During the 2018 Spring Convocation, Dany Laferrière received an Honorary Doctorate from the Faculty of Arts. In this article, we revisit his captivating acceptance speech and our discussion with him during an interview held prior to the ceremony. As 2018 graduates prepare for their next steps, there is much to be learned from his wise words and incredible journey. Read this article in French, here.
In praise of boredom, patience, and slowness
On the morning of June 4th, the first graduating cohort of Arts students waited eagerly in anticipation for their convocation ceremony to begin. As this long-awaited moment was about to materialize, a rain storm hit, causing a power failure and an unexpected delay. Faced with this uncontrollable situation, the crowd had nothing to do but wait, not knowing when the issue would be resolved and when the ceremony would proceed.
Always sensitive to his surroundings and present in the moment, Dany Laferrière shared his remarks on the events that unfolded that morning. In his uniquely poetic and humorous style, he reminded us that in these types of situations, we are faced with an "extremely serious" question: "what to do when you cannot do what you want to do?" For Laferrière, the moments that keep us still and waiting are very important in an era when everything pushes us to move at a fast pace, "up against a wall that waits for us on the other side, calm, quiet and motionless." He also pointed out that there was once a time when we enjoyed the rain. "The rain that brings back childhood memories and always brings a smile to my face,” he said. “The rain that discourages urbanites while bringing joy to children and farmers."
Author of over thirty books, Dany Laferrière has become a rock star writer, recognized and known around the world. When asked whether he considers his life a work of art, he answers without hesitation: "Yes, because I have written a lot. And writing a book takes time and concentration. Thirty books represents thirty to forty years of work. I have written enough to say that my blood has turned to ink. Writing is part of my daily routine, it is the thing I have done the most in my life."
This appreciation for routine, patience and slowness is also what attracted Laferrière to L'Académie française. It takes thirty-five to forty years to produce each edition of the academy’s dictionary, "the academy is in no hurry," he said with a smile.
The author of L’art presque perdu de ne rien faire is concerned that our relentless pursuit of novelty and our dependence on new technologies have made us lose our appreciation for boredom. "We sometimes forget that before this technology boom, before our hand was replaced by a device, boredom was once a sweet companion that could bring about pleasant feelings of nostalgia.”
In an interview for Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle, he declared himself ‘le défenseur de la main’ while discussing his most recent book Autoportrait de Paris avec chat written and illustrated entirely by hand. "The hand has a memory that the computer does not have. The memory of everything it has touched. The hand that has caressed a baby's skin, the hand that has felt the bark on a tree, that has experienced the cold for the first time...the hand that shook so many other hands, the hand that has loved, the hand that has refused to shake the hand of another. The hand has lived but we have forgotten it.”
In concluding his speech, Laferrière noted that “it is not boredom that is the problem, but what we are willing to do to avoid it." He reminded students that as the leaders and creators of tomorrow, they must be sensitive, patient and present in the moment. "We must not forget what makes us human, the nature that surrounds us, where we are only simple faces in a vast landscape that existed before us and will continue after us."
The meaning of freedom
Much of Laferrière’s work touches on the concept of freedom. He continually deconstructs stereotypes, creatively escapes labels and categories, and in turn is able to live and work freely. His most recent book includes over three hundred and twenty handwritten pages and drawings. His will and determination to be free also lead him to flee his country under dictatorship. When asked how he defines freedom and what it means to him, Laferrière responded: "I do not try to understand freedom, I live it. For me, it's an extremely simple thing. Those who are free do not think about freedom. You think of freedom only when there is an obstacle in your way."
In his work, Laferrière testifies to the many obstacles he faced along the way. "I am often asked: would I have written the same things had I stayed in Haiti? I don’t think so. It was precisely the prison of Haiti’s dictatorship that made me write Le cri des oiseaux fous." After leaving Haiti, he was confronted with new constraints. "When I arrived in North America, there were other prisons, like racism. I experienced it at the very beginning. Racism is no different from social exclusion and contempt, only that you are perceived as illegitimate much faster, you can be identified from afar. Everyone has an appetite for power, a taste for domination. It is actually a question of class and not of race. I developed certain reflexes in this new prison, when I came out of this identification and gained a kind of legitimacy by becoming a known writer, another obstacle presented itself. The prison of categorization." Categorized as a Haitian or Caribbean writer, this identity struggle is completely different from what he faced in Haiti, but it is still an important battle for him. He wishes to identify himself a writer above all.
According to Laferrière, rather than being something acquired that might be taken away from us, freedom is experienced as a long series of obstacles to be overcome, knowing that with each small victory another battle awaits around the bend. Knowing that the only way forward is to follow this arduous and sinuous path towards an ideal where one simply feels free. Laferrière reminds us that literature remains a valuable tool towards that, a space of total freedom that is created by the words of the book and the imaginary it unfolds.
About the Author
Anaïs Clercq recently graduated from the French Language and Literature Department of McGill University. Her research focused on contemporary literature and autofiction. Her most recent publication is titled "Autofiction et postmodernité : la voix/e d'une subjectivité insaisissable chez Dany Laferrière et Vickie Gendreau".
Translated by Zahra Habib
 Quotes taken from Dany Laferrière at McGill University on June 4, 2018.