"I Am a Japanese Writer" by Dany LaFerrière [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany LaFerrière, translated by David Homel
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
Why This Book Should Win: On one level this is a calmly experimental and defiant novel that dismisses the label “world literature” as a cheap marketing ploy. It’s also a loving reminiscence of formative readings experiences that continue to haunt and fuel the writer’s life.
Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.
Laferrière fled to Montreal from Haiti during the Duvalier regime after some of his fellow journalists were killed. Throughout his career, he’s refused to let race or nationality define him or his work and I Am a Japanese Writer, blends fiction and autobiography as its writer-narrator, also a black writer from Haiti living in Montreal, causes a small international incident after he tells his publisher his new novel, which he has yet to start writing, will be called I Am a Japanese Writer.
I made a case for this potent little novel in my positive review for The National, a book which Laferrière dedicates to “everyone who would like to be someone else.” This phrase is meant somewhat literally, in that it’s directed at book lovers, implying that in Laferrière’s view we read with the silent hope or expectation that at some point we forget our own life and have the chance to feel like someone else.
One of the best aspects of this book is the comforting rhythm and ease with which Laferrière assembles an increasingly madcap plot and various digressions about his writing career, switching perspectives and tone so easily and assuredly that after the first few short chapters it doesn’t matter what aspects are true or completely invented.
The result is a funny yet sharp and experimental novel that meanders with purpose, intercut with memories from the narrator’s early life in Haiti, and riffs on the influence of Basho, Borges, and Baudrillard.
The plot’s fairly simple: pressed for time, the writer throws out a crazy book title to his publisher, who loves it and cuts the writer a check, who leaves the office laughing. Complications follow as the writer tries to research the book, and things get out of hand when a Japanese consul tries to intervene.
But the writer’s joke on his publisher turns out not to be a joke, because he says, “I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” But how can a Haitian writer living in Montreal claim to be Japanese? Eventually, Laferrière gives one form of answer: “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.’”
At another point, he elaborates on this idea: “Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn’t necessarily make me a Caribbean writer . . . Actually, I don’t feel any more Caribbean than Proust, who spent his life in bed. I spent my childhood running. That fluid sense of time still lives in me.”
Writing like this kept me reading and loving this book, wondering about what happens to the self during the time that we read, and what becomes of us later on as we remember and keep reassembling those memories of books we loved.