FOOD: Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning: A Science-Based How-To

Chemistry of

Cast Iron Seasoning:

A Science-Based How-To

The post after this one on “black rust” describes why you should heat the pan before applying oil for seasoning. This helps the seasoning to adhere and makes the pan pleasantly black.

In a previous post, I illustrated how I cleaned and reseasoned an antique cast iron popover pan. This was my first attempt, and my seasoning technique was somewhat haphazard because I couldn’t find consistent, science-based advice. I used a combination of organic avocado oil and strained drippings from organic bacon. This worked pretty well on the popover pan, which doesn’t have a polished surface. But the smooth inner surface of a skillet showed an unevenness of color and texture, and the seasoning wasn’t hard enough. It was too easily marred by cooking utensils or scraping against oven racks.

I wanted to understand the chemistry behind seasoning so I’d know how to fix this, but there is nothing that addresses this issue directly. A Web page on cast iron posted by someone similarly obsessed with the science gave me two crucial clues, the phrases “polymerized fat” and “drying oil”. From there I was able to find the relevant scientific literature and put the pieces together.

The pictures below are both of the same antique cast iron skillet. The “before” close-up on the left is from a picture of the skillet in my previous blog post on making German Pancakes. I stripped the pan with oven cleaner and reseasoned it based on my new understanding. The “after” close-up on the right shows the result.

Griswold skillet closeups: old seasoning on left, new seasoning on right

Griswold skillet closeups: old seasoning on left, new seasoning on right


Start With the Right Oil (It’s Not What You Think)

I’ve read dozens of Web pages on how to season cast iron, and there is no consensus in the advice. Some say vegetable oils leave a sticky surface and to only use lard. Some say animal fat gives a surface that is too soft and to only use vegetable oils. Some say corn oil is the only fat to use, or Crisco, or olive oil. Some recommend bacon drippings since lard is no longer readily available. Some say you must use a saturated fat – that is, a fat that is solid at room temperature, whether it’s animal or vegetable (palm oil, coconut oil, Crisco, lard). Some say never use butter. Some say butter is fine. Some swear by Pam (spray-on canola oil with additives). Some say the additives in Pam leave a residue at high temperatures and pure canola oil is best. Some say it doesn’t matter what oil you use.

They are all wrong. It does matter what oil you use, and the oil that gives the best results is not in this list. So what is it? Here are some hints: What oil do artists mix with pigment for a high quality oil paint that dries hard and glassy on the canvas? What oil is commonly used by woodturners to give their sculptures a protective, soft-sheen finish? It’s the same oil. Now what is the food-grade equivalent of this oil?

The oil used by artists and woodturners is linseed oil. The food-grade equivalent is called flaxseed oil. This oil is ideal for seasoning cast iron for the same reason it’s an ideal base for oil paint and wood finishes. It’s a “drying oil”, which means it can transform into a hard, tough film. This doesn’t happen through “drying” in the sense of losing moisture through evaporation. The term is actually a misnomer. The transformation is through a chemical process called “polymerization”.

The seasoning on cast iron is formed by fat polymerization, fat polymerization is maximized with a drying oil, and flaxseed oil is the only drying oil that’s edible. From that I deduced that flaxseed oil would be the ideal oil for seasoning cast iron.

As a reality check of this theory, I googled “season cast iron with flaxseed oil” to see what came up. The very first hit is a page written by a guy who seasons his cast iron cookware with linseed oil from the hardware store because it gives the hardest surface of anything he’s tried. (I’m not sure how safe that is; I don’t recommend it.) Below that were several sites selling traditional cast iron cookware from China, which they advertise as being “preseasoned with high quality flax oil”. I don’t know whether they really use food-grade flaxseed oil (which is expensive) or linseed oil from a hardware store. What’s significant is the claim. Seasoning with high quality flaxseed oil is something to brag about.

With this encouragement, I stripped one of my skillets and reseasoned it with flaxseed oil. As you can see in the picture above, the result was a dramatic improvement. The finish is smooth, hard, and evenly colored.

Seasoning Is Not Cooking: Different Principles Apply

The first time I seasoned a pan I chose avocado oil because it’s monounsaturated and doesn’t easily go rancid. It also has the highest smoke point of any edible oil, 520°F, so I could heat it in a 450°F oven without passing the smoke point. I knew that when cooking, you should never heat an oil past its smoke point because that causes the release of “free radicals”, which are carcinogenic. I was careful not to choose a polyunsaturated oil – and especially not an oil high in omega-3 fatty acids – because these are especially vulnerable to breakdown with heat and the release of free radicals.

Ironically, it’s for exactly these reasons that the best oil for seasoning cast iron is an oil high in omega-3 fatty acids – in particular, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Free radicals are actually what enable the polymerization. Drying oils, which produce the hardest polymers, are characterized by high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially the omega-3 fatty acid ALA.

The lard that was traditionally used for seasoning 100 years ago was much higher in ALA than fat from pigs today, because back then pigs ate their natural diet. Today they are raised on industrial feedlots and forced to eat grain, making their fat low in omega-3s.

Since lard is traditional but no longer readily available, many people substitute bacon drippings, but this is a bad idea. If it’s conventional bacon, you’re baking in carcinogenic nitrates. But even organic bacon is not good for an initial seasoning because it’s filled with salt.

The reason that Pam seems to work well in seasoning is that its main ingredient is canola oil, which is relatively high in ALA (10%), making it a “semi-drying oil”. Flaxseed oil, a drying oil, is 57% ALA. But it’s not a good idea to use a spray oil, no matter what oil it’s made with, because of its additives. You’re doing chemistry here. If you want good results, use pure ingredients.

Fat polymerization can be triggered or accelerated in a variety of ways. As best I can tell from my reading, the cast iron seasoning process is an example of “radical polymerization”. The process is initiated when something causes the release of free radicals in the oil. The free radicals then “crosslink” to form the tough, hard film you see in a well-seasoned pan.

So what is the “something” that initiates the release of free radicals in fat? Iron, for one thing. High heat, light, and oxygen, for some others. To prevent cooking oils from going rancid – i.e., breaking down and releasing free radicals – you need to store them in dark, tightly sealed containers in a cool location. To initiate or accelerate the release of free radicals, put the oil in contact with bare iron and heat it above its smoke point, which will cause even non-drying oils to release free radicals.

I haven’t defined “free radical” or “crosslink” because that gets into details of chemistry that you don’t need to understand to season a cast iron pan. All you need to know is that the molecular structure of the oil changes and becomes something else, something tough and solid. The process is initiated with the release of free radicals, which then become crosslinked, creating a hard surface.

Free radicals are carcinogenic inside your body, and also a cause of aging. So don’t ever heat oil you’re going to eat above its smoke point. If the oil starts to smoke, toss it out and start again. When you’re seasoning a pan, you’re not cooking food. By the time the seasoned pan comes out of the oven, there are no more free radicals.

The Recipe for Perfect Cast Iron Seasoning

The basic idea is this: Smear a food-grade drying oil onto a cast iron pan, and then bake it above the oil’s smoke point. This will initiate the release of free radicals and polymerization. The more drying the oil, the harder the polymer. So start with the right oil.

Go to your local health food store or organic grocery and buy a bottle of flaxseed oil. It’s sold as an omega-3 supplement and it’s in the refrigeration section because it goes rancid so easily. Check the expiration date to make sure it’s not already rancid. Buy an organic flaxseed oil. You don’t want to burn toxic chemicals into your cookware to leach out forever more. It’s a fairly expensive oil. I paid $17 for a 17 ounce bottle of cold-pressed, unrefined, organic flaxseed oil. As it says on the bottle, shake it before you use it.

Strip your pan down to the iron using the techniques I describe in my popover post. Heat the pan in a 200°F oven to be sure it’s bone dry and to open the pores of the iron a little. Then put it on a paper towel, pour a little flaxseed oil on it (don’t forget to shake the bottle), and rub the oil all over the pan with your hands, making sure to get into every nook and cranny. Your hands and the pan will be nice and oily.

Now rub it all off. Yup – all. All. Rub it off with paper towels or a cotton cloth until it looks like there is nothing left on the surface. There actually is oil left on the surface, it’s just very thin. The pan should look dry, not glistening with oil. Put the pan upside down in a cold oven. Most instructions say to put aluminum foil under it to catch any drips, but if your oil coating is as thin as it should be, there won’t be any drips.

Turn the oven to a baking temperature of 500°F (or as high as your oven goes – mine only goes to 450°F) and let the pan preheat with the oven. When it reaches temperature, set the timer for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven but do not open the oven door. Let it cool off with the pan inside for two hours, at which point it’s cool enough to handle.

The pan will come out of the oven a little darker, but matte in texture – not the semi-gloss you’re aiming for. It needs more coats. In fact, it needs at least six coats. So again rub on the oil, wipe it off, put it in the cold oven, let it preheat, bake for an hour, and let it cool in the oven for two hours. The picture above was taken after six coats of seasoning. At that point it starts to develop a bit of a sheen and the pan is ready for use.

If you try this, you will be tempted to use a thicker coat of oil to speed up the process. Don’t do it. It just gets you an uneven surface – or worse, baked on drips. Been there, done that. You can’t speed up the process. If you try, you’ll mess up the pan and have to start over.

The reason for the very hot oven is to be sure the temperature is above the oil’s smoke point, and to maximally accelerate the release of free radicals. Unrefined flaxseed oil actually has the lowest smoke point of any oil (see this table). But the higher the temperature the more it will smoke, and that’s good for seasoning (though bad for eating – do not let oils smoke during cooking).

I mentioned earlier there’s a myth floating around that vegetable oils leave a sticky residue. If the pan comes out of the oven sticky, the cause is one of three things:

  • You put the oil on too thick.

  • Your oven temperature was too low.

  • Your baking time was too short.

It’s possible to use a suboptimal oil for seasoning, like Crisco or bacon drippings, and still end up with a usable pan. Many (most) people do this. But the seasoning will be relatively soft, not as nonstick, and will tend to wear off. If you want the hardest, slickest seasoning possible, use the right oil: flaxseed oil.


HISTORY: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research - Episodes > History Engine

First Recorded Sit-In.

On March 27, 1867, after the end of the Freedmen's meeting in Charleston, a group of African-Americans decided to test their right to ride on the Charleston Street Cars. The Streetcar Company's rules denied them this right. At 5 o'clock two to five men entered a streetcar on the King Street line, and sat among the white customers. Conductor Rivers endeavoured to explain the rules of the company and that he had the right to forcibly remove them, yet the men did not move. Rivers called the police, but they also failed to remove the men. A large group of African-Americans gathered and attempted to push the car forward while threatening the conductor and police with sticks and physical violence. The police ordered the driver to continue, and drove the protesters to the Guard house where they were arrested and removed the men. The police had to call the military to disperse the crowd.

Other African-Americans held protests at the same time. In response one driver removed his horses from the car and left the streetcar. When other groups of African-Americans were denied access to the cars by conductors they proceeded to disrupt the route by placing stones on the line. Further protests occurred on April 2, 1867 in which two policemen were severely beaten by two African-Americans.

As a result of these protests, the police of Charleston arrested a total of eleven men on the charge of inciting a riot. The military restored order in Charleston, but African-Americans then used legal litigation to gain their full rights. By May, 1867 African-Americans rode in the streetcars. By June, Commander Sickles banned discrimination of railroads, horse-cars and steamboats.



VIDEO: 'Walk On By' Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble & Zap Mama » SOULBOUNCE-COM


Don't 'Walk On By'

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson

Ensemble & Zap Mama

Three months ago it seems we missed some serious soul serenading going down in Los Angeles as the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble brought together a handful of soul music's elite in order to pay homage to one of music's most prolific eras. Veterans such as Sly Stone, George Clinton, Leon Ware and Shuggie Otis made appearances along with current soul disciples Zap Mama and Alice Russell to put on That 70's Soul at the Mayan Theatre, and from the looks of things we missed out on this one-of-a-kind night. Sparks really flew when Marie Daulne of Zap Mama closed out the evening with a vocalizing throwdown of Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By." Mostly following the blueprint of Issac Hayes' classic cover, the band and Daulne meld together and go for a part jam session, part soul stir, and they pretty much nail it, sounding just as expansive and raw as Hayes' version. Coincidentally I've been cocooning myself in a lot of '70's music this week, so taking in this rendition is fitting to feed my current listening obsession. So do like me and take about 12 minutes out of your day to let the righteous soul sink in by pressing play. To further the experience, you can download the live set for just an e-mail address from the ArtDontSleep website.


Isaac Hayes "Walk On By"




VIDEO: George Duke > Daughters of Dilla


Dukey Stick (in the studio 1978) w/- Sheila E


An all star line up, jammin’ in the studio. George Duke - Dukey Stick.

Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson - guitar
Byron Miller - bass
Sheila E - drums/percussion
Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler - drums
Napoleon ‘Nappie’ Murphy Brock - sax, vocals
Josie James, Muffy Hendrix - vocals 

PUB: Call for Entries: The Waheed Samy Award for Excellence in Arabic Writing ($1,000 top prize | worldwide) > Writers Afrika

Call for Entries:

The Waheed Samy Award

for Excellence in Arabic Writing

($1,000 top prize | worldwide)

Deadline: 20 April 2013

The American University in Cairo (AUC) and the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) are happy to announce the launch of The Waheed Samy Award for Excellence in Arabic Writing for advanced learners of Arabic.

This award is established in honor of Dr. Waheed Samy who was member of the Arabic faculty at the University of Michigan, the CASA program, and the Arabic Language Institute at AUC. During his teaching tenure at these institutions, Dr. Samy placed much focus on teaching writing and authored Arabic Writing for Style: al-Kitaba wa-l-uslub (1999) as a resource for prospective writers of Arabic. Dr. Samy passed away unexpectedly in February 2012 causing the field of Arabic to lose a teacher of great talents and remarkable commitment and devotion. It is our hope that this award will help commemorate Dr. Samy’s memory and enhance the position of writing as a main ingredient of Arabic learning.

The award will be presented annually to a student of Arabic as a Foreign/Second Language who has distinguished herself/himself in the area of writing. Competition for the award will be open to students in Arabic programs in the US and abroad. Recipient of the award will receive $1,000 dollars and a commemorative plaque in recognition of their outstanding achievement in Arabic writing.

We invite all students of Arabic at the higher levels of proficiency to apply and we call upon teachers of Arabic worldwide to encourage their students to apply.


  • Applicant must be enrolled in a regular academic program or an Arabic language program.

  • Applicant must possess a minimum of Advanced-High (2+) proficiency or higher.

  • Applicant needs to submit 3 representative samples of their writing. Each sample needs to be between 400 and 2500 words. Essays in different genres of writing (narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.) are highly encouraged to demonstrate breadth of writing abilities.

  • Applicant will be required to sit for a proctored writing activity in which s/he will be asked to choose one of two topics and write about it. The writing activity will last about 2.5 hours and will be held at the applicant's home institution May 3rd, 2013.

  • A letter of endoresment from an Arabic teacher familiar with the student's writing needs to be sent to the committee using the using the following email address:

To apply to the contest, download the attached application form (below), complete and send to the following email address:

Please send your zip portfolio and teacher endorsement to same above email address with "writing portfolio of ( name here) in subject blank area.

  • An Application form is attached to this page (below).

  • Applicants can download the application form, fill them out and then send them to the .

  • A letter of endorsement from an Arabic teacher familiar with the student’s writing needs to be sent to the committee using the e-mail indicated above.

  • Deadline for submitting applications and writing samples is April 20, 2013

  • Sit in writing activity (to be held at the applicant's home institution) is May 3, 2013

  • Award winner will be announced by June 30, 2013

  • Award will be presented in October 2013 at the MESA conference in New Orleans.

Download: application form


For queries: Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal at

For submissions:




PUB: Call for Entries: Moroccan Association of Friends of English Creative Writing Competition > Writers Afrika

Call for Entries:

Moroccan Association

of Friends of English

Creative Writing Competition

Deadline: 1 June 2013

The Moroccan Association of Friends of English (MAFE) has launched the call for participation in the 3rd edition of the National Competition of Creative Writing in English which will start receiving participations from March 22nd till June 1st, 2013.

The competition conditions are:

  • Age: 18-30 years old.

  • Participants must be non-native speakers of English either Moroccans or residing in Morocco.

  • Submissions must NOT exceed: 2000 words for short stories and 50 lines for poems.

  • Submissions must NOT be published anywhere (not having appeared in print and/or on any web site)

  • Participants can participate either with one short story OR one poem.

  • Submissions must be sent to this email:


For queries/ submissions:




PUB: Call for Papers: Queered Africa Panel (SAMLA Convention, Georgia) > Writers Afrika

Call for Papers:

Queered Africa Panel

(SAMLA Convention, Georgia)

Sylvia Tamale's recent anthology "African Sexualities: A Reader" encompasses various critical and creative attitudes towards and questions regarding non-normative sexualities throughout Africa. Using Tamale's work as a heuristic, this panel will focus on "queer" sexualities within Africa and throughout the diaspora.

Papers can focus on the development of navigating sexualities throughout the diaspora, the emergence of African LGBTI communities and their representation within literature, film, as well as other art forms, sexualities and nation states, the usage of queer theory within an African context, among other questions of sexualities and the diaspora. This panel is open to various art forms and their expressions of sexualities.


For queries/ submissions: Matthew Durkin at




VIDEO: 13 Months of Sunshine > Dynamic Africa


13 Months of Sunshine*

the story of an Ethiopian man who marries a woman so she can get a green card and become a citizen of the United States. In exchange, her family pays him $20,000, enough to open up his own dream business—an authentic Ethiopian coffee house.

During the year-long naturalization process, they must learn to live with each other, finding that the marriage of convenience becomes complicated through love, jealousy, and the clash of cultural values each must face in following their dreams.

Hanna is a beautiful Ethiopian girl who is quickly drawn into the world of fashion. Meeting Morris Benton, a fashion agent specializing in Ethiopian models, Hanna learns that the world of modeling forces her to question her traditional values in the face of pressure to conform to American standards.

The call of coffee, of fashion, and the unspoken desires of each character all collide in a colorful, comedic, and heartwarming tale that speaks both to the immigrant spirit and to the American dream. As Solomon and Hanna draw closer together they discover that life is filled with things that complicate and confuse them, and they must decide what is important. via

*Pt. 1, pt.2, pt. 3, pt. 4, pt. 5, pt. 6, pt. 7, pt. 8


MEDIA: The Dutch Media’s Immigrant Photo Drama > BagNews

March 25, 2013

The Dutch Media’s

Immigrant Photo Drama

Even though the Netherlands have been known for their tolerant attitude towards “immigrants”, the last couple of years have seen several debates about the role of those immigrants in Dutch society. Second and third generations immigrants are often accused of not being integrated enough — a public opinion factor that, not unlike elsewhere in Europe, has added to the rise of several right-wing parties. Some problems are difficult to visualize with photographs. The “problem” with immigrants (in The Netherlands) is one of them. For a while now, I have been fascinated by one picture that is used in all kinds of Dutch news articles.

Especially the Elsevier paper (screen grab below) uses the picture often: in a report on fighting “nuisance” by Moroccan youth in the inner city of Helmond, in a piece about tackling youth crime by the municipality of Amsterdam, in a piece on a remark by Hero Brinkman about Muslims, in a piece about psychological help for dysfunctional Moroccan families, in a report about criminal youth in an Amsterdam neighbourhood and in a blog post by Afshin Elian on criminal behavior among young Moroccans:

Elsevier compleet

The (currently no longer circulating) free newspaper De Pers was charmed by the picture as well. There the image accompanied a report about twelve thousand children whose DNA profiles are kept in database, a report that an imam believes that conversion to Islam can be a solution for many problems of Moroccan “street terrorists”, and a report about homeless youth:

De Pers compleet

But that’s not all. Even the consultancy bureau BMC used the photograph in a report about troublesome youth in Amsterdam:

BMC probleemjongeren

And even then we’re not done. Which photo is on the cover of Fleur Jurgens’s book The Moroccan(s) Drama? Exactly. The photo was taken from a different angle but shows the same situation and the same moment:

Het MArokkanendrama

Now, what are we looking at?

Homeless youth? Criminal Moroccans? Moroccan families who need psychological help? Children whose DNA is kept in a database? Or maybe just Moroccan street terrorists?

It won’t come as a surprise. It’s none of those.

If you look at the pictures closely, you see that some details tell a different story: the barbed wire in the foreground and a part of a barrack in the background.

When I see barbed wire and barracks, I immediately think of concentration or refugee camps. By typing in those words in the database of the ANP photo archive, I found the original photo. After reading the caption I fell off my chair:

ANP MArokkanen

Photo caption: “Some of the group of 350 Moroccan Dutch hide their faces on Monday as they listen to the story of a camp survivor during their visit to Camp Westerbork (a Dutch WWII transit camp used to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews for transport to the Nazi concentration camps – Ed). Little is known about the military role that Moroccans have played during the Second World War or about their contribution to the liberation of the Netherlands.”


So what do we see?

A photo from 2005 showing some of the 350 Moroccan boys visiting the Camp Westerbork. But besides their background, nothing in the picture has anything to do with the news the photo is used for. These are just guys listening to a camp survivor. Even if there has been some “noise” during the visit (see here and here), that’s not what is in the photo. (More photos of the visit can be seen hereherehereherehereherehereherehere and over at the photo agency Hollandse Hoogte.)

Why is this photo being used for so many different stories in which the “immigration problem” seems to play a role?

It remains my speculation but it seems very likely that the editors have an image in their mind when they write a news story. They then search for a picture that matches that image. It is a logical process that I also regularly apply when I search for images to show during a lecture. I then also search for that one photo that best represents the image I have in mind. Chances are that I also occasionally show a picture of something which is not what I think it represents. Everybody makes mistakes.

However from journalists one could expect they also ask themselves the question: what am I looking at? Or at least they should have read the caption that explains what is in the picture. If they would have done so, nobody would ever have published this picture in this context and, above all, this painful misuse of a photo could have been prevented.

– Martijn Kleppe

* Martijn Kleppe works at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and recently defended his dissertation Canonical Iconic Photographs. The role of (press) photographs in Dutch Historiography (Eburon, Delft, 2013). This post originally appeared in Dutch on and in English on Africa is a country.


HAITI: Dany Laferrière - The World is Moving Around Me

The Bones of a Country:

An insight into

Dany Laferrière’s

The World is Moving Around Me

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Tuesday, March 26th, 2013  

The World is Moving Around Me by Haitian writer Dany Laferrière is a memoir of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on 12th January, 2010. The Haitian-born author was one of the writers visiting the country for the “Étonnants voyageurs” international festival of books and film that was due to take place. Laferrière’s account, published on the third anniversary since some 300,000 inhabitants lost their lives in the disaster, combines both sentimental storytelling with literary skill to give the reader an intimate insight into a nation that was shook to its bare bones.

Dany Laferriere’s ‘The World Is Moving Around Me’


On receiving The World is Moving Around Me, I knew exactly what the text was about. I’d read the press release provided with the review copy (with thanks to Arsenal Pulp Press) and scanned the blurb on the back cover (as one does), noting Laferrière’s subtitling of the text, which immediately anchors the subject matter. As such, I did not expect the book to begin as it does: Laferrière leads the reader into a false sense of security; conjuring up a thriving image of Haiti, a country that occupies a third of the island space it shares with the Dominican Republic. The opening section of the text is entitled Life Returns and outlines the country’s return to normality after decades of turmoil, including, as the writer states, ‘family dictatorships, military coups, repeated hurricanes, devastating floods, and random kidnappings’ (13). The author paints an image of a richly cultured place, inhabited by a large (and inexplicable) concentration of writers and artists, with dusty streets where women sell mangos and avocados. In an instant, Laferrière brings our attention to the moment when the earthquake struck Haiti, the minute when ‘The earth started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind’ (15). This brief section, appropriately entitled The Minute, gives the reader a sense of the situation at hand with ‘The low roar of buildings falling to their knees’ (15). It is from these first few sections then, that the reader gets a strong sense of Laferrière’s stylistic devices used in the text.

The World is Moving Around Me is divided into small sections, fragments, if you like, of varying lengths. Very early on, Laferrière tells us that when he travels, he always carries with him two things: his passport and a black notebook: ‘in which I write down everything that crosses my field of vision or my mind’ (15). The fragments then become parts Laferrière’s notebook, where the author tries to make sense of the situation that plays out before his very eyes. Thus, the fragments are reflective of the writer wanting to recall, recollect, and rationalise the world that is moving around him. What is more, the fragments serve to symbolise a nation that is torn apart within the space of a single minute. But Laferrière is skilful with the format of the book, what is seemingly fragmented, functions as a whole: narrative threads are introduced, left and then revisited, characters reappear time and again.

Portrait of Dany Laferriere

What comes to mind as I explore this point is a line from the first section of T.S. Eliot’s popular poem The Waste Land. In ‘The Burial of the Dead’, Eliot describes April as the ‘cruellest month’ and goes onto present a series of images including that of a dead tree, a dry stone and a sun that beats heavy on the parched landscape. In this section, Eliot uses the line ‘A heap of broken images’ – a line which, in fact, I believe serves to illustrate the rationale behind the entire poem. Just as Eliot’s The Waste Land is made up of seemingly disjointed images that work together to create a whole, so too is Laferrière’s memoir. It is this ‘heap of broken images’ – to borrow Eliot’s words – that are held together by the strongest thread of all…culture.

In The World is Moving Around Me, Laferrière asks: ‘what is the value of culture in the face of a disaster?’ to which he concludes, ‘when everything else collapses, culture remains’ (59). Culture, in all its forms, percolates heavily throughout this memoir. The peoples of Haiti are at the forefront of the text. After all, as Laferrière states, it is the people that will breathe life back into the city: ‘The crowd’s appetite for life makes living possible in these dusty streets’ (60). What Laferrière does so well in the text is show those (natural) disasters such as the Haitian earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter scale are a test of humanity. In The World is Moving Around Me, we find Haiti’s peoples standing strong in the face of adversity and as Laferrière puts it, ‘Haiti’s misfortune was not what moved the world: it was the way the Haitian people stood up to misfortune’ (27). The writer shows that the smallest acts of kindness are revolutionary in these times of dyer desperation and as such, gestures like sharing a mango become heart-warmingly sincere moments in this memoir (73). For once then, destruction has eradicated any form of social barriers and everyone ‘moved at the same speed’ (25). It is the people of Haiti that make this text what it is: the writer takes us on a journey; bringing to the fore snippets of people’s lives, narrated with such depth, revealing the turmoil and tragedy of a nation. In this way, the reader is drawn in, living the moments through Laferrière’s notebook scribbles.

In The World is Moving Around Me, Laferrière juxtaposes culture with so called progress. Culture prevails, stands strong in the face of adversity, whereas progress does little more than collapse under the force of natural disasters such as that of the earthquake. Laferrière illustrates this point using a couple of prevalent images in the text. See, for example, the section entitled Projectiles: here Laferrière writes about the country’s move to concrete over the last fifty years or so: ‘The population had joined in an orgy of concrete’ (16). But it is concrete that is the killer compared to the traditional wood and sheet metal houses of Haiti, which ‘stood the test’ (16). Laferrière goes even further to emphasise the uselessness of these so called advances in building materials a little later on in the memoir in a section appropriately called The Concrete Trap. In this moving little extract, we learn of a woman who spent a night talking to her family that was trapped beneath a ton of concrete. Soon her husband stopped responding, followed by two of her three children. Eventually, and after several agonising hours, her remaining child (a small baby) is rescued. In The World is Moving Around Me, it is nature that stays intact compared to the concrete buildings, which fall to their knees: ‘The concrete fell. The flowers survived’ (22). In fact, Laferrière uses the natural fauna of Haiti in another instance, which in my opinion forms the backdrop for the entire text: ‘Not a single branch or flower moved during the forty-three seismic disturbances of that first night’ (16). The tree of life stands strong, the people of Haiti (-who incidentally are later described as ‘A forest of human beings’ 28) also stand strong, and here it seems appropriate to return to a previous quotation, ‘when everything else collapses, culture remains’ (59).

The World is Moving Around Me is a compelling firsthand account with cleverly crafted imagery and skilfully interwoven narrative strands about a country shook to its bare bones, fighting to defeat the shadow of death. The text is available from Arsenal Pulp Press:


Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.



 Dany Laferrière:

a life in books


I began writing after the first tremors. It's not often you see your city falling down in front of you

Dany Laferriere
Dany Laferrière: 'The most subversive thing is to be happy in spite of the dictator.' Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

The Carré Saint-Louis in Montreal, beside a leafy square of graceful Victorian mansions, has few traces of the sleazy bars and strip joints that crowded the junction when Dany Laferrière wrote his debut novel there 30 years ago. In a "rat-hole" of a garrett looking out at the city's iconic hilltop crucifix, the Croix du Mont-Royal, the Haitian exile, then working as an office cleaner, hammered out on a Remington typewriter the book that changed his life. Like his narrator, Laferrière recalls, "I told myself, this is it – my last chance."

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, published in French in Quebec in 1985 and made into a film in 1989, was a slyly incendiary provocation on interracial relations that became a succès de scandale. As his longtime English translator David Homel wrote of the "eroto-satiric" bestseller: "Laferrière's ambiguity, and the difficulty of pinning him down, was one of the reasons the book was so infuriating – and so seductive."

Laferrière marvels at how his first novel filled the bookshop window, and enabled him to eat at the chic Café Cherrier across the street. The week after it was published, he was offered a job as a TV weatherman – an ironic metier for a man from the tropics who was "scared of winter". That "bull's eye", as he later described the book, began a sequence of fictive memoirs, of which The Enigma of the Return, published this month by MacLehose Press in Homel's translation, is the penultimate volume of more than 20 so far. A meditation on exile, loss and "navigating through two worlds", it won the 2009 Prix Médicis in France and the Grand Prix du Livre in Montreal.

Laferrière, who turns 60 in April, refers to his oeuvre as a whole as "An American Autobiography". It ranges from fiction drawing on his Haitian childhood to field notes from sojourns across north America. Though many books feature a fatherless boy, Fanfan, and his adult incarnations, Laferrière cautions against reading them as memoir. In The Cry of Mad Birds (2000), set in the feverish hours before the narrator flees into exile, the 29-year dictatorships of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier are condensed into a single night. Also a screenwriter, Laferrière adapted three of his stories into the film Heading South(2005), set in Haiti in the 1970s, in which Charlotte Rampling played an ageing American sex tourist vying for a local youth who falls foul of the dictatorship.

Laferrière was back in Haiti for a literary festival in the capital Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck on 12 January 2010, killing tens of thousands and reducing the city to rubble. He was waiting for lobster in a hotel restaurant, and began scribbling "15 minutes after the first tremors," he says in French. "It's not often you see your city falling down in front of your eyes. People are screaming in pain all around you. Children are running in the streets. Some people start talking about the end of the world. But writing, for me, was as important as taking care of the injured." Though he believes the great novel of the Haitian dictatorship was Graham Greene's The Comedians (1966), he says, "I didn't want it to be an American or British writer bearing witness, because they'd see the dead, but not know how they were when they were alive." He adds: "It's not all authors who get a chance to test literature and their relationship to it. I no longer ask myself if it has any use."

The World Is Moving Around Me (2011) came out in translation in Vancouver, on the third anniversary of the disaster. When the book was published in Haiti, where he waives his royalties, allowing local publishers to sell his books "for the price of the paper", his signing in Port-au-Prince lasted 12 hours. "These were very poor people, who recognised themselves in the book. It touched everybody."

There are snaking queues for Laferrière in Montreal too, where we met at the thriving French-language book fair, the annual Salon du Livre. For him, moving between the two biggest French-speaking populations in the Americas was a revelation. French, he says, was the "language imposed on Haitians, whereas it's what Quebecers want to preserve as the core of their identity … It showed it's not the language that's the problem. That freed me in my own relationship to French."

The Enigma of the Return moves fluidly between free verse and prose, partly in homage to the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire. It begins in 2009 as the narrator, Windsor Laferrière Jr (the author's real name), receives a phone call about his father's death in a Brooklyn hospital. Windsor had moved from one island, Hispaniola, to another in the St Lawrence river ("We always forget that Montreal is an island"), from fire to ice. As he journeys to New York, then Haiti, the book reflects on the father "whose absence shaped me," and how both their lives were rent by the Duvaliers, father and son.

The novel is "not only my return, but the return of all those who had to leave because of the dictatorship; those who could return only in their dreams; and those who hope their children will return in their stead. Many people had to leave – those who opposed the Duvaliers and, after the dictatorship, those who were for them. I don't deal with the reasons, but the fact of being away." In his books, "almost all details and anecdotes are true. But what's important is to communicate what I felt at the time, and what I feel as I'm writing. Writing, for me, is the layering of these two emotions."

His own father didn't really interest him in real life. "He was the most important person in my mother's life, but he left when I was too young. I was brought up by seven women: my mother, her mother, and five aunts. I didn't feel I was missing anything. But I thought it was important to dig into this emotion, because many people in the same position as me had an absent father." The true exile, he says, is the "one who stays behind, with the absence of those they love".

He was born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, where his father became city mayor, a trade minister under François Duvalier, and ambassador to Italy and Argentina. But his growing dissent forced him into exile when his son was four. Dany was sent to live with his grandmother Da, who "interpreted dreams", in Petit-Goâve, by the sea. He was 10 when he returned to the capital, where his mother "always took me to school, even on days of strikes or political trouble on the streets". He once wrote that "Only women have counted for me." His father "fought against the dictatorship and lost," he says, but those who outlive the dictator "need a country afterwards, and it's women who ensure that". His mother, now in her 80s, is in all his books. "Sometimes I put words in her mouth she never said, but I only make her say things she thinks," he grins.

As a journalist in the early 1970s, in a "little group that bared its teeth to power", he focused on culture. "When you talk politics, the dictator's central: you're for him or against him. But I fought against the dictatorship by trying to prevent it from being the centre of my life. The most subversive thing is to be happy in spite of the dictator." An Aroma of Coffee (1991) drew warmly on his rural childhood, and in its coming-of-age sequel, Dining with the Dictator, Fanfan hides from the tyrant's "sharks in dark glasses", the Tonton Macoutes, under their very noses, safe in a house where "Papa" keeps his girlfriends. In the "terrible 70s" under Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled till 1986, "we didn't have the feeling we were in our own country, so all you think about is leaving. You can't be useful like that." When his colleague Gasner Raymond was murdered on a beach by the Tonton Macoutes in 1976, Laferrière fled. He went to Montreal, aged 23, because a benefactor had read of his story in a newspaper, and was "touched by it. She sent a letter of invitation and a plane ticket. I left without thinking I was leaving."

Working till 6am as a cleaner, he would fall asleep in courses at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Yet he sees his debut as the "first book to describe contemporary Montreal with an almost pagan happiness. Other Quebecois writers don't like Montreal. They're from provincial towns or outlying cities. But for me it was where I found happiness: I could sit with a glass of wine, walk around at night, go to a museum, meet girls, have a room of one's own – like Virginia Woolf. This was total freedom." Of its less welcoming face, he once wrote, "I wanted to use the old insults until they became so familiar they lost their sting." He says now, "my wife used to tell me, 'Don't be so ironic, people will get angry.' But that's exactly what I wanted."

He met his wife, Maggie, who is also from Port-au-Prince, on a brief visit to Haiti in 1978. She was a volunteer nurse, but lived in New York, where their eldest daughter was born in 1980. At first, "we couldn't be together because of problems with papers, and I had no income". But she gave up her nursing job to move to Montreal in 1982, where they had two more daughters. Partly driven by the climate, they moved to Miami's Little Haiti in 1990, where Laferrière wrote 10 books in 12 years, returning to Montreal in 2002. "In Miami I understood I wasn't only Haitian; I had a northern man inside. I've become a great apostle of the cold."

For him, "a writer's country is their first library". In his satirical take on national identity, I Am a Japanese Writer (2008), he paid homage to the poet Basho. "I often write with a guide, a pilot fish," he says, admiring the "five Bs: Borges, Baldwin, Basho, Bulgakov and Bukovsky."

It was not until he came north "that I realised how insular people could be". Haiti's history has, he believes, fuelled a cultural openness. "Lincoln is the hero of America's war against slavery. But slavery was abolished in Haiti through the slaves themselves. Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture taught themselves to read – they were called stealers of the alphabet. It was the greatest revolution of all time. In others in France or Russia, a bourgeoisie replaced an aristocracy. In Haiti, for the first time, the slaves who were chattels under Napoleonic law revolted, and freed a country in the face of the largest army in Europe." The quake's destruction of the presidential palace in 2010 shocked everyone, he argues, because "people never identified the palace with the dictatorship. For all social classes it symbolised that we are a true country. Our houses are small, but there's this great public space."

Returning to Montreal after the quake, he determined to correct lazy misconceptions – that Haiti was "cursed", or overrun by looting. "I heard an AFP [agency] journalist say, 'This morning I saw my first looter.' It seems to me that a single looter doesn't exist. For looting you need looters." He is as scathing about NGOs ("lay missionaries"): rather than focusing on why so little progress has been made, "Why not ask where we are with the human reconstruction? Are there psychological traumas? No, the death of Princess Diana caused more emotional distress. Whatever is down to NGOs, foreign governments and the Haitian state is not going well. But everything that depended on the Haitian people themselves is fine."

Moving to Quebec, Laferrière says, made him realise the value of Haiti's independence. "It's interesting coming to a land of white people where everyone complains about being crushed by English colonists. Haiti has nothing but its independence, whereas Quebec has everything but its independence. Rich people here say they have only a morsel of bread; whereas Haitians all believe they own a bakery. Imagine the poorest country in the western hemisphere, repeatedly hit by catastrophes, whose people think it's the centre of the universe. Nothing can replace that psychological liberty. It's no small thing, this freedom of the mind."