After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, scholar and author Myriam J. A. Chancy began receiving and accepting invitations to speak about the state of Haiti prior to and after the earthquake. These speaking engagements would last for about three years and allowed Chancy to meet with many people who shared their experiences of losing loved ones.
I discovered What Storm, What Thunder from an Instagram story posted by another Caribbean author. Based on 10 unique voices relaying their experience of living through that devastating disaster, I found myself holding my breath while I read, expecting some harsh descriptions. And there were; but there was a level of grace and dignity that I admit surprised and delighted me.
Chancy has published academic, fiction, and non-fiction writing, and is currently the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College of the Claremont Colleges in California. Her knowledge on Haitian literature, history, and social issues has earned her numerous awards and academic appointments during her career.
I’m grateful and excited to have Ms. Chancy participate in this interview series! Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Being from Trinidad, I was delighted to hear that artist Leroy Clarke influenced your writing of this book. But there’s also a character, Leopold, who is from Trinidad. Can you briefly explain the historical connection between Haiti and Trinidad?
Myriam: I was first invited to Trinidad to serve as writer-in-residence for a few weeks in the spring of 2012. What I didn’t know until that time was how those involved in the 1970s Black Power movement in Trinidad, had related their own struggles to the legacy of the Haitian Revolution. I was invited to give a couple of talks off campus, and one of the attendees was Sunity Maharaj, who invited me to write a column for the Trinidad & Tobago Review, a column that would dispel ill-informed notions about Haiti for lay readers. What I found was that there was in Trinidad a memory of the Haitian Revolution as related to Trinidadian liberation movements but also a misunderstanding of Haiti’s situation in the present-day, why Haiti finds itself in its present predicament.
When I returned to Trinidad the following year, I was taken to visit Paramín, where a Kreyol is spoken that resembles Haitian Kreyol. I learned there that there are present-day Trinidadians who trace their heritage back to Haitians who were brought to Trinidad by plantation owners during the period of the Revolution. There were also retentions in terms of foodstuffs; I was served a soup, for example, that resembles the “soup joumon,” a pumpkin-based soup in Haiti, that we reserve for special occasions and which is served January 1st, our Independence Day. So, the connections are both historical and ideological.
So, Leopold was born out of some of these experiences of learning about the Haitian traces in Trinidad (his family is originally from Paramín though he grows up in St. Augustine), and then imagining a character who feels compelled to go to Haiti because of these connections but who also knows little about Haiti yet is transformed both by what he realizes is similar, in terms of those who struggle to make a life, and whose own life trajectory is altered as a consequence of the earthquake.
Tricia: I feel that Haiti has been in my consciousness ever since calypsonian David Rudder released the song, Haiti I’m Sorry, which for me was an apology and an acknowledgment of the wrongs committed against Haitians. Can you explain why it was important that your characters be given the dignity to tell their stories?
Myriam: That’s very interesting to me. I don’t know this song but saw that it was released in 1993. In that same year, Brazilian composer/singers Caetano & Gilberto Gil released a song called “Haiti” with similar sentiments.
From my point of view, it seems to me that Haiti continues to be misunderstood and misrepresented, in news reports and in other ways. There is a pervasive strain of anti-Haitianism that revealed itself in a pronounced way in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, that I can honestly say that I had not recognized until that point. But after January 12, 2010, I realized that the issues were much broader, and deeper, ranging from religious or spiritual intolerance to classism buoyed by racism, to xenophobia. Anti-Haitianism came hand-in-hand with the success of the Haitian Revolution and its vision for a pluralistic, egalitarian society, but much of which was violently opposed and intervened with from outside forces. To oppose this vision, and the rising up of enslaved Africans against their enslavers, a very thorough discrediting campaign was engaged in by the U.S., by France, and others. Simultaneously, a campaign of disinformation was engaged in to discredit the source that had fueled organizing efforts across ranks in Saint-Domingue.
So, I felt that the representations I brought forth in the novel had to rehabilitate some of this negative discourse which then made double victims of those who went through the earthquake, who were then being told that the high death toll was their fault or their responsibility. Can anyone imagine having survived this cataclysm to then be told: you’re responsible? I wanted my characters to be fully human, dignified, believable. They are not all “pure” or without grey areas, but the novel reveals their humanity across social strata and also how many pulled together across differences to survive the aftermath of the earthquake.
I also threaded through the novel the spirituality of vodou in its most healing forms—because the spirituality, at its foundation, is a healing modality of co-existence with nature and the spirit world, to demonstrate how Haitians think and live vodou without these negative connotations imposed from the outside.
Tricia: I love the relationship between Sonia and Dieudonné and the pact that they made to each other. Why did you decide to explore homosexuality and prostitution within the context of the earthquake?
Myriam: Well, believe it or not, immediately after the earthquake, lesbians as a class were blamed for having caused the earthquake. Accusations of this kind also occurred in the late 1880s when there was a large earthquake in Cap-Haitien. I’m assuming that it is because of the former accusations that the same kind of discourse occurred in 2010. I’ve pondered why only lesbians are blamed, as opposed to any other sector of the society, or even any other people who might be categorized as “M” or “queer” (that is gay, bisexual, transexual, or some other identity that falls under the “M” banner) and I’ve come to the conclusion that “lesbians” or “Madivinez” are perceived as outside the bonds of normative society, as “outlaws.” As such, instead of being perceived as “less than” a discourse of great power is ascribed to them, such that they might be able to overturn society or cause a grand earthquake by defying heteronormativity, which, as a social institution, places women at a lower level than their male counterparts.
For me, then, it was important to represent members of the “M” community as equally affected by the disaster and also as individuals with families, both natural and chosen, touched by the immensity of the catastrophe. Sonia, in particular, cares for her family members through remittances to them from her sex work, and also watches out for younger members of her family, such as Taffia, who is still a teenager at the time of the earthquake. Dieudonné we learn of through Sonia but what we learn of him is that he was taken in as a child by his mother’s brother who was also “masisi” and that parenting gave him the strength to step into his identity.
In terms of representing prostitution, the reality of the poverty in Haiti is such that many people have to resort to transactional relationships of different sorts in order to survive. Sonia chooses sex work in order to free herself from poverty while Dieudonné works as a fixer. I attempt to destigmatize sex work by showing that, in some circumstances, it can be chosen as a means of exercising agency. Sonia, especially, does so because she understands that as a lighter skinned woman from a lower economic background, she stands to be sexually exploited; instead of letting others control her sexuality, she chooses sex work as a means to free herself from such exploitation, in the same way that her experiences as a sex worker has her turn to other women as a way to free herself from transactional intimacies in her personal life. Sonia chooses to be “M” in a way that Dieudonné does not. In both cases, I was seeking to show a range of what it might mean to be “M” at the same time as broaching the subject of how individuals who are “M” often do have to enter into prostitution or transactional relationships with foreigners in order to survive.
Without giving too much away about the resolution of the novel, all this is also the reason why Sonia is key to one of the final scenes in which the women of the novel pilgrimage to a sacred waterfall in Haiti for a blessing or cleansing. In this scene, I attempt to repair and disrupt the discourse of blame around women who love women to expand the notion of what it means for women to love each other, in a variety of ways, as mothers and daughters, friends, etc., into relations of care that will then expand or reverberate across communities in a healing way.
Tricia: Sara’s and Leopold’s stories were for me the most heart wrenching. So, my question has two parts: A. How were you able to sit with Sara and Leopold and tell their stories? B. Did you have difficulty letting them go once you were finished?
Myriam: I like the way you’ve phrased this question as a process of “sitting” as it is exactly this that I had to do: sit with the characters, embody them, and allow that sitting within the characters to allow me to tell their stories. I wrote Sara and parts of Leopold on a retreat, so it perhaps also took a withdrawal from my everyday life to get there, to be immersed in their voices and experience, and not shrink back from what they had to say or reveal about what they lived through. Perhaps getting to the end of their stories and knowing that they would get through is what made it possible to write them convincingly.
To answer the second part, not particularly. I think that the characters who had the most harrowing story-lines were, in some ways, the easiest to write, and the easiest to let go of because it was always clear to me what they went through, what they were trying to say, even if it wasn’t always clear at the beginning, whether or not they would survive their ordeals. Once their endings became clearer to me, then I strove to get to those endpoints in their story arcs and felt a sense of accomplishment and relief when I got there.
Tricia: After my grandmother passed in 1995, I didn’t go home to Trinidad for many years because without her Trinidad was no longer home for me. For characters like Ma Lou, Sonia, and Dieudonné who survived, do you think they had the resilience to carry on after such a deeply traumatic loss?
Myriam: I had similar feelings when my remaining grandparents passed away in the late 1990s to the early 2000s; they really were the glue that kept so much of my father’s family together. I didn’t have a feeling of having completely lost home, however, until a few years after the earthquake, while the reconstruction was going on. National and personal landmarks were lost but I think there was some feeling that the reconstruction would revitalize the country. When I observed that so much of the funds collected for aid did not go towards the general population but building infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, etc.) for NGO workers and foreigners, and that the landscape of areas that I had known no longer were recognizable to me and clearly not intended for local use, then the definition of home seemed to fall apart.
I think this is something of what Olivier goes through, intuiting very early on, as an accountant and businessperson, that the aid money is not going to flow where it should. For other characters like Ma Lou, Sonia, and Dieudonné, who have intimate knowledge of the inequity within the country’s social strata, of both the corruption and the collective good that co-exists, I think they operate with a very different sense of the possible. For them, the possible resides in what they can themselves create, have already been creating, for themselves, and for others. For Ma Lou, the possible resides in the hope she has for her granddaughter, Anne, even though she knows her future is somewhere beyond Haiti. For Sonia and Dieudonné, the future was already in a beyond that they could not see, were building towards. What saves them is their deep sense of intuition and their faith in a world that cannot be seen (a vodou sensibility) and that world does not disappear with the catastrophe. These three are already survivors of so many things, as is Sara, the young mother who loses her children. Sara, and these others, unlike her husband, Olivier, has an elasticity borne out of past experience. It’s for these reasons that they have hope and the possibility of a future despite all that they’ve already gone through.
Tricia: In many interviews you’ve expressed a deep respect for market women and the invisible yet tangible role they play in the Haitian economy. Yet Ma Lou was more than just a market woman to the people she interacted with. What role did you want her to play in What Storm What Thunder?
Myriam: Ma Lou represents a class of people who see and hear all but are seldom spoken or listened to; as such, and as an elder, she is also able to see the society from a wide vantage point. She is able to see the shifts that have occurred since the Duvalier dictatorship through to the aftermath of the earthquake, who she was as a young bride, and young mother, who she became as a consequence of the losses of her husband Lou and of her son Richard who, though living, goes on with his life as an expatriate as if he was not born of a woman.
She represents all of the working-class women in Haiti (and throughout the Caribbean) who keep the economy going, their families upright, who know so much about not only their own world but how it is constrained by the outside world, that they should, in fact, be consulted about the future of the society. So I wanted Ma Lou to have both the first and last words of the novel to acknowledge women like her whose opinions and knowledge is neglected, whose hard work is overlooked and dehumanized because it is so close to the earth, of the earth, an earth we’ve all also neglected.
Tricia: I have to ask, what was it like for you returning to Haiti for the first time after the earthquake and seeing with your own eyes the destruction?
Myriam: Bittersweet is a word I’ve been using a lot lately, but I would use this word to describe the effect of returning to Port-au-Prince in 2011 and in the years after. Sweet because Port-au-Prince is the city of my birth and first beginnings, where I became who I am so to speak, but also bitter for all that had fallen into disrepair as well as for all I could see that would remain in disrepair. Despite this, in 2011, there was a great sense of hope in what might come next, in what the rebuilding efforts might yield or, even, if they yielded next to nothing, so many people believed that any effort at rebuilding would benefit them in some way that would be better than nothing. That may have been true for a few, who were already positioned to benefit from rebuilding in service industries, but it turned out not to be true for most.
Tricia: You’re not just a fiction author, but a literary scholar and a teacher. What is your hope for the future of literature written by Haitian authors?
Myriam: Well, I’d say that the literary productivity has never been higher, with Haitian authors writing in French, Kreyol, and in English, across all genres. What I hope is that more Haitian writers working in French and Kreyol will be translated, as has begun to happen but also that we will be given the opportunity by publishers to have works published on a wider range of topics.
I also hope that more people will read Haitian authors as they do other writers from the Caribbean and other parts of the African diaspora and realize not only how rich Haitian culture is but how it is intimately bound up in the histories and experiences of the African diaspora within this hemisphere and globally. I think everyone could learn a great deal from reading Haitian writers about a culture that has survived despite violent repression at all levels, from the spiritual to the economic, and yet persists.
Tricia: I’ve enjoyed this conversation Ms. Chancy. Thank you for your time and continued success with your novel.
Myriam: Thank you for this interview, Tricia!
Read my review of What Storm, What Thunder. You can follow Myriam J. A. Chancy on Instagram and visit her website at www.myriamchancy.com
Photo courtesy Myriam J. A. Chancy.