Haiti: am I being stupid?

The question of what counts as ‘national literature’ is a tricky one. As I’ve found during the first four months of this project, lots of people have very different ideas about what it means.

Some people say it’s all about books by people from particular countries. Others think it has to be set in a certain place. The real hardliners claim it’s both, while another contingent argues that it’s more about what stories countries consider to be part of their national literature.

As the months have gone on, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition involving books written by people with strong connections to particular nations. Usually these will be people with citizenship, but at the very least they’ll be writers who have lived in a country long enough for it to be woven into the story of who they are.

However, the protagonist of Dany Laferrière’s novel I am a Japanese Writer, which is on the shortlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, would probably disagree. Having bagged an advance for his next novel on the strength of the title alone – it’s also called I am a Japanese Writer – the Haitian-Canadian struggles to get started on the manuscript. Claiming to be ‘tired of cultural nationalism’ and wanting to ‘show that borders have disappeared’, he attempts to immerse himself in whatever Japanese culture he can find in his home town of Montreal in the hope that a story will emerge from it. But when news of the book sparks a cultural movement in Japan and the Japanese embassy wants to involve him in all sorts of literary ventures and events, the writer finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

As the subject matter suggests, the book unpicks what makes up works of art. For my purposes, the meditations on cultural identity – from comments highlighting the oddness of concepts such as the ‘French kiss’, which ‘exists everywhere but France’, to full-blown discussions of nationality – were particularly fascinating. I couldn’t help but be challenged by one particular passage early in the narrative:

‘I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. […] Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot – they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’

Where did this leave A Year of Reading the World then? Was I being foolish to even contemplate something so reductionist as trying to read a book from every country? Was I one of the ‘space police’ the protagonist describes, grimly shoehorning writers into boxes they would never choose? What if, as Laferrière’s protagonist would have it, I was simply assembling piles of British books on the shelf in my living room because, being British, I was unable to read books on any other terms?

These weighty discussions are offset by the narrator’s self-deprecating humour as he repeatedly dismantles his soap boxes and shifts ground. The witty portrayal of writer’s block and the protagonist’s ham-fisted attempts to immerse himself in Japanese culture – at one stage he bombards a bewildered Korean with questions on the assumption that the two countries are ‘the same thing’ – are great fun.

In addition, the arguments are undercut by the way Laferrière circles his readers, Sumo-wrestler-style, daring us to make the false move of conflating his protagonist with him. The writer may be a Haitian-Canadian living in Montreal and working on a novel with the same title as his creator’s, but he is of course not Laferrière. Or is he? And would it add any more authenticity and credibility to his arguments if the two were one and the same?

Ultimately, of course, the protagonist’s self-deterministic approach to his own work is blown apart by the wild reaction of the Japanese. Whether he likes it or not, the work he produces (or, in this case, has yet to produce) can not be controlled. As this fiendishly clever and enjoyable book demonstrates, the act of publishing is about setting a work free for others to criticise, categorise and cannibalise as they chose. Cultural nationalism may be a construct, but it is a construct to which the vast majority of the world subscribes.

Does that make it true? I don’t know. But hey, if all I’m doing here is assembling a library of British books, novels like this mean it’s definitely my most interesting and diverse collection to date.

I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière, translated from the French by David Homel (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011)

21 responses

  1. This is such an interesting line of thought. Particularly to me as a Scot, with nationalism and independence on everyone’s lips (positively or negatively). I remember reading a list of the top 100 Scottish books – Heart of Darkness was listed there, because Conrad was published by a Scottish publisher first. 1984 was also included, because Orwell wrote it while on the isle of Jura. Not sure I was entirely convinced.

    And as to the matter of every book becoming your nationality while reading? I just have to disagree. Reading The Tale of Genji over the course of two years, I find it remains nearly impenetrably foreign – this because of how distant it is in time (11th c.) and I have no background of history or cultural tradition other than shared humanity through which to view it.
    I’d love to read others thoughts on this notion though!

    • Mmmn. Interesting – not sure I’d go along with the Conrad or the Orwell choices either.

      Like you, I can’t buy the reader nationality thing wholesale. However, I do think it’s fair to say that different readers bring different things to each text and will take different things from it according to their experiences and what their sensitised to. Nationality probably does have a part in that process. So maybe Haitian literature as read by a Brit is different to Haitian literature read by a Haitian or by a Japanese. And maybe my English reading would differ from your Scottish reading too…

  2. An admirable challenge and one that has much merit. A writers origins or a writers experiences in life do have an impact on their work, real or imagined I am sure, but that is different from identity and the issues some have about that sometimes elusive question ‘where are you from’.

    But for me, even if it is a totally imagined story and set in any country, I like to be able to read the work of writers who have grown up in a different cultural environment with different influences and traditions, it adds a subtlety to the flavour of their prose, it is a small prop in the door to open mindedness.

    Bonne Continuation, I say.

    • Thanks Claire. I agree – a lot of the works I’ve been tackling are set in quite different and sometimes imaginary locations. My Djiboutian book ‘In the United States of Africa’ even reverses reality, making Africa the world superpower.

      Thanks for your encouragement,

  3. Great post. Was anything about Haitian literature specifically that pushed you toward a book not set in the country itself?

    • Thanks for your comment. Personally I don’t think national literature has to be set in the country in question. British writers write about everything from eighth century Japan to outer space, so I don’t see why I should expect writers from other countries to ‘stick to what they know’ in that way. Quite a few of the books I’ve read so far this year have been set in their countries of origin, but a lot haven’t – I don’t see it as a determining factor.

      I suppose it’s because I think of cultural identity more as a state of mind than a question of place – a Zimbabwean’s perspective on an undersea kingdom might be quite different from my own, by virtue of his background. Or it might surprise me with the similarities. That’s what interests me.

      Others have different views, though.

  4. I kind of see Laferriere’s point of view, because as a child, living in a ‘closed’ society, I had no option but to impose my own limited point of view on all the books I was reading from other countries. Then, later on, when I reread those books or those authors after visiting or living in their countries, it added another layer of complexity to my love or understanding of them. But there is still much that is valid and unforgettable in my original interpretation of them.
    I completely agree – identity is a state of mind, but some cultural influences are deeper than we think or want to believe. But if we never read anything different to ourselves, then how can we become aware of our own blind spots and assumptions?
    So I guess what I am trying to say is that this by no means invalidates your project – you are not ‘space police’, you are simply open and curious.

    • Thanks MarinaSofia. What we bring to texts and what we take out of them is a fascinating question. I once heard a theory that defined character and personality by what we filter out and what we take in as we look at the world.

      Sitting here at my desk I can see my reflection in the computer screen and hear the tapping of the keys, the sound of a shower running and birdsong in the distance, but you would probably notice other things – the dust on the surface, a hairclip on the desk or any number of the myriad other stimuli facing us every second. Maybe nationality has a part to play in conditioning what each of us notices about the world and about the books we read.

  5. I love the premise of this book. Another one to add to my towering, toppling To Read list. (Thankfully virtual, on Amazon, otherwise would be ENGULFED).

  6. Yay! I’m glad you got to Haiti in your literary Grand Tour, and I’m glad you picked Laferriere, who is great. He definitely wins the prize for the writer who has inspired most enthusiasm in my students this year (we read ‘Le Cri des oiseaux fous’, which is set during the Duvalier dictatorship, and counts down the last hours in Haiti between the murder of the narrator’s best friend and his escape into exile in Canada). Laferriere has form on picking controversial titles, of course – I guess you already came across his first novel, ‘How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired’!
    Hope you’re well, Kate

    • Great stuff, thanks Kate. Lovely to hear from you. Yes, ‘How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired’ was top of my list until I heard ‘I am a Japanese Writer had been nominated for the Best Translated Book Award. The funny thing is Laferriere even refers to this tendency to pick controversial titles in the novel – the author in the book says he has been called ‘the fastest titler in America’ by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Thanks so much for the comment – do let me know if you have any recommendations for other countries. I’m still agonising over France…
      Very best wishes

  7. I’m working on a “book from every country” project too, though at a much more relaxed pace. I agree that considering any single book representative of a country is pretty questionable. My solution is rather a cop-out- to just accept that the books aren’t representative, but to just expect to learn *something* about that country.

    The idea that any book I read becomes a book of my own culture because of the lenses through which I read it is an interesting idea, but I think it takes things too far. My reading is always going to be colored by my own experience and culture, but I’d hate to believe that books can’t pull me beyond my own culture and teach me more.

    • Good to hear from you and congratulations on your own project. I think we probably meet books somewhere in the middle, don’t we? There must be all these hybrid cultures floating around somewhere between our heads and what’s written on the page…

  8. *I haven’t read any of the other comments so I hope I don’t repeat anything others say – I actually drafted this comment in the middle of my exam marking, because I wanted to respond to this so badly!*

    This is a post that throws up a zillion of questions – most without answers. I don’t even know where to start!

    It’s a very, very tricky question indeed. I don’t think it has one answer either, because having one answer means trying to stick things neatly into boxes but things like nationalities, national identities, national literature, etc. do not neatly fit into boxes. The best example that illustrated to me that things of this sort don’t fit into boxes was in a linguistic class I took long ago, where our lecturer was giving us a definition for ‘native language’, declaring it as ‘the language someone first learns to speak’. Which seems straightforward enough, except that one classmate raised her hand and said ‘My elder brother and sister learnt to speak Spanish first, because they lived there when they were born. But then my family moved somewhere else and they haven’t spoken Spanish since’. So it wasn’t even that they were bilingual and one language was stronger than another, but that one had been completely eliminated.

    Because you see, there is thing called life that complicates everything. People who move. Who marry interculturally or interlinguistically. Whose children grow up abroad and don’t identify (at least not fully) with their parents’ culture and national identity. Or people who voluntarily or forcibly go into exile, some abandoning their native countries forever, others becoming more national than those who remained behind. If any of those people write a book, who is to say and based on which criteria their writing belongs to which ‘national literature’? Or do they get to decide? (In which case, what about ‘The author is dead?’) The language it’s originally written in will give if it (sort of) a linguistic and cultural home (e.g. “it’s a Italian-language novel with some Italian culture implicit in that”) but not a definite and absolute national identity.

    I can see the argument for this. I can see it in films actually – if you watch the very same film in a dubbed and in a subtitled version, they are definitely NOT the same films. There is a huge loss of culture – a huge step towards fully assimilating to the target culture – in the dubbed film. Even if it’s set in China. Especially if you take two films, both set in China, one scripted/made by a Chinese person, the other by, say, an American (but also in Chinese). Play the fully ‘Chinese’ film in English, and keep the American-Chinese one in Chinese with English subtitles. Will the dubbed one feel more Chinese than the subtitled one? I think not.

    Transfer all that to books where translation is closer to dubbing than it is to subtitling, and you have assimilation also.

    And of course, then you do have to consider the lens you view the world in, which is going to be linked… hmmm, to something of you. I don’t want to say your “nationality”, because I think that’s oversimplying things, although “nationality” will play a part. But it’s a “personal nationality”, your personal, individual identity as opposed to everyone else’s – because though your passport might say British (and you might identify as such) and might share a lot (possibly most) with other British passport holders, there will be other influences – what you have experienced in life. Which might make you view some things on “other terms”.

    I could go on but I’ll stop rambling. I definitely don’t think you are being stupid though! 🙂

      • Wow, some fabulous points here. As you say, the issue throws up so many questions. And of course none of us fits the archetypal definition of where we’re supposed to be from. I saw a trashy TV programme once that tried to find the British ‘average joe’ – someone who fitted all the average statistics in terms of habits and lifestyle – and there was no-one who matched them all…

  9. Pingback: Reading Is Adventurous | Adventurous Chica

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