I met Dany Laferrière at the Salon du livre de Quebec in April 1986, where I was peddling my first publication, a collection of bad poems hesitating between French and English. I think it was called Turtleneck and Black Slacks. Nobody was showing much interest so I had plenty of time to walk around and check the competition.
Danny Laferrière was also promoting his first book, but he had a much better title: Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer, or How to Make love to Negro Without Getting Tired. We talked and exchanged books. He signed a poster for me, showing him sitting barefoot on a park bench with his typewriter. His white high tops (pre-basketball star edition, just plain white canvas) are beside him on the bench. He looks pretty relaxed. Nez en l’air, you know what I mean? We saw each other again the next day and he told me he liked my poems, the ones in French, because he didn’t read English. I’ve just finished reading his first book again, and I still think what I thought then—that Quebec had never seen something like this before.
What hides behind the provocative title is a fast, funny and ferocious riff on sex, race, jazz, destroying all clichés and myths about young black men in its wake. Informed by Kerouac, Miller and Baldwin, Laferrière said he wrote Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer in three weeks. It’s summer, it’s hot, and the narrator and his friend Bouba share an apartment on rue Saint-Denis in Montreal. The cross on top of Mont Royal shines through the night. Bouba lives on the sofa, quotes the Koran, and meditates to the sound of the Duke, Archie Shepp or Coltrane. Dinners of canned food and poulet créole are drowned with cheap wine, and the narrator’s effort to finish his novel are derailed by the successive visits of Miz Littérature, Miz Suicide, or Miz Carte du Ciel—to name a few.
Let’s be honest, this is a hard book to carry around in public, says a reader’s review. Honest, brash, unhappy, new, says The Village Voice.
I saw Dany Laferrière for the second time in 2003 in Montreal. I had finished my transition to English and my first novel, Where the River Narrows, had just come out. I was a guest, like him, at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. He was sitting beside Maryse Condé, who was being honored. I did not have the courage to come up and say hello. Laferrière had published many books since we had first met, both in Quebec and in France. His novels had been made into films and he was also famous for his columns in the Montreal press. Although not barefoot this time, he still look relaxed; as demonstrated by the way he draped his arm over the top of the empty chair beside him. The way he watched the world go by.
I am about to meet Dany Laferrière again in Chicago. The little boy who spent his childhood speaking kreyol in the village of Petit-Goâve is now the first Haitian and the first Québécois to be named at the prestigious Académie française—an institution founded in the 1635 by Richelieu to safeguard the French language. He will be the first writer-in-residence at the Sofitel Magnificent Mile, where he will write about Chicago’s jazz scene. He will join us on Monday, February 13th at 6:30 p.m., here at the Alliance and he will tell us what he means when he says he is an écrivain américain —an American author.
I am looking forward to seeing him again…and I hope you are too!
Pour en savoir plus: 25 repères lumineux sur le parcours d’un immortel.