Dany Laferriere is not a black writer. And, though its cover promises so, nor is his svelte, matte-black volume, “Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?” a novel.
“As I write these words,” Laferriere confides, tone confessional, “I think of Rene Magritte painting a pipe and adding the caption. ‘This is not a pipe.’ ” Traveling this territory, remember, the objects in the mirror are much closer than they appear.
Shuck away expectations. Suspend any shade of disbelief and just what this book is will define itself, soon enough. Unencumbered, free from labels, pigeonholes and market-defining pitches (A race book? Or not a race book?), Laferriere valiantly fights being pinned--and thus left wriggling. Proving in the process, any and all labels extraneous--if not ridiculous. For experience proves this: well-rendered “truths” should hold up in the wash, whether fact fashioned into fiction or fiction flirting with fact.
His collection, (elegantly translated from the French by David Homel) is a conflation of ideas, intents, forms. Within, in his heat to tell the story, Laferriere grabs up genres the way others pick up pens. Searching for an instrument that feels right in his hands. Nestled somewhere in the vague region between journalism and epistolary, Laferriere feels a little too cramped. The answer: a dash of cinema, here; a hastily scrawled mash note there.
The sturdiest thread is a ribbon of road. No mistaking echoes of the classic vagabond novel--romantic, picaresque--in these pages. However, it is how Laferriere, a Haitian in exile since 1978 and former journalist, came to travel across North America that sets up the more intriguing conceit--the exotic other asked by a stateside editor to wax impressionistic about America:
“ ‘Why don’t they get a real American black?’
“African-American if you please. The name changed again.
” . . . Anyway why not one of them?
“Probably because they don’t want the hassle. . . .’ ”
Laferriere accepts the challenge with a little trepidation, putting his toe in one world, then another. America flies by Laferriere’s cloudy train window. It shuffles by outside a barroom door open a crack for air. Wafts up on a humid breeze, a ragged cacophony rising from several stories below his cramped hotel room.
And what filters through? What is America? Big bestsellers without spiritual sweat. Big blondes without contempt. Big parties with no-host bars. It is peopled with casualties, buttressed by survivors.
From race relations in the South to the flash-point of fame American-style; from a rap with Ice Cube to a screaming match with “The Great Black Hope” Spike Lee, Laferriere attempts to explicate America, but mostly for himself--flagging his little postcards with provocative if not incendiary titles: “Why Must a Black Writer Always Have a Political Opinion,” “Why Do Black Writers Prefer Blondes.”
He set the precedent--or set himself up--depending on how one looks at it--with his first book, “How to Make Love to a Negro,” (the incendiary title of his 1985 book for which he still pays penance), in which polemical essays play strange bedfellows with sexual taboos.
Laferriere revels in rearranging the rules, punctuating the deed not simply with a smile--but a seismic laugh he claims is courtesy of the ancestors. Which is why “Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?” feels so intoxicatingly naughty.
Throughout Laferriere’s voice remains singular, arch and edged in cynicism. It is a resonant bellow--a voice sprung free from a figure sprawling on a too-small couch in the shadows, letting fly riddles, axioms, aphorisms, which land where they may. “We used to say that books about blacks were always too nice and too cautious, and since they were smeared with the Vaseline of Judeo-Christian guilt, they’d never get to the heart of the matter. . . . When a black writes one, it’s even worse. ‘In Praise of the Race’ or something like that.” Off the cuff, as if inquiring after the time or weather. No apologies. No polite overtures to clear the mess.
And how does America fare in these eyes?
When Swiss photographer Robert Frank touched down in the ‘50s to record his take on America, he left the aperture wide, the exposure long. The better to record what might stumble out of the murky darkness onto his trap: the emulsion plane. Laferriere has the eye of a Leica, his worn notebooks the darkroom on the fly.
“America is a succession of snapshots,” as are Laferriere’s brief vignettes: a wallet-sized portrait of poet Derek Walcott, greeting the press in his slippers; an 8-by-10 of America’s favorite past time--"Baseball is the American church with the greatest number of faithful.” But, too, America, is a succession of hand-wringing contradictions. The lot, a circus to an outsider.
Laferriere introduces race into these renderings with inherent elegance, and raising that specter intermittently imbues this road trip with a weighty, consequential dimension. This rucksack called race, heavier than anything Kerouac and his cronies would ever shoulder, makes Laferriere’s journey less joy ride than truth sojourn.
However, race politics, and the language conventionally enlisted to discuss them, leave Laferriere cold. The dangers of a life sentenced towing the race-line. The emotional wear-and-tear of filing reports from the vantage of a human being who happens to have black skin. And how insulting to think that race might be the sole thing that defines one. It’s all enough to make his black skin crawl.
“Just about every writer I know is defending one cause or another . . . race, color, religion, community or country. . . . I wanted to step out of line.” In this ring, Laferriere is most courageous. He risks alienating whites, pointing out the racism implicit in their liberal assumptions, while infuriating blacks in his refusal to parrot the rhetoric of the day.
His “conversation” with Spike Lee about who would be a more honest interpreter of Malcolm X --a white man or black man--left them “two screaming men drunk with the need to shout out their truths.”
Laferriere is bored with the stock answer, the easy truths. “Spike’s version didn’t interest me, that, I’d heard it all before, that it was old stuff for me, that his vision of the world didn’t inspire me.” Laferriere assumes the role as devil’s advocate, calling Lee on any revelations he sees as retro or simply empty platitudes about race and responsibility.
And in this gesture, there are shades of James Baldwin, who floats in as a cautionary specter --someone possessing the courage to slip out of fashion--yet who suffered mightily for it. “Forget about racism, it’s not your business,” that sad-eyed spirit warns him. “It’ll burn the heart right out of you. We’re better off leaving racism to the racists.”
Laferriere’s impressive candor and glib dismissal of PC convention, nationalism, liberalism and taboos are the armor. Everyone takes a tongue-lashing, but there is nothing vicious about Laferriere’s prose or point-of-view. It is the hard-to-hear truth. It is crystal clear. It is like the first flash of warm light at the end of a long, dank tunnel.