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Academic Coaching & Writing

XVII. An Academic, Writing: Adapting, Adopting, Revising

Mar 28, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

In the last blog, I introduced my book about the Haitian-born author, Dany Laferrière. There is a certain symmetry in my writing a book about an author who has done so much in the way of revisions and adaptations of his work, while taking some of my own previously published work and revising and adapting it for the purposes of this book.

My hook, the thread I’ve chosen to connect the multiple versions of Laferrière’s work, is that of the Lodyans. In each chapter, I will be looking for the “deeper truth” that Laferrière’s changes, omissions, or outright lies are trying to get at. My challenge in revising my first two chapters comes from making sure that they both share this connective thread. But also, what further insight into Laferrière’s works can I come up with using the Lodyans form of storytelling as my critical lens?

The first chapter of my book deals with Laferrière’s use of Japan as an image, as well as his references to and use of Haiku. He does this in two of his novels, Eroshima (1987) and I am a Japanese Writer (2007). Eroshima is his second novel and probably his most ignored. When this novel is cited, the focus is typically on Laferrière ‘s use of racial stereotypes and clichés in order to undermine their power. I’ve always felt like there was something more going on, something deeper. Laferrière repeatedly goes back to the image of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and the consequences of World War II more generally, including the Holocaust. For the longest time, I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of these images and his use of Haiku.

When Laferrière came out with I am a Japanese Writer twenty years later, I suspected that there was another reason why he was returning to Japan, and it wasn’t just to play with idea of the hegemony of nation and nationality (the idea that where we were born is the most important piece of our identity). Like Basho (perhaps the greatest Japanese Haiku poet), whose book he carries with him throughout the narrative, Laferrière’s narrator (who is a lot like Laferrière himself) goes off on a journey of self-discovery, seeking to understand a past he has yet to fully come to terms with.

Suddenly, I realized that the thread that linked those two particular books (Eroshima and I am a Japanese Writer) was dealing with trauma and how an artist goes about doing it. Setting the narrative in Japan allowed Laferrière some distance to deal with his own traumatic past. It is no coincidence that the novel immediately following Eroshima was An Aroma of Coffee, his first book that deals with his life in Haiti. The novel that immediately followed I am a Japanese Writer was The Enigma of the Return, a book that finally dealt with his own father’s exile and death. By traveling (in his imagination) to a far away and foreign place (Japan) and fictitiously interacting with historical figures, Laferrière is then able to face his own traumas.

But now, the challenge: What does this telling and retelling of the artist’s struggle with writing about personal trauma via imaginary trips to Japan have to do with Lodyans? And it raises a further question: How does an author who is committed to telling stories through laughter, no matter how bitter or dark, recreate and tell these stories about deep personal trauma? The use of the Haiku becomes important, because it’s form (a small, finely crafted, short piece of writing) is reminiscent of the Lodyan stories. Like the Haiku, Laferrière seeks to capture the emotional immediacy of the moment, creating an atmosphere, rather than a long, drawn-out narrative description. Through his study of the Haiku, Laferrière rediscovers some of the essence of the Lodyans, aiming for emotional, rather than factual, truth.

And for me, the deeper meanings of the imaginary trips to Japan and the importance of the Haiku serve as the foundation for revising and adapting my prior writings for the first two chapters of my book on Laferrière’s life work.

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