I first started reading Haiti-born Montreal writer Dany Laferrière through the publication of not one but two of his novels translated into English from French in a single day, the day Coach House Press released his Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? (1994) and Dining with the Dictator (1994), following on the heels of Coach House Press’ volumes of An Aroma of Coffee (1993), Eroshina (1991) and, of course, his infamous first novel, How To Make Love To a Negro (Without Getting Tired)(1987). Through his novels, there was the sustained, confident voice of a narrator, usually unnamed, but one that had very many similarities to the writer Dany Laferrière, with other features included: originally a journalist from Port-au-Prince, escaping from Duvalier’s Haiti to Montreal in 1978, who writes novels in French, loves women, and prefers to spend his days in bed, reading. Now author of over a dozen novels translated into English, his most recent is I Am a Japanese Writer (translated by David Homel; Toronto ON: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) follows along the same rough path, following the narrative voice of many of his first-person semi-(seemingly)-autobiographical works of the writer Dany Laferrière, writing about a writer who may or may not be a fictional variant on the writer Dany Laferrière (this is something he shares with New York novelist Paul Auster as well, twisting around the idea of the fictional self).
Another early consideration I noticed while reading his works in the mid-1990s, was his interest in Asian women (in Eroshina, naturally), his oddly-surreal bent, and his clear first-person voice writing out novels through shorter self-contained and titled sections, much like another one of my early favourites, the late American novelist and poet Richard Brautigan. With I Am a Japanese Writer, his focus is on a group of Japanese women, those he is drawn to, and drawn to him, as he spends his days as a writer preferring to spend his days in bed, reading. In this book more than many, I could even feel Brautigan’s influence through the chapters, finally rewarded by the author himself in the chapter “Richard Brautigan’s Cowboy Boots,” and reference to one of Brautigan’s own Japanese works, his short story/novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980).
While exploring the poetry of Basho, the narrator tells his publisher that his next novel will be titled “I Am a Japanese Writer,” and immediately receives an advance, but doesn’t get around to starting to work on the book. Somehow, the media catches wind, including the Japanese consulate, Tokyo news media and, seemingly, everyone around him, each approaching with their own opinions, concerns, excitements of his novel (which he hasn’t started) or his claim (which he didn’t claim). Much like the novel Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? claimed to be a novel about writing a novel that most knew the title of, and had plenty of opinions of, but hadn’t actually read (a reference to his How To Make Love To a Negro (Without Getting Tired)), I Am a Japanese Writer is about the book he hasn’t written yet and might not, and how much claim an author really has about any work, any text, or even any idea, moving through the nature of fame, identity and meaning, all wrapped up in his usual considerations and concerns with cultural/sexual politics. And yet, perhaps this is even the work itself, the story of how he didn’t write this novel we are reading. His previous novel, Heading South (translated by Wayne Grady; Toronto ON: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009), was a vibrant, long-awaited return to Laferrière’s English-language career as a fiction writer, but I Am a Japanese Writer somehow brings out that extra potency of his lyric cadence, his narrator’s deep, considered movement through the world as a sizzling thinking and sexual being, exploring what he does best, women, culture, ideas and ideas of women. I would rank this among one of his finest.
The Nippon at The Eiffel TowerI’ve never owned a still camera. That’s because I’ve never quite figured out their purpose. If it’s just to take pictures I’ll never look at, then it has to be the stupidest invention ever. Anyway, I have one that works very well: this skull where I’ve stored fifty years of images, most of them repeated until they’ve become the fabric of my ordinary life. This day-to-day life made of a series of tiny explosions. An electric life. I’ve been told that these images belong to me only, and that other people can’t access them. That’s not exactly true—I can describe them with such precision that, in the end, they become visible to other eyes. Even better: I can transform these pictures into feelings. I can relate a moment without describing the people who were there, simply by bringing forth the energy that gave life to the event. In a photo, we rarely see the emotion that creates the story unfolding before our eyes. Except, maybe, in birthday photos, where we see the child’s enchanted eyes behind the lit candles. Of course, sometimes a whiff of nostalgia rises up from a picture yellowed with time, especially when almost all those who looked into the lens are dead. I keep all those photos in my head, and they have taken root there, the images falling one over the other, all wanting to surge to the front. As for the Japanese man, who never stops photographing the world: what does he see? He doesn’t even see the two elements he is trying to capture, his traveling companion and the monument that the companion is blocking out. The Eiffel Tower is there to show that this guy spent a day in Paris. But by cracking the same wide, impersonal smile in front of every monument on the face of the Earth, he is destroying the intimate nature of the moment. The Japanese man becomes as timeless as the tower itself. You’d think that the Eiffel Tower was being photographed as a backdrop for a smiling Japanese guy.