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In 2010, an earthquake killed some 300,000 Haitians. Chancy’s fictional portrait of the survivors and victims is both ode and elegy.
As our pandemic has unfolded, I’ve been selective, almost protective, about what I read, so natural disaster narratives are not my first choice. I certainly did not expect a book centered on the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which registerd 7.0 on the Richter scale and killed nearly 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless, to captivate me, but that’s exactly what happened with Myriam J.A. Chancy’s new novel, What Storm, What Thunder.
An elder, Ma Lou, is peddling eggs in the Port-au-Prince market when the earthquake strikes; she functions as a kind of omniscient narrator. Her reflections open and close the novel, bookends to Chancy’s narrative. “Peace is what others want from me, from us, the market women they imagine sit immobile,” she says, “rooted to the earth but without extensions, no lives and families of our own, waiting patiently for them to come with their grimy dollars, their smiles full of need, to unload money and stories of desire, a desire to be free of worry, to be freed.” As a witness to epic tragedy, she’s the window through which readers see the intimate unraveling of lives after the cataclysm. Among Chancy’s beguiling portraits are Sara and Olivier, whose children perish in the earthquake; their son Jonas, who haunts them; Sonia, a call girl, and Dieudonné, her business partner, who believe the man following them is the Vodou spirit of death; Sonia’s little sister, Taffia, who is brutally raped in a tent city; and Didier, a Haitian emigrant, who is driving a taxi in Boston when he learns of the earthquake.
Despite its deep and continuing troubles, Haiti remains a beloved home and central to the identity of Chancy’s characters. To Americans, Chancy seems to be saying, it’s all too easy to think of Haiti simply as a place where bad things happen, especially now: There was the July 2021 assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse; another earthquake in the country in August; in September, border patrol agents on horseback chased some of the 15,000 Haitian refugees from the Texas border, spurring the resignation of Daniel Foote, the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti.
What Storm, What Thunder complicates these narratives—those that focus only on trauma—by attending carefully and with love to the visceral, tender details of people who are just trying to go on in spite of the earthquake’s—and other historical catastrophes’— long tentacles. Chancy’s characters have been uprooted, their hearts shaken; relationships have disappeared in the rubble. In an IDP (Internal Displacement Monitoring) camp, Sara feels the tug of her children’s ghosts on her elbow: “Her children came to define her…They taught her who she was and who she wanted to be. Something more than a mother, something of the divine, an intermediary between heaven and earth, the vessel that brought them from over there to here, who’d made flesh out of spirit. They made her believe in holy things, for a time, until they all disappeared, in a matter of seconds, and the miracles they were became dust, leaving her above ground only to preach about their passage, a passage she no longer believed in and for which she refused to testify.”
With heartbreaking humanity, Chancy blends belief and despair, a hallmark of What Storm, What Thunder. Taffia, Sonia’s little sister, vulnerable in the tent city, is raped by a leering boy she knows–she sees the intersections of relationships both from the perspective of a child and from the point of view of a witness and a participant in suffering, older than her years: “The work of trying to save the dying and move the dead began that first night, before the dust had begun to settle. Even useless people like me worked at moving rubble with our bare hands until our fingers and feet bled. Every time we released a body from the tangle of steel and debris, every time one of those bodies heaved for breath, we felt a little lighter.”
The narrative arc to What Storm, What Thunder mirrors Taffia’s words. Each character’s thread deepens our understanding of those lost beneath the rubble, the survivors who become saviors or villains. Ma Lou leaves us with these resonant words, a kind of benediction: “The days melded one into the other, light with dark. It was hard to explain later, when those who hadn’t been here wanted explanations for delays. But there was no real way to explain. Reality was no more; time had evaporated. Those others were out of harm’s way: they were safe, in the unreal world. Here, life and death were stripped to their bare elements. All that was man-made fell, including time, buckled into the sky with nightfall.”
What Storm, What Thunder ultimately reminds us that disaster collapses our differences, as vast as they may be. Tragedy does more than change us in ways beyond our control; it stirs us to become something different, someone better, despite our enduring grief.