This episode of Between The Covers is brought to you in part by Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, a literary mentoring program that pairs emerging and established authors with mentors in their genre. Directed by award-winning writers Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Rachel Rose in Vancouver BC, the program is open to writers around the world who seek sustained mentorship for their works in progress. Writers can join the six-month program that includes interaction with other mentors and students, and participation in a public reading or they can pursue solo guidance for more directed and short-term support all year long. This year, a fellowship for a writer of exceptional promise who has faced significant barriers to fulfilling that promise is offered for the second time. The application deadline for the six-month program beginning January 2022 is November 9th. Please visit vancouvermanuscriptintensive.com for more information about pairing with a mentor to hone your project. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions, a collection of poems with vivid stories to tell of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion, or sexual awakening. Stories that are by turn emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny, and outrageous. Says Morgan Parker, “Rachel Long has miraculous command of the line, in all its trickery and grace and gasps, showcasing a truly refreshing voice with observant, deeply felt insight.” Bernardine Evaristo adds, “An enchanting and heartwarming new voice in poetry.” My Darling from the Lions is out now from Tin House. I’ve been looking forward to this day, the launch of this conversation with Myriam Chancy, partly because while she has long been a pivotal figure in Caribbean studies, and in particular, the role of storytelling by women in Haitian literature, and while she has been a storyteller herself, a novelist for many years now, it feels like with the launch of her new book, that she herself is at a pivotal moment, in that while you might not know the name Myriam Chancy now as I say these words, I think that is about to change and in a big way. We’ll look back and marvel at this moment just before. Myriam really was generous with her contribution to the bonus audio archive. At Scripps College, she teaches courses on transnational feminist theory, Caribbean women writers, on James Baldwin, and on postcolonial theory and postcolonial anxieties. Her 20-minute contribution to the bonus archive is a bit of what I would imagine sitting in on a seminar of hers might feel like. She performs a close reading from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place for us, a book that she teaches. Here, she alternates between short readings, then commentary and analysis, both of the Kincaid texts in its own right but also in relation to Haiti and the ways it has influenced the choices Chancy made in writing her latest novel, the novel that we discussed today. This joins bonus audio from Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, N. K. Jemisin, Ted Chiang, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Teju Cole, and many others. The bonus audio is only one of many possible benefits of becoming a listener-supporter. Everyone who supports the show receives emails with each episode pointing you to things referenced during the conversation and suggestions of where to explore next once you’re done listening, and there are collectibles donated by past guests among many other things. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Myriam Chancy.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Haitian-Canadian writer and scholar, Myriam Chancy. Chancy received her bachelor’s in English literature with a minor in philosophy from the University of Manitoba, a masters in English literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a doctorate in English literature from The University of Iowa. Chancy is currently Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College and has previously held 10-year track positions in the English departments of Vanderbilt University, Arizona State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Cincinnati. She’s the author of many Touchstone Books of literary scholarship, including Framing Silence, revolutionary novels by Haitian women, which is the first book length study in English devoted to Haitian women’s literature and was thus instrumental in inaugurating Haitian women’s studies as a contemporary field of specialization. It ended up as the first of an academic trilogy on Caribbean’s women’s literature that included Searching for Safe Spaces, one of the first books in Caribbean studies to argue for exile as a distinct feature of Anglophone, Afro-Caribbean women’s literature. A book that was awarded an Outstanding Academic Book Award from the journal of the American Library Association, and the final book in the trilogy From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Myriam Chancy is a Guggenheim fellow, and as part of that fellowship, published the book Autochthonomies. Transnationalism, Testimony, and Transmission in the African Diaspora. Myriam Chancy is past editor-in-chief of Meridians, an interdisciplinary feminist journal, which provides a forum for both scholarship and creative work by, and about women of color, which engages the complexity of debates around feminism, race, and transnationalism in a dialogue across ethnic national and disciplinary boundaries. She has served on the editorial board of The Journal of Haitian Studies. As if that were not enough, Chancy is also a writer of fiction, the reason she is on Between The Covers today. Her first novel, Spirit of Haiti, was shortlisted for the Best First Book for the 2004 Commonwealth Prize in the Canada/Caribbean category. She followed this book with the novels The Scorpion’s Claw and The Loneliness of Angels, the latter of which was the inaugural winner of the Guyana Prize in Literature Caribbean Award for Best Fiction in 2010, which was also shortlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature. Myriam Chancy is here today to talk about her fourth novel, just out from Tin House books entitled What Storm, What Thunder at which Edwidge Danticat says of Chancy’s latest, “Lending her voice to ten survivors whose lives were indelibly altered by the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Myriam J. A. Chancy’s sublime choral novel not only describes what it was like for her characters before, during, and after that heartrending day, she also powerfully guides us towards further reflection and healing. A striking and formidable novel by one of our most brilliant writers and storytellers.” Jose Olivarez says, “Myriam Chancy is a masterful writer. The book is devastating and tender, but it is not a spectacle of sadness—it is a show of humanity and care in the midst of great violence.” Publishers Weekly in its starred review describes What Storm, What Thunder as, “Not to be missed.” Kirkus in its starred review says, “In her searing new novel, Chancy, who spent years talking to survivors, sifts through the wreckage of this inconceivable calamity. She has shaped the stories of the living and the dead into a mighty fictional tapestry that reflects the terror, despair, and sorrow of the moment as she examines questions of Haitian identity in a world that doesn’t seem to care. The stories are not always easy to read, but they shouldn’t be. Chancy offers fleeting redemption for some characters, but she does not deal in false hopes. “We all look away unless it’s us, or someone we love, going up in flames,” one character muses. In this devastating work, Chancy refuses to let any of us look away. A devastating, personal, and vital account.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Myriam Chancy.
Myriam Chancy: Thank you so much for having me, David. It’s really an honor to be with you.
DN: I’ve been really looking forward to having this conversation with you. When the 2010 earthquake happened, you were receiving a lot of pressure from others to write an earthquake novel. A novel you never planned on writing despite the pressure. I wanted to start there with you talking to us perhaps about what happened that changed your mind and your heart about this so that now, here we are together today because of this novel that you originally had no intention of writing.
MC: Yeah, 2010, this event was really shattering for myself and many Haitians around the world, and other people with ties to Haiti to say nothing of the people who went through the earthquake itself and have survived it. At the time, because of a book you’ve mentioned, Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, I was very well known as someone who spoke out on Haitian women’s and children’s issues, so I received a lot of requests to give talks about the after effects of the earthquake. Of course, because I was outside of Haiti at the time, it seemed like one of the few things that I could offer is to give talks when I could. Sometimes, they were polemical, especially as the months went by and it was clear that aid was not being distributed in ways that were the best for people on the ground or that Haitian voices were not being heard. It was a way for me, both as a scholar, as an academic, and as an educator to use my voice to amplify what I was hearing and learning about what was happening on the ground from direct sources but also from news reports, and so forth. At the same time, the last novel, The Loneliness of Angels, which came out of the UK, appeared about a month after the earthquake. That novel was written in response to a hurricane in 2004. It came out in 2010 but it was talking about the effects of that hurricane. There was a lot of language in that novel that invoked the kinds of metaphors that we think about when we think about earthquakes. Of course, that was completely accidental but since I was also asked to take part in readings and fundraisers for the earthquake I was reading from the novel, and some people would come to me and say, “Oh, then your next novel should be on the earthquake or framed as a moment to take advantage of.” I found that really not only distasteful but really just for me, a strange response because in the weeks after the earthquake, I was waiting for weeks to find out who in my family had survived or perished, friends as well, colleagues as well. What happened at the time is that it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind in a moment where I felt I was in crisis and so many of us were in crisis to even think of beginning yet a new novel, and to have it be on this particular topic. I just let those comments slide by and disregarded them. But I went on to give talks, and to participate in different efforts on the ground for probably three years after the earthquake. I still really didn’t think about writing anything about the earthquake aside from all of the essays that I had been writing. At some point, I was invited to be a writer in residence in Trinidad, which has, I discovered, a long history with Haiti in terms of independence movements, especially in the 70s movement, 70s revolution as it’s called there. I met some of the actors, the older actors of that period, a playwright, some writers. One of my connections there had me meet the following years, I was writer in residence in 2012 at which time I was asked by Sunity Maharaj to write a series of essays on Haiti for Trinidadians, for people who didn’t understand what had happened or why it should matter to them in the Caribbean, then I returned another year later. At that time, I was introduced to the painter LeRoy Clarke who was also part of the 70s revolution and is probably the best known painter that Trinidad has produced—who just passed away unfortunately a couple of weeks ago. I wish I had been able to share the novel with him. I didn’t have that opportunity. At the time that I met him, he was working on a series responding as a Trinidadian to Haiti, to what was happening in Haiti. What I learned is that he had started this series in 1986, which was the end of the Duvalier regime. He had started a very large form painting and he had stopped it. Then after the earthquake, he finished the painting. This is a painting that’s now over 20 years old. He had started just painting through the night for weeks on end. When I was there visiting him, he had 77 paintings and he went on to paint 111, something around that number. He had never been to Haiti, had never talked to a Haitian painter, had never studied Haitian painting. Many of the paintings were things that I could really understand without talking to him about them. He was struck by the fact, because he just had, in his studio, someone put out all the paintings for me to look at and I was just moved to tears, literally moved to tears and that led to a conversation about process. The process that he had engaged in was a spiritual one. Listening to what he felt were the cries coming out from Haiti. We had a conversation about it and that led me to think about all these years that I had been spending, giving talks, conversations I’d had after those talks with people who had been through the earthquake or who had family involved in the earthquake and it made me think about why had so many people invested this extra emotional energy to have those conversations with me. I realized at that point, after seeing the paintings in Clarke studio, that investment was coming out of a realization that my function, whether you call it an avocation or a spiritual function, was as a writer to be a spokesperson or witness for other people. After a couple of weeks of returning from Trinidad that second time, I just sat down and reflected on that experience. I would say the skeleton for the novel just emerged. The characters, who they were, their ages, where they had been at the time of the earthquake just started pouring out. I started with a little boy’s voice, Jonas, who’s 11 years old at the time of the earthquake. It went from there. I think part of what changed in terms of my conviction that I should write the novel or could write it was one, that reflection on why I had so many people commiserated with me after those talks, but also that there was no rush in doing so. That I wasn’t just, as people were saying to me in those first weeks, how you should rush to do something. Writing as a witness is not about rushing to an end goal, it’s about taking that charge really seriously. I think I also took it seriously in terms of speaking on behalf of the dead because so many people died in that earthquake. Now, people are seeing 300,000, at the time 250, 000, and wanting to give voice to those experiences as well.
DN: The new novel, the one we’re talking about, What Storm, What Thunder, it’s mainly set just before it and just after the earthquake, which as you mentioned, in a mere 45 seconds killed up to 300,000 people, and made a million and a half people homeless. It did this not because it was a much bigger earthquake than the one that Haiti experienced this year. An earthquake this year that was actually slightly bigger than the one in 2010 but because of where the epicenter was in a much more population dense part of the island. You tell the story from 10 points of view, in a sense repeating the weeks before and the weeks after but from different vantage points. I wanted to ask you about this choice, both as a writer of fiction but also as a literary scholar because what’s so fascinating about talking to you is your academic work itself looks at the role of storytelling for Haitians. It looks at writing against monolithic colonial narratives told against Haiti but also as a means for Haitian women to disrupt Haitian male writers’ stranglehold on the Haitian narrative as well. For instance, in Framing Silence, you argue that Haitian women writers not only don’t rely on a unified understanding of Haitian culture to create their narratives but they redefine the understanding of Haiti. My question of why write this novel as a polyvocal chorus of perspectives is both for you as a storyteller and you as a scholar of storytelling, what about the choice appeals to you as a writer of fiction? What, if any, philosophical or socio-political implications does this choice have?
MC: That’s a very big question. [laughter] Let me give you the academic answer first. If I put on my professorial hat, I think the first answer would be that it’s not unusual for a Caribbean writer, maybe less so for a Haitian writer but for a Caribbean writer to write in a polyvocal manner, it’s not unusual. It’s even more prominent in the Anglophone Caribbean than it is in the, I wouldn’t say Francophone Caribbean, but for the Haitian writers that I follow, it’s more recent that polyvocality has ingrained itself. The idea being that polyvocality is very much central to the cultures of the Caribbean as it is, many cultures, I would say non-European cultures, that the artwork needs to speak in a wider way where it doesn’t centralize the story in a central character but in multiple locales in order to give a sense of a whole picture of a collective. I think in that sense, I’m being consistent with tradition. In terms of my particular choice with this novel—and I have done this in all of my novels, so this is not new to me. I think in something I’m working on now, I’m going to reduce the number of voices—but for this particular novel, the initial impetus was that I was trying to figure out how can I speak in some way for those 250,000 departed people even though in the novel, a number of people are survivors, but how can I speak to those who will never have their story told, just whole families wiped out and so forth. Initially, my idea was that because on the ground, many people call the earthquake “douz” or 12 for the day of the earthquake, but I should have 12 main characters. Even though there are 10 voices in the novel, there are actually still 12 main characters, although the remaining two are perhaps less distinct to the reader because they used to have full sections and in the final version, they were left on the cutting room floor. But the idea was then “how can you encompass the whole of this experience of the earthquake in 12 people in that symbolic order or number?” then the idea even whittled down to 10, I still was holding on to this same idea, how can we give a sense of a wider whole through these multiple voices because when you think about it, that’s actually not a lot of voices if you’re trying to speak for 300,000 departed, then 1.5 million people who are homeless. How do you do it? There’s that. I don’t think having one voice, one central narrative would have given justice to that wider number, astronomical numbers. Then the other reason I did so is because in my experience, those three years where I did the work month in and month out with speaking about Haiti, connecting people, and so forth and also just talking to members of my family, to people on the ground as I say, the reactions post earthquake to what had happened were so varied in ways that were sometimes difficult to piece together. I wanted the novel to reflect that wide range of responses. Because when a cataclysm occurs anywhere—and we’re now in the midst of so many things happening, the earthquake in Haiti, just this month, what’s happening in Afghanistan, the storms in Louisiana and elsewhere—so every time we see these larger events take place on our television screens, or for many people on their laptops and so forth, there’s a way in which we can reduce those experiences to masses. People in Afghanistan are feeling this way or people in Louisiana demand this. We talk in these very large scopes about what a group of people or massive people are going through. Even though that is also an element of disasters, another part of it is that people are having very individual experiences of those disasters in the midst of them. People will not have a uniform response to those disasters. I wanted to somehow reflect, as best I could, the wide range of responses. I had to think about how to relate that in the novel. One of the ways I found proof of polyvocality was also to have three different family groups reflected so that even within the family groups, you see that the experience of the earthquake or response to it is not the same, even with people who know each other very intimately.
DN: It seems like this impulse to complicate or resist unifying narratives, like you say your novels before this are also polyvocal and I’m thinking about The Loneliness of Angels, and the way you engage with the Syrian, Jewish, and Irish presence on the island as another example of complicating what it would mean to be Haitian and what Haitian identity is made of. But as you mentioned with these three families in the latest book, one of the ways the book coheres is that these 10 characters or 12 characters, some of them are related by blood. Someone who’s narrating one chapter may be a character in a following chapter and some of them are united more by circumstance, whether it’s the earthquake or otherwise but there is definitely a sense of interbraiding and layering happening between the 10 voices. They’re not disparate voices. But the market woman that the book opens with, Ma Lou, seems to serve, at least for me, a larger role in the book than the others. She feels like the connective tissue that holds the book together, the matriarch, not only of her family but it feels almost like she’s the matriarch of the book. I was hoping you could introduce us to her as a character.
MC: I’m glad to hear you say that actually. Ma Lou is a market woman in her 70s. She’s the oldest character in the novel. She’s seen a great deal in Haiti. She understands a great deal about social relations. She’s alienated from her son who she put in a boarding school after his father passed away, her husband passed away. He’s gone on to become a water magnate in France and has basically turned his back on Haiti. He’s also turned his back on a child that he left behind from his adolescent years that she is aware of and is in touch with, who also makes an appearance in the novel. When I found Ma Lou, or found her voice or her voice came to me, I really felt—because going back to those talks I was giving after the earthquake, one of my talks was called Hearing Our Grandmothers Speak and it was a response to a number of people who were saying that the earthquake had not been born across classes. There’s some truth to that and also some untruth to that in the sense that obviously, those who were more insecure in their housing had a bigger way to bear in terms of loss of life, loss of housing, and so forth. But others in other classes also bore losses. A natural disaster doesn’t discriminate as to whom it will hit. As someone who is on the outside of Haiti, who is of middle class status one could say, one of the things that I carry with me is a very complicated family history. On my mother’s side, my mother’s grandmother, so my great-grandmother was a market woman. A market woman who did well enough that she was able to have a covered stall in the [00:31:37], which was destroyed in the earthquake but rebuilt a couple of years later and was able to employ other women, and put a roof over her head—she was unmarried or widowed—over her child’s head, my mother and her siblings. I wanted to bear witness or give her a homage for the things that she was able to accomplish in her life that often people will disregard. When I wrote Hearing My Grandmother Speak, in that talk, I was talking about the ways in which market women serve as emblematic metaphors for Haiti. At the time, there were lots of images of market women walking through the debris in Port-au-Prince for example, a noble figure continuing her work no matter what. But nobody would speak about, what does it mean to have to withstand the earthquake no matter what, what does it mean to be a Haitian woman in that aftermath, having very little or being someone who has to get up at 3:00 in the morning and work until the end of the day, and so forth. One of the things I conjectured at the time was that in the period of reconstruction—and this was at the beginning of a period of reconstruction—people would ask, “Who should we speak to? How do we approach reconstruction?” I would say, “Why not begin with the market women? Why not talk to those women because they are, as we always tend to say, the backbone of a culture?” But when it comes to politics, when it comes to economic strategies, we leave them completely out of a conversation. These are women who, if you ever find yourself in a Haitian marketplace, can explain to you global economics very, very clearly as well as a professor of economics. In Ma Lou, I wanted to encapsulate that knowledge, that awareness and I also wanted to reflect the space that market women occupy, not just as a kind of ennobling figure but that figure that knows everything because everything goes through the marketplace. All social classes go through the marketplace. Children, adults, teenagers, everyone goes there. It’s also where a lot of information gets traded because people often disregard market women even within the culture so that they’ll talk openly about things that one shouldn’t talk openly about in front of a market woman. I thought, “Well, here is a way of honoring market women but not just for this empty vessel of fortitude but as someone who is highly conscious of her social role in the society in which she resides and who also can provide a critique of the society while also providing answers. You don’t find Ma Lou giving you those political kinds of answers but you find in her reflections and in her actions a response to what is happening in Haiti at this time that should inform the reader about those things that could have happened, did not happen or that individuals took upon themselves to fulfill. For example, the rescue of the bones of her ancestors from a cemetery, a real cemetery that was closed or paved over after the earthquake. She finds ways of maneuvering through grief and finding ways of reconnecting to those family members that she still has in ways that reflect some of the larger issues at hand.
DN: Could we hear the opening to the book in her voice?
[Myriam Chancy reads from What Storm, What Thunder]
DN: We’ve been listening to Myriam Chancy read from her latest book from Tin House, What Storm, What Thunder. In talks you’ve given in the past, you’ve talked about how you usually include Haitian spirituality and rituals in your novels but you rarely name them explicitly as Vodou because of how freighted, and caricatured the word is, particularly in the white imaginary. Knowing this, it seemed noteworthy to me that this book, in contrast, opens with a Vodou in vocation on the epigraph page, then a Vodou traditional song to open Ma Lou’s chapter. It feels like there’s a constant presence of it going forward. We know that Ma Lou is a Catholic but her husband and her mother both practice Vodou. In the chapter with Sara, there’s a ritual to conjure the ghosts of dead children. In Sonia’s chapter, she sees the God of death, just before the earthquake. Richard, in his chapter, we learned that as a kid, he dreamed of being a shape-shifter from, I know that’s not necessarily, Vodou but from Caribbean folklore. Didier, who is a Christian is visited by the spirit of his father. Not all of these fall under the category of Vodou necessarily but I’m wondering if you could maybe just unpack in more detail why you’ve avoided the term while still exploring the content and why in a way, it seems like you’re foregrounding it from page one in What Storm, What Thunder?
MC: That’s a great question because until you ask a question, right now, I don’t think it was a conscious shift for me. It felt very organic in the writing to place Vodou or to be very explicit about the Vodou presence for these particular characters. But of course, from a critical point of view, when I look back on my work, it was a very deliberate decision or at least it was a very deliberate decision until now to mask the Vodou because of the kinds of negative ways in which Vodou has been stereotyped and represented, especially as you were saying, in the American imagination. For those listeners who don’t know, this is where we get the concept of a zombie, which is so popular now for example. The other aspect of this is that after the earthquake, which happened again this month after 8/14, there has been a great deal of talk about the idea that Haiti—I hate to repeat the phrase but I will—is a cursed nation and that the curse goes back to Vodou. Had Vodou not played an integral part in the founding of a nation, going back to Bois Caïman and it is not lost on many Haitians, that the latest earthquake took place on the anniversary of the Bois Caïman gathering of the 1700s so that some people have distorted this history to say, “Well look, this must be the reason calamities keep happening to Haiti.” My response to that is that—and I think there might be a different weaving going on in What Storm, What Thunder—which is that there is an implicit critique of Christian impositions on the island and by that I mean colonial impositions, whether by the Catholic church or by other Christian entities, including missionaries that have, not necessarily with the best intent, imposed themselves in ways that have diminished Haitians capacity, not only to fulfill their spirituality but to grow as a nation. I guess in a sense, what I did here was a reversal, which was to critique and invoke Christianity as something that has beleaguered Haitian society, and found ways to reveal the ways in which Vodou has enabled the continuance of Haitian culture and possibility.
DN: For listeners who might not know of that touchstone gathering in the 1700s, could you just speak for a moment on what you were referencing?
MC: The Haitian revolution is normally dated back to 1791. The Bois Caïman gathering might be a few years earlier. I have to check the actual dates of Bois Caïman but it took place on August 14th. Bois Caïman was a gathering that took place in a clearing where enslaved Africans and their allies came together, held from all accounts a Vodou ceremony to open up a space in which they could talk and organize, and be on the same page about how they would enact this revolution against French colonists and plantation owners to free themselves of slavery, and in freeing themselves of slavery, to also create a new society that interestingly, I don’t know if a lot of people know this but this was enshrined in the 1805 Constitution drafted by Dessalines, in which every citizen of Haiti would consider themselves black regardless of ethnicity. There were people who took part in the revolution who were mixed race and free people of color. There were whites who abandoned their plantations and joined instead of fleeing to nearby places, like Louisiana, Cuba, Guadalupe, even Trinidad, decided that they would join this revolution. There were Poles who had been conscripted in the French army, who, because they were not treated well by the French, decided to take the side of the revolutionaries. They joined together in a massive revolution, which took a little more than a decade to accomplish but it is the only nation in the Americas that achieved its independence within slave systems without an emancipation. That Vodou ceremony was pivotal in bringing everyone together and unifying people under an African concept of the collective, which is part of Vodou society. I think what I would also add is that one of the problems in how popular notions of Haiti have continued to proliferate the negative outside of Haiti, but even sometimes within, is that we don’t, in Creole and even in French, have different sign systems for the broad terms that are utilized to talk about healing modalities and spiritualities as opposed to those that people would associate in the United States for example of “black magic,” what’s called Hoodoo for example in Louisiana. We call Vodou, both of those modalities but if you’re a priest or priestess working in the healing modality, you’re a houngans or a mambo, houngan is the male, mambo is a female. Whereas, if you were working in the “dark arts,” you would be a bokor. There are these distinctions that get lost in translation. A lot of people don’t realize that Vodou, you could think about it as some more recent writings have been unearthing for example, Mimerose Beaubrun, she’s the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans, rasin group. They’re probably one of the most popular roots music groups in Haiti. She’s also an anthropologist. She wrote a book called Nan Dòmi, In The Sleep, which is available and translated into English where she talks about through interviews with mambos—all of whom passed away after she interviewed them. They were in their 70s and 80s—talks about the ways in which Vodou is about healing, healing the self, healing the collective. I think Madison Smartt Bell wrote the foreword to this book. He talks about how the modalities are very similar to Buddhism and Taoism but people have not taken the time to understand the similarity in those concepts.
DN: Also, it’s interesting that you brought up notions of blackness, skin color, and race because we have the character Didier who’s in Boston, taxi driver, who’s perplexed by American notions of whiteness, which do not seem to track well with his own notions of race from growing up in Haiti. There are ways in which it feels like this book also addresses questions of colorism, racism, and the ways they diverge between Haiti and the United States, and other places.
MC: Absolutely. I think Didier is a good example. This came up sometimes in the editorial process because I made the deliberate choice in Didier section to not capitalize the word black. I kept having to explain that Didier doesn’t have a concept of black as a chosen category against oppression. His understanding of black would be different from that. He doesn’t understand it in terms of skin color. I lowercased black because he just sees it as a color because that’s what he’s learning in America, what this word means, then he learns that it means that he’s [00:52:27], which is not a concept he understood. Of course, this is not to say that there isn’t colorism in Haiti and class distinction. Of course, there is. But it’s to say that it’s unlikely that you would have a Haitian, somebody who’s born in Haiti and raised there, thinking of themselves as not black but for completely different reasons. I mean that in the sense that there are upper class and they’re white appearing, and so forth. It’s much more complicated. Didier was a good vehicle for me because of his introduction to race in America through Boston and racism to really understand how different America has been from the dream that he had imagined when he emigrated.
DN: I want to spend some more time with this notion of Haiti as a cursed nation and the ways the bias against Vodou is tied into a larger bias against Haiti. I’m going to read something by the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, who I think has made a long career of terrible takes on a number of issues but I want to read it, not because I think this is unique to him but because I think he’s saying something that is emblematic of a certain way he gets positioned that is anything but unique to him. For instance, when Senator Biden was asked in 1994 if congress would give Clinton authority to invade Haiti, Biden said, “If Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest.” But returning to Brooks, this is what he once wrote shortly after the earthquake of 2010. “It is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other. As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book ‘The Central Liberal Truth,’ Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning is futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.” But this viewpoint of David Brooks in The New York Times isn’t something just shared by white pundits. I listened to a talk that you gave called Submission or Omission: Haiti’s Challenge in Latin America where you look at how Haiti is omitted from the larger Latin American discourse. That Haiti, being the most Africanized country and also being particularly mired in poverty, are conflated and viewed as related. That the Western Hemisphere’s most iconic revolution is seen as failed and squandered, not because it was punished for its success but because of its blackness. On a more personal level, you shared that you’re a quarter Dominican. For instance, when you’re in the Dominican Republic, people are perplexed that you identify as Haitian because why would someone identify this way if they could avoid it. I was hoping you could talk about this hyper-polarized view of Haiti where on the one hand, people like Brooks and many others single it out as a culture of failure and connect this to its blackness, on the other hand, it being the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere and only the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, a successful slave-led revolution that inspired everyone from Zora Neale Hurston to Langston Hughes to James Baldwin who all visited, I know this was a big question but also one you’ve thought very deeply about.
MC: Did Baldwin go to Haiti? I didn’t know that.
DN: Actually, I’m not 100% sure Baldwin. I know during the American occupation of Haiti that Hurston and Hughes did.
MC: Let me begin with my own heritage. As I say, I’m a quarter Dominican but it’s important to state that my Dominican grandfather was Haitian in the sense that he was a Haitian of Dominican descent. When I look back at that history and I have the family tree from that branch of my family, it starts with a Haitian woman who crosses the border, then returns to Haiti so that the Dominican branch is actually also Haitian. One of the things that I was always aware of growing up—and I wrote about this in one of my academic books, From Sugar to Revolution—is that Haiti was not always as impoverished as people make out to be today. There was a time when it was Dominicans who traveled to Haiti to seek better fortunes, especially, they were working to the middle class. This myth that it was always Haitians who migrated and who sought to better themselves of a DR, certainly not true in my family and was not true for a long period. Even when we go back to the period of Trujillo in the massacre of 1937 where I think approximately 30,000 or so Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans were killed in the border zone, I’ve written quite a lot about this but the historical record shows that this was part of a movement of de-Haitianizing but really de-blackening, it was called the blanqueamiento movement, to whiten the nation and to stigmatize people who were dark-skinned, since Haitians were of darker skin, to make darkness and Haitianness synonymous, then that gets conflated with Vodou. But make no mistake about it, Trujillo was also targeting dark-skinned Dominicans, which is why so many Dominicans, as you were quoting from something I’d said at another point because I appear more like a Dominican to many than someone who is Haitian, are surprised because I guess I’m an in-between tone that I would identify as Haitian. Having said that, I’ll just say one more thing about 1937. Most Haitians who were working in the cane field industry at that time returned to Haiti after what was called the zafra, the cane cutting period. The reason they did so was because they were landowning Haitians. They were landowning peasants because going all the way back to the revolution, the revolution had seen to it that plantation land had been redistributed to those who worked the land as enslaved people. Of course, there were no deeds, so over time, this reality was stripped away from poor landowning Haitians. But this is just to say that Haitians had a place they called home and that migration was not an endpoint. It was simply seasonal. A lot of this has been forgotten. As I climb back into the long quotes there, I think the Brooks op-ed is shocking but it’s not only shocking for the kinds of stereotypes that it repeats about Haiti, but because—I don’t read Brooks—I have to assume that this is a well-educated middle to upper class American who thinks that they are well read and urbane. Here’s the problem. I’ll just go through a few of the misconceptions, I could go through all of them, but a few of the misconceptions I find interesting, this comparison to other islands. “Well, Barbados is poor,” or “They occupy the same island as the Dominican Republic, one side is deforested, the other not.” I remember, as a teenager, as an undergrad at University of Manitoba going to a film session to see a film about deforestation of Haiti, a film by the way which I’ve been unable to find since. I’ve seen little references to it here or there but the deforestation of Haiti actually begins under the colonial period and continues through to the modern period, through lumber companies, especially Canadian lumber companies. This is why the film being at the time in Canada was so interesting to me because I didn’t know that history. Often, peasants are blamed today for cutting trees and making charcoal to heat their dwellings because of the lack of running electricity and so forth. But cutting down trees for small dwellings would never have created the level of deforestation that you see in Haiti. It had to come from somewhere else. I find it striking that there wouldn’t be a conversation or thinking of how Haiti became deforested. It had ebony wood, it had very prized woods that the French took, that Canadians took later on and did not replant because that was not part of the colonial method. Why did this not take place in the Dominican Republic? Because in the Dominican Republic, you had a different historical Spanish colonization and you did not have a revolution, which means that the two countries developed in a different way. Maybe I can give a shorthand in terms of poverty for example. I’m just shifting gears a little bit here to get to the issue of the indemnity that France forced Haiti to repay, over several decades, into the early 20th century, I’m sure that the number is higher now, but into the early 2000s under the second term of Aristide, was estimated to be the equivalent of $21 billion. Turn of the 19th to 20th century. One can imagine that if the country had been able to keep those $21 billion, which they had to pay, which is unknown in history, they had to pay to the losers of the war in order to have access to global trade. That was the deal that the French made. The French also lost a third of the present-day US territory as a result of this revolution. My students are always shocked when I show them the map of the Louisiana Purchase because they thought that the Louisiana Purchase, they often think, is just Louisiana, which is a smaller state. When I show them that huge swap of land, which is a third of present-day US, they’re like, “Oh my God.” One of the arguments I make which is not popular is that we could argue that Haiti is actually the first republic in the Americas. It’s not just the first black republic because the United States does not get constituted as the United States we know now until that purchase goes through all the processes we go through to become nations. The indemnity begins the impoverishment of a nation.
DN: I spent so much time on my own, just out of my own interest learning more about the indemnity. I’m going to reiterate some of what you said and maybe just add some other things, and correct me if I’m wrong too because I just feel so vital to this question and this stigma seems so relevant to how the world responds to anything that happens in Haiti, whether it be the recent assassination, the recent earthquake or the one in 2010, if we think of the David Brooks op-ed is just coming out and being generally received well and how that affects the way the world is treating Haiti today.
MC: I’m just listening to what you’re saying but it’s too facile to be able to see what’s happening in Haiti and to immediately say, “Oh well, look at how poor these people are. Look at how they’ve mismanaged their country.” I would imagine that it should strike people that that’s too facile.
DN: I would hope so but I don’t know that I think that it is. That’s the scary part. I wanted to ask you about that but it’s like a long prelude into asking you about ignorance. In my own engagement with this question of indemnity, I learned that Haiti was one of the richest European colonies going into the 1800s.
MC: That’s right.
DN: That after its successful revolution was isolated because all of the slave holding Caribbean around it didn’t want the successful revolt to spread. But it was also particularly economically isolated by the United States. Thomas Jefferson was fearful of slave revolts and referred to Haiti or Haitians as cannibals but the most mind-blowing thing is what you’ve referenced, which is the French who send a naval fleet to the new found nation and under the threat of invasion of a country that doesn’t itself have a navy, demands reparations for lost property and that lost property in the French mines includes human beings. Thus, they’re asking the victors to pay reparations for asserting their humanity. The first and only time a formerly enslaved people were forced to compensate those who had once enslaved them.
MC: I’m not aware that they sent a fleet because my understanding of the revolution is that they decimated that fleet. That’s my understanding.
DN: Oh, really? What I had heard and I think, again, I would defer to your knowledge is that it was a couple years later that they sent boats.
MC: That’s possible but I guess I’d like to leave people with the memory of the enslaved nation but did not supposedly have a military where Napoleon sent ship after ship and they were able to defeat Napoleon. The only ever defeat Napoleon Bonaparte had was in Waterloo, which was his final battle.
DN: I love that.
MC: It is important.
DN: What I read, and I saw different numbers but for the reparations, that they were paid over 120 years and amounted to up to 80% of Haiti’s budget. During this century plus, almost all of this money going to France rather than building schools, hospitals or infrastructure—and on top of that, France demanded a 50% discount on any goods that France purchased from Haiti. Not only on top of most of their budget going to France, they couldn’t generate revenue or much because of this discount. To put this all in perspective, the median annual income of a French family is $31,000 and in Haiti, it is $790. Thomas Piketty, the French economist said that France should repay at least $28 billion to Haiti and restitution. I could keep going because after this happens right around the time Haiti is almost done with their “debt to France,” the US invades, takes over Haiti’s finances and all of their gold reserves. When Brooks writes, which I think brings us back to the relevance of the 2010 earthquake but when Brooks writes on October 17th, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California, 63 people were killed. This week, a major earthquake also measuring a magnitude of 7.0 struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti and the Red Cross at that time estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people have died. We now know it’s hundreds of thousands of people. Then he goes on to suggest that it’s the shoddy construction and infrastructure that falls on Haiti’s shoulders. I guess I just don’t know what is more disturbing, that he could write this in either willful ignorance or under an incurious ignorance and that no one at The New York Times either knows or cares enough to hold the article to an intellectual standard, or that the article was received by many as brave for being willing to speak about the culture of poverty when a lot of people felt like they thought it but wouldn’t say it. I wondered about this immensity of ignorance that you are writing into and must be hovering as you write. [laughs]
MC: I’ve been immensely heartened and maybe even relieved at the pre-pub reception of the novel, at the same time as I’m aware that some readers are restrained in their acceptance of the vision of Haiti that I paint in this novel because it humanizes Haitians in a way that they’re not ready to accept. I don’t even know that they’re aware that their judgment is clouded. I hope that the novel is very good but I’m not trying to make claims on behalf of a writing but what I’m trying to say is that in an effort to humanize Haitian lives, there are some readers who are unable to see past what Brooks and others depict of Haiti because I think it satisfies a notion about the poor, not only in places like Haiti but also in the United States. Especially if those individuals are raised, it’s a very comfortable position to take if you don’t want to change superstructures or the ways in which a society is organized or especially from a vantage point of United States or Americans, if you want to convince yourself that America has achieved a gold standard, which we know from the Black Lives Movement in the last few years, America has not achieved. I’m forgetting your question, David, at this point. [laughs]
DN: It was just about writing into ignorance. It’s an ignorance that seems to be so pervasive. That it’s both the writer, the readership, and the editorial.
MC: Maybe one way I could speak to what you’re saying is that—and I was thinking back to the Biden quote that you provided at the opening of this part of our conversation that Haiti wouldn’t matter much—my argument, and I think the argument of many others, and I’m thinking of an older book that I think was published in the late 1990s by Randall Robinson, the activist who was on behalf of a defense of Haiti, but there are others. I think Paul Farmer also wrote a book that I often refer people to that many people have forgotten that he wrote. I think it was published in 1994, which is the same year as your Biden quote, which is called The Uses Of Haiti, which was not like his academic work aids and accusation but really laid out for the layperson what is this history of Haiti. I really like the title, The Uses Of Haiti because this idea that Haiti wouldn’t matter much doesn’t hold water. I do ask myself often, “Why is a country of around nine million people that is on half an island being held hostage to this degree?” Because that’s how I view the economic and political situation in Haiti. That they’re being held hostage to larger powers, international powers. It is difficult to say, but I must always come down to, that Haiti does have its uses. They are extractive. They are ideological. Extractive in the sense that you’re talking about the relative income of the French, but we could throw in the relative income of an average American family as opposed to a Haitian family. Many of whom actually do not survive on currency. They barter to make a living and to get by, and still manage to put food on the table of their children and get their kids to school, and so forth. We have to think very deeply about the effects of intervention in this particular island and why it is a strategic use to others. For example, France will say and I think the last French president to have made a comment like this I think was Mitterrand, you might correct me if I’m wrong, but when asked, “Are they owed reparations from France?” The response was, and still is, that Haiti was never a colony of France, so they’re owed nothing. Now, technically, that is true. Haiti, created by the formerly enslaved, was never a colony of France because it was Saint-Domingue when it was a colony. This is a semantic way of getting out of the issue and not thinking about all the numbers that you just gave us. On the American side—I discovered more about this when I lived in Louisiana where I had been told before I arrived there, there’s a large Haitian community and historical retention. I was dismayed to find out that a great deal of retention was highly negative from all quarters because people didn’t distinguish between the French plantation owners who fled the revolution because they did not accept a revolution and brought enslaved Africans with them into the Louisiana context, and continued barbarous ways. The Haitians who had inspired the revolution and were working at creating their nation, who they were now then being lumped with as being barbaric—so that I learned for example that during a period of a revolution, whenever there were enslaved African-Americans in Louisiana who fomented revolt, in one particular instance, across these plantations from the Mississippi River bed, if you’ve seen the old maps from Baton Rouge, which is where I was living to New Orleans, those individuals were killed. They were beheaded and their heads put on post all the way down the river so that other enslaved people could see what would happen to you if you revolted. Of course, the fear of revolt had to do with losing all of the reapings of a labor of Africans and African-Americans in this region. Then if we go back to some of the statistics that you also provided, citizens of France, during the period of the colony of Saint-Domingue derived a great deal of money directly or indirectly from this colony, whether they were directly involved in the plantation system or making goods from what was extracted, for example, sugar. Then moving very quickly into the 2000s when Aristide in his second term was removed in 2004—whatever your beliefs might be about Aristide’s second term, I know there’s a lot of conflict around his second term—it is known that he was seeking to have this indemnity repaid and he was also seeking from France, and he was also seeking to raise the minimum wage in Haiti, which was refused by the United States. Why is it that a people’s future has to be controlled from the outside? I’m a middle class, if I go back to Haiti, I have more of a chance of putting a child through school and having them go to university, and so forth but why should any Haitian who decides to stay in Haiti have to only imagine that the future for their children or their grandchildren is to work in a factory for a pittance, be exploited, and sometimes only be paid in the apparel that they’re creating for usually American-based industries and not have any hope to learn to trade, to go to college, whatever the case may be. The parallels are false, to just leave it at that in terms of the Brooks article, the parallels are false. They’re purposely, it seems to me, false because Haiti still has its uses. It still has its uses, not only in terms of extracting labor, extracting mineral resources of which it was discovered after the earthquake—it was known just before the earthquake but during the earthquake and after the earthquake, a lot of deals were made about who would own those mineral resources. It is a very rich country in many ways that the Haitian population itself does not have access to. But I’ll add one more layer to this because what Brooks and others don’t say—and are unwilling to say but I will say it—is that when you compare Haiti’s cultural and artistic production alongside that of other nations in the region, it far exceeds its poverty. I know your listeners can’t see it but I have a painting behind me, a Haitian painting. Haitian painting for example is very distinctive. It is copied all over the Caribbean, the style, especially in the Dominican Republic. But you know a Haitian painting when you see it because it’s very, very distinctive in style. The music has come out of Haiti. Konpa doesn’t exist in other parts of the Caribbean. Merengue is derived from Haitian rhythms as are other rhythms in Cuba and elsewhere. When it comes to literary production, even though more male writers have been published than female writers, there was a time when in the French literary tradition, Haitian writing was as valued as that coming out of France. People were very well known all over the world, Jacques Roumain, for example, or Depestre who then went on to live in France. Of course, the fact that many Haitian writers in particular have been writing in French and are unknown to American audiences has also fueled this idea that there is no artistic merit coming out of this country. But when you realize that there is so much production and the production is coming out of people who are either impoverished or who’ve had to flee their country because they cannot stay there because of the dictatorship or interventions or so forth, then you realize there’s something not quite right with the painting that Brooks wants to paint. I’ll just end with one more point that wouldn’t matter much. It is very interesting to me because 1994 was when I was living in Nashville and started writing Framing Silence in response to Americans being deployed to Haiti to intervene in the country. If it didn’t matter much, why were marines being deployed primarily from Nashville? It was then in discovering the work of Haitian women writers, especially the novelist, who started writing in response to the US occupation, which began in 1915 to 1937 (I might have my days a little off here) but the first novel was published in the 20s. There is a response to the occupation from female writers and this is when they start producing novelistic accounts. What I discovered in reading their works, then understanding more about the US occupation—because both my parents were born at the end of the US occupation, so I knew more about it than the average person—it turns out that marines were deployed from the same bases that were deployed for the first US occupation and the first US occupation was 1915 to 1934, changed the country irrevocably in terms of race because segregation for example didn’t exist. It was imposed by the occupiers. Things like gender discrimination really didn’t take hold until the occupation in the literature that I’ve read and the accounts of what happened, how people were treated, especially women under US occupation. A lot of what we see happening now being repeated in Haiti, we don’t have to go all the way back to the plantation system and to the French Colonization process to understand that US intervention has also had an effect that is about laying claim to black bodies in particular, and to redefining the contours of how people can define themselves in a nation that defied the ways in which the United States wants people of African descent to define themselves. I think every time people hear these kinds of stereotypes, they should ask themselves maybe a different question, which is, “Why is this being said of Haiti? Do I, when I listen to these stereotypes, hold similar stereotypes about people of African descent elsewhere and in particular, in the United States? How are these things connected?” That was a long answer.
DN: That was a great answer. I’m glad you brought up Framing Silence and also Haitian cultural production because I want to bring this back to writing, but I also want to stick with this question of erasure but a different form of erasure in the sense that combating the erasure of women. In Framing Silence, you cite a study from the 1980s that there were about 400 Haitian men that had been published in Haiti and only about 15 Haitian women at the time. Later you say that when a population is so insignificant, that its existence goes undocumented, storytelling becomes a form of retrieval. In that book, you look at how Haitian women writers often write in first person and often recast national narratives as personal ones. That fiction becomes a conduit for the historical narratives that otherwise are denied existence. In that light, you put forth the novel as a revolutionary tool and you posit that most Haitian women’s literature should be read as a literature of revolution. What’s interesting about this is not only that you’ve created this space through which scholarship can grow with the publication of Framing Silence about Haitian women storytellers, by framing their silence but you also are one of these storytellers. You yourself are contributing to the literature itself. I don’t know if you can have this double vision about yourself but I wondered if you could talk to us about you as a subject within your study. Do you see What Storm, What Thunder as a revolutionary tool? How do you, yourself, feel it is connected to or diverging from the Haitian women writers you’ve highlighted in your studies?
MC: The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m thinking about a lot of writers who don’t like critics, so being both makes it a little bit more difficult to, as you say, have this double vision because I feel that having been a literary critic has really been helpful to my creativity. I was a creative writer first. It just so happens that my creative writing took longer to find these homes. I think my early criticism really responded to gaps in scholarship and moments of distress in communities in the sense that I wanted to create archival material for those gaps. By that I mean for example, Searching for Safe Spaces was actually my doctoral dissertation. It responded to people at the time saying that Caribbean women’s writing didn’t exist even though I was publishing, at the time in Canada, short stories and I knew the work of Dionne Brand and Marlene Nourbese Philip and others who were less known at the time but obviously now are major figures in Caribbean literature. When I wrote Framing Silence, as I was saying to you earlier, it was in response to this intervention where I had colleagues in Nashville who probably, in well-meaning ways, were telling me that America was going to save my nation. I didn’t have the words to explain to them why I didn’t feel the same way. I found my response in the work of Haitian women writers. I was struck by the fact that those who had managed to be published spent very little time—and it’s not to say that there is not aesthetic value in their work although I do quote in Framing Silence some other scholars who felt that there was an aesthetic paucity in some of their work—I was struck by the fact that these women took, I would say, great chances in publishing the works that they did because often it meant critiquing, not only oppressive powers, former colonial powers, or in the case of somebody like Marie Vieux Chauvet in Amour, colère et folie (Love, Anger, Madness), who are critiquing the dictatorship so critiquing their very own or critiquing complicity on behalf of the middle classes for example during the regime. I think that it’s important for me, I suppose, to have entered the conversation in some way. I know I’ve received some criticism for writing in English, and maybe it’s a generational accident and also of education because French is my first language, all of my academic schooling is in English. But I also, even though actually there is one section of What Storm, What Thunder that I wrote in French and then translated and that’s Richard’s section, I understood at some point, especially because Framing Silence ended with the first books by Haitian women writers writing in English, and of course that would be Edwidge Danticat with Breath, Eyes, Memory, which I think was published in ‘94, ‘95 and Anne-christine d’Adesky who wrote Under the Bone, published also in the same year, those were the first two. I also realized that it would be the only way to ensure that there was a wider readership and one that does affect Haiti’s future. Because if we had the op-eds like the one you invoked earlier appearing in something like The New York Times, you’re affecting whole suaves of people in a culture that has a direct effect on this island nation. I did understand that writing in English would be pivotal, especially if my work were to garner a wider audience, which it looks like it’s beginning to, with this current novel. Is my work revolutionary? I would have to wait for critics to say that. [laughter] I can only say that I would like to believe that I’m participating in the tradition which is to speak back to historical moments as these previous Haitian women writers have done. All of my novels are in some way historical fiction except that I don’t really speak of distant history, although there are connections in some of my previous novels to earlier periods in the history. But I’m always deriving the fiction from historical moments that I feel are misunderstood, maligned, or need reframing. In that sense, I hope, in keeping with the tradition I detailed in Framing Silence.
DN: Let me ask you a similar question but maybe more rooted into the text of your latest novel. Given both your intimate knowledge of the erasure of women’s voices and the way Haitian women writers have written against that, what were some of your considerations, putting aside the character of Anne now who I want to talk about later, but what were some of your considerations around how you wanted to represent the women in the book, particularly the women in the IDP camps or Internally Displaced People camps post earthquake? Sara, Taffia, and Sonia, when you’re thinking, again, you were talking about how 12 voices isn’t a lot of voices for millions of people affected by this earthquake so you have to choose what women you want to foreground and then how to foreground them and represent them. Maybe just share some of your thoughts around that process of how Sara, Taffia, and Sonia become the three of the characters in the book.
MC: I’ve talked a little bit, for example, about Ma Lou and wanting the market women to be so central and dominant in terms of framing the novel. I think part of the process for the other female characters was to really draw on what I had learned during the period just after the earthquake and was speaking on at the time, which had to do with the insecurity in the IDP camps and to try to find a way to not minimize the nature of that insecurity—which I have seen done by some journalists and people who’ve worked in Haiti for a long time whom I respect. But I think it came as a great shock to many people the level of violence against women and children and, of course, it only came out much later that some of that violence was perpetrated by UN soldiers, for example. One of the things I sought to do was to try to figure out a way to talk about some of those issues through voices that could impart a kind of, I don’t even want to say bird’s-eye view because it’s very intimate, but who could stand in for numbers of women and girls who had experienced the earthquake but had experienced it in different kinds of ways and had to manage in different kinds of ways. One of the things I thought a lot about was the number of people who lost children in the earthquake. I think going back to your Brooks op-ed, I was a little shocked by the statement about the mistreatment of children that were left to their own by the age of nine. I don’t remember the exact quote. Because I think most people who have spent some time in Haiti will see that most Haitian parents put a lot of effort into getting their children through school and go to inordinate sacrifices to make sure that there’s a future for those children with very little because you have to get them uniforms, school books, and all these things just to access education. One of the things I was thinking about, and because of the mortality rate, it is also true that if you are in a poorer class and you’re able to maintain a child’s welfare past infancy into toddlerhood and so forth, you really invest in that child because they’ve made it that far. I tried to imagine in Sara—and she is a more working class woman, married, makes a living—what it would be like to just have that snatched away from you and the kind of psychological despair that might be instilled. Because one of the things that comes up a lot in disaster discourse, but particularly with Haiti, is the discourse of resiliency. I tried to think more in terms of fortitude and persistence as opposed to resilience because resilience presumes that whatever you throw at someone, they’re just going to bounce back. I was aware that numbers of people who once really survived the earthquake could not bounce back even if they had the means to do so, and by means, I mean economic means. I wanted the reader to understand from a female point of view—and this is Sara’s point of view—what it might be like to lose everything you’ve worked so hard for that you see in your children and to have that taken away from you brutally in just a few seconds, which is I think something none of us would want to imagine but it happened. It happened to so many people. Then in Taffia, Taffia and Sonia are sisters. Taffia is a teenager, I wanted to imagine in Taffia that all that teenage angst that teenagers have where she is just thinking about being popular in school, who’s going to be her best friend in high school, who she’s going to date, and I invoked in her section the soap opera, which is a real soap opera that people were watching at the time, Frijolito, and all the ways in which she tries to understand class and sexuality through this soap opera that everybody’s talking about, and every soap operas, which are mostly American that circulate in Haiti. I don’t want to give any spoilers to her story but she does end up in an IDP camp. I think between Sara and Taffia, they have different ways of seeing what it might have been like to be those IDP camps which became fairly permanent for many people for years and there are still some people living in IDP camps in the thousands, in Port-au-Prince today. I wanted to give voice to what that insecurity might have felt like but also how people, women in particular and girls, might have tried to weather that insecurity. Sonia is a more ephemeral character. We don’t spend a lot of time with her in the IDP camps although we know she’s there because Taffia tells us that she comes in and out, but in Sonia, Sonia is a survivor of a hotel collapse and the hotel collapse was imagined through the collapse of a Hôtel Montana which was in the press quite a lot because it was a major hotel used mostly by Americans and the UN and people with wealth. I visited Montana after it was rebuilt around 2013 I think, and what I know of it is that many people who spend time there, not necessarily, of the upper classes. In my travels, I met a survivor actually at the Hôtel Montana collapse, and so I tried to give voice to people who we don’t really think about. Sonia is a sex worker, a sex worker who also defines herself as queer, and so to try to view the earthquake through her eyes and her hopes and the ways in which she tries to navigate this culture that already puts her on the outside, those were some of the ways I tried to think through. I know you have a question about Anne. Anne is someone who returns but was raised in Haiti.
DN: Yeah. I was reading an article in The Los Angeles Times from 2011 about the sexual violence that you referred to in the aftermath of the earthquake. It was citing about how rape was not a major criminal offense in Haiti until 2005 due to the efforts of Haitian women. That prior to that, in fact, perpetrators could marry their victims and not have the consequences of the minor infraction. But also that rape was used as a form of political repression during the upheavals of 1994 and 2004. For instance, women who opposed the military coup by General Raoul Cédras or whose male relatives opposed the coup were systematically targeted for rape. But that there was a shock wave of sexual violence that happened when all of a sudden, all of these people were homeless and put in these internally displaced camps that the incidents in a country where the incidence was already high, was 20 times higher in the IDP camps. There were the, as you mentioned, the United Nations, which I want to talk about further when we talk a little bit more about aid, but also opportunistic predatory groups of men who roamed the camps in the absence of a functioning police post earthquake. In your University of Puget Sound lecture which is from years ago now, you talked about how you write about violence against women in your nonfiction but you don’t like to write about it in your fiction. But you do portray sexual violence in this book. I’d be interested in hearing about your reasons before now to not write it in a fictional narrative, then why you decided to write it now, and then how you navigated writing it now in a way that you felt okay with writing it now.
MC: I think what has struck me in some literature produced by minority writers more recently is that sometimes, the depiction of sexual violence in particular is very explicit. Maybe it’s because I’m also a literary critic and I teach to very young people. I’m always aware that clearly, sometimes, an author decides to do that because it has something to do with the narrative, it has something to do with the narrative unfolding or point of view in the characterization. There’s something we’re doing with that exposition. But I’m also aware that it can be read in ways that perpetuate stereotypes about groups of people, especially in a culture that is of color of the men in that culture. I have always held back in depictions of sexual violence, not to deny its existence, but in some ways give a character a space to exist beyond that moment or that violence. In previous novels, there are moments of sexual violation, they’re alluded to but they’re not depicted. In this particular novel, I think I went a little bit further in the depictions but I think what I tried to do was to maintain those depictions from the point of view of the person to whom it was happening. What I was trying to do was to, and because there was—you gave the statistics—a great deal of violence and there’s no denying that this took place. Within the culture and then eventually when others came in the culture, that was rampant. I wanted to find some way to speak about that, to layer it I suppose is the best way to describe it, to try to have a reader understand that the levels of insecurity and collapse that are taking place just in this period right after the earthquake have a longer history. I don’t know how well I managed that, it’ll be up to readers to maybe reveal that to me, but I wanted to make it clear that this is a situation of a country which is in a state of collapse at so many levels at this stage. We have gender inequity as we have all over the world which is already present, but you also have a state with no police, no military to speak of, they were in the process of rebuilding but really, it’s not as if you can appeal to a higher power for protection and elsewhere, but also in this novel, you get this in the Olivier section, who’s Sara’s husband, I try to also give a representation of something that very few journalists or critics talk about in terms of non-fiction or reports, which is that individuals within the camps where these kinds of violence were occurring set up security for themselves. Young men organized themselves to patrol because they were refusing this violence which was happening to their mothers or sisters, maybe also their children. I wanted to make clear that it wasn’t as if this was accepted just, “Ah, you can violate who you want,” no, there was a push back. We also know that a women’s organization, which had been formed in response to the political violence that you spoke of, also mobilized in the IDP camps to take people’s statements to seek justice for them if it was possible, which is partly how some things did end up in court. If they didn’t, it was just a way of making sure that the healing process was begun by having those women and girls tell their stories, have them documented, and get them the correct psychological support that they needed for those traumas having already lived through the earthquake itself. You get a little bit of this in Anne’s section where she participates in that taking in information. I wanted to give a more rounded picture of that state of collapse which anywhere would occasion violence but then also to demonstrate that there was a push back, a response from within the culture saying, “No, we don’t accept this,” and that people were also trying to help each other through those violences. I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question.
DN: No, you have very well. I wanted to stay just another moment with identity, silence, and erasure, particularly around women and women’s narratives. At one point you’ve said that you used to think that you had no identity and later realized that the holes and the silences were part of your identity, they were part of your culture. You quoted Anzaldúa who talks about making a home out of the cracks. As one example of a silence that is also a presence, in your book Searching for Safe Spaces, we learn that you are a descendant of Geneviève Affiba who’s one of the revolutionary Toussaint Louverture sisters, and he had no direct descendants as neither of his two sons had children. Genealogists trace his descendants through his siblings but because the whole system is based on patriarchal descent, Geneviève is only remembered in relationship to the hero of the story. We don’t know if she was involved in the revolution, how she lived. We know that she gave birth to nine sons and three daughters as the enslaved concubine of a French colonist whose name you bear. This just made me think again of your choice to tell a polyvocal coral narrative. I wondered if this was connected I guess, if telling a polyvocal choral narrative instead of a heroic narrative is one way to tell a story out of the cracks or to construct an identity that is also framing a silence.
MC: That’s a great question. When I made that statement, I was quite young so I don’t know if I still agree with my own statement. That was in Searching for Safe Spaces, I think I wrote that when I was 23, I was still forming my identity or my sense of identity. I think it wasn’t until I wrote Framing Silence a couple of years later that I moved towards this idea of being Haitian and that being a wholeness in and of itself. But to the question of polyvocality and speaking out of spaces and gaps, I can’t refute that. I don’t know but I was thinking about it in that way. I don’t think I can refute it because it is about speaking to silences, or at least, to the ways in which this variety of experiences or understanding of disaster and trauma might be weathered in very different ways and still construct a whole. I think in that sense, there’s a connection. Just to follow up on the points I’ve just been making on polyvocality, I also wanted to talk a little bit about what I try to do with POV or point of view because I have heard from some critics or reviewers with past novels that there was an assumption that if I had a character in the first person, that character was the protagonist of a novel. One of the things I try to experiment with is this idea that point of view is again not about finding the hero in the story, it’s about giving the character the voice that is consistent with how they might express themselves or how they might be encountered in real life. Some characters are more intimate and some others are harder to reach. That usually dictates which point of view I decide to utilize for a character as opposed to “Dear reader, this is your protagonist.” It’s more like, “Dear reader, this character doesn’t want you to know them that well” or “Dear reader, this character still doesn’t know themselves” or “Dear reader, this person is infatuated with themselves,” as you see with Richard, the water magnate. I just wanted to say something about that because I think polyvocality actually enables a writer to do more with a novel form and more with point of view than what is expected. Hopefully, readers can go along with that without trying to recast the novel as a linear narrative that should belong to only one character.
DN: I wanted to talk again about Haiti as the uniquely cursed or the unique bias against Haiti in regards to the aid that happened after the earthquake. Because I think a lot of those narratives, that we were unpacking earlier about Haiti, are prejudiced against Haiti, inform a lot of the narratives around the aid. An incredible $13 billion poured into Haiti and the fact that didn’t translate into much in the long run, that all that money didn’t really lead to long run change, that narrative is weaponized against Haiti and it’s used as ammunition by those like David Brooks who say, “This is because there’s something fundamentally wrong with the culture.” I listened to multiple economics and money podcasts about the earthquake relief that I found were super interesting—and I imagine you will push back if I get things wrong here—but not only did $13 billion pour into Haiti but thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of NGOs were set up. This immense system of NGOs was used to almost entirely bypass the Haitian government under the argument that the Haitian government was too corrupt to receive the money. I’m not going to argue, of course, there’s corruption in the Haitian government, but if we think about whether that accusation holds water around corruption, we shouldn’t be giving it to the Haitian government because of corruption, many of these groups that were set up as the alternative to the corruption misallocated funds or spent them only on short-term or stop-gap measures. There were people on $1000 a day retainers to simply be on the ground as Haiti experts. The people on the ground usually didn’t speak the language. The United Nations not only introduced cholera infecting 1 million people and killing 10,000 people and the UN was not only involved in sexual assault and the exploitation of Haitian women impregnating and abandoning them without support, the UN has also actively stonewalled attempts by Haitians to receive meaningful redress for either loss of life or a livelihood from either of these things. They’ve done a rhetorical apology but they haven’t done a substantive redress of what happened. But I was also reading this interesting piece from Politico called The Clintons’ Haiti Screw-Up, As Told By Chelsea’s Emails, which is interesting because the Clintons waged this very successful campaign against the negative news stories about their involvement in Haiti, so much so that Time Magazine called it “America’s compassionate invasion” that according to the Los Angeles Times was largely a success and that in the main newspaper in Portugal it said, “It offered further proof that in critical moments of the history of mankind, the US is in fact an indispensable nation.” But if you remember the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email server in the 2016 election, when that email dump happened, we received in that email dump Chelsea’s private correspondences with her mom and dad and the chiefs of staff around Haiti where she says, which was not supposed to be released, “The incompetence is mind numbing. The UN people I encountered were frequently out of touch … anachronistic in their thinking at best and arrogant and incompetent at worst.. There is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system.” Then she goes on about the weak Haitian government which had lost buildings and staff in the disaster but says that they did have something of a plan yet because it had failed to articulate its wishes quickly enough, that foreigners rushed in with a “proliferation of ad hoc efforts by the UN and INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] to ‘help.’” But all of this corruption makes the accusation that the money shouldn’t be given directly to Haitians in Haiti because they, in particular, are corrupt. It seems to me like a pretty hard to defend stance. I wondered if you could speak to this aspect since so many of your characters are in fact in IDP camps and also given that we are in the aftermath of another earthquake in Haiti now, I’d also be curious to know where you would point people to who wanted to help, who wanted to send money or supplies, or where would you clearly steer people away from sending their money and supplies.
MC: It was really distressing in the days just after the last earthquake to see so many people saying on social media that no donations should go to Haiti because of the mismanagement. I heard on NPR this week that, in fact, there’s not been enough going in because of this fear of mismanagement. I think one of the things that surprised me was the degree to which people, even of Haitian descent, were out of touch with what to do or where to donate. I had set up a page just shortly after the 2010 earthquake giving people resources, places that were known to be sound. People would probably know places like Partners In Health run by Paul Farmer’s organization and Doctors Without Borders does great work in Haiti. Some of the bigger NGOs people were aware of. But I tried to also list some of the smaller NGOs that had been working in Haiti for a long time and also some NGOs that were more recent but had been founded by Haitian-Canadians or Haitian-Americans who knew what was going on, on the ground. I updated those resources throughout the years through to 2020 when Haiti had long fallen off of people’s radars. When the most recent earthquake happened, one of my first thoughts was, “Well, I have to update that list again because I need to reach out to where people are, where there is most need which was in the southern peninsula as opposed to Port-au-Prince because I think there were some people who immediately thought of organizations that were at the capitol thinking, “Oh, okay, I’ll just donate here,” and there are some organizations like FOKAL which is a cultural arts group based in Port-au-Prince, which are in touch with Grassroots Organizations throughout the southern peninsula because they’ve been doing this work for a very long time and who clearly stated, “We will redistribute these funds.” If you went and still go to their website, the action plan is clear. I unfortunately had a good friend whose family lost members in the recent earthquake who is a Haitian and who also has worked a very long time with NGOs before the 2010 earthquake, through the 2010 earthquake. As I was hearing about her family situation, I asked where people should be giving funds now. Of course, she was not at that moment ready to provide those resources but that led me to reach out to those individuals and groups that I have been working with for over a decade to find out what they would suggest and they had less, they already knew because they’ve been working on these issues and also because of I think it was Hurricane Matthew a few years ago had already set up all these circuits and so I provided those on my website as well. I’ll keep updating them as things come in.
DN: I’ll point people to your website too when I send out the show notes.
MC: Thank you. I really appreciate that. What I also do is that if I hear anything negative or somebody tells me, “This has happened,” I remove groups and indicate new resources. But I haven’t had to do that for most of the Grassroots Organizations that I’ve recommended. They have done stellar work with very little. I’ve answered the second part of your question but to the bigger part of the question, which is what do I say to people who say, “Well, look at all this corruption,” I think statistically in terms of the $13 billion that poured into Haiti, only one percent of that money was given to the Haitian government and most of those monies did not stay within the country. This is something that’s known in the aid world that there is a rotating door in terms of those funds in the sense that they are often tied, not only in terms of labor but in terms of actual materials that are used, for example, for rebuilding homes or structure, but often the resources that are in the country are not being used for being shipped in from elsewhere. Maybe you collected $100,000 to rebuild the school but instead of using materials that are in the country or labor in the country, maybe you have unfortunately people on spring break from a university go in and build and then you import all the materials. Now sometimes it is necessary to import material that the country may not have, but the most successful organizations were those that taught individuals within the country to reconstruct, for example, taught skills that would be left there and then help in the rebuilding. For example, the name is slipping to me right now but there’s an organization out of California that has been tasked since 2010 to evaluate buildings, the soundness of buildings. I did a commemorative symposium a year ago here in California and invited the engineer who started that organization to speak about their work in Haiti. One of the things they talked about was the way in which they have formed people on the ground in certain building practices so that they don’t always have to be present, so that they’re building infrastructure within the country. I think the other thing that is neglected, I also happened to have on my mother’s side a number of engineers, one of whom left Haiti and worked in Morocco and other areas, but returned to Haiti and lived there most of his life. Another who was formed in the United States but then did only build in Haiti. None of their buildings fell. There is also a misapprehension around the professional classes in Haiti, that there’s no knowledge there. There are engineers in Haiti. There are architects. There are physicians. Whenever those individuals were given the opportunity to participate and be part of efforts—rescue efforts, healing efforts, building efforts—those efforts were successful because they know more about their own country than the people coming from the outside, and often, also have to use stop gap measures, especially in terms of physicians when there aren’t certain resources available that they know will work in situations of distress. When we’ve talk about corruption, I’ve heard scholars who work in this area talk more eloquently about this than I—especially because I did a lot of research for another book on Rwanda because it was inspired partly by Raoul Peck’s film Sometimes in April, and I did visit Rwanda on the way to a conference in South Africa and visited women’s cooperatives and so forth—and I read a lot of scholarship by Rwandan scholars who had been children in the genocide but then became scholars and who talked about the ways in which we don’t talk about the criminality—if we’re more extreme in our language—or the corruption of the very entities that have created the snowball effect in postcolonialism that result in impoverishment or dictatorships and so forth, and that we really need to think about the kind of corruption that comes from aid structures—and this is my own thinking on this—aid structures that are not designed to not only rehabilitate or re-enumerate for past losses but are designed only to maintain a certain threshold of poverty or ability to sustain a country so that it can still be held to standards that are below what it deserves. Because that for me has been the most shocking and I was involved a little bit with aid work in terms of trying to figure out how to get funding for some groups within Haiti but also elsewhere in the world. One of the things I learned, I learned a lot about law, I learned a lot about how the law works in the United States in particular, how it governs NGOs, and how they can or cannot expand money. Once you learn more about the legal structure of aid systems, you realize, in terms of philanthropy more largely, they are not designed to assist groups of people, individuals, or nations to become equal participants in their lives or in their futures. Maybe I could end them on this point. Some time ago, I wrote an essay or gave a talk on the Marshall Plan in Haiti because during this period 2010, 2011—and I think it came up again this summer—there was a lot of conversation about designing a Marshall Plan for Haiti. Now being born in Haiti, being raised in Canada, I wasn’t sure what the Marshall Plan was and I’m not a historian. So I did the research on what was the Marshall Plan, how was the design, why are people talking about a Marshall Plan for Haiti. Now, if you think about what we’ve talked about earlier in this conversation in terms of the indemnity, in terms of the US occupation, there’s an argument to be made for a Marshall Plan, if you believe in reparations. If you don’t believe in reparations, then it’s very difficult to talk about a Marshall Plan. If still you believe in the Marshall Plan as it was designed for Europe as a way to bolster nations that had been really economically decimated by World War II and certain populations and capitals through that process, then you’re talking about a reallocation of resources that allows a nation to function and participate in a productive exchange with other nations. I remember as I was doing that research and thinking through what is meant here, I realized a Marshall Plan for Haiti cannot work because the reason the Marshall Plan in Europe worked was because there was an agreement on the equality of the citizens of those countries with those countries that were designing the Marshall Plan on their behalf. That is the difference. If you don’t believe that a nation is equal to you, has equal value, then you cannot do the work you need to do. Unfortunately, I think aid structures, as benevolent as we seem and in the same way that we want to believe that aid structures are really assisting people, there’s a degree to which they are hamstrung by these legal apparatus and so forth, but also are intimately tied to ideological belief systems that I think are still tethered to colonial belief systems that don’t require that those who provide aid believe that their recipients, not only are worthy of it, that they deserve it, but that they are as deserving as the people who provide it. I do try to speak to that to some degree in the novel with one character, Olivier, who is an accountant and tries to calculate why—and at the time that he’s thinking about this is shortly after the earthquakes and there was a lot of money pouring in just within months—he’s trying to calculate “Where is this money going?” Why isn’t he seeing it?
DN: You’re kind of reading my mind because what I was hoping you would do next is read a section from Olivier, partially because of this, because of the content, but also I think tonally and syntactically and everything, he’s a very different voice than the other nine.
MC: This is from Olivier section. March 2010.
[Myriam Chancy reads from What Storm, What Thunder]
DN: We’ve been listening to Myriam Chancy read from What Storm, What Thunder. In the talk that I referenced earlier that you gave about Haiti in relation to Latin-American and Latin-American studies, you were talking about how Haiti is presented with two options: omission or submission. You’ve talked about how Haiti has taken its own mission and its unique story of sovereignty and revolution with both a sense of pride and an immense amount of cultural production, that it has a deep sense of cultural identity despite all of the ways it has been omitted. But there are other Haitians who argue that submitting to the view of what others have of it, of capitulating to the world at large is the best way forward with some Haitians wanting Haiti to become a French department or to become like Puerto Rico, to be lifted out of its situation through its giving up of its sovereignty. You yourself in that talk were wondering if there was a third way. If we think back to the market woman Ma Lou, the matriarch and glue of the book and then her son Richard who left Haiti, perhaps he’s an example of the submission camp in the sense that he’s fully embraced the privatization of water and wants to sell it back to his own people to seem like he’s a savior but really to enrich himself. But his daughter, Ma Lou’s granddaughter Anne, which makes me think of when you were talking about the engineers on the ground who do have the knowledge to build buildings better than the Irish aid organization that builds one that isn’t meant to withstand anything, the granddaughter of Ma Lou, Anne, is an architect in Rwanda who’s coming home. I wonder if she represents an unnamed third way. I was hoping maybe in the context of omission, submission, and something else, if you could talk about Anne.
MC: Yeah. I was thinking that Richard is a capitalist. Richard is in some ways no longer Haitian in terms of his affiliations. He returns to Haiti and has an epiphany about his trajectory. But I think he might not fit in either of those polls because he hasn’t been thinking about Haiti for so long. In terms of Anne, Anne is someone who indirectly benefits from Richard’s generosity because he pays for her schooling through to college and beyond, but doesn’t have a relationship with her. She’s grounded in a Haitian consciousness and she’s grounded by Ma Lou. She has a vision of the possible which is why she is working with an NGO as an architect even though it’s not in Haiti at the time. Part of her storyline is based on a real competition that did take place where there was, I believe, a global competition for the rebuilding of our Notre-Dame Cathedral, the major cathedral in Haiti which was destroyed for the most part in the 2010 earthquake. The competition was not won by Haitian and it wasn’t limited to Haitian architects, and I can’t say that the presumption was that there were no Haitian architects, but the question did cross my mind given that I have engineers in my family, and does represent a third way. A third way that has been activated by those organizations we spoke of earlier who are working alongside and with Haitians, and sometimes are actually designed by Haitians themselves who know their country best. At the same time, I want to be clear to say that I don’t presume—because this has also been invoked this summer and I’m sure prior, it was invoked actually especially in the early 2000s—I don’t believe that it is necessarily up to members of a Haitian diaspora even though remittances from the diaspora really sustain a large part of the population, that diasporic individuals should impose themselves on Haiti. Anne is not diasporic in this sense, she is from Haiti, she was born there, raised there, and has intimate ties to the country. I think what I was imagining through her was what would happen if there was an investment like there was investment in her even though from her father’s part, it was an ego investment. He wasn’t doing it with this idea of rebuilding Haiti, he was doing it because he had pride in the fact that he had created this person and wanted to see her succeed, but not with any particular vision in mind that this was for a better Haiti. But she benefits from that investment of resources, and paired with the knowledge of someone like Ma Lou, it does I think represent a future where there could be a connection between the proper allocation of resources in infrastructure like the educational system, nutrition, etc, the next generations of Haitians would be able to not only invest in their own country but create the country with their own vision in mind. This is why she participates in that competition thinking, “Well, I probably won’t win,” and that in reality is what happened. I don’t know if Haitian architects participated or not but this is where fiction can help us imagine other futures. It gives her a purpose and outlet and a possibility that I think exists for a number of Haitians who want to and remain in Haiti because they have such a belief in not only the beauty of the country but its potential, but do so often at great risk and at great sacrifice.
DN: Keeping in mind this notion of creating a vision on one’s own terms, on Facebook when you were talking about your second novel, The Scorpion’s Claw that takes place after the fall of the Duvalier regime in the early 90s, you say, “These days, I’ve begun to wonder if all of my novels are simultaneously eulogy and love letter. If all of it is grief processing to continue the work of sustaining hope.” I wondered about this “grief processing to continue to sustain hope” in relation to something else you engage in your most recent book of scholarship, and that is the Lakou/yard Consciousness. When I think about the spaces and structures created by these thousands of NGOs in the UN which aren’t built to endure, let alone thrive, and perhaps most notoriously the half billion dollars collected by the Red Cross that translated into the building of six permanent structures, and then thinking about our returning Haitian architect Anne and the ways she might imagine a different future Haiti, I wonder if you could speak to Lakou Consciousness which you describe in Autochthonomies as a place where ritualized patterns are rehearsed and repeated but which is not a lost home but a constant reconceptualization of home, a space of reconfiguration.
MC: Yeah. My thought on that, because I’m thinking of a quote you started with in terms of my reflection on Scorpion’s Claw through to the current novel, and one of the things that I had thought through when I made that statement was the degree to which each of a novel speaks to a particular period where there was, both for myself and I’m sure for other Haitians, a coming to terms with a period that was over. In the case of Duvalier regime, of course, celebrated and moved through in a way that then also had to reconfigure the society, not only in terms of whether or not people could trust each other, because there was a lot of distrust through to the Vodou circle that was created through the regime, but also how people would position themselves in terms of class, especially in the ways that the regime solidified or made rigid certain social lines, along class lines. Then when I started working on the novel in 2013, I think the other thing that happened was that having been back in the country several times after the earthquake, there was a point at which, as rebuilding took place, rebuilding took place in ways that didn’t take into consideration the most vulnerable population. NGOs were building four-star hotels and this kind of thing, I realized that the country I had known, especially as a child, wasn’t recognizable to me anymore. This is not just in terms of the landmarks that were lost, like the equivalent to our White House or the Cathedral—remnants of which, at least, for the Cathedral are still there—there’s also a sense of the rebuilding just completely changed the face, at least the outward looking face of certain neighborhoods in ways that were very disconcerting, especially if one has a consciousness of reaching class equity disturbingly did not respond to the greatest need. Lakou Consciousness, as I talked about in Autochthonomies, has to do with a principle that is very Haitian of why I applied it to texts by people of African descent who are not necessarily Haitian, has to do with this concept of a yard, which goes back to African societies, from which many Caribbean societies originate, and the idea that kinship groups and then eventually spiritual groups would use the formation of the circle of a village yard as a means to gather—and this brings us back to our conversation about Bois Caïman and the gathering that took place in the clearing in the woods was a way for people to integrate their beliefs but also to exchange. In the Anglophone Caribbean, some yard systems, for example, in Trinidad are created around music or created around rituals that have to do with carnival or so forth. But the yard conceptually really has to do with the preservation of cultural lifelines as well as spiritual ones. The argument I made in Autochthonomies—and I’m getting to the fiction—had to do with this idea that some of these spaces now are virtual in the sense that one doesn’t necessarily have to be in the home place to be actively participating in Lakou Consciousness because Lakou Consciousness has to do with staying true to what has gone on before. My argument was, of course, that what has gone on before predates the colonial moment, and we know this to be true in terms of retention that has to do with music or the arts and obviously, with historical memory and spiritual memory. One of the ways that I see my novels is that they’re not only a grief process around my own individual losses, vis-a-vis Haiti, but they are my way of participating in Lakou Consciousness and participating in the preservation of culture and not just in terms of invoking Vodou at different junctures in What Storm, What Thunder and other places in the fiction, but in being true to what I know is still present within the culture. My best way of verifying that I’m not only accurate but I’m being faithful to that is that a number of Haitian readers or Haitians who will come to readings, who are much older than I am, will confirm, interestingly, both their skepticism that I’m able to participate in the culture having lived outside of Haiti from, at this point, much of my life, and then affirm that I got it right. I remember reading from Spirit of Haiti many years ago, actually here in California before I moved here, many, many years ago, and a Haitian man in the audience who’s probably at that time 20 years older than I was—I was probably in my 30s—said, “I read a passage from the novel,” which represented an elderly woman, and he said, “I’m really surprised because you described my grandmother’s house. How can you describe my grandmother’s house if you’ve lived outside of Haiti for so long?” All I can say is “M pa konnen se Lakou.” I don’t know, it’s Lakou.” I both participate in Lakou and also inform myself because part of a work of being a writer, I think, not only for myself but most writers, is to do research so I’m also researching different aspects of those things I want to reflect to make sure that I’m being accurate, but I do think there is a spiritual element that is undeniable in the process and that at least, confirms for me that I’m participating in Lakou Consciousness even if I never return to Haiti to live.
DN: As a final question, I was hoping maybe we could touch on the title which both comes from Revelations but also from a Frederick Douglass quote that I feel like when you’re talking about grief processing and sustaining hope, it feels like it’s speaking into a never-ending impossible moment but also somehow at the same time, flipping the terms and suggesting possibility for perhaps a different future. Maybe if you could read that epigraph by Frederick Douglass and maybe then talk about some of what goes into the title for you.
MC: Yeah. This is from Frederick Douglass in 1852, and I believe the essay comes from What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? It was talking about July 4th and its meaning for enslaved African-Americans.
[Myriam Chancy reads an epigraph by Frederick Douglass]
Then Revelations, there is a language around the earthquake and thunder raining down upon the people. There’s a few different ways to think about this. It took some time to arrive at a title for the novel; the working title was Douz (12). I really wanted to stay with that, but I was informed that no one in the United States would think of it as Douz and so was moved away from it even though in my heart I think it remains Douz. Also because of the United States, 12 can mean the police and so it might have thrown off readers. There’s nothing about police in here. We settled on What Storm, What Thunder, partly because it’s an understated title but it still speaks to the natural part of a disaster. The Douglass quote, behind it is the fact that I’m a Baldwin scholar as well and the way in which he invokes the idea of no more water, the fire next time, which is a similar invocation as Douglass here saying that we need something that will shake a nation to its core, and this is written before the Emancipation Proclamation and free the people, free the enslaved in the United States. There’s also a touch of irony in using that epigraph because of course I don’t mean to say that something like the earthquake was necessary. What I mean to say is that the earthquake in and of itself—and I’m speaking of a 2010 earthquake—even as Haitians struggle today with the earthquake of August 14th of this year, what I mean to say is that an event like this one reveals, bears down to the bone what really needs to happen moving forward. It reveals the infrastructural fragility. It reveals, if one wants to know, going back to our Brooks conversation, a very long history of neglect, of omission, and of submission. The Douglass quote for me enables me to make readers think about why we should care about a nation that is rocked like this to the core in the way that Douglass felt that American society needed to be shaken to the core. It enables us to think about what our responsibilities are in terms of humanity to others who undergo tragic circumstances that are not of their own doing. One of my thoughts has been, and it is coalesced around thinking about the aid questions that we talked about earlier, because I often have wondered previous to the 2010 earthquake why must a nation like Haiti, why must the average Haitians suffer so much when so many Haitians are working from daybreak to sundown, to eke out a living and survive. Why this level of suffering? One of the conclusions I come to is that it’s not for them but those of us who are witnessing this suffering have a responsibility and that is the social contract beyond national borders, that is the social contract. How do we react to the despair that we see beyond ourselves? How can we not only contribute to but live up to the humanity that we claim for ourselves, especially in the United States that we claim but various people claim on behalf of America? That’s why the Douglass quote is there and then of course, the Revelations quote I think cements it all the more when you get to that part of the novel in Didier’s section which is if you think in Biblical terms, if you’re thinking apocalyptic terms, that one has to really think about what the message is here, not for Haitians but for us, for those who witness from afar.
DN: Yeah. Thank you so much for today, Myriam.
MC: Thank you, David. Thank you for the conversation. Thank you for reaching out and for giving me a space to talk about this. I hope that readers will read What Storm, What Thunder.
DN: I’m confident they will. We’ve been talking today to Myriam Chancy about her latest book, What Storm, What Thunder from Tin House. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers, I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Myriam Chancy’s work can be found at myriamchancy.com. Also, when you go to her website and click on Haiti Relief Funds, once you’re there, you will find Myriam’s frequently updated page of responsible and effective organizations where you can donate to post-earthquake relief at a time when, because of the biases we discussed today against Haiti, they are not receiving as much funds as they hoped. Head over to myriamchancy.com both to explore Myriam’s creative and scholarly work and to find meaningful ways to support Haiti. If you enjoy what you’ve heard today, also consider becoming a listener supporter of Between The Covers. There are many possible benefits; from rare collectibles from past guests, to access to the bonus audio, which this week is Chancy teaching us from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place to becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. You can find out more about becoming a listener supporter of Between The Covers at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.