Monday, March 13, 2017
By internet searching, I had a small but interesting looking list of novelists from Haiti, all women: Yanick Lahens, Edwidge Danticat (although she left the country at a young age), Marie-Vieux Chauvet, Évelyne Trouillot. When it came to our local library, however, apart from some children's books by Edwidge Danticat, all I could find was Laferrière's "I Am a Japanese Writer" as an e-book, and in paper format, his memoir of the Haiti earthquake.
Although Laferrière left Haiti as a young man and settled in Canada - as a journalist he was at grave risk from the then brutal dictatorship. However, at the time of the earthquake of January 12, 2010, he was in Port au Prince for a literary festival. This memoir is his account of the days that followed, before he was evacuated out to Canada by the Canadian embassy, and again when he returned to visit his family for the funeral of his aunt.
Although some 200,000 people died in the devastating earthquake, he does not dwell on that so much as describe the way in which life continued. And the background of Haitian culture that he describes is one of pride in a nation that was the first in the world, in 1804, where black slaves managed to shake off the rule of white men and form their own self determining nation. The narrative of the earthquake is fragmentary, in short, descriptive passages, and evocative. "We say January 12 here the way people say September 11 in other places" he writes. In Christchurch where I live, we refer to September 22 - our own earthquake of September 22, 2011. And though far fewer lives were lost here than in Port au Prince, and the devastation was not nearly as great, nevertheless, many passages had a resonance for me.
Laferrière pins down the reason why novels from some countries are so hard to find for this project:
"What art form will be the first to come forward after the earthquake? Poetry, so impulsive, or painting, eager for new landscapes? Where will the first images of the earthquake be seen? On the city walls or the bodies of tap-taps?... The novel demands a minimum of comfort that Port-au-Prince can't offer; it's an art form that flourishes in industrialized nations."
While I still hope to read some of the novels mentioned above, I'm glad I chose this one first. I found it a very readable insight into the country and the people, giving more depth than reportage of events in the newspapers.