The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
The Return.(purchase at Amazon.ca) and
If you are a writer who removes yourself from your native culture for too long, what chance can you have of faithfully recording a return visit? In 2009 Montreal poet Dany Laferrière, after thirty years in Canada, returned “home” to Haiti and the years and distance might have taken their toll. “I have doubts about the vocation of the writer in exile,” he writes in The Return. Using prose and poetry in a blend of fact, fiction, and memory, The Return records a revisiting of his childhood and a rapprochement with his late father, whose body is interred in a Brooklyn cemetery, but whose spirit Laferrière brings with him.
Going home is a literary conceit as old as The Odyssey. As Odysseus journeyed westward from Greek isle to Greek isle, Laferrière moves south from island to island, from a freezing Montreal to a temperate Manhattan and then to a tropical Haiti, where his senses go into overload:
I don’t want to think.
Just see, hear and feel.
Note it all down before I lose my head,
drunk on this explosion of tropical
colors, smells and tastes.
Laferrière is burdened by ghosts, his father’s, of course, but also the poet Aime Cesaire’s, whose Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is a touchstone, as well as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s. Duvalier forced Laferrière’s father, Windsor, into exile in the 1970s. Laferrière Jr. soon followed. Duvalier is long gone and Haiti is still recovering, but only barely, and while foreign journalists hole up in a luxury hotel high enough “so they can see/what’s boiling over down below/in the great stewpot of Port-au-Prince,” Laferrière asks:
Have you ever considered a city
of more than two million people
half of whom are literally starving to death?
Human flesh is meat too.
How long can a taboo
stand up to sheer necessity?
The Return occupies that odd grey area between fiction and memoir. Many of the observations are cogent, but some are banal, as is, sadly, some of the imagery. Is Laferrière at a loss because he’s overwhelmed, or because he’s been away too long? Maybe the old truism is false: you can go home again, but can you make the return into poetry?
It is ironic that Laferrière is on much surer literary ground when writing The World is Moving Around Me, his journal of the physical and psychological destruction wrought by the 2010 Haiti earthquake. “Life seems to have gotten back to normal after decades of trouble,” it begins, before outlining Haitian normality: laughing girls, painters of naïve canvases, women selling mangoes. Laferrière is there for a literary festival, and his optimism (“literature seems to have supplanted politics in the public mind. Writers are on television more often than elected officials”) is immediately shaken when, as he is sitting down to dinner, the ground shakes and he hears “the low roar of buildings falling to their knees.”
He records everything he sees and hears in the aftermath, spending that first night listening for the crow of the roosters, and he notes, “the city was filled with a disciplined, generous, and restrained crowd.”
After the earthquake, he relates how some Haitian exiles wanted to have been there, and their shame at having missed it: “He even imagined himself buried in the ruins. Do we need to remind him that those who died desired only to live? They don’t want his presence at their side.”
He notes angrily that the first world uses the earthquake to reimagine Haiti as “a cursed country.” After Duvalier, Haiti became a byword for corruption, and now, just as it was getting a sense of itself again, the ground fell out from under it and it reclaimed its spot as cursed. “Some Haitians, at the end of their rope, are even starting to believe it. You have to be really desperate to accept the contempt that others have for you.”
Oddly, the memoir of the earthquake feels more personal than the family-ridden The Return. Laferrière owed his publisher a book, and he states, “I made up my mind not to let the earthquake upset my schedule.” One is left wondering: was it the suddenness of the tragedy that prompted such good reportage, and is it a better memoir than The Return because earthquakes are not “The inevitable phone call/that every middle-aged man/one day will receive./ My father has died”?