Photo: N. Affonso
Myriam Chancy channels Haitian stories and spirits into her novel about the 2010 earthquake
In her eighth book, 'What Storm, What Thunder,' the Haitian-born, Canadian-raised academic explains why it was time to write about the catastrophic natural disaster / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / November 9th, 2021
When Haitian Canadian writer Myriam Chancy first heard about the catastrophic earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, she was on a book tour promoting her second novel, The Loneliness of Angels. A respected academic and a trusted voice on the lives of Haitian woman and children, she shifted from book promotion to giving talks about the natural disaster that killed more than a quarter of a million people, left thousands homeless and deeply traumatized.
Chancy managed her grief by helping others understand what was happening on the ground in Haiti. Speaking engagements, which continued long after the tragedy faded from the headlines, always concluded with survivors – both Haitians and non-Haitians – approaching her to share personal stories of loss and survival.
“Listening and offering information was what I could do,” Chancy said recently from her home in California, where she is the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont. “I did not think I could write a story that would do justice to what I was hearing.”
In 2013, a meeting with Trinidadian painter LeRoy Clarke changed her mind. A mutual friend took Chancy to Clarke’s studio in St. Augustine – where Chancy had served as writer-in-residence at the University of the West Indies the year before – to see a series of paintings Clarke created in response to Douz, which is French for the number 12 and the Haitian colloquial term for the earthquake that hit on Jan. 12. Clarke wanted Chancy to tell him how the Haitian symbolism in his work spoke to her.
“I just started weeping,” she said. “I understood that what I was seeing wasn’t meant just for me, that the stories conferred to me after every talk, every reading, were a responsibility that I, as a writer, had to do something with. I realized each person who came and told me their story was, in their own way, a messenger. It was my job to share their stories.”
There is a longstanding Haitian call-and-response style of storytelling where, before the storyteller began, they would ask the audience in Kreyól (Creole), “Kric?” (Are you ready?), to which the audience would reply, “Krac!” (Yes, we are!). What Storm, What Thunder is Chancy’s response to the people she had listened to over the years who collectively let her know they were ready to hear her telling of the story of Douz.
“I went home after being in Clarke’s studio and the characters came to me quickly. They were crystal clear. It felt like the spirits were telling me these are the stories we want you tell,” Chancy said, referring to the spirits of the earthquake’s victims and those found in Vodou – a blend of African religions brought by enslaved people to Haiti that flourished, despite the brutal racism of colonialism, and became deeply rooted in the Haitian way of life.
“I wanted to give voice to the dispossessed. Many Haitians did not have a voice,” the author said. “The billions of dollars from international aid was managed by outsiders, and people were told what happened rather than getting input and reciprocal engagement. There was no real conversation; I needed to show what people went through.”
For Chancy, this rampant corruption was all too familiar. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1970, her family emigrated to Quebec City to escape the autocratic dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, which began in 1957.
“I had two amazing parents who were very rooted in Haitian culture. My dad is a musician, and I grew up with him singing traditional Haitian music. My mother taught me Kreyól and had me reading fables from Felix Morisseau-Leroy, Haiti’s first Kreyól poet, while she did my hair.”
Even when her family settled in Winnipeg, her parents continued to imbue her with Haitian culture. In 1986, when Duvalier’s son “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude was overthrown in a popular uprising, Chancy, then 16, wanted to visit Haiti. “My parents said, ‘Absolutely not! There’s too much chaos!’”
The following year, when she began her undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba, Chancy’s professors encouraged her to explore her Haitian culture from an academic perspective.
After graduating from U of M, Chancy earned her master’s in African American literature from Dalhousie before heading to the U.S., where, in 1994, she became a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., just as the U.S. deployed troops to Haiti to try to remove a military regime that staged a coup and ousted the president.
“I had colleagues telling me the U.S. was going to save Haiti, but I didn’t look at the intervention in a positive way,” she said. “My parents were born at the end of the first U.S. occupation in 1934, and it was a very difficult time.”
As a literary critic, Chancy felt the only way to respond to what was happening was through her work. She began reading female Haitian writers and discovered they responded to the first U.S. occupation through a strong feminist lens. She returned to Haiti and launched her academic writing career with the publication of Searching for Safe Space: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile and Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, both published in 1997.
Since then, everything Chancy has written is deeply rooted in Haitian life and culture. Fictional works such as The Spirit of Haiti (2003) and The Loneliness of Angels (2005) as well as academic books such as From Sugar to Revolution (2012) and Autochthonomies (2020), all contributed to a solid foundation for new novel.
What Storm, What Thunder begins and ends with Ma Lou, the matriarch of the Port-au-Prince market. “Market women hold space for everyone, and everything converges in the market,” Chancy explained. “My mother’s mother was a market woman and was responsible for the livelihood of many. I felt Ma Lou should have the most important voice because this is how Haitian society works in a silent kind of way. I wanted to make this clear. Ma Lou is the glue.”
Ma Lou introduces the reader to the complexities of Haitian life, and her story is the springboard for first-person accounts from nine, connected characters about their lives before, during, and – in some cases – after the earthquake. Chancy masterfully weaves their stories into a circular narrative that deftly illustrates how, despite cultural differences and circumstances, we are all connected through shared emotions.
“I want to make it clear that I did not use any of the stories that came to me,” Chancy said. “What I retained was the emotional tenor of what people said – how it made them feel –because I didn’t remember the actual stories. I remembered the emotion.”
While the characters came to Chancy quickly, the writing took years, because she struggled with how to tell the stories “in the most humane and respectful manner to the people who’d been through these things, while being empathetic to the reader experience. There were times when I had to stop.”
She had to take a break when her mother, Adeline Lamour Chancy, became very ill in 2016. For the first time, Chancy allowed her mother to read drafts of one of her books. “She provided invaluable insights that deepened the experience. She also corrected all the Kreyòl, a job she took very seriously.” After her mother’s death in 2019, Chancy returned to the final finessing of the novel, fuelled by her mother’s determination to get it right. Sadly, both her mother and Clarke, the artist, passed away before they had a chance to read the published novel. Despite these losses, Chancy is proud of the book and grateful for the time it took to write it.
“Writing involved a lot of processing and took longer than expected, but I also wanted to get it right,” she said. “I hope people will read this novel… and if it can sensitize them a little to what is happening in Haiti and pay more attention to it – for example, the recent deportation of Haitian refugees in Texas – then that’s a good thing.”
What Storm What Thunder has created considerable buzz south of the border, landing on many “Best Books of the Fall” lists, including TIME, Good Housekeeping, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among others.
Chancy is taking it all in stride, knowing she did her job as a writer in sharing what she had been told. “I’m really pleased,” she said, adding, “I hope the spirits are pleased too.”