One of the primary components of satire is perhaps a little bit of blasphemy, or at least a healthy degree of ridicule, directed at those things we hold sacred. Whether it’s the family, politicians, religion, culture, etc., much good satire illuminates the more farcical elements of those things that we consider so urgently serious and plays them for laughs.
Race and sexuality, as well as the intersection between the two, is one of those things that we’ve come to consider with urgent seriousness. We probably should. A history of miscegenation laws and lynching in the United States, and here in Canada the consistent targeting of Aboriginal women for rape and violence, just to name two examples, invites scholars as well as us laymen to consider the oppressive tactics used to associate race with particular characteristics and traits that have over time been employed to fuel both denigration and fantasy.
One doesn’t need to look any further than the world of pornography to see the way in which we’ve loaded certain traits onto race, creating a billion dollar industry based on fetishes stemming from race. In a sense, a significant portion of the industry is built upon stereotyping, employing it to craft fantasy and in many cases generalize and denigrate one’s sexuality and race at the same time. In a reflection on race in the porn industry, Wendi Muse writes,
For the most part, however, despite the inclusion of porn uploaded from other parts of the world, racism was rampant in terms of stereotyping and essentialization. In accounting for the hundreds of hung black stallions, bored and docile white MILFs, barely legal, small-chested Asian “girls,” and desperate, sex-hungry Latinas longing for citizenship, I couldn’t help but wonder: if we rid ourselves of race, would porn like this exist? What would we even call racism at that point?
Such are the fusions of race and sexuality that we have consumed, enjoyed, and in many cases internalized, perhaps coming to believe such things about ourselves and in a culture so drenched in these images and ideas, not necessarily limited to hardcore pornography, this becomes the lens through which we view others, reducing individuals to their assigned stereotypes. The consequences are certainly serious and a more serious dialogue concerning racial and sexual stereotypes is not at all a bad thing.
These same notions of race and sexuality are the objects of interest for Dany Laferrière’s wonderfully titled “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.” The novel finds its satirical prowess in taking up the question of race and sexuality and pushing it to its absurd and comical consequences.
The plot, if there is one, centers on a young Haitian man living in Montreal, much like the author himself. He wanders the city looking for food, drink, and sex, and on occasion comes together to ruminate upon these subjects with roomate Bouba, who doesn’t seem to move from his couch, where he reads the Koran and Freud and plays jazz records, a sly nod to the staccato and penchant for sudden but euphoric tangents that permeate Laferrière’s writing. Nothing much else happens, though we sporadically encounter the women in the lives, most notably Mizz Literature, a gentile McGill student, and Mizz Suicide, obsessed with the act but reluctant to carry it through.
The book’s chief triumph is it’s delightfully black (no pun intended) humour, directed both at the aforementioned stereotypes and perhaps also at our sometimes self-righteous obsession with them. The narrator is aware of these things, but does not always necessarily condemn or shy away from them. On certain occasions, he rather revels in his stock as something exotic to these white McGill girls he chases. In a particular passage, the narrator similarly basks in the act of political rebellion that he seems to commit in taking a white woman to bed:
…America loves to fuck exotic. Put black vengeance and white guilt together in the same bed and you had a night to remember. Those blond-haired, pink cheeked girls practically had to be dragged out of the black dormitories. The Big Nigger from Harlem fucked the stuffing out of the girlfriend of the Razor Blade King, the whitest, most arrogant racist on campus. The Big Nigger from Harlem’s head spun at the prospect of sodomizing the the daughter or the slumlord of 125th Street, fucking her for all the repairs her bastard father never made, fornicating for the horrible winter last year when his brother died of TB. The Young White Girl gets off too. It’s the first time anyone’s ever manifested such high-quality hatred towards her. In the sexual act, hatred is more effective than love.
Take notice of a couple of things. First, the prose is simply a delight. The entire short novel (less than 150 pages) moves as rapidly and unpredictably as the narrator’s thought process. Bukowski and Miller are the obvious comparisons, but I also sensed the spirit of Nietzsche throughout as the author drops sweet aphorisms inviting the reader to think for themselves about the logic, or lack thereof, of racial and sexual constructs.
Notice, in addition, that the characters don’t have proper names, but designations. The most resonant theme of this wonderful novel to me is our penchant for seeing “types” in ourselves and others. The Big Nigger from Harlem is just that, embodying some sort of black rage toward the establishment, whereas Mizz Literature is but a McGill WASP, overly sheltered in her privileged upbringing and seeking adventure in bedding the exotic narrator.
Laferrière’s novel is brilliant satire for its skill in ridiculing both stereotypes and our obsession with them. It’s deft satire because it is far from back and white (I swear, none of the puns are intentional), but rather leaves the reader to judge these broader issues on their own. Many, indeed, might be uncomfortable with the fact that the narrator often embraces stereotypes and, at the book’s conclusion, does not necessarily issue an outright condemnation of racial and sexual essentialism, but the main purpose of this book is to entertain and provoke, and it does a masterful job at both, gleefully prodding at deathly serious matters and playing it for brilliant laughs.
I’m not sure I rank Laferriere in the pantheon of great blasphemers like Miller, Bukowski, and Vonnegut, who all truly gutted those things we held sacred, but this book was a short time well spent.
Long story short: You should read this book. It is not one that will be loved by all and some will find it offensive and depraved while others may find nothing more than a graphic romp through the streets of Montreal, but if you’re willing to accept the author’s invitation to consider some broader themes, you’ll leave with a sense of shock, a stock of genuine laughs, and some food for thought. I don’t suppose you can ask for much more.