The ultimate insider

Erotic reflections

In two books, a Haitian-born writer continues to ruminate on sexual politics

DONNA NURSE December 26 1994
The ultimate insider

Erotic reflections

In two books, a Haitian-born writer continues to ruminate on sexual politics

DONNA NURSE December 26 1994

Erotic reflections

In two books, a Haitian-born writer continues to ruminate on sexual politics

DONNA NURSE

When Dany Laferriere published his first work in 1985, he deliberately set out to offend. How to Make Love to a Negro (Without Getting Tired) tells the story of two black men in Montreal and their endless sexual encounters with white women. The novel incorporates the standard interracial clichés: black man as stud, white woman as trophy, and a society repulsed by the very idea of their coupling. A hilarious social satire, How to Make Love to a Negro won critical and popular praise. Still, some readers spurned the central premise—that interracial couples share no more than physical pleasure.

In his last novel, An Aroma of Coffee (1993), Laferrière abandoned his facetious stance for a nostalgic recollection of his Haitian childhood. But his two new efforts— both, like Laferrière’s earlier works, translated from French by David Homel and published by Coach House Press—return to an accustomed theme. Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? and Dining with the Dictator differ vastly in style. Yet both pursue a literary preoccupation with sexual politics. Laferrière, now 41, situates Dining with the Dictator in Haiti during the oppressive regime of François Duvalier. It was a brutal era that the author experienced firsthand. His father, Windsor Klébert Laferrière, a mayor and cabinet minister, became an exile after speaking out against the government. Dany himself became a journalist, and he fled to Montreal in 1978 after the secret police—the feared tontons macoutes—murdered a close friend and colleague. Dining with the Dictator continues the story of the young boy in An Aroma of Coffee. Now adolescent, he is on the run after getting into trouble with the tontons macoutes. He finds refuge at Miki’s, a house of streetwise women—more courtesans than prostitutes—who use men and sex for their own ends. Their lifestyle sharply contrasts with the pious existence that the boy shares with his mother and aunts.

Laferrière describes Haiti with a luminosity that writers chiefly reserve for “home.”

Writes the author: “There is no shelter from the sun. The terrible three o’clock sun. It feels as though it’s going to hang there for all eternity.”

The women of Miki’s house, meanwhile, are rendered lovingly and with great respect.

They are a combustible lot, exploding into rages at the slightest provocation. That makes them a source of amusement, yet Laferrière fails to arouse empathy for, or genuine curiosity about, them in the reader. This is a serious weakness in a plot that revolves around the arguments and sexual strategies that swirl through the household. Miki and her friends seem less individuals than a predatory pack. Only rarely is their vulnerability apparent.

In Dining with the Dictator, sexual politics are the politics of survival. It is what guarantees these seductive, unconventional women good food, warm clothes, a satisfying life. It helps them avoid falling victim to a violent masculine code. Conversely, the righteous obedience extracted from “virtuous” women helps facilitate political evil.

Laferrière’s other new release begins when a successful black writer (clearly, the author himself) embarks on a quest to gather impressions of America. Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? is a compilation of observations and interviews, real and imagined. Laferrière, who now lives half the year in Miami, takes this opportunity to meditate on the meaning of success. But as the title indicates, the book also offers a defence of How to Make Love to a Negro and does so with more humility (though less reverence towards sex) than one might expect.

I In Why Must a Black Writer Write About I Sex?, readers—both real and fictional—bom^ bard Laferrière with questions about his z racial politics. When a Nigerian cabdriver ac=> cuses him of racial betrayal, Laferrière offers no apologies. “There must be other writers who can display the treasures of our race,” he says. “But I’m not one of them.” A white woman in love with an African man assails him at a bar. He protests: “I’m just analyzing the clichés.” Most entertaining is a black woman who recurringly materializes out of nowhere, exhorting him to ‘Talk about me,” and adding, “You give too much press to white women.”

The book also includes descriptions of conversations—it is not clear which, if any, actually occurred—with a number of prominent African-American figures, including Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, rapper Ice-T and film-maker Spike Lee, all artists bravely shouldering the black burden. But Laferrière, ever the iconoclast, abhors mass worship and fails to subjugate himself to those figures. “I’d never belong to any group,” he writes. “Groups are a waste of time.” Yet the assertion is not quite true. After all, Laferrière identifies himself as a Black Author— writing about interracial sex as a barometer of social tensions, and about white women as the embodiment of the American dream.

Laferrière grapples gamely with the question posed in Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? He also paints an endearing picture of a hapless author incurring what seems to him unwarranted abuse. The book is an unusual concession from a writer who generally seems eager to tweak sensibilities. It also indicates a desire to exorcise the prurient ghost of his first work. Still, it is hard to imagine Laferrière deciding not to write about sex at all.