Myriam J. A. Chancy
By Marie Condron
There is a tree called the flamboyant.
Its blooms resemble that of an orchid; four scarlet petals frame a central petal streaked white, yellow, and red. The tree’s branches reach far and wide, and when its flame-colored flowers bloom, they cover the canopy, creating a stunning riot of color. A native of Madagascar, the tree has spread throughout the tropics—making bold statements and offering shady refuge in gardens from Australia to India to the Caribbean.
When Myriam J. A. Chancy discovered In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) by Alice Walker, the flamboyant trees of her native Haiti were a distant but searing memory; Chancy was a 14-year-old girl living in Winnipeg, Canada. Walker’s collection of essays, both an examination of the Civil Rights era and a search for voices—of self-awareness, and of women and African American writers—struck a chord in her. “I believe in listening,” Walker wrote, “To a person, the sea, the wind, the trees, but especially to young black women whose rocky road I am still traveling.”
Inspired by Walker’s search for “unsung heroines” and, soon after, by the work of James Baldwin, Chancy set off on a literary journey of her own, pursuing a career of research and scholarship as well as essay and novel writing. Now a leading scholar of the diaspora of Caribbean women writers as well as an acclaimed novelist, Chancy joined Scripps’ faculty this past spring as the new Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of Humanities.
After her childhood move to Canada, it took several years for Chancy, born to a mother trained in accounting and law and a seminarian father, to realize that she no longer lived in Haiti. Given the political instability of the Duvaliers (Jean-Claude and François) dictatorship, her parents sought out teaching positions in French Canada, going back and forth between Haiti and Québec City for several years before ultimately settling in Winnipeg when Chancy was five. They visited extended family in Haiti often, filling Chancy’s childhood with memories of her paternal great-grandmother’s aromatic “douces,” a fudge-like candy, the open markets in quiet Port-au-Prince streets, and the flamboyant trees in the backdrop. The memories would inspire her later creative work, prompting details for settings in novels, including Spirit of Haiti (2003), The Scorpion’s Claw (2005), and The Loneliness of Angels (2010).
Chancy completed her PhD in literature at the University of Iowa in 1994. Her first teaching job was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the year that the U.S. decided to send troops—also from Nashville—to Haiti to return ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office.
“I grew up with strong feelings about foreign interference with Haiti, because of the previous implications of the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 until 1934, especially the racial politics of it all,” she said. “As a result, I started seeking out writing by women of Haiti, which, as it turned out, began in earnest during the first occupation (works in French) and ended with two novels written by Haitian American writers in English, Edwidge Danticat’s powerful novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Anne-Christine d’Adesky’s equally powerful Under the Bone.”
This survey of Haitian women writers led to Chancy’s second (but first published) book, Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997), a first- of-its-kind, foundational exploration of the work of Haitian women writers. Previously, while completing her PhD, she had been reading her way through the Caribbean, building relationships and connections with other women writers, many living in exile across the Anglophone world. This research helped establish the area of Afro-Anglophone Caribbean women writers and led to her book Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro- Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (1997), an exploration of women writers and filmmakers of the Caribbean whose work articulates the oppression and vulnerability of being women—both in the poverty and exploitation of their homelands and in their search for identity, connection, and belonging amid race, class, and gender politics in their adopted countries.
Chancy says she’s nearly always juggling both a creative work and a project of critical writing. She’s currently writing a novel set in post-quake Haiti, and in the late stages of a monograph, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, analyzing how written and visual artists of the African diaspora (African, African American, and Caribbean descent) “anchor their works in mobile, indigenous African cultures and those of their diasporas, while also assuming the universal practice of seeking freedom in the constitution of personhood.”
Chancy’s work branches out across cultures and geographies, not unlike her favorite flamboyant tree. It’s not surprising that she has cultivated a fertile creative ground among a far-reaching community of women writers. “I think that the study of literature lends itself well to pursuing a better understanding of the large ethical, moral, social, and even psychological challenges that face each of us,” she said. “In a way that very little else can, it introduces us to the inner worlds and landscapes of others unlike ourselves. In that sense, it is an ideal tool for exploring the world.”
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