in conversation with
Did Léopold Sédar Senghor like dancing in nightclubs?
Did Léon-Gontran Damas smoke cigars?
Did Aimé Césaire favor silk neckties?
The past dozen years have been good to Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who has garnered critical and popular success in France with novels such as Broken Glass and Memoirs of a Porcupine; earlier this year he won the Grand Prix de Littérature Henri Gal (awarded by L’Institut de France by recommendation of the hallowed Académie Française), in recognition of a body of work that includes nine novels, a half-dozen volumes of poetry, and four essay collections; and though his best-selling-author status, charisma, flamboyant personality, and trademark gavroche cap have made Mabanckou a natural media darling and poster boy of French integration-through-writing-in-French, the author is fond of paraphrasing Frantz Fanon and his resistance to the notion of being hemmed in by “the fact of blackness.”
Mabanckou lives in Santa Monica, and teaches at UCLA, but he is often on the road, attending literary festivals and events the world over (his work has been translated into over a dozen languages). Early this year in Port-au-Prince he crossed paths with his old friend Dany Laferrière, the Haitian writer (and former TV weatherman!), whom he has known since the ’90s, when Mabanckou was starting out and Laferrière was already well known. Laferrière, who is a (baker’s) dozen years older than Mabanckou, published his first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, in Canada in 1985. He has since published over twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, and has also enjoyed critical as well as popular success in France, where, in 2009, he was awarded the Prix Médicis for L’Énigme du retour. Though he currently lives in Montreal, Laferrière spent most of the ’90s in Miami, and subsequently wrote with great passion about the United States, going so far as to say that he considers himself American, having lived since 1976 in North America (he returned to Montreal in 2002).
While at the Festival Étonnants Voyageurs in Port-au-Prince, in the early days of February 2012—two years after the horrific earthquake that devastated Haiti, on January 12, 2010—Dany Laferrière and Alain Mabanckou stayed at the Karibe Hotel, a two-tone building nestled in the hills of the city, with gabled roofs, a majestic marble lobby, and an outdoor courtyard lush with foliage. As the two literary friends set up shop in the courtyard’s open-air gazebo, under a shady tangle of cedar, pine, and mango—and throughout their conversation—workmen could be heard rebuilding the partially demolished hotel.
DANY LAFERRIÈRE: If you travel—broadening the scope of your knowledge and experience—and this does not come out in your books, you’ve got to wonder about your stance as a writer, and your vision of literature: is it fixed? Does it contain exclusively literary influences? Are we simply reenacting ancient codes, or are we truly striving to bring movement both to ourselves and to the books we carry within us? It is true that there are writers who travel the world while remaining inert, in the sense that travel doesn’t appear anywhere in their writing. I’m not saying that a novel should be a succession of cities—not at all. But travel is a window onto the world; it’s like letting fresh air into the house, leaving the library behind, freeing ourselves of literary and intellectual references in order to make way for new references, thus introducing into your book the noise of the world. How does this idea fit into your work, Alain?
ALAIN MABANCKOU: I think it’s very important. Travel poses the same question as James Baldwin did when he spoke of “experience,” that is to say: is the novel no more than the sum of the people you’ve met? How does a novelist manage to take into account all the people whose paths he has crossed in the course of his life, to transform them and set the stage, so to speak, to make something happen, with the sound you were mentioning earlier—and the fury, too. And of course there are writers who travel solely through their imagination without ever actually going anywhere. Many of the writers who have written about traveling around the world have never actually done it; some can describe an invented city so well that the reader believes he is visiting a real place. In fact, I have heard tell of certain writers who prefer to write about a city before actually going there, which they do once the writing part is over in order to see if their imagination was truly faithful to the reality of the place, and maybe also to experience firsthand the difference between dream and reality—which is the basis of fiction.