Originally from Haiti and now based in Montreal, Dany Laferrière writes primarily in French. His novel, “Je Suis un Écrivain Japonais” (meaning: “I am a Japanese Writer”), talks about a Haitian-born author residing in Montreal, much like himself, who has pitched a simple title for his book to his publisher but cannot get himself to actually sit down and write its content. In “Je Suis un Écrivain Japonais,” Laferrière explores the nuances of what it means to be an immigrant author who is always first referred to as Haitian before being acknowledged for being a writer. In particular, he considers the question of the author’s identity — what makes a writer Haitian or Japanese? Is it his national identity, the language of his works, his ethnicity? Laferrière argues instead that an author is his library, the books he reads.
In a world increasingly exposed to international influences where millions of people and ideas are constantly on the move, the frontiers of nationality and identity may be less defined for many. I still struggle with my own identity as an Egyptian who has never really lived in Egypt, as an Italian who can never claim to be a citizen of Italy and as an American who does have citizenship but is still considered an immigrant. How should I label myself then? How do others label me? Do these questions matter when nationality is neither as simple nor as definitive as someone might think? In his metafiction book, Laferrière explores these questions in the context of the relationship between a writer’s work and his readers’ perception of it. It should be made clear that Laferrière’s argument is not that nationalities should not matter to anyone, but rather that the nationality of an author is not definitive in the context of his writing and his readers. Laferrière argues that an author’s writing style and inspiration are often influenced by the literature he consumes. Then, the readers interpret the author’s narratives based on their own experiences. Therefore, a Haitian-born writer from Canada can still write a book that is read, understood and loved by a Japanese reader, for example.
The novel begins with the main character pitching a book he has yet to write to his publisher, who is immediately captivated by its title despite the narrator claiming, “It was pretty banal, actually — except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” However, some readers may object to this spontaneous title, arguing that neither Laferrière nor his protagonist share Japanese descent. In an attempt to pay tribute to Japanese culture and the writers who influenced him, Laferrière names most Japanese characters in the novel after Japanese authors. His characters are shaped by the books in his library rather than by his nationality and the language he writes in. Indeed, who is to say that a Haitian-Canadian cannot be influenced by Japanese writers or cannot write in the same style? Does it matter at all to the readers that the book comes from a Haitian-Canadian for them to be able to understand the story or relate to its protagonist?
I have to admit that in an attempt to explore and to better understand my own national identity, I have been turning to works by authors with a background similar to mine, who also came from the Middle East and North Africa region and later migrated to a western country. As for every other book I read, I have attempted to tie them back to their authors’ origins and to separate them to the point where I had two distinct categories in my head: books written by authors with a similar background to mine, and books that aren’t. But the protagonist of Laferrière’s story, much like himself, would disagree with me.
“I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins,” the protagonist says at one point. “Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbour. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot — they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?’ I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.”
Before reading “I am a Japanese Writer,” I had only considered the geographical origin of books but not their final destination — myself as the reader. It is possible to read books with little or no knowledge of their authors and still be able to project our own identities and interpret the story based on our personal experiences. Even when we do know the writers’ backgrounds, we still have the choice to relate to their books regardless of their origins. Works of art, and more specifically literature, can be both national and transnational based on the readers and their perception and interpretation of the works. As readers, it is our experiences that give meaning to what we read. Because of this, we are capable of giving a final home to works by an author like Laferrière who refuses to be labeled Haitian, Canadian nor Haitian-Canadian, as well as by an author who considers himself one hundred percent Japanese, or Egyptian or American. The works we read make up our individual libraries so that even if we were to flip through the same book, we would still have a collection that is as unique as our personal experiences.
Writing is an act that liberates thoughts and ideas for the readers to then be free to analyze, criticize, relate to them or reject them. As a reader, I have been approaching books from a limited perspective, giving nationality and origin great importance in what I read. However, as a writer, I never intended to only write for readers with a similar background as mine. I write to liberate and to share my thoughts and to leave readers with a message or idea for them to form their own libraries. I am now learning to read with the same in mind.
MiC Columnist Mariam Alshourbagy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.