By Jean H Charles
Dany Laferriere, a Canadian writer and cinéaste
of Haitian extraction, was elected to the French Academy December 12 on the first round of balloting (23 yes). He is the newest yet the youngest member of the Academy at 60 years old. He is occupying seat No. 2 among 40 immortals whose main mission is to preserve the purity and the integrity of the French language while granting prizes to outstanding French opuses for their quality and to persons who distinguished themselves through their courage and their leadership. That seat was occupied in the dark of nights by another academician of West Indian extraction in the person of Alexandre Dumas.
The French Academy, an outgrowth of a literary salon, was created by Cardinal Richelieu, the éminence grise
of King Louis XIII, in 1635. While the French language because of its beauty and its elegance is well-appreciated the world over, it is in a steep decline today. The Academy retains its influence because it is the barometer of the arrival of a writer in a position that is coveted by all those who take the pain of putting on paper their thoughts and their creativity for the time and for humanity.
I am of the opinion that a language, akin to a currency, has the full faith and credit of the authority of the country or countries that maintain an economic standing that is sustained at home and throughout the world. The English language is definitely the front-runner in this course of those who want to belong to the league of winners in daily transactions in the arts or commerce. Being fluent in Spanish in the Western Hemisphere is an indication that Latin America’s influence on commerce is on the rise.
The French Academy in session
In the near future, Mandarin, the language spoken by the Chinese population, will become the world’s lingua franca, due to the growing influence of China in industry and commerce on a global scale. This position is in stark conflict with the Haitian linguists who maintain that Haiti will start its ascent into development when the Creole Language is widely utilized in school and at the university.
, Haiti will strengthen itself and its language when it builds its institutions and its infrastructure and makes them hospitable to all, so as to enrich itself and its people. Its children need to be embarked on gaining deep knowledge and utilization of the most widely used languages of the world, such as English, Spanish and French. There is no need to be afraid of losing the country’s grip on the Creole language, because Creole is in the very DNA of each Haitian person, whether rich or poor. In fact, Haiti is the repository of Creole language and culture for the rest of the world. Develop and enrich the country, and the rest of the world will rush to Haiti to immerse itself in Creole language and culture.
For the purpose of this op-ed, I will delay the debate on whether the Creole language should have preference in school over French or English to celebrate the advent of Dany Laferriere to the French Academy.
I met Dany in the courtyard of the French Institute in Port au Prince on the evening of December 13, while he was preparing to read some of his essays in a celebration of a book put together by writers in residence at Port Salut.
The education of Dany Laferriere
I was moved to find Dany Laferriere at peace with himself, humble, simple and at ease with well-wishers, in spite of this extraordinary event that could fill his head with arrogance and self-loathing. He told me while we were sitting together on the stoop of one of the classrooms of the French Institute that he is the son of a middle-class family. His father, a consolidator for coffee growers, and his mother, a homemaker, provided Dany with a loving home in Petit-Goave, where a grandmother and aunts added more love than he could absorb. Early on, he digested the stories of those merchants who passed by on the street in front of his house. That was a time when Haiti had its panoply of excellent educators who instilled the joy of reading in their pupils. It was at the beginning of the Duvalier dictatorship.
Indeed, Dany’s father would be soon the target of the Duvalier regime. Sent to exile, Dany would join his father in Canada, as his best friend was killed for his advocacy against the dictator.
Dany, albeit well-read, had only two months of university formation in his background. He could find only menial and factory jobs in Montreal. As such, Dany swore to get out of this hell to do what he knows best -- to write to make a living. In 1986 he wrote the first of his two dozen novels, “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.” An instant success, the book was transformed into a movie released in several languages throughout the world. Among his other novels is “L’Egnime du Retour
,” which was honored with the 2009 Medici Prize.
Dany and the French Academy
It is too early to determine the influence of Dany Laferriere on this august institution, into which he will be received during the coming year. But Dr Laferriere -- with a piercing focus behind his smile, whom some may have underestimated, who holds doctor honoris causa degrees from three universities -- has already promised to help the youths in his hometown, Petit Goave, with books and other materials to improve their education. He is already an inspiration for all writers in the Francophone world that a seat at that most venerable institution, the French Academy, is possible, if excellence and consistency are your lot in the business of writing.
There is some controversy on the Haiti-Diaspora Web as to whether Dany Laferriere is a true citizen of Quebec, as he has retains so many roots from and in Haiti. The question was put in an op-ed by Ms Andree Ferretti, a Canadian columnist who commented on Laferriere as the perfect model of “anti-Quebec.” She was rebuked by Mr Robert Berrouet Oriol, a Canadian linguist of Haitian origin. I asked Laferriere about the controversy. His answer was vintage Danny: As a writer, he said, feels in his skin a citizen of Haiti, as well as of Quebec or Florida, just seeking a novel story to be told for the edification of those who care and love to read. He is above the melee. He is on his way to the French Academy for more important business.
Dany Laferriere with his protégé students
My dream is to see Dany Laferriere urge French writers and French society to engage in a soul-searching national dialogue that may lead to truth and reconciliation -- to find out why most of the countries belonging to the French-language family (in comparison with the British Commonwealth) are so pregnant with dissension, misery, pettiness and poor citizenship, leading to failed nations. After it has found itself in the mirror, the French government should provide the tools and the incubation to create better nations and citizens out of the countries of Mali, Republic of Central Africa, Senegal, Syria (she was a French protectorate ) -- and why not Haiti?
Note: Photos courtesy the French Academy website and Nancy Rock’s blog site.