminated cliché, sometimes on the part of the same people who voiced it in the first place. Like many clichés, this one is founded on stubbornly persistent fact.

The glimpses Laferrière records of people on the devastated streets of Port-au-Prince accrue to give a deeper substance to the idea of Haitian indomitability. These quickly captured images are somehow more powerful than the words of which they are composed. In the end he is able to grapple with the idea of Haitian resilience in the abstract far more successfully than most. “In Haiti,” he writes, “if you’re frightened one minute, you’re dancing the next. This tried-and-true method keeps people from sinking into collective depression.” And, later, he continues this notion: “Seeing their serenity, you can imagine how much they know about pain, hunger, and death, and how much violent joy lives inside them. Joy and pain are transformed in singing and in dance. … If we listen more carefully, we might be surprised to discover that the words that got us up on the dance floor are achingly sad. That’s where the secret of this country resides.”

The form of this book is both circumstantially and intentionally fragmentary at the start: The reader follows a shocked sensibility as it picks up shards from the wreckage and gradually begins to assemble them into a mosaic. This process of composition is an image of how Haiti must reconstruct itself—from the inside. The country is too often assumed to be a backward place: The First World has trouble remembering that Haitians were two centuries ahead of us in abolishing slavery and in extending full rights of citizenship to everyone, regardless of race. The former slaves who founded the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere did it their own way, without any assistance or encouragement from surrounding international powers. It should be no real surprise that the templates for reform, progress, and democratization imported to Haiti more recently tend to fit very poorly. The apparently desultory structure of Laferrière’s memoir reflects the style in which Haitians have always got their business done.

A great many voyagers have been astonished by Haiti, and some have benefited from the experience, and some have brought benefits to the country. The explosion of interest and sympathy that followed the earthquake involved enormous amounts of genuine, sincere, and poorly informed good will. It takes patience for learning new ways for any outsider to stay the course in Haiti. Outsiders who have that patience, plus a considerable openness of mind, can do some real good in the country, but, inevitably, most of them don’t. “We got used to being the planet’s center of attention too quickly,” Laferrière writes. “Where are the cameras now? Elsewhere, for there are other nations who have been waiting to warm themselves by that artificial fire.”

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The World Is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière. Arsenal Pulp Press.

The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake

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Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 12 novels, most recently The Color of Night, and a biography of Toussaint Louverture. He teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore.