Laurent Dubois, Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University, was born in Belgium and has lived most of his life in the United States. He is a specialist in the history and cultures of the Atlantic world, specifically Haiti and the Caribbean, and has been a key contributor to literature and research on the politics of soccer. He received his BA from Princeton in 1992 and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1998.
Professor Dubois is a unique addition to the Triangle francophone community because of his Belgian heritage yet primarily anglophone upbringing. His academic interests and personal background intersect to give him unique insights into the rich cultural heritage of French speakers in the Americas. This is his story.
Will Gallagher: Introduce yourself. Where were you born? What do you do now? (0: 00-1: 19)
Lauren Dubois: So I was born in Brussels, Belgium in a francophone family; but I left when I was three weeks old for the United States. We immigrated to Bethesda, Maryland. My parents worked at the National Institute of Health—they were scientists. Therefore, I grew up in the US in a francophone family so we always spoke French at home –that’s how I learned French, given I have always lived in the United States. Here (The U.S.) helped me a lot in my profession. I am a historian and I work a lot in France and the Francophone world but I have never formally studied in France.
Tomas Gimenez: What is the path that led you to Durham? (1: 20-1: 53)
LD: I did a PhD at the University of Michigan and then I found a position as a professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, in the “big north.” And then I was asked to come to Duke in 2006, or in 2007, so I came here to work at Duke in the Romance Studies Department and History. I have been here now for seven years.
Will Gallagher: So why did you choose a career in education, teaching? (1: 54-3: 39)
LD: From the beginning, when I was undergraduate, I did my studies at Princeton. I was already very interested in writing, or more so, in writing non-fiction stories. I thought to maybe work as a journalist, but then at Princeton I was very interested in the same subjects that I pursue now which is the history of the Caribbean – especially Haiti. So it was with intellectual passion that got me interested in these subjects, and then I decided to pursue a doctorate in anthropological history directly after studying at Princeton. It allowed me to travel, do research, and to have an interesting life. And then here I could work – in fact in this career you never know if we will find positions! But I was able to find good jobs and I love teaching, writing and research. I write about a lot of different topics – the history of the Caribbean and more recently I am working on the history of soccer and other topics as well, so I have explored various topics. I work across disciplines. I have a background in history and anthropology, but I work a lot in literature. I’m in two departments. For me it’s quite interesting to be able to cross different areas of studies.
TG: What are some challenges you’ve had in your career? (3: 40-5: 21)
LD: Well, there were the normal challenges, finding scholarships, being able to have scholarships for research as well as to going to graduate school. There were also moments of doubt, whether this work was really what I wanted to do—it is normal, I think. Then I needed to decide what career and how to pursue that career. I think in general it’s a career where we have a lot of flexibility, so in fact it has a lot of autonomy to make choices. Sometimes I think about what happens in the academic world is challenging because we sometimes have to choose topics that we really like but then we always have periods in research that are annoying and those that are difficult. There are challenges in the middle of a project that are complicated, so it is true that sometimes there are colleagues that say we must love the subject very much because if it’s really hard, it’s difficult to finish. I will say that it’s always about finding the balance between work and family life, this is the issues that everyone tries to address.
WG: What do you think of the culture in Durham, and North Carolina? Are there large differences between the culture here and the culture of your birth country, or rather the land of your parents? (5: 22-8: 35)
LD: Yes, I love Durham. I think it is an interesting city with many different levels; it is a city that at first glance, we do not see very well. This is not a city of easy access, there is a lot of cultural and social worlds that are somewhat hidden, and I know that for many students it is a Duke city that is not easily understood; but there are a lot of things happening in Durham. I love that there is in fact a lot of people in Durham that is completely separate from the university world. The difference between the cultures? Well that’s funny because I always say when I’m in Europe I always defend the United States and in the United States I have to defend Europe. I feel fully capable to understand both worlds quite well and also understand why the two worlds do not understand each other at all. It is true that there are many subtleties… but it looks like Europe and America are not so different because there are cultures, shared history, language, literature, etc.
But there are huge differences, particularly in terms of education systems, so this is very fascinating that I often think, given my personality, I do not know if I would have succeeded academically in Europe in a system that is much stricter and organized. I believe that the education in the American system allows for a lot more creativity, and paths that are a little weirder. So I know I would have a very different life in a different culture. When I see the contrasts between the models of education that way it is very striking. And I see that when I try explaining to students the model of education in the United States vs the French model, it can be very complicated. In fact it is like explaining baseball to a French person! And in the other direction, explaining soccer to some Americans is complicated! This is all to say that, of course there are many people in our generation and many students who live between cultures so you get used to understanding many backgrounds.
TG: Given that you appreciate the diversity in Durham, have you found a Belgian francophone community? (8: 36-9: 30)
LD: It’s more apparent in college. I did not find one in Durham; I sometimes have encounters with a Haitian community that is French and Creole speaking. There is a large francophone community, especially West Africa (Cameroon, etc), and some French as well. But I would not say that there is a structured Francophone community in Durham. In the Romance Studies department, since I teach in the Romance Studies and History department, many of my colleagues speak French. So it’s there. I usually just speak French with my family, and it is true that I have a few friends and colleagues here who are speaking with whom I speak French.
WG: Do you feel a sense of belonging to the global Francophone community? And how has this influenced your career choice? (9: 31-10: 48)
LD: Definitely somewhere, in fact I would say that speaking French certainly allowed me to be part of the discussions, especially in France, Haiti, Africa. I also like some aspects of literature in French given there are many things that are not translated into English. There is also the world of culture, music, soccer, etc. I would say it is rather an informal membership, so I’m not very oriented towards the formal institutions of the Francophonie, but I love all the contacts it creates. In particular, as you know, French is a very important language in Africa, and it allows me to meet many colleagues and there is a whole intellectual world, which is in French that would be unattainable without the language.
TG: Given you did not grow up a lot of time in Belgium, do you feel you have a close relationship with Belgium? (10: 49-12: 36)
LD: I have a rather ironic relationship. I like to be Belgian when it suits me, like when the football team plays well! And then there are certain aspects of the culture in Belgium that I enjoy: food, comics, etc. But as you know Belgium itself has a rather fragile social construct. It’s true that I feel more Belgian French for example. I lived several years in France, so I have lived longer in France that I have ever lived in Belgium but my personal alliance is more with the Caribbean than Belgium given my work. I would say that I feel more connected with Haiti and Guadeloupe than Belgium, but it is a country that I like. It is true that my experience is a little limited, because I’ve never been educated over there…just usually for vacation. In contrast to France I have more links with universities in France and it is there where I was anchored in my studies. I lived in Paris and Aix-en-Provence, so I am more familiar with these two cities.
WG: So there are other linguistic communities in Durham and North Carolina. What are the language communities that have the biggest presence? (12: 37-13: 21)
LD: I know the Latino community is rather large in Durham. I have some links and contacts with the Haitian community, where there are French and Creole speakers. I know there are other linguistic communities but I do not have much contact with them.
TG: Do you think they have integrated well or not? (13: 21-14: 13)
LD: I think the Latino community is a bit complicated in Durham. Since this is a relatively new community, there are many questions about the presence in the city, etc. I think there is enough tension in a broader sense concerning the whole question of the Spanish and immigration to the United States. The Francophone community, because it is less visible and is made up of more people in the business world, it’s more multilingual people, so they are viewed a little differently.