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'What Storm, What Thunder' brings to life voices from Haiti's 2010 earthquake


Myriam J. A. Chancy's novel "What Storm, What Thunder" opens at the moment of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than a quarter of a million people and shook up the lives of millions more. Ma Lou, who sells produce in a Port-Au-Prince market, recalls the moment the Earth shuddered.

MYRIAM J A CHANCY: (Reading) We heard people on their cell phones all up and down the street begging frantically for help, giving directions to where they thought they were beneath the rubble within the rooms or their houses. Phones rang, and we heard people answer them, then fewer and fewer voices - the tinny, persistent ringing of cellphones tones, different songs rising like wind from underground with no answer. We heard our own voices screaming at each other, asking for help, not knowing what to do, faces covered with dust and sweat and other things later to be determined. What to do?

CHANCY: That's the author Myriam J. A. Chancy, who was born in Port-Au-Prince, raised there and in Canada and now teaches at Scripps College. Thank you so much for being with us.

CHANCY: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Ma Lou is the central character, but your novel ties together the lives of 10 people caught up in and/or affected by the earthquake. Ma Lou has a son, Richard - or, should I say, Richard. He is a very successful entrepreneur. I wish I could like what he does for a living. It's not remotely criminal. But how do we explain someone who sells water to thirsty people?

CHANCY: In a way, you could think of Richard as a metaphor for a lot of the aid work that has failed in Haiti, where people are being sold dreams and sold, you know, prospects of a future that isn't going to materialize or which has been determined beforehand to have an end point. So Richard is emblematic of someone who has sold out, has left Haiti, has left behind his mother and sees no conflict in selling a good that is needed, which happens the world over. And he's very knowledgeable about it because this is what he does. He's a sea-over water bottling company. And he sees no shame in this. And, of course, his story is really about the kind of journey that he takes to come face-to-face with the power of water.

SIMON: Hmm. Please tell us about Taffia, who is 15. The earthquake sets off events that are even worse than the earthquake for her.

CHANCY: Yeah. Taffia, as you said, is a teenager at the time of the earthquake - a teenager, like teenagers everywhere, who is thinking of her crush and her - you know, who will be her best friend. And she suffers not only the earthquake, the death of family members, the loss of the family home, but then insecurity as a young woman in the IDP, or internally displaced people's camps, that sprung up after the earthquake. And we know that, within months, that there was a lot of violence in the camps, a lot of sexual violence. And she is a victim of such violence. And so her story is really about having readers think about the levels of insecurity that took place after the earthquake...

SIMON: Yeah.

CHANCY: ...And how a young person like this is still forced to endure and survive those conditions because she has a child born from this violence and still must continue.

SIMON: And let me ask you about Didier, who is a jazz musician, although he's outside of Haiti when the earthquake strikes. He's driving a cab in Boston. In fact, he hears the news about the earthquake on NPR. Would it be fair to say he feels a kind of survivor's guilt?

CHANCY: Absolutely. He suffers, I would say, the pain of absence, which is a phrase actually my father shared with me after he read the novel. And I thought that was a succinct way of summarizing what it was like for many of us who watched the earthquake from the outside but had intimate ties to Haiti. And so Didier is that person who's watching from the outside. And for those of us who remember 2010 - January 12, 2010 - it took weeks before many of us could reach loved ones.

SIMON: Myriam J. A. Chancy, what's it like to have a novel set around the 2010 earthquake all set to go and come out, and then a 2021 earthquake hits?

CHANCY: There are two words that could use - chilling and bittersweet. By the time, you know, it was set to come out, this was a historical novel, even though its recent history. And then to have another earthquake, it is bittersweet. At the same time, I hope that those who pick up a novel will feel that it connects them to what is happening in Haiti right now and that it will increase a sense of empathy.

SIMON: And what can Haiti, with its proud history, learn as it goes along?

CHANCY: I think the question is not so much what can Haiti learn. I think the question is what can we learn from Haiti now going through two earthquakes in recent history. And people persist. And what have we not learned in terms of the aid processes that go into Haiti when we know that $13 billion went into Haiti after January 12, 2010, and the GDP per capita is no higher than it was in 2009?

SIMON: You know, the quickest explanation for what's happened to the money is often corruption.

CHANCY: Yes. But less than one percent of that $13 billion went to the Haitian government. If we don't know where the money goes - and this is something for all of us to do - you know, when we donate to places like Haiti, we need to really know, what are the infrastructures of these NGOs that we're giving money to? Because so much of the work of rebuilding can be done by people on the ground. But often they're not given the opportunity, and their materials are not used in the process. So there's a kind of swiveling door that comes with aid that maybe could be restructured.

SIMON: A lot of people would go through an event like an earthquake and decide they want to devote their lives to others. And others decide that life is short and fragile, and the best they can do is to be as happy as possible. What's the range of those feelings in your characters?

CHANCY: Well, my answer, I think, might sound ironic. So in Haiti, there's a very strong belief in there being no division between the living and the dead. And that actually can animate the joy of living. And so I have one character who's a child in this story who - it's not clear. I won't give it away it for...

SIMON: Yeah.

CHANCY: ...Folks who haven't read the novel. It's not clear whether he's alive or not. But he is a kind of haunting presence throughout the novel. And part of my rationale for doing that was to give a sense of the possibility that someone who may be between worlds or who has passed on can still bring joy to the living and that part of what we, I think, want in our lives is to be able to remember those who have brought us joy so that we can continue to live joyfully.

And so I think in the novel, I try to have a balance between those characters who are changed for the better, those who are traumatized and yet are still hopeful and also the sense of there being something beyond the catastrophe that is still to be lived for. And that's where the bridge between those who are dead and those who are still living, I think, is made.

SIMON: Myriam J. A. Chancy - her novel, "What Storm, What Thunder." Thank you so much for being with us.

CHANCY: Thank you so much for this interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 6, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous summary of this report incorrectly spelled Myriam J.A. Chancy's first name as Miriam.