With wit and insight, Dany Laferriere, the Haitian-Canadian novelist, explores national identity and cultural authenticity in his latest book, I Am a Japanese Writer.
Haitian and Canadian novelist Dany Laferriere writes some of the best titles ever. The tongue-in-cheek title of his fifteenth novel, I Am a Japanese Writer, may only be his third best. After all, there’s How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired and Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex.
A great title promises an equally great novel and that’s how I Am a Japanese Writer starts. To secure an advance, the unnamed protagonist (though we are to assume his name is Dany Laferriere) tells his editor that his next novel will be entitled I Am a Japanese Writer, though he’s Haitian-Canadian and he never actually plans to write the book. The title is just a reflection of how the protagonist identifies himself. Though he’s never been to Japan, he loves all that is Japanese. He spends his days reading the poetry of Bashō, pining for a Japanese pop star named Midori, and following around a group of young Japanese party girls with a video camera, ostensibly to film a documentary. To his surprise, the title of his unwritten book causes a media firestorm and makes him (pardon the cliché) big in Japan.
Can a Haitian-Canadian novelist truly be a Japanese writer? The relevance of nationalism in an increasingly international world is the central debate of the book. When Laferriere is on his game, he doesn’t shy away from tackling the complexity of this issue. In this passage, he unapologetically fetishizes Japanese women and then asserts that Japanese women fetishize themselves, and then questions whether cultural authenticity even matters in a global society.
All this, and I’ve never been to Japan. But is that really necessary? I use only the clichés (the myths and photos) you find in women’s magazines. I keep an enormous pile of them by the window. You do research any way you can. I’ve noticed, as I page through the magazines, that Japanese women are obsessed with their eyes. A horizontal line. They’ve been convinced their appearance isn’t chic. But I can spend hours trying to guess what’s being dreamed up behind those half-closed eyelids. A slumbering animal—or one that’s pretending to sleep. I had a crash course with Midori and her gang. They moved effortlessly in front of the camera with no thought for me. Are they real Japanese women? No doubt they’d be spotted right away in Tokyo. That old obsession with authenticity. The fake overtakes the real on the international market. Authenticity is for hicks.
Laferriere’s voice recalls that of the French existentialists or even Kundera. There is very little separation between Laferriere the character and Laferriere the author. As a consequence, the novel feels like a thinly linked collection of whimsical essays, interrupted occasionally by banter-stuffed scenes with cardboard-thin characters. In this scene with his love interest, Midori, he directly (perhaps too directly) addresses the premise of the book.
“Midori, there’s nothing to say. It’s all a misunderstanding. I just said I was going to write a book. They asked me what the title was and I told them. That’s all.”
“And what is the title?”
“’I am a Japanese Writer.’ But that’s only the title.”
“Oh, man! You couldn’t have picked a better time. They’re into this really big identity debate over there, and all of the sudden you come up with a book like that.
“There is no book—that’s what I’ve been trying to explaining to everyone.”
“That doesn’t matter. They’re completely obsessed with identity, I’m telling you.”
“I don’t give a shit about identity.”
“So you say, but then you write a book like that. What does that mean?”
“It means that I did it to get away from the whole business, to show that borders have disappeared. I was tired of cultural nationalism. Who says I can’t be a Japanese writer? No one.”
One might question the wisdom of writing a book that revolves around an identity debate that’s irrelevant to both the author and protagonist. If the author doesn’t care, why should the reader? The more interesting approach would have been to explore the real-life consequences for the characters as the media firestorm escalates. But as the glib title suggests, Laferriere is too light-hearted to fully play out the conceit of his book. Instead, he opts for easy chuckles and wink-wink moments, like when Japanese TV host writes a book named “I am a Japanese TV Host,” or when a transvestite truck driver records a hit song named “I am a Japanese Geisha.”
One gets the feeling that I Am a Japanese Writer could have been many different books: perhaps a drama like The Bonfire of the Vanities. a satire like The Player, or even a Don Quixote-sque absurdist quest. But the book, like Laferriere himself, defies easy categorization.