Headshot of Myriam J. A. Chancy
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Focus on the Faculty: Myriam J. A. Chancy, Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities

By Rachael Warecki ’08

 

 

At first, Myriam J. A. Chancy, Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities, didn’t plan to write a novel about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In fact, she refused to do so, particularly because so many people had told her that she should.

 

Over the next three years, however, Chancy gave a series of talks on the aftermath of the earthquake, focusing on best practices on the ground as well as the effects of the earthquake on the most vulnerable; afterwards, Haitian audience members approached her with their own stories about the earthquake’s effects. These “moments of commiseration,” as she refers to them, confirmed aspects of the earthquake’s aftermath that she had researched but not experienced firsthand. Then, in 2013, a year after Chancy was writer-in-residence at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine in Trinidad, she encountered the work of the late painter LeRoy Clarke, who at that point had not been to Haiti but, says Chancy, “listened in the dark of night and painted what he heard.” Clarke’s work changed her mind about writing the novel and influenced her process. By combining her impressions of the conversations to which she’d been privy, her experiences on the ground visiting Haiti after the earthquake, and the information she’d learned from research, Chancy created a fully fictional account of the earthquake and its aftermath. The resulting novel, What Storm, What Thunder, charts the lives of 10 Haitian characters before, during, and after the earthquake, which killed a quarter of a million people, injured 300,000, and left 1.5 million without homes. It was published this fall by Tin House Books and HarperCollins Canada.

 

“I realized that there was a reason that people had trusted me with these stories—that, as a writer, they expected that I carry them forward,” Chancy says, adding that she did not retell anyone’s specific stories, as they were not hers to tell. “Listening, I realized years later, was a large part of the process of writing this novel.”

 

Listening and the cultivation of empathy played a vital role in the curriculum of Chancy’s most recent women’s memoir course at Scripps, which combined the reading and writing of memoir with autobiographically derived fiction. In addition to exploring writing from a craft angle, the course’s workshop component taught students to treat others’ stories with care and prepared them to write beyond the memoir genre. “The purpose of understanding one’s own story as narrative is a conduit through which students can better grasp how to extend empathy to others by first understanding and extending empathy to themselves,” Chancy explains. “Studying and learning to write memoir also provides students with the opportunity to learn the limits of what is theirs to tell, which can serve them well as they pursue writing fiction unrelated to their personal life stories.”

 

Her expertise in textual analysis—in 2014, Chancy received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in literary criticism—also informs the curricula of her creative writing courses, which she has taught at the undergraduate and graduate level throughout her career. These courses “prepare young writers in understanding the mechanics of writing as well as of literary analysis,” she says. “As someone who is both an academic and a creative writer, I believe strongly that developed skills in textual analysis will improve any writer’s skillset in the creative realm.”

 

I realized that there was a reason that people had trusted me with these stories—that, as a writer, they expected that I carry them forward.

 

Myriam J. A. Chancy in the library

 

Chancy’s own skillset in the creative realm is prodigious. Prior to What Storm, What Thunder, she had already published three highly regarded novels: The Loneliness of Angels (2010), which received the 2011 Guyana Prize for Literature Caribbean Award, The Scorpion’s Claw (2005), and Spirit of Haiti (2003), which was longlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. What Storm, What Thunder has already earned its own share of acclaim. It received starred reviews from Kirkus, reserved for “books of exceptional merit,” and from Publishers Weekly, accolades from Library Journal, and endorsements from writers Edwidge Danticat, Zinzi Clemmons, and José Olivarez.

 

While she has been particularly heartened by the novel’s resonance with Caribbean readers, Chancy emphasizes that this is also a book for non-Caribbean readers. “I really hope those who come to it will take away not only a sense of what occurred in Haiti during and after this particular disaster but of what could happen anywhere,” she says. “It’s a novel about home and what it might feel like to lose a sense of place, of beginning, for yourself or for your family, and what one might have to reimagine or rebuild in the wake of such a material and spiritual loss. It asks readers to imagine how they might react should their treasured landmarks, and treasured people, literally disappear overnight, which is what happened for me and so many others. How would you recover, persevere, rebuild?”

 

The answers to the future . . .
resided in the lessons of history.

 

During the 2019–2020 academic year, Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities Myriam J. A. Chancy served as the interim director of the College’s Humanities Institute, a thematic program that includes lectures, conferences, exhibitions, and performances that bring prominent and emerging scholars to Scripps’ campus. To support the fall and spring semesters’ respective themes, “(De)Centering the World” and “(Re)Centering Wounds,” Chancy invited guest speakers to explore humane responses to natural and man-made disasters, both historical and current, including genocide, earthquakes, and climate change.

 

Nearing the end of the program year, the world was beginning to experience a new disaster on a global scale: COVID-19. The Humanities Institute’s virtual presentations unwittingly provided students with models from diverse communities of how to cope with the unfolding crisis, from producing art to connecting virtually to performing radical acts of self-care. Students reached out to Chancy to express the importance and resonance of the programming she’d put together throughout the academic year. “It was important to them, as they told me, because I laid out a program that validated the experience of marginalized communities as central to the human experience, especially when those communities had overcome historical cataclysms and persisted to the present day,” she says. “Students who either came from such communities or valued social justice issues found that the programming resonated with them and their sense that the answers to the future and a better humanity resided in the lessons of history.”