The Notion of Usefulness

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The Universe is Changing Around Me is a memoir, but it’s a story based on a personal experience. This immediately places the speaker, Dany Laferrière, in the role of a witness who owes it to his audience to narrate and reflect on events that are true and historically verifiable. The history behind this book is the cataclysmic earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, killing tens of thousands and displacing hundreds more.
According to Walter J. Ong, “the writer’s audience is still a myth,” yet in a memoir, the author aims to make the audience as genuine as possible when he is concerned with true events. The audience to which Dany Laferrière stands witness is cast as a global one, as he draws upon world experiences to build solidarity with them. He invites them for a communion, for they too have witnessed the same cataclysm as he did in Haiti. To this effect, the parenthesis in the first sentence, “we say January 12 here the way they say September 11 in other places” (Laferrière 146) is a powerfully aesthetic and informative phrase than any other in the passage.

Though the parenthesis is mainly used to separate off information that isn’t essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence, here it is mischievously essential, as removing it would grossly interfere with author/narrator—reader/audience relations. It invites the reader/audience to draw a parallel between the Haitian tragedy and the al-Qaeda attacks in the US. Nature, the 1/12 earthquake in Haiti, is as brutal as the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the US.

The parallel is meant to catch attention of the audience and draw them into a witnessing position as the author of memoir. So whatever Dany Laferrière says after this does not only have the similarity of shared experience, but also the authenticity that comes with it. The Haitian experience has collapsed both the internal and external boundaries. Feeling “Haitian” (Laferrière 146) is an expression of empathy, the humanitarian quality that we feel when disaster strikes. Haiti is no longer a geographical location physically removed from the audience –“things are no longer determined by place any more” (Laferrière 146)—but a melting pot of humanity.

It’s important to note that the author wants to forge a communality of human experience through the Haitian tragedy. Through the use of pronouns, we see him draw the audience into his confidence and make them fellow witnesses. The second person pronoun, “you” and its possessive determiner, “yours” are the most common, recording seven occurrences, followed by the third person plural, “we” and its possessive determiner, “ours” with five occurrences. These statistics are not accidental. The first person singular acts as the author’s voice, the voice of testimony, while the second person singular is an invitation to the audience to witness with him.

In spoken communication (oral literature), the audience is real and is often called upon to participate in the performative event, whether it is a narrative, dance or song. The pronoun, “you” is always the signal for such an invitation. In narratives, it is always a veiled way of telling a story from the first person point of view, a clever way of forging an identity with the reader to make him empathize and sympathize. Outside prose fiction, it is commonly used by journalists and autobiographers.

The ultimate sense of identity is reached with the third person plural pronoun, “we”. It is a pronoun of collective experience, of unity and solidarity.

It is now the time to ask what all this witnessing and solidarity is for beyond the mere occurrence of a natural disaster. Dany Laferrière, through his close association with the readers whom he sees as an audience tries to explain how energy and dignity assist in dealing with disasters. He ensures that the readers are empathetic with the events that took place in Haiti.

Having drawn the readers into the narrative, he also exposes them to his reflections and meditations on the history and predicament of Haiti. Is it desirable to rush with help to a disaster area? What could be the motivation, apart from a feeling of humanity? As he writes, “…a lot of organizations and people are in it for their visibility” (Laferrière 147). He characterizes such people and organizations as “the chaff” (Laferrière 147) who are worse off than the Haitian returnee from Canada who is guided only by emotion and ends up as a beggar.

Dany Laferrière concludes that basing humanity and humanitarianism on emotions is a dangerous game. When the well of “tears” dries up, “when the cameras pull out” (Laferrière 147), the people are worse off, depending on a grudging aid. The last sentence is therefore a fitting call to his audience to rethink this humanity: “The country needs energy, not tears.”

Work Cited

Laferriere, Dany. The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake. Arsenal Pulp, 2013. Print.

Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” JSTOR 90 (1975): 9-21

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