Myriam JA Chancy had not planned to write a novel about the Haitian earthquake of 2010.
Chancy, who holds the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, is a respected scholar who focuses on feminism and history in Haiti and has written several historical fiction books.
“I had no intention of writing this novel,” says Chancy of “What Storm, What Thunder,” now out of publisher Tin House. The novel changes perspective for a new character in Port-au-Prince with each chapter, plunging readers into the devastating rubble of the earthquake and the physical and emotional consequences of its aftermath.
Raised in Canada, Chancy is the child of Haitian immigrants and she says she spent so much time in Haiti as a child that she often felt like it was her home.
“Every time I launch a new creative project, I think, ‘I’m not going to write about Haiti this time,’” she says. “But you know so much about a place and you have emotional connections to it and the creative process allows you to tap into parts of yourself and your experience that you cannot tap as an academic and a journalist.”
“The way I think, my imagination is still deeply Haitian,” says Chancy, who will discuss the book with author Zinzi Clemmons at a virtual event at the Vroman Bookstore on Oct. 11.
As an academic, she was constantly in demand after the earthquake to give lectures on Haiti. People would like to tell him about what they had seen and experienced. “It wasn’t that they wanted me to tell their personal stories,” she says. “But people shared their feelings with me about what had happened. After three years, I realized that I needed to write the novel.
Chancy, who cites James Baldwin as an influence, says she didn’t tell the real-life stories she heard but just tried to “amplify the realities” of what had happened. pass.
“I wanted to capture the range of people’s reactions. In news stories, you can’t really capture the individual responses. Although not directly in the novel, I tried to capture how my friends and family who were in Haiti express their experiences, ”she says.
Speaking recently in Zoom on the Book, Chancy says that writing has finally become a cathartic experience for her, but she hopes for a different effect on American readers. “I try to create a feeling for the reader so that he cannot turn away from what has happened, so that he practically feels it as if he is experiencing it for himself.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. The book begins with mourning and grief but evolves into anger when efforts to help the suffering are so mismanaged.
In the beginning, for people who have lost loved ones, there is a long period of shock because of the number of people who have literally disappeared. But with the rebuilding, a lot of promises were made very early on, and they faded very quickly. So much money has gone to Haiti and the average Haitian hasn’t seen much of it and their lives haven’t been improved by this help.
Q. To what extent do your writings on women and the history of the region have an impact on your fiction?
Usually there is so much that I cannot express in academic work and it starts to fuel creative work. The anger that Olivier’s character expresses has no real place in academic work. But the creative job is to immerse your reader in and hopefully feel something new about a place or the human condition.
Being a feminist in Haiti is not easy. Haitian society is very patriarchal, structurally very masculine. But the culture is led by women, and they are the backbone of Haiti, although they don’t have much power to effect change. I tried to capture this in the novel. Women have to do much of the rebuilding work, not the physical structures, but the emotional structures, to maintain family units.
Market women are the least valued but the most visible part of Haitian society. I had an example of this with my great-grandmother, who was not seen as someone who had done a lot in her life and yet had left a lot behind to raise her family.
I give a voice to the reality of women who work so hard to create better spaces in a place that doesn’t want them to have a voice. I give more voice to women in my work. With men, either I try to show a different version of masculinity or I lay bare what’s going on in terms of masculinity.
Q. With characters like Sara and Olivier losing their three children, the question doesn’t seem like it should be “How can you fall apart so completely”, but rather, “How can you not?” “
I tend not to use the word “resilience” about Haiti because journalists expect that no matter what, people will survive. Olivier is a character who thought he had that resilience, but he didn’t. This is why I use the image of a “wazo”, a reed; some people just crack up and sometimes people slowly part ways with what they have seen or experienced for many years.
This has happened to a lot of people. I had an uncle who had been in the 2010 earthquake; he later came to America but returned after a few days. He was suffering from PTSD and at least there he felt surrounded by other people who also suffered from PTSD, who were suffering in the same way and you felt like you were in less pain.
Q. You offer glimmers of hope towards the end. Are you worried that this rings true, especially given the events of this year?
In fiction, which is a speculative space, I want to create a little hope, even though some Haitian readers have told me that there is too much hope.
I wanted something in between. I want people to leave the novel feeling like we need to care more about where we hear about these disasters, and by caring more, we need to understand that there are people who will not be able to get over it. these traumas, whether physically or psychologically. And there are people who push themselves over the edge to get other people to pass. I wanted to leave the novel on a hopeful note, but by the time you hit that note the cost is huge.
Q. You said that racism and “otherness” was the root of why Americans quickly stopped paying attention to the plight of Haitians after the 2010 earthquake. This still seems to be a problem. today.
I don’t know how aware people in any jurisdiction are of the racialization that’s going on. Some are very aware – like the classification under the last Bush administration of Haitian refugees as terrorist risks in official documents. It’s still in the books.
Now with the 14,000 Haitians deported and we see the Texas Rangers chasing the Haitian refugees near the Rio, which looks like slavery and slave hunters. It’s shocking.
The way the United States has treated Haiti since the Louisiana Purchase has not changed and it is very clear that this has to do with the racial dynamic, including the dynamic in the United States. After the assassination [of Jovenel Moïse, the country’s president] in Haiti this summer we heard the Biden administration talk about providing all kinds of support.
But while there had been conversations in 2011 about a Marshall Plan for Haiti, that couldn’t exist because the Marshall Plan implied respect for other nations – and they were Europeans, they were our partners and we believed in their citizens.
This has never been the case for Haiti, especially considering that the Haitian population is positioned in the world market as cheap labor, and that is it. I hope that a job like mine and others will eventually change the way Haiti is viewed.