Writers & Company

Myriam J. A. Chancy's powerful new novel explores the tragedy of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the Haitian Canadian American writer talked about why her novel What Storm, What Thunder examines the trauma and tenacity of a nation.
What Storm, What Thunder is a novel by Myriam J. A. Chancy. (HarperCollins Canada)

When Myriam J. A. Chancy spoke to survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 250,000 people and left countless others homeless, she was overwhelmed by their stories. The painful accounts became both a burden and a gift. The result is her powerful new novel, What Storm, What Thunder, which weaves together the experiences of 10 different characters to create a vivid portrait of the earthquake and its aftermath.

Born in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Chancy grew up moving between her homeland and Canada, where her family had immigrated when she was very young. She now lives and teaches in the U.S. In addition to her scholarly work in the field of Haitian women's literature, she has published four novels.

Multilayered and poetic, What Storm, What Thunder reckons with the trauma of disaster, while finding hope within heartbreak.

Chancy spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Los Angeles.

An aerial view of the Iron Market at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 11, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The market was built in the 1890's, destroyed in 2010 and reconstructed. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Marché en Fer, or the Iron Market

"I am the great-granddaughter of a market woman. My mother's grandmother was a market woman. I did not know her in my lifetime, but I heard about her because she was a formidable force in my mother's family. She was the head of our family: she most likely started with a stall of her own in the street as a young person. 

"By the time she had her first child, her only child — my grandmother, who became a seamstress — she owned her own market in the Marché en Fer, which is a covered market that was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and later rebuilt.

"She was the reason my mother's family was able to thrive. By the time you get to my mother's generation, all those children were sent to the best schools in Port-au-Prince. They were able to become professionals in their own lifetimes. I have the example of a market woman who probably did not have a great deal of education and yet was able to lead her family into a better future. There were no men in this family that I know of. Her husband had died when she was younger, and it was a similar story for my grandmother. 

I am the great-granddaughter of a market woman. My mother's grandmother was a market woman.

"My great-grandmother bought a house.  We were told that she had the first car in Port-au-Prince. She was able to really thrive."

A view of a tent city on January 8, 2013 in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. (Thony Belizaire/AFP via Getty Images)

Taffia and the tent city

"In the novel, there are actually several tent cities that are mentioned, and the character of Taffia is with her immediate family members in this particular camp at the foot of the cathedral.  There were many, many camps because 1.5 million people were left without shelter after the 2010 earthquake.

"What happened is that people having no other immediate support — and of course, having lost their dwellings and Taffia's family having lost a family home — had to create dwellings in open areas where nothing would be falling on them to escape further injury or death. What that also meant is that, though people would gather together in family groups and sometimes in community groups, often they would find themselves in camps where they didn't know who their neighbours were — people had come from different areas of the city and were displaced. 

The term 'internally displaced' means that these are people who are living in refugee conditions within their own country.

"The term 'internally displaced' means that these are people who are living in refugee conditions within their own country. At the time, there was very little security. There was a lot of violence in the camps. We know, from different surveys and different organizations who have done this work, that there was a lot of sexual violence in the camps.

"We only learned much later that some of that violence was also perpetrated by UN soldiers, who were ostensibly there to protect life. Taffia's story is a story of a young person who, before the earthquake, was only thinking about her teenage crush, her next date, and who her best friend might be in high school. She's already at a very vulnerable place in her life where she's being pursued by young boys who think that they should have access to her."

A Haitian couple surveys the damage to homes in Port-au-Prince in 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A very Haitian sensibility

"I was born in Haiti in 1970. My parents went back and forth between Haiti and Canada for many years. My formal schooling took place in Winnipeg, starting in 1975. 

That sense of rootedness in Haitian culture never left me.

"I was in contact with an extended family, most of which was still in Haiti at that time, with cousins in their 20s. I was the baby of the family, encapsulated by this huge family where there was a great deal of warmth and care and a very Haitian sensibility.

"We had people from all walks of life: My mother's older sister was an artist and I was exposed to Haitian art through her. My mother also had a brother who was an engineer who worked in Europe and North Africa, but then moved his practice to Haiti and stayed there most of his life. My father's family is filled with musicians who are very well known in Haiti. 

"There was this sense of always being impregnated with Haitian arts and culture. There were lots of lively debates in the family about whatever was going on politically. That sense of rootedness in Haitian culture never left me. I owe this to the fact that I was born there and that my parents cultivated a connection to Haiti through my very early years."

Myriam J. A. Chancy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

WATCH | CBC's The National reports on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti:

Nine years after devastating disaster, Haiti remains in need of help | Dispatch

4 years ago
Duration 6:38
Returning to Haiti nine years after a devastating earthquake, Washington correspondent Paul Hunter finds a country struggling to come to terms with its past amid a chaotic political climate.

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