Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Dany Laferrière and the Pendulum of Exile

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Dany Laferrière and the Pendulum of Exile

Article excerpt

Faced with the unenviable choice of death at the hands of the Tonton Macoutes or exile at the age of twenty-three, Dany Laferrière chose the latter, fleeing Baby Doc-controlled Haiti for the province of Quebec in 1976. A semi-autobiographical account of his first year in Montreal serves as the backdrop for 1994's Chronique de la dérive douce, a collection of 366 poetic prose segments that depicts the first year in Quebec for Laferrière's literary doppelgänger, a Haitian immigrant known simply as "Vieux," short for "Vieux Os," or "Old Bones." Six years later, in 2000, Laferrière published Le Cri des oiseaux fous, the prequel to Chronique de la dérive douce, in which the same protagonist recounts his unexpectedly final day and night in Port-au-Prince.

In theory, only the flight between Haiti and Quebec separates the intrigue of the two novels, since L· Cri des oiseaux fous ends at Port-auPrince's airport and Chronique de la dérive douce begins in Montreal's; however, the two novels offer surprisingly opposing portraits of exile. And yet, these seemingly contrasting novels work in tandem to render exile as, on the one hand, lonely, precarious and forced; and, on the other hand, as freeing, spontaneous and hopeful. In this article I will examine how Laferrière creates and recreates a complete exile experience within these two works. Anticipating exile in one and living it as dérive, or drifting, in the other, I theorize that the author manipulates time in Chronique de la dérive douce and L· Cri des oiseaux fous to generate and sustain a pendulum of exile extremes, the goal of which is to illustrate how a forced departure from one's country can be at once exile and dérive.

Chronique de la dérive douce and Le Cri des oiseaux fous are the sixth and tenth novels in Laferrière's dense American autobiography, a ten-volume collection of auto-fiction set within the Americas, the majority of which centers on the Old Bones character. Chronique de la dérive douce comprises 366 petites proses, poetic first-person musings that document and reflect on Old Bones's first year in Quebec and range in length between six and 138 words. While the only divisions between these musings are the typographical spaces between them, one notes emergent patterns within the book, which highlight such eclectic themes as relationships, poverty, racism, and literature, among others. Although the book offers a linear account of an immigrant's first year in a new country, the chronicle often intersperses smaller stories from Old Bones's daily life with independent reflections that read like proverbs.

Despite the reason behind his emigration from Haiti, the protagonist insists in several passages in Chronique de la dérive douce that he is not an exile, arguing that he left Haiti of his own accord. In the forty-ninth prose segment he affirms: "Je n'ai pas été exilé. J'ai fui avant d'être tué. / C'est différent" (27). In the next prose segment, he elaborates why he does not use the term "exilé," explaining that to call himself an exile would be to lie, which he refuses to do. It is not until a third of the way into the story that the reader discovers the reason behind Old Bones's flight from Haiti. In the 129th prose segment, which is meant to commemorate his birthday, we read:

J'ai quitté Port-au-Prince parce qu'un

de mes amis a été trouvé sur une plage la tête

dans un sac et l'autre croupit à Fort

Dimanche. Nous sommes tous les trois de la

même fournée: 1953. Bilan: un mort, un en

prison et le dernier en fuite. (55)

By choosing the descriptive "en fuite" he avoids the term "exilé" and opts instead for an adjective that highlights his control of and choice in the matter. Reframing his experience as "dérive" or "drifting," which he characterizes as "douce," he inscribes a peaceful image within his North American epic, an image that will contrast sharply with the one that he will project in Le Cri des oiseaux fous. …

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