On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: “I am a Japanese writer”

From Dany Laferrière’s novel I Am a Japanese Writer:

The space police help identify you (Where do you come from?). Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn’t necessarily make me a Caribbean writer. Why do people always want to mix things up? Actually, I don’t feel any more Caribbean than Proust […]

As a teenager, I came across one of [Yukio Mishima’s] novels at the back of some old cupboard along with a bottle of rum. I began with a long gulp of liquid fire. Then I opened the book (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea) and a swarm of buzzing vowels and consonants flew into my face. They had been waiting forever for a visit. In a case like that, you don’t start classifying. You don’t look that gift horse in the mouth. Mishima’s book didn’t say to itself, “Well, well, here’s a good old Japanese reader.” And I didn’t look for a kindred spirit, recognizable colors or a shared sensibility. I dove into the universe that was set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. […]

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them: Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Césaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot — they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?” I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

(Photo via The National Post)

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