This past spring, Douglas & McIntyre, a Canadian publishing company sent a manuscript by Dany Laferriere to us called I Am a Japanese Writer. The morning my son, Maceo, was born, after he and Eliza were firmly planted in a hospital room and napping, I started to read the book. It’s seductive, playful in a postmodern way, about a black writer – the best titler in America - who pitches his editor on a new novel called I am a Japanese Writer. The editor, smitten with merely the title, accepts the book. All the writer has to do is complete a manuscript. But word of the book has leaked, and the author becomes the object of interest of the Japanese embassy and their tourism board. The writer becomes a pop culture figure in Japan based on nothing more than the title of his new project. It’s about identity, and your relation to the writers whose work you read. Laferriere is drawn repeatedly to the work of Basho, a wandering poet of the Edo period in Japan. It made me wonder how does nationality define us in our hyper-modern times?
So while I was in NYC for the 5 Under 35 party, I stumbled into St. Marks Bookshop and saw where Douglas & McIntyre reissued a previous novel of Laferriere's called How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, which earned the author comparisons to Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, James Baldwin and Charles Bukowski. It is an urgent, ferocious book that tackles head-on the issues of race, class, and social standing in a very unapologetic manner. There are frequent passages that perfectly encapsulate the writer’s condition:
“All you need is a good Remington, no cash and no publisher to believe that the book you’re composing with your gut feelings is the masterpiece that will get you out of your hole. Unfortunately, it never works that way. It takes as much guts to do a good book as a bad one. When you have nothing, you can always hope for genius. But genius has refined tastes. It doesn’t like the dispossessed. And nothing is all I’ve got. I’ll never make it out of here with a so-so manuscript.”
Laferriere was a writer in Haiti during the Duvalier regime. When a journalist he was working on an assignment with was found dead, he fled to Canada. Last year, Laferriere was awarded France's Prix Medicis, alongside Dave Eggers, for his book L'enigma du retour. He is a strong, original voice, well worth a read.