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Academic Coaching & Writing

XVI. An Academic, Writing: Introducing My Book

Mar 26, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

The writing is progressing well on my book, now that I’ve put together a pretty good routine and managed to silence my negative inner voices (for the most part). This seems like as good a time as any to introduce you to my book and what it’s about.

The book is about Dany Laferrière, a Haitian-born writer who lives in Montreal. In 1976, while working in Haiti as a journalist, his best-friend and fellow journalist was found murdered by the order of the dictator, Baby Doc. Fearing for his own life, he was forced to flee Haiti for Montreal.

For almost ten years, Laferrière worked menial factory jobs before giving them up and publishing his first book in French, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. He went on to publish 10 loosely autobiographical works over the next 15 years. In 2000, he declared he was “tired” and and would stop writing. He began rewriting and adapting his works instead, and it was not until 2007 that he released a new novel, I am a Japanese Writer. As you can tell by the two titles above, Laferrière is a playful and provocative writer, producing works of deceptive simplicity, interrogating the notions of race, identity, and class (among other things).

It is the “among other things” that I am interested in exploring in my book. Laferrière, through his revising and rewriting has seriously challenged the notion of the static “master” text (the idea that once a book is published, it never changes), and upset the readers’ expectations when it comes to autobiography and verifiable, historical truth. Through his subject matter and style, he also challenged the First-World reader’s expectations of what a novel by a Third-World or Postcolonial writer is supposed to say (namely a novel filled with diasporic longing or critical of the politics of the home country). I long had a suspicion that Laferrière’s practice of revising, rewriting, and adapting had something to do with his childhood in rural Haiti, having been nourished in the rich oral tradition of Vodou and storytelling. My research revealed that there is a little-known (outside of the Haitian countryside, that is) tradition of the Lodyans (Creole for “audience”), a form of storytelling in which the teller seeks to use lies to get to a deeper truth.

Why is understanding this form of storytelling important? I argue that it reveals a more nuanced reading of Laferrière’s work over-all and challenges our expectations and traditional ways of reading. If no one text or version is held up over the other, then what are we supposed to believe? How do we interpret the truth? Plus, what do these revisions that he makes to his life (the facts of the life he lives versus the ever-shifting life he narrates in his novels) reveal about the author’s message or purpose? What is the “more real truth” that the author is seeking to reveal in his various versions? What changes did he make to his life story to make it more “real” and how does that alter our understanding of reality? Because of Laferrière’s confrontation of our readerly expectations, our reading of his work tell us as much about ourselves as it does about Laferrière.

I have been blogging off and on about Laferrière at Chasing Laferrière. In the Academic, Writing blog series I’ll begin to share with you some of what I am discussing in the book, as well as “thinking out loud” about some questions and challenges I am confronting as I write this book. I’m really excited to be able to share this work-in-progress. Perhaps my process and progress can help inform and inspire your own work.

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