In August, when Haitian-Canadian-American novelist and scholar Myriam Chancy overheard something about an earthquake in Haiti in the news, she assumed it was a reference to the devastating magnitude-7 quake that hit her birth country in 2010, an event that also happened to be the focus of her fourth novel, What Storm, What Thunder. The year had already been a traumatic one for Haiti, following the shocking assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Writing the novel had been a means of processing the lingering ghosts of 2010, and so when the almost unbelievable reality of this new, even bigger quake sank in, Chancy felt the panic and fear of 11 years ago come flooding back.
The death toll of the 2010 quake, known locally, and in Chancy’s novel, as “Douz,” in reference to the date it struck – Jan. 12 – equalled the population of Cincinnati, where Chancy was living at the time. Though the news arrived late that afternoon, she’d had an eerie feeling all day. With chaos on the ground and communication virtually non-existent, it took two weeks to learn what had become of her loved ones: one family member and many of her colleagues from the Haitian women’s movement were killed, as were all of Haiti’s female leaders at the time. Another family unit and some elderly family friends lost their homes. (Mercifully, Chancy’s family wasn’t directly impacted by the Aug. 14 quake.)
What Storm, What Thunder moves in small and large ways through time – the image of a seismometer’s juddering needle is apt – as it builds mini-portraits of 11 interrelated characters, all of whom experience the quake at various proximities, ranging from a hotel elevator shaft to the driver’s seat of a Boston cab. If you think of each character in the novel’s circular narrative as beads on a necklace, then Ma Lou, the market woman, or madan sara, whose story bookends it, is the clasp (Chancy describes these ubiquitous workers as “the backbone of Haitian society”; her own great-grandmother was a madan sara who had a stall in Port-au-Prince’s steel market). Chancy’s controlled but evocative prose ensures that the novel rises well above the level of expository historical fiction. Indeed, the earthquake itself is less an event than a catalyst: a line of demarcation illuminating the fragile interweaving of lives in a country whose strength has always been its people, not its buildings.
Chancy was born in 1970 in Port-au-Prince to Haitian parents who met in France and came to Canada via a program recruiting French teachers to Quebec. When Chancy was elementary-school age, the family moved to Winnipeg, settling in the French-speaking St. Boniface quarter. Chancy’s mother, Adeline Lamour, taught community-college-level accounting, her father, Wilbert, high-school French. Though not exempt from the challenges typically faced by immigrants to this country, Chancy’s parents found in Winnipeg an oasis of stability far from the Duvalier regime’s notoriously long tentacles. Weather, rarely considered one of the city’s selling points, was simply part of the adventure. Adeline, who corrected early drafts of What Storm, and to whom Chancy dedicated it, died in 2019. Wilbert, 87, has remained in Winnipeg. Last year, when the pandemic prevented visits to Chancy in California, where she’s a professor at Scripps College (Wilbert loves to golf), he collaborated with Montreal-based Haitian composer David Bontemps on an album of Haitian folk songs, on which he sings a gorgeous baritone.
When she was a young child, and her family was ping-ponging between countries, Chancy thought of herself as attending school in Canada but “living” in Haiti, where she was absorbed into the warm embrace of a doting, multi-generational family who steeped her in local culture, food and traditions. Chancy cites those early experiences, and the fact she was born into a majority Black society, as crucial to her perspective on the world, and the way she has navigated Canadian and American society ever since.
Her family sheltered her from Haiti’s fraught political reality until her teens, yet Chancy describes the revelation as less of a shock than her first experiences of racism in Canada. She recalls an incident in Quebec City, when a friend’s mother barred her from coming over on the grounds that she was Black. A week later, Chancy encountered the mother outside sunbathing: “She told me she was in the sun to become brown like me, which was very confusing. So I can’t come and play with your daughter because I’m brown, but you’re trying to become brown?”
Books offered an escape. Chancy was an early, voracious reader in English and French. Adeline also taught her Haitian Kreyòl, and Chancy remembers reading Félix Morrisseau-Leroy aloud while her mother did her hair (she can still read both old and new Kreyòl orthographies). Years later, when Chancy was studying Haitian and Afro-Caribbean women’s literature, Adeline read the texts alongside her. Chancy completed degrees at the University of Manitoba and Dalhousie and by 24 had a PhD in literature from the University of Iowa. Multiple tenured or tenure-track positions followed. As a Caribbeanist – a field she came to after studying American and African-American literature – Chancy has been instrumental in establishing the field of Haitian diasporic studies, with the most recent of her four academic monographs receiving a Guggenheim fellowship. Her scholarly and creative endeavours feed each other, she says, but she turns to fiction to address “those questions that can’t be answered by proofs or by the academic paradigm.”
By 2010, Chancy had published three novels, but strenuously resisted repeated suggestions that she write about the quake. The idea struck her as opportunistic, even transactional. And as quake-focused Haitian art started to trickle out three or four years later, she concluded her instincts were correct: “Those who had been there themselves took time to gestate what had happened and to transform those experiences into art. That is the process.”
So what changed her mind? In the aftermath of the 2010 quake, Chancy delivered numerous talks or readings inside and outside Haiti. Survivors would invariably approach her with their stories; stories she eventually came to see as a responsibility, something requiring a creative response. The seeds of What Storm were thus planted, but Chancy hadn’t taken notes while listening to survivors – she wasn’t, after all, planning on writing about them. Partly as a result, none of the novel’s characters have real-life counterparts. They are, rather, the product of Chancy’s fleeting impressions from those encounters, and from her own visits to Haiti. She found inspiration, too, in her visits to the studio of Trinidadian artist LeRoy Clarke, whose series of paintings about Haiti and the quake were (mostly) executed from afar, as a reaction to a deep listening process (Clarke died earlier this year).
Chancy’s first novel, Spirit of Haiti (2003), took 10 years to publish – there was little appetite at that time, she says, for work by Caribbean or Haitian writers in North America. It, and her two subsequent novels, were picked up by small presses in the United Kingdom, where they were critically well-received and garnered a few awards. In 2018, sensing things had changed, and hoping to find a broader readership, Chancy sent the manuscript of What Storm to editor Janice Zawerbny, who recognized its brilliance: “The narrative was full of insight and intelligence, and the story was poignant and original. It was the kind of novel that all literary editors search for.” When she was subsequently hired as a senior editor at HarperCollins Canada, she asked Chancy if she could present it to the press for possible publication.
What Storm’s acceptance at HarperCollins gave Chancy, technically speaking, her North American debut. And though coverage in Canada has been disappointingly muted, in the United States, where it is distributed by indie publisher Tin House, What Storm has garnered across-the-board rave notices in outlets such as NPR, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and Chancy herself has repeatedly been tapped for interviews about Haitian issues. A bidding war for the novel’s audio rights was won by multiplatform publisher Spiegel & Grau, which produced an audiobook narrated by a voice actor recommended by Chancy, Ella Turenne, who’s also a Haitian-Kreyòl speaker.
Asked what she wishes non-Haitians could understand about Haiti and Haitians, given the country’s portrayal in the press as a site of endless tragedy and misfortune, Chancy is characteristically thoughtful and phlegmatic: “I hope that what they understand is this pride of place, depth of history, present-day persistence and tenacity while also not falling into the romanticization of thinking of Haitians ‘en masse’ as super-human or ‘resilient’ – a word I try to avoid when speaking about Haitian realities.”
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