Everything in Haiti Changed After the Earthquake
Myriam J. A. Chancy, author of "What Storm, What Thunder," on why we need to dispense with reductive narratives of Haitian "resilience" and "impoverishment"
Haitian-Canadian-American author Myriam J. A. Chancy’s new novel, What Storm, What Thunder is about the lives of ten people coping with trauma in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The novel explores the measure of grief that ten individuals experience as the earth fluttered and shook at 4:53pm on January 12, 2010. Even though time has caused some of the memories of the 2010 earthquake to fade, What Storm, What Thunder stands as a memorial to the many lives lost, calling on us all to remember what happened, to never forget.
I was already immersed in What Storm, What Thunder when the 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s southern coast on August 14, 2021. I reached out to friends and colleagues to know if they and their families were safe. As the stories emerged of Haitians helping pull one another out from under the rubble before Tropical Storm Grace arrived with floods and her morbidly ironic name, there was nothing else I could do but sit and listen to the characters in Chancy’s novel as they told me their stories of love and loss.
Nathan H. Dize: I want to spend most of our time together talking about this beautiful novel that you’ve written, but I’m wondering if you’d be able to tell us what it’s been like to publish a novel about the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti in a year where Haiti has already seen a rise in kidnappings and civilian deaths, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, tropical storms, and many months of deportations of Haitians from the US with Del Rio, TX just being the most recent iteration?
Myriam J. A. Chancy: Well, it’s certainly been a difficult time for Haiti and for Haitians, especially for those residing in the Southern peninsula where the August 14th, 2021 earthquake took place, leaving over 2,200 dead and over a million affected by homelessness, food insecurity and the effects of tropical storms in the earthquake’s wake. I would say that having the novel appear at this time is bittersweet. Certainly, I wrote the novel partly because I felt that the events and aftermath of the 2010 earthquake were being forgotten by those beyond Haiti while the aftereffects remained on the ground but, until this summer, I thought of the novel as historical rather than topical.
At this point, I can only say that the effect of having all these events follow one by one since early July is somewhat despairing, but my hope is that the novel can shed light not only on what happened then but what is happening today and humanize not only the events themselves but the lives of those living through them.
NHD: What Storm, What Thunder is based around the 2010 earthquake, could you take us back to the moment you first learned about it? Where were you, what was going through your mind? What was it like, as a person so intimately connected to Haiti, to experience something so catastrophic?
MJAC: I didn’t learn about the earthquake until a few hours after it had occurred. I was on my way to teaching a literature seminar, a three-hour seminar, when I received a text about Haiti on my phone, but I didn’t have the time to see what was happening as I was heading into class. After the class was over, I checked the news and saw that an earthquake had happened. Honestly, the experience was surreal because one doesn’t expect to hear about an earthquake in Haiti. The last severe earthquake before 2010 had taken place near Cap-Haitien, I believe, in the late 1800s. It was surreal. Very little news came out of Haiti because already fragile infrastructures were wiped out and the death toll so high (around 300,000 dead; the second deadliest earthquake in human history) but when some of the first images coming out of Haiti were of the fallen Presidential palace and of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fallen into ruin, it was clear that this was no ordinary occurrence and that whatever would come next would be terrible. It took two to three weeks to track down family members and then came the work of assisting with rebuilding and aid efforts.
I would say that, for myself, it was both a very isolating experience because I was not living at the time in an area with a Haitian community and most people around me could not fathom the amplitude of the problem while lending what skills I had to aid efforts brought me into closer communication with Haitian groups elsewhere that I found I could help and was a part of. So, on the one hand, I felt very isolated and, on the other, I recognized that I was a part of a collective, that Haiti remains one of my homes.
NHD: To me, this novel reads like a memorial. It’s dedicated to the memory of your mother and the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who perished in the 2010 earthquake. One of the things Taffia, the little girl named after sugar cane moonshine, says makes also makes me think of the novel this way. She describes living in the wake of the earthquake as “having to live in the after, always, remembering the before.” Do you think of What Storm, What Thunder as a certain type of memorial?
MJAC: I definitely think so. One of the things I was trying to do with each of the voices in the novel was to have them reflect on the 250,000-300,000 people we know to have perished, many of whose names and stories will never be known. In some small way, I wanted those voices to give readers a sense of what was lost and might never be regained. For Haitians, certainly, there is a definite feeling of a “before” and “after,” a cleaving caused by the event of the earthquake. I feel that way; I think others do too.
The other thing I was trying to do in having these different storylines, was to individualize the catastrophe for readers, to render how individuals might navigate such circumstances and how responses might defer from person to person. In this sense, my mother’s illness and passing in the years in which I was completing and revising the novel certainly colored my sense of how to write about life and death in a very personal, visceral way.
NHD: The novel is narrated by 10 different people, and yet the novel is stunningly intimate. Many characters are interconnected, and their storylines overlap. Since she’s the only character whose narrative voice appears twice, once at the beginning and once at the end, would you tell us about Ma Lou? Who is she?
MJAC: It was my intent to have the voices overlap and interweave while having some of the characters be related to one another, either by blood or by association. Ma Lou is related, for instance, to two of the other characters, Richard, her son, and Anne, her granddaughter but she is also connected to all of the others through her work in the market.
Ma Lou is an older woman in her 70s who has lived all her adult life working a stall in an open market. She knows everything about the community, and this is why she opens and closes the book. I wanted to honor those women who work in the markets all day long, often for very little remuneration, and who often know more—about local and global politics and economics—than they’re given credit for; she’s also, in a very loose way, patterned after my maternal great-grandmother, who was also a market woman, and a force of nature.
NHD: Even though the novel is set around the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and its impact on Port-au-Prince specifically, the storyline is much more fluid. Some characters live outside of Haiti and their chapters precede or take place after the quake. Can you talk about how time and place function in the novel? I’m thinking about Sara and Didier, for instance.
MJAC: Well, what I was trying to do was to give the reader a wholistic sense of the experience of the earthquake, before, during, after. To do that, and maintain a sense of continuity between the characters, it was important to make decisions about where each character was in time, in the earthquake’s time, so to speak, and this ultimately depended on what each character revealed about what was most important to them about their experience of this event. If a character lost family members in the earthquake, as in Sara’s case of losing her children, then the most important aspect of her story came to rest on her struggle to remain sane after witnessing the death of those she gave birth to and the rupture these deaths cause in her marriage, which, before that time, she thought was unshakeable. It became important to situate her experience in that split between the before that she remembers and the after that she cannot move through: that split reflects the tear in her psyche. While, in Didier’s case, a musician who survives in Boston by driving cabs, and is not in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, the focus shifts to what it was like to be going along in one’s life and to be caught short by an unexpected event. Didier’s section, then, reads more as someone just going along in life when his everyday activities and navigations are jolted by the news of the earthquake. The movements in time through the storylines are meant to give the reader a sense of how disparately such an event might be experienced or remembered by those affected directly by it. Some of the sections contrast each other while others give way to another aspect of a similar story, for example, life in the IDP camps after the earthquake. In a non-linear way, I try to move the reader through a “before, during, after” that encapsulates the earthquake while also reflecting the way such an event disrupts and suspends time.
NHD: The way that you weave vulnerable men, women of different ages and walks of life, children, and even animals into the story made me feel as though the novel is gesturing toward a sense of justice and equity that one finds in feminism, particularly in Global South feminisms. Would it be fair to call this a feminist novel?
MJAC: Absolutely. I would call it a transnational feminist novel since I think of my positionality as a feminist as “transnational” in the sense that I am informed by and invested in feminisms produced globally and feminist conversations that flow between “North” and “South” from French feminisms, for example, to postcolonial feminist theorizing. I think this is evidenced in the novel through the geographical shifts of the characters, from Haiti to France, to Rwanda, to the US, and through the foregrounding of the voices of women, children, and members of vulnerable communities such as the “M” or queer community, represented in the novel by Sonia and her best friend, Dieudonné.
NHD: What Storm, What Thunder is receiving glowing reviews and is already on several notable booklists. For the reader who picks your book up hoping to learn more about Haiti, what do you hope they walk away having understood about Haiti and its people?
MJAC: First and foremost, I hope that readers will, after reading the novel, dispense with narratives of “resilience” and “impoverishment” when speaking of Haiti and of Haitians, including Haitian immigrants and migrants. Haiti is a culture rich in so many things— the visual, literary, culinary arts, to name but a few—but is often remembered only for its historical achievements.
I hope that the novel humanizes Haitians such that they/we are considered for as whole human beings, with flaws and strengths, like people anywhere, from whom “resiliency” shouldn’t be expected or be defining. I hope that, after having read this novel, the next time Haiti is in the news, readers will think critically about what they are hearing, how the narrative of Haiti is framed, and perhaps seek out narratives resonant with the experiences of Haitians themselves. Lastly, for Haitian and Caribbean readers who see themselves represented in the novel (as I have already heard some do), I hope that they walk away from the novel feeling restored, that it serves as a lasting, and healing presence in their lives.