Dany Laferrière Writing in and about exile

Dany Laferrière Books
© Jennifer Dummer

In his books, of which he has published more than 20 over the years, Laferrière describes the political and social content of the modern world. He recounts this from his perspective, stirred up with strands from the past. More and more translated in German, Germany has not failed to notice them.

Dany Laferrière, born in 1953, gave his debut novel the title Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired). With this first book written in 1985, he left behind all his previous badly paid jobs and began his career as an author. This was no easy progression, and is a subject in many of his novels as well as his native Haiti. Laferrière the journalist fled from Port-au-Prince to Montreal in 1976 after a close friend of his was killed under Duvalier’s dictatorship. This sentenced him to the same fate as his father: a life in exile.

In his books, of which he has published more than 20 over the years, Laferrière describes the political and social content of the modern world. He recounts this from his perspective, stirred up with strands from the past. For example, in L'énigme du retour (The Return) the author takes his protagonist away from his exile in Montreal and back to Haiti, the place that he had to abandon as a young man. The trigger for this emotional and sensual journey was receiving the news of his father’s death.

In Journal d'un écrivain en pyjama, Laferrière also remembers Haiti. By way of contrast, he spends his first years in Montreal recollecting the time in which he worked in a factory when writing his first novel that caused an uproar with its provocative title and was made into a film in 1989. Interspersed between all the memories and experiences that fluctuate between happier times of creative writing to darker times of doubt and writer’s block, he offers advice to both authors and readers.

His first novel changed everything for him and made its mark far beyond the borders of the French Canadian province. He had made it into the world of flamboyant books, a place in which he could personally have an impact. Today he is regarded as an international representative for both Quebec and Francophone literature. He has received many awards on both sides of the Atlantic: Prix Médicis, Grand Prix du livre, International Literature Prize – House of World Cultures. But the greatest honour in Laferrière’s career was no doubt his election to the Académie française in 2013. He was the first Haitian Canadian to be elected, becoming the successor of the Argentinian author Hector Bianciotti.

The Art of a Book’s Title

Germany has also not failed to notice Laferrière’s books. The dedicated publishing house Das Wunderhorn which has specialized on French and Francophone authors since its establishment, published L'énigme du retour in 2013 and Journal d'un écrivain en pyjama in 2015. Amusing, cultivated, captivating, vital and clever are all qualities that the German media have used to describe the author. But how on earth did the Heidelberg publishing house come across this charismatic and highly acclaimed author?

Many years ago, the publisher Manfred Metzner discovered Laferrière’s books while attending a book fair in Montreal. Above all, the titles that caught his eye: “His book titles are exceptional, witty and original. They arouse your curiosity and do not lose their charm once they have been translated. I still find that his books vibrate with vitality after only reading the title!” However, his enthusiasm was not immediately sufficient to get the books published in German, and it took some time before the first book by Laferrière was translated into German. Once L'énigme du retour had been published in Quebec, the publisher had no choice because this book above all others completely bowled him over: “A splendid text that wonderfully illustrates all the author’s strengths.” This was a convenient excuse to finally give this author a German introduction.

And all of this was made possible by the author Beate Thill. She took on probably the most personal book written by Laferrière and captured the melodious language of L'énigme du retour. She was able to successfully translate the text, which in many ways is like a pop song, into German. And this was achieved without any assistance by the author, whom she first met in Berlin in 2014 when they were both awarded the International Literature Prize – House of World Cultures for an exceptional foreign-language work of contemporary literature and its first German translation.

Dany Laferriere Photo: Georges Seguin The Significant Role of the Zebra

Journal d'un écrivain en pyjama has since also been translated by Beate Thill. Recreating Laferrière’s style in Tagebuch eines Schriftstellers im Pyjama was a particular challenge: “It’s not so easy to be relaxed and funny in German. I was inspired by Heinrich Heine, among others, and his light fluid German style,” explained Thill. Laferrière also gives tips in the book on what it’s all about: giving the written text “the necessary dose of personal feeling.” In this way he joins the words together, evoking much while not saying everything. In doing so his language is never stilted, but an everyday language that the reader understands, emphasizes Thill.

Journal d'un écrivain en pyjama was published in a yellow-black cover and looks very similar to the original edition by the Mémoire d'encrier publishers. Along with these two colours, the zebra also plays an important role. The graphic designer Leonard Keidel sees this as “a self-reflective joke” which refers to a passage in the book about animals in literature. Furthermore, according to Keidel, the illustrated animal also sparks the imagination of the reader. “Once they start to ask the reason for the stripes they begin to imagine all kinds of wonderful stories. After all, this exotic animal has become familiar to us, where pedestrians and motor traffic meet.”

Dany Laferrière, who was named to the Order of Canada by the Governor General of Canada in 2015, was recently on a book tour in Germany. His German publishing house has already announced the release of his provocative and successful debut novel for next year. Readers can eagerly await.

(For those who want to find out more about literature in Quebec in the German language, the unique anthology Anders schreibendes Amerika, published by Das Wunderhorn in 2000, is highly recommended.)