Dany Laferrière, a Guardian of French, Joins the Académie Française


This article by Rachel Donadio appeared in The New York Times.

He was raised in a small village in Haiti and came of age as a novelist in Montreal, working nights as a janitor after fleeing the Haitian dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, a.k.a. Baby Doc, in 1976. Now, Dany Laferrière has become the first non-French citizen inducted into the Académie Française, the inner sanctum of French letters and august protector of the language.

His induction on Thursday, before an audience including President François Hollande and political leaders of Quebec and Haiti, was seen not only as a great achievement for the writer, whose friends and family filled the atrium of the academy’s home at the Institut de France with a standing ovation, but also for the wider French-speaking world. It also pointed to the academy’s efforts to allow some fresh air into la langue.

“Dany Laferrière embodies the opening up of the French language,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the permanent secretary of the academy. His induction, she said, was an important signal that language trumped nationality. “Homeland is the French language,” she added.

“I feel immense joy,” Mr. Laferrière, 62, a Canadian citizen, said after the ceremony. He wore the signature costume of academicians: a black tailcoat embroidered with green olive branches that in his case a Montreal embroiderer spent 500 hours sewing, and a metal sword specially made by a Haitian sculptor with references to Legba, the Voodoo deity of crossroads.

“I’m immortal, don’t you know — I’ll never die,” Mr. Laferrière added with a wide smile.

The academy members, with an average age around 70, are known as “immortals” and serve for life. There are 40 seats but currently 39 academicians, after the death in February of the Algerian-born novelist Assia Djebar. Other academicians are writers, social scientists, a few politicians and one cardinal.

The elite club was founded in 1635 by Cardinal de Richelieu to help centralize France by unifying its language and grammar. Its mandate now is to safeguard the language and update a major dictionary first published in 1694, culling anachronistic words and introducing new ones, and to advise on usage. The club is generally seen as having a conservative mission, making sure French isn’t polluted by the corrupting encroachment of, say, English.

But in recent years, the academy has started to include writers of different backgrounds with an aim toward keeping French fresh. The Chinese-born writer François Cheng was elected in 2002; the Lebanese-born novelist Amin Maalouf — who delivered a speech in response to Mr. Laferrière’s on Thursday — was elected in 2011; and the British-born poet Michael Edwards, who writes in French, was elected in 2013.

Mr. Laferrière is the second black person elected to the academy; the Senegalese writer and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor was first, in 1983.

Ms. Carrère d’Encausse said she had wanted a new-world writer to take the seat left vacant after the death in 2012 of the Argentine-born novelist Hector Bianciotti. (A renowned scholar of Russia, she herself is one of five women currently in the academy; eight have been elected to date, starting with the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar in 1980.)

The academy meets once a week, on Thursdays. It chooses an honorary word for each new member. Now working on the letter “V,” it selected the word “vaillant,” for Mr. Laferrière, which means brave or courageous, but also resonates in Haiti, where in Voodoo culture a person’s “nom vaillant” is his or her secret name.

Following protocol, Mr. Laferrière wrote a letter to the academy saying he would like to be considered. Months later, in December 2013, he was visiting Haiti when he got the call saying he had been chosen. “I felt the weight of it,” he said in an interview this week. “It wasn’t so important to win, but it was important not to lose.”

“I felt as if I’d scored a goal in the World Cup for Haiti,” he said.

The writer is claimed by both Quebec and Haiti. “It’s a big battle,” he said. At a public event in Paris in March, Mr. Laferrière said, “I don’t just come from Haiti or Quebec; I also come from the books in my library.”

His seat had also been held by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu and Alexandre Dumas fils, the 19th-century scion of a family with black Haitian roots. Dumas, Mr. Laferrière noted, wrote “The Lady of the Camellias,” and his father wrote “The Three Musketeers,” characters “who dared to affront our founder,” Cardinal Richelieu. “As a child, I was on d’Artagnan’s side,” he said in a speech. “Today I’m behind the cardinal. Time plays its tricks.”

Mr. Laferrière’s upward trajectory was marked by tragedy. His father, a sometime politician in Haiti, went into exile. Mr. Laferrière would never see him again alive. At age 23, Mr. Laferrière himself fled to Montreal after the slaying of a colleague at a newspaper.

The author of some 20 novels, he first made a mark in 1985 with a witty, semi-autobiographical novel, “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.” It became a 1990 film.

The book’s success led to a job as a witty television weather forecaster. “I’d say, ‘If you want to know the weather, open the window,’ ” he recounted in the interview.

He still lives in Montreal, visiting Haiti each year, and spent most of the 1990s in Miami.

In his 2009 book “The Enigma of the Return,” he writes of going to New York to seek out his father for the first time since childhood — only to have him refuse to open the door. He later returned to New York for his father’s funeral. A nurse had called to tell him, finding his number in his father’s diary.

Mr. Laferrière was in Haiti when an earthquake struck in January 2010 and wrote about it in his 2011 book “The World Is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haitian Earthquake.”

“There’s great humanity in his books, which touches me a lot,” said René de Obaldia, a playwright who at 96 is the oldest academician, adding that Mr. Laferrière had won over the other members with his vast literary knowledge.

In presenting the honorary sword to Mr. Laferrière at City Hall in Paris this week, Jean d’Ormesson, a novelist and longtime academician, spoke of the writer’s warmth and conviviality, an asset in a club with lifetime memberships. “The academy is like a family,” Mr. d’Ormesson said mischievously, “which means we all hate each other.”

Mr. Laferrière thanked his mother for encouraging his writing. After his election, “She said to me, ‘Grosse affaire,’ ” or “very big deal,” he recalled.

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/arts/international/dany-laferriere-a-guardian-of-french-joins-the-academie-francaise.html?emc=edit_th_20150530&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=41473240

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