Zibby is joined by Guggenheim Fellow, academic, and author Myriam J.A. Chancy to discuss her latest novel, What Storm, What Thunder. Although Myriam wasn’t planning on writing about the devasting earthquake that hit her homeland of Haiti in 2010, she knew she had a story to tell after seeing the late LeRoy Clarke’s artwork. Myriam shares her own experiences following the earthquake, a handful of the real-life stories that inspired her fiction, and how listeners can get involved to help the people of Haiti in their new time of need. One such way is to support FOKAL. Based in Port-au-Prince, FOKAL has partnered with their US 501C3,“ Ayiti Demen” to collect funds to be distributed to 20+ grassroots organizations in the Southern peninsula of Haiti. You can read their entire action plan, and donate here: You can also Text SOUTHHaiti to 44321 if you are in the United States. FOKAL’s complete website can be found here:


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Myriam. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What Storm, What Thunder.

Myriam J.A. Chancy: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’ve been following your podcast. I love it. I’m really happy. You’re the first podcaster to contact me about What Storm, What Thunder. I really appreciate your attention to it.

Zibby: Really?

Myriam: Yeah. You’re the first person to book us, so that’s really nice.

Zibby: You know, I have to jump on the good things. I don’t know what to say. I know a good thing when I see it.

Myriam: I’m so happy to hear it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I do like the advance notice. It’s good to book — anyway, whatever. Delighted that that happened. Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it? which in this case is fairly obvious, but you tell it.

Myriam: I’m originally from Haiti. I’m from Port-au-Prince. The earthquake of 2010 was really shattering for people in Port-au-Prince, for my family, acquaintances, and colleagues. I’m also an academic. I’m a scholar of Caribbean literature and Haitian women’s literature specifically. I was known for having written on both topics. I was booked for a lot of talks about best practices, what happened to vulnerable communities after the earthquake of 2010 which killed upwards of 250,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless. I wasn’t planning to write the novel at all. I had another novel come out in the UK in 2010 which was about a hurricane season which had been devastating around 2004. I really did not have writing a novel on my mind at all, especially because at that time, we were really just in the process of helping survivors with all the material needs that people had and also grieving. Every time I gave a talk, people, especially Haitians who had survived, would come and talk to me about their experience of the earthquake or who they had lost. Several years later, I was actually in Trinidad speaking to a Trinidadian painter, LeRoy Clarke, who unfortunately just passed away a couple of weeks ago, an elderly painter, a national treasure in Trinidad.

As a result of the earthquake, he had been moved to continue a series he had started at the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986. It was a large-scale painting he had started but never finished. After the earthquake, he started a series. When I saw his paintings, he was at seventy-seven. He went on to paint 111 paintings. He didn’t quite know what they meant. When I came into his studio, I just started weeping. He said, “What do they mean?” I started telling him what I saw. He had never been to Haiti. He had never met Haitian painters. He’s not studied Haitian painting, but it really spoke to me about what was happening in Haiti. I went home from Trinidad, and I started thinking, what did this mean for me? The novel just came, an outline for the novel, the characters. I’m sure that part of the process was just the accumulated knowledge that I had gathered all those years of giving talks, listening to others, my own experiences going back to Haiti from 2011 forward. It just coalesced into a clear message about what I needed to do. In a sense, it was like people were telling me their stories because I was a writer, but until I met LeRoy, I didn’t get the message that, you’re a writer, you should do something on our behalves. That’s what I ultimately did. I started writing in 2013, which was several years after the earthquake. Then it took me several years to write it.

Zibby: The stories in the book about all the different characters, were any of them real? Were they based on composites?

Myriam: No, none of them are real. The only seed that is factual was that I did meet someone who survived the falling of a well-known hotel in Haiti where most of the people who were reported as surviving that hotel were UN and NGO workers. The person I met was a person of color. I had not heard of anyone in the hotel who was of color, who was Haitian, surviving. He didn’t tell me a lot of information, just, I was there. I survived. It changed my life. That, when I got to writing, spawned three characters: Sonia, who is a sex worker in the hotel; Dieudonné, who is a fixer, and her best friend, and both of them think of themselves as M, which is the categorization for queer in Haiti; and then Leopold, who is trapped in the hotel itself and is Trinidadian. That was also my homage to Trinidad and the connection to Trinidad.

Zibby: Did Leopold or LeRoy — what did you say his —

Myriam: — It’s Leopold.

Zibby: Leopold. Did he do the painting on the cover?

Myriam: No, he’s one of the characters. He’s actually a drug —

Zibby: — No, I’m sorry, the actual —

Myriam: — Oh, you’re talking about LeRoy, the painter.

Zibby: I’m sorry, LeRoy, yeah.

Myriam: LeRoy, no, I did not ask him for a painting for the cover. The cover was designed by Diane Chonette who’s the Tin House in-house art director. She did a wonderful job. She was inspired by a passage in the novel where I talk about the flap of hummingbird wings, the noise of the earthquake. Various people have different ways of talking about that noise. I talk about the flap of hummingbird wings. If you’ve ever had a hummingbird come really, really close, it’s a little bit like a thunderclap. It’s really stunning. She was inspired by that. I don’t know if your listeners would know about this, but James Audubon was actually born in Saint-Domingue. I’d been researching that fact for years. She didn’t know that when she designed the cover. The cover is taken from images by Audubon’s rendition of hummingbirds in Haiti.

Zibby: Wow, interesting.

Myriam: Yeah, so that’s all connecting.

Zibby: Are you willing to share what your family’s experience was in 2010?

Myriam: Sure. Most of the family that I have left in Port-au-Prince is older, is elderly. One of my father’s half-brothers, his mother was crushed in the earthquake, passed away in that way. We had some family members who lost homes. They were able to rebuild years later, but there was a lot of material loss in that sense. I was connected to a lot of Haitian women’s movements at the time. All of the leaders of the Haitian women’s movement died, people like Myriam Merlet. Women’s groups had to rebuild in that time. Then I also had a number of friends who had either students or colleagues who were in Haiti that they were trying to track down. There is a passage in one of the character’s sections, Anne’s section, that is actually true to life to what happened to me, which is that I had a friend in Puerto Rico who was trying to track down a student who had been supposed to report to the University of Puerto Rico after January 12th of 2010 and had not been heard from. She asked me if I could track him down. At the time, the only thing that worked were things like Facebook, which I had not been on. Actually, a student of mine put me on Facebook. She said, “This is how you’ll be able to connect.” She was right.

I connected to colleagues and writers who were friends of mine who worked at the Université d’État in Haiti. I gave them the names that I had, the contact names, the student’s name. The reply I got was, “Your student is alive, but all of your contacts are dead.” I had five or seven contacts. Then I had the unfortunate, the awful position of having to contact my friend and say, “The person you’re looking for did survive, but all of your contacts for that person are dead.” That was only about three, four weeks in after the earthquake. We were still trying to find out if people were alive or not. I remember, at that moment, thinking, this is going to be one of the hardest things I will ever have to go through. I realized so many people were counting on me to make connections and find people. From that point on, that was the case. Often, you would find a person you were looking for, but the people you thought would help you find them had passed away. It was an arduous time. One of the compelling reasons for me to write the novel is that I realized a few years later that even though I was still very much working on issues in Haiti and assisting as much as I could, most people who are not related to Haiti had forgotten what had happened. When the anniversary would roll around, there were fewer and fewer news reports about it, fewer things going on.

Now there was just another earthquake on August 14th. One of the things that has come up are how many people who went through 2010 who are newly traumatized by this event, and everything coming back up because it is an ongoing healing process. For me, writing the novel was a healing process. Just to complete my thought on this, to go back to my family, a number of members of my family who were older passed away in the last three to five years, some of whom had been through the earthquake. One of the things I observed with them is how differently everyone coped with the experience of the earthquake. I had some elderly relatives who were right in the epicenter, right in the middle of Port-au-Prince, saw everything, would not talk about the earthquake, their experience of it, but then clearly had a kind of descent after in terms of their coping, their ability to cope, while others stayed in Haiti, were very implicated. They tended to be younger. I think that was one of my motivating factors for having an elderly woman be the bookends for the novel, the opening and ending piece, market woman, because I wanted to give voice to an older person who lives through the earthquake and copes as best she can, and in her case, is able to cope. I know from my lived experience not everybody is able to do that.

Zibby: It’s amazing how an entire nation gets through something, and the way they do that and the history and what it means to be one person going through something that is such a collective trauma. It’s not unlike 9/11 here, except the scale of it is so much bigger there. It’s really hard to wrap your mind around that number of losses. It’s hard to process, especially when you feel that you’re in charge to some extent. To have to shoulder that is a lot.

Myriam: It’s very complex. What I wanted to try to do in the novel was to give to voice to — one of the things people hear a lot when they hear about Haiti is the word resilience. I wanted to maybe shift that discourse a little bit more towards persistence. I think the word resilience, you have this idea that a group of people, a culture can take anything on, or as you were mentioning with 9/11, that New Yorkers can soldier on. I think that does a disservice to those individuals who may not have the support systems or the coping skills. That is as valuable in a story to know about, that these traumas are very complex. Though they’re talked about as if groups of people survive and move on, there’s also a way in which not everybody can move on. Not everybody should move on. In fact, it should be a kind of integration of what has happened and a kind of honoring of those people that have been lost. One of the things that has stayed with me is that I may have known the names of a few people who passed away, but I don’t know the name of upwards of two hundred thousand people. I will never know them. Especially in Haiti, there are not necessarily roles. People are not necessarily registered in terms of birth certificates, death certificates, and so on. There are whole family groups that disappeared, and so they can’t be quantified. We don’t know who they are. In some way, in a very small way, in a humble way, I would like to say taking ten people, ten stories, and putting a face, even though a fictional face, to them was a way to kind of stand in for all those thousands of people whose stories will never be told.

Zibby: Wow. So this book took you about seven, eight years-ish to write?

Myriam: Yeah, five years for the main writing and then probably about three years of revision as it went through editorial processes.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Do you have parallel projects? Are you going to start another one? Do you work on a lot of things at the same time? What’s your process like?

Myriam: I normally work on two books at the same time, an academic book and a creative book. The parallel book for this one has actually already appeared. Most people won’t see the parallel. It’s an academic book. It got a Guggenheim, which is lovely. It was about reading the work of people of African descent through their own lenses and how that might create a different discourse for all of us that is not really race-based but more about culture. I use a lot of Haitian concepts to do that like , the kombit, which is the idea of a collective. The connection between the two books is actually a film by a Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck, who also did a film on the earthquake, on the post-earthquake situation, a documentary which is called Fatal Assistance. The film for the academic book was Sometimes in April, which is his film on the genocide in Rwanda. I was really taken by the idea that a Haitian filmmaker chose to make a film about what happened in Rwanda. I started thinking about, what’s that conversation like? I had the chance to speak to him about the fact that there are some parallels with Haitian history in terms of friction between Haitians and Dominicans because we occupy the same island and a massacre that took place in 1937 under Trujillo. He said, “I wasn’t thinking about that, but there is a connection there.” The connection to the novel is that I did spend a little bit of time in Rwanda and visited women’s cooperatives there. It felt a lot like Haiti. I really could see why he was drawn to that story. This is why one of the characters, Ven , you’ll find her in Rwanda. I try to make parallels between Haiti and Rwanda in her experience of what people are grieving there at the time that she’s there, which is in early 2010.

Zibby: Having written a bunch of books, including your award-winning academic work and all the rest, what advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Myriam: My one big piece of advice, which goes back to when I started publishing in Canada, actually, as a teen, short stories and essays, is to work with editors as much as you can. I was very lucky to have a professor as an undergrad who was also an editor who really helped me with my writing and just told me, “Send the work out. Send it out.” She taught me how to write a cover letter. The one big thing she told me is, “Always ask for feedback.” She said, “You may not get it, but if you have a line in your letter that says feedback is welcome, they will feel compelled to send you something.” That’s been true nine out of ten times. Even when the feedback has been a little bit rough, which it can be at the beginning, I’ve gotten feedback and I find that editors are the most selfless people in terms of giving you feedback on your work because they want the work, especially in literary fiction, but it’s also true on the academic side, they want the work to be the best that it can be. I’ve learned a lot. My editors at HarperCollins Canada and Masie Cochran at Tin House have been just amazing. If I didn’t listen to them, my work would be the poorer for it.

Zibby: What do you like to read? What are some of your favorites? What are you reading now?

Myriam: What am I reading now? I just read Afterparties by So, which I thought was a wonderful collection. Let me see. I’m, of course, reading theory, which is probably not what a lot of people are reading. I like Achille Mbembe’s work. He has a new book called Out of the Dark which I would recommend. Of course, I’m reading the new book by Jeffers, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. I just started that.

Zibby: I loved that book.

Myriam: I think it might take me a few months to get through it. It has a great beginning, so I’m looking forward to it being a nice winter read.

Zibby: Excellent. Amazing. Last question on Haiti. What can people do now? For someone who cares and wants to help, what can people do?

Myriam: Thank you for asking because I know there’s been a bit of controversy around this since the last earthquake. The month before, the Haitian president was assassinated. I know Haiti has been in the news. Just after the last earthquake, there was a lot going on around, should people give to Haiti? because of mismanagement of funds after the 2010 earthquake. Just a couple of quick things to say about that. Less than one percent of funds went to the Haitian government. The mismanagement, it wasn’t Haitians who mismanaged those funds. I always say try to give to grassroots organizations that have a longstanding record in Haiti of doing work, of having low overhead, and really working with the people, and working with in the sense of finding out what people need on the ground. Haitian-led organizations tend to do a better job because they know what is happening in-country. I would say try to find out. Sometimes you can find out through groups that you’re already connected to. They might be church groups. They might be community organizations where you live, especially in New York, especially in Miami, Boston where there are large Haitian communities.

I’ve been in touch with a number of groups that I was in touch with because of 2010 and before and asked for lists. One of the key things this time around is that help is really needed in the southern peninsula, less so in Port-au-Prince. There are some organizations in Port-au-Prince like FOKAL that have units in the southern peninsula and are redistributing funds there. I did also collect from those groups, lists of groups that they recommend. I have a list on my website of Haiti relief funds. People can also go there. I always say to people, when you find a group that is something that you’re interested in, do the research. Find out if they have a transparent plan. Find out what their reports are from past giving and what they’ve done. Do they have images reporting back? What have they accomplished? Can you have confidence in them? If you do, then please, please, please, whatever you can give because a little bit in a place like Haiti goes really far. If somebody only has ten dollars to give, that’s amazing. It will do a lot.

Zibby: Good to know. Amazing. Myriam, it was lovely to meet you, my second Haitian Myriam in my life now.

Myriam: That’s so great. There’s so few of us, actually. It’s not a common name.

Zibby: She’s from Holland originally, but her family spent — in fact, they still live there. As I’ve told you, Haiti is often discussed in our home. She’s there a lot and all the rest. Anyway, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with the book. Thanks for letting me snag your first spot.

Myriam: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’ll keep listening to the podcast too. Take care.

Zibby: Thank you. Please do. That’s so nice. Thanks. Buh-bye.

Myriam: Bye.



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