Global literary figures claim multiple loyalties

Paris - When the Academie Francaise, the most august literary institution in France, inducted Dany Laferriere last month, it insisted that the Haitian-Quebecois novelist was the first non-French citizen to enter its ranks. It turns out that is not quite the case. The academy later acknowledged that a handful of others - including Belgium-born Marguerite Yourcenar - had never taken French nationality, although they had been entitled to it.

What the academy was trying to signal in its mistaken announcement about Laferriere was that language trumps nationality. The novelist deserved membership, it argued, for his contribution to French letters, regardless of passport, and his election was a sign of the academy's increasing openness to French literature outside France.

At the same time, Quebec and Haiti rushed to embrace Laferriere in an outpouring of national pride. (He is a Canadian citizen who was born and raised in Haiti and emigrated to Montreal in the 1970s.) That adoration was reminiscent of how V.S. Naipaul - born in Trinidad to Indian parents, Oxford-educated and a British citizen - was claimed by all three countries after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.

Laferriere's induction and the responses it elicited pointed to a curious contradiction: Outsiders - critics, institutions, prize administrators and university course catalogues - often seek to categorise authors by language or nationality, yet so many writers seek citizenship only in the republic of letters. Why the insistence on labels?

For his part, Laferriere insisted that he was shaped as much by "the books in my library" as the countries where he has lived. In a moving speech before the academy last month, he also thanked writers and statesmen Aime Cesaire, who was from Martinique; and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was Senegalese, for paving the way for him to write unself-consciously in French, a language brought to Haiti with French colonial rule.

Sometimes, the choice of language can be a political act, but more often, it is intensely personal. From Joseph Conrad to Samuel Beckett, some writers have found their voices in a language which is not their mother tongue. Czech-born writer Milan Kundera has written in French since moving to Paris in the 1970s; his latest novel, The Festival Of Insignificance, appeared in English translation this month. Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome from New York in 2012 and, in February, publisher Guanda released In Altre Parole, or In Other Words, her first book written in Italian, which she had studied for 20 years. A collection of revealing autobiographical essays, mostly about her experience with Italian language and culture, the book grew out of her diary entries and will appear in English from Knopf next spring, translated by Ann Goldstein.

For Lahiri, who was born in London to Indian parents and raised in Rhode Island, choosing a third language - after the Bengali she spoke with her parents and the English in which she was educated - gave her "a very profound sense of freedom on a variety of levels, not just on a creative level but also on a personal level", she said.

Sometimes, writers come full circle. In his speech to the academy, Laferriere also honoured Argentine-born writer Hector Bionciotti. He spoke of how Bionciotti had been valued as a writer in Argentina only after moving to Paris and becoming a French writer.

And he recalled how, when dying, Bionciotti had reverted to his native Spanish, "the only language in which you could express silence", Laferriere said.

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Global literary figures claim multiple loyalties'. Print Edition | Subscribe