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Tyee Books

'The World Is Moving Around Me'

Dany Laferrière was sitting down to lunch in Haiti when the 2010 earthquake hit. More on his new memoir.

By Joel Barde 5 Jan 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Joel Barde recently completed a practicum at The Tyee.

Recently, Haiti again made headlines across the world. Hurricane Sandy and a storm that followed devastated parts of the country late this fall, killing up to 66 people and destroying 90 per cent of its crops. Reports from the UN and a Brazilian think tank predict widespread malnutrition that could affect 1.5 million people.

The 2010 earthquake that killed upwards of 300,000, the cholera that ensued, it's easy to see why some people might call the country cursed.

"But it's not the right word," argues Dany Laferrière in his new memoir about the days following the earthquake, a catastrophe measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. "Especially when you see the energy and dignity displayed by the nation as it faces one of the most difficult tests of our time."

The World is Moving Around Me, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, presents readers with an opportunity to better understand that energy and dignity by seeing the disaster through the eyes of one of Haiti's greatest writers. The book highlights the stoicism and resolve of the victims, and presents Laferrière's thoughtful reflections on the country's past and best way forward.

The Montreal-based novelist and journalist has been a fixture in the Francophone literary world since he published How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired in 1985 and has won numerous prizes for his work. And he happened to be in Port-au-Prince for a colloquium on Haitian literature, sitting down to lunch with an old friend at the Hôtel Karibe, when the earthquake struck.

While Canada's future relationship with Haiti was clouded by reports yesterday that the government is freezing aid funding while it reviews its strategy in the Caribbean country, Laferrière spoke of the need for Haiti's "human reconstruction" when The Tyee spoke to him last month. His responses have been translated from French.

On why he chose to write in the earthquake's wake:

"I started right after the earthquake. I was in the garden of the hotel. I wanted to see if the flowers were still there. And when I discovered that they were, I was totally moved. There's something poetic about it. The flower resisted while the building fell down. I remember the very first thing I wrote in my notebook. I wrote exactly this note: The earthquake attacked what is solid, but protects what is light. 

"I made a decision that if I continue to take notes, that means that literature has importance to me. And after I took notes not because I wanted to take notes, but because was scared. I told myself: If I write I will never die. The narrator never dies."

On what surprised him in the aftermath:

"The rapidity with which normal life restarted. The next day I met an old lady who was selling mangoes. Everyday life had returned. Port-au-Prince has a big population of poor people, and they have to do something survive. And surviving for them was not only about surviving the earthquake -- but also continuing to sell things, little things, in order to feed her family. That completely impressed me. "

On his desire to show a different side of Haiti:

"I didn't want Haiti to become just a spectacle. In my book you can see the people in the countryside of Port-au-Prince -- you can see their courage, their weakness, their wounds. For me, the book is an homage to these exceptional people.

"At first I thought writing this story would be too much. But I told myself, you have to write it because it's an important story. And if you don't, you'll have only the reports of the televisions, which show only the dead and broken houses. 

"I wrote a book about what I lived and what I saw. I think it's important for a Haitian to document the events. My Haitian origins allowed me to know and understand people a little more than foreign journalists who came to the country for their first time."

On the state of the country today:

"I'm not in Haiti. But I know the situation is, as always, extremely difficult. Everything's piling up. There have been military coups. There have been floods. There were hurricanes this year. There's been political instability. And the malnutrition is endemic. The situation has been made worse by the earthquake. But it's been like that in Haiti for a long time." 

On the importance of human reconstruction:

"If people outside the country don't think enough about human reconstruction, which I hope will accompany the physical, material reconstruction, that is a problem. If we reconstruct the city and the people are depressed and desperate, nothing will change.  

"Because we forget: When you have that many deaths, when you have an economic and political system that is unstable, and when you have an unsanitary situation, you have a recipe for civil war. 

"And fortunately, we do not have a civil war in Haiti. We have an energy that is still there. I was just in Port-au-Prince, where I saw people in the streets, painters creating beautiful works on the sides of buildings. The city is not broken, even though the earthquake broke it." 

On the character of Haitians, off and on the island:

"The families are close. They send them money and food every month, whether there is a hurricane or not. Haitians living outside of Haiti assist their family. They send $2 billion in remittance every year. The biggest aid to Haiti comes from Haitians who live outside of Haiti.

"I think this country should be known a bit better. And I hope that if someone reads (the book) they will see the real face of Haitians, which is a face of courage and modesty and pride. And I hope I show that they are completely conscious of the value of others. What I remarked on is that everyone, regardless of his or her background, looked for and helped people. The Haitians are not very good in ordinary situations. But they become extraordinary when the situation calls for it."   [Tyee]

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