The Assay Interview Project: Frédérick Lavoie
February 1, 2021
Born in Chicoutimi, Quebec in 1983, Frédérick Lavoie is a writer and freelance journalist. He is the author of three nonfiction books, including For Want of a Fir Tree: Ukraine Undone (Linda Leith Publishing, 2018). In Avant l’après: Voyages à Cuba avec George Orwell, winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language nonfiction and published in English as Orwell in Cuba: How 1984 Came to Be Published in Castro’s Twilight, he continues his investigation of the many faces of humanity in troubled times.
As a journalist, Lavoie has contributed to many Canadian and European media outlets, reporting from more than thirty countries. Previously based in Moscow and Chicago, he now divides his time between Montréal and Mumbai. Lavoie is currently writing a book on Bangladesh.
About Orwell in Cuba: How 1984 Came to Be Published in Castro’s Twilight : Orwell in Cuba chronicles journalist Frédérick Lavoie’s attempts to unravel the motives behind the mysterious appearance of a new translation of George Orwell’s 1984, formerly taboo in Cuba, just ahead of the country’s twenty-fifth International Book Fair. Lavoie works to make sense of how Cubans feel about the past, present, and future of their island – and how the political regime is adapting, or not, to life in the twenty-first century. His intertwined quests give readers the unique experience of following a suspenseful trail while at the same time becoming increasingly familiar with Cubans’ relationship to the regime and their strategies for coping with the island’s often challenging living conditions.
Jordi Alonso: Your book straddles geographical and cultural boundaries, being simultaneously an account of your trip to Cuba, as well as a meditation on censorship, authoritarianism, the publishing and translation literary industries, and colonialism, among other things. Can you speak to the ways in which you approached and wove together these differing themes?
Frédérick Lavoie: I didn't weave the themes together, but the two narrative threads, one on nowaday's Cuba and my encounters with Cubans, and the other being my investigation to find out the origins of the two Cuban editions of 1984. This was the hardest part – besides the act of writing in itself, which is always a pain. These two narrative threads became a support to develop many themes which I had stumbled on during my research. Upon arrival in Cuba, I didn't have a list of themes I wanted to absolutely cover. I generally prefer to take it the other way around: read, meet people, spend time in a place, observe, take notes, and then figure out what themes impose themselves. This is my way to avoid as much as possible to simply confirm my cognitive biases about what I think I know about a place, a people, a country. Which might be why I took on this vain quest of trying to figure out who was behind the publication of 1984 in Cuba in 2016. Because I felt that this had the potential to lead me to unexpected themes, places and discoveries.
Can you speak to the ways in which your multilingualism influenced the ways you interacted with your sources and influenced your use of differing literary genres?
I speak French, English and Russian fluently, and can manage to understand and be understood in Spanish, and to a lesser extent in Hindi/Urdu. I also have some very basic knowledge of a few other languages. All this to say that languages have played an important role in the way I see the world and interact with it. Sometimes, the relationship we have with someone can depend on the language used to discuss. For example, in Cuba, I conducted many interviews (which I often recorded to then be able to listen to them afterwards) in my broken Spanish. During those interviews, I was definitely missing out a lot and was definitely looking dumb to my interviewee, who could legitimately wonder if I was understanding what (s)he was saying. That said, at times I used these apparent clumsiness and dumbness to ask uncomfortable questions and make them appear as simply naive or based on a misunderstanding. (See the chapter Those Who Know). In other situations, when I conducted interviews in English or in Russian with Cubans, these languages put us on an equal level, as it was for neither of us our mother tongue.
Your title in French, Avant l'Après, Voyages à Cuba avec George Orwell (literally "Before the After, trips to Cuba with George Orwell") situates the book as a travel narrative where Orwell is a main character. How do you see this book intersecting and interacting with travel writing like Orwell's Homage to Catalonia?
I think there is more of a parallel to be made between my previous book Ukraine à fragmentation (For Want of a Fir Tree: Ukraine Undone, LLP, 2018) and Homage to Catalonia. I read Homage to Catalonia while working on Avant l'après, therefore after publishing my book on the war in Ukraine, and I felt very close to Orwell's stance on conflicts. I was fascinated to discover that even though he went to Spain as a combatant and had his own strong political beliefs, he was still able to see the humanity in the fighters and civilians on the other side of the frontline and ideological line. For Avant l'après, I got more inspired by Orwell's short essays, such as “Why I Write,” and especially by The Road to Wigan Pier, his sociological investigation of the living conditions among the working class and coal miners in the industrial north of England. I do identify with Orwell's approach on fieldwork, as I feel he was also going in those places not to confirm something he already knew, but to find out what he couldn't even think about.
In the chapter “La Literatura es muy Peligrosa” written barely 24 hours after receiving an email where you found yourself "at the centre of a diplomatic incident" in the making: a moderator, a pro-Castro individual, threatened to step away from Quebec Day at the book fair you'd traveled to Cuba to attend because you had written an obituary critical of Castro—the time between the events described in that chapter and your writing about those events is nearly contemporaneous. How would you describe the reaction to the publication of this book in Cuba? Any plans to translate it into Spanish?
I need to clarify here: In most of my writing, I use the present tense, but it doesn't mean that I wrote this chapter at that very moment or soon after. I write in the present tense to recreate the atmosphere in which the events took place, allowing myself sometimes flash forwards or flashbacks.
The reactions to my book in Cuba have been mostly nonexistent, or at least, I haven't heard them much. A Cuban translator recently translated a few chapters of the book for Rialta, a webzine based in Mexico, and I can guess that a few Cubans must have read them. But otherwise, I have no idea how it has been received by the few Cuban readers on the island who might have read these excerpts. I received positive comments from Cubans living in Canada, though. There is no complete Spanish translation planned for now, but I really do hope it will be translated one day and maybe even published on the island. As I mention in the book, this would be a very interesting development, because I purposely inserted some words in the book that I know could not be printed by an state run publishing house in Cuba today, so that if ever it is published, it would be a sign that something has shifted.
The Spanish writer Emilio Ortiz wrote that "La literatura es el arma revolucionaria más peligrosa que existe porque es silenciosa" (which translates to "literature is the most dangerous revolutionary weapon that exists because it is silent") and you yourself seem to concur with that opinion, as does Orwell. How do you see your role and the roles of writers and artists in the international struggle for civil liberties and human rights when bending the rules of genre?
Well, I am not sure I would agree with Emilio Ortiz on this. In Avant l'après, one chapter is titled "Literature is not dangerous," and another one "Literature is very dangerous!" (¡La Literatura es Muy Peligrosa!). In the former, I share the hypothesis brought by Fabricio, the Cuban translator of 1984, that the regime might have agreed to the release of 1984 precisely because it didn't seem like it would change much to the Cubans' opinion on their government, and even less would it incite them to try to overthrow it. But then, during the 2017 Havana book fair, a few incidents which I described in that latter chapter showed that authoritarian regimes like the Cuban one are never totally at ease with literature, because it can put into question some dogmas they are trying to preserve in society, whether about political ideology, truth or sex and moral values. Therefore, I prefer not to be too presumptuous about the power of literature. Sometimes, in particular contexts, it can definitely be a powerful tool of social and political change, and it can be seen as a threat by the power in place. But in other cases, despite the power of evocation of a book such as 1984, its influence on a society and its struggles might be at best subtle, and otherwise nonexistent.
Regarding my own role in social and political changes, here's what I say in Avant l'après: "I am under no illusion that my writing will be read by the great decision makers of today or tomorrow, in Cuba or elsewhere. So I doubt that I will be able to have the tiniest influence on the way things will play out. Despite this, like Winston when he writes in his diary while still being certain that it will never be read, I cannot stop myself from trying, at the very least, to paint a portrait of the present, and in the long run, to fashion a better future."
I really enjoyed the moments in the book when the lines between genres were blurred, such as when excerpts of Nineteen Eighty Four are quoted, or the parts of Orwell in Cuba that are presented as a play or a poem. Is there a style or form of literature you would've liked to include in the book that didn't make it into the published version?
The idea of including a play and poems in the book was not premeditated. It came to me while I was writing. I didn't want to restrain myself to a particular genre, but nor would I have wanted to resort to other genres as a simple formalist gesture. The idea of the play came to me when I was trying to imagine how I could talk about those three artists whom I had met separately. I didn't want to dedicate a whole chapter to each of them, which would have been redundant. I realized that these three people – a puppeteer, a comic and a stage director – were all working with performance on a stage. So why not put them on a stage? I asked myself. The important words here are: Why not? Should I not do it because I am supposed to be a creative nonfiction writer? I didn't see a valid reason not to at least try, so I did. Regarding poetry, I had already included a poem in my previous book. But here, I decided to go further and write a whole long chapter (and a shorter one) in the form of a poem. It particularly made sense since I was profiling a poet, but most importantly, I just felt inspired to do it. Moreover, unlike the chapter in the form of a play, which had fictionalized parts (of which I warned the reader), by resorting to poetry, I was remaining in the realm of nonfiction. But to answer the question, no, I didn't explore other literary genres that weren't included in the book. I had some hesitation about the play, and so did my publishers, but when we played around with the order of the chapters and I wrote a short introduction to give a bit of a context to it, we all agreed it was working fine.
Writing during a time when we have limited human contact can feel like a way to remain connected to communities. What are some books, albums, or other works of art you'd recommend to the readers of this interview that have gotten you through the year so far?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have bought many more books than I could read, even though I am quite a heavy and eclectic reader, in French and in English mostly. In early March, while in France trying to figure out whether I should fly back to Canada earlier or stay where I am, I read – like many people – Camus' The Plague for the first time. It has proven quite insightful and has helped me understand what a society goes through in times of pandemic. Among my favorite readings in English since then were Hisham Matar's The Return and Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place. One thing I started to do during the lockdown also is to re-read some books I had read some time ago and loved, such as Teju Cole's Open City and W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn.
Jordi Alonso is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri studying English, Classics, and the cultural translation of nymphs and fauns in anglophone literature of the long nineteenth century. Jordi’s first book, a collection of erotic poems inspired by Sappho, Honeyvoiced, was published by XOXOX Press in November of 2014. His chapbook, The Lovers' Phrasebook was published in 2017 by Red Flag Press. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Noble/Gas Qtrly, The Southampton Review, Levure Littéraire, and other journals.
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