Myriam J. A. Chancy on the 2010 Haiti earthquake

Q&A with Myriam J. A. Chancy on the personal & political impacts of the 2010 Haiti earthquake

In the years following 2010, when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, Myriam J. A. Chancy wrote columns, poems, essays, and took photos. In her new book, Chancy examines the structures that have resulted in Haiti’s post-earthquake conditions and reflects at key points after the earthquake on its effects on vulnerable communities.

Her essays make clear the importance of sustaining and supporting the dignity of Haitian lives and of creating a better, contextualized understanding of the issues that mark Haitians’ historical and present realities, from gender parity to the vexed relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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What role does the communal play in your writing? How have audiences at talks, students, readers, and others impacted the writing that appears in Harvesting?

In the process of being invited to give talks on the topic of best practices in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and on gender issues pertaining to the surviving population, it was often the case that audience members didn’t know the historical or cultural context in which the disaster unfolded. As a result, I would be invited back either to speak on an issue or to write a column for an online portal, academic journal, or newspaper insert. This was the case with the “Trinidad & Tobago” columns, produced at the behest of an editor who heard me speak at the philosophical society in St. Augustine, Trinidad. Thus, pieces were developed in a dialectic with audiences who wanted to learn those specifics, particularly in neighboring Caribbean countries or in academic contexts in the United States. This is why some of the themes repeat and develop over the course of the essays, and also reflect some of the wider issues unfolding in real time on the ground in the early years after the earthquake.

Describe the process of combining scholarly, creative, and public-facing work into one collection. How did it feel to combine these works and see them alongside each other, rather than separate as they had been? Were you surprised to find specific patterns emerging within your own scholarship, thinking, and writing?

All of the pieces were public-facing, from the scholarly to the creative: produced for talks, created as status posts, or, in the case of the photographs, ultimately shown in community gallery settings. In this sense, they are all meant to engage public audiences. I am often asked to elaborate on contemporary issues pertaining to the Haitian situation since 2010, such as the continued disharmony with the Dominican Republic, when I had already written on these topics after the earthquake. Having all the pieces collected in one book allows me to point interested parties to it for further exploration without having to reproduce the content. It’s also true that online material and op-eds can prove to be ephemeral, difficult to find over time. With the collection, the information pertinent to the time, but still affecting the Haitian situation in the present, is preserved and made accessible to readers, scholars, and students. In terms of genre, it shows students, especially, that there are multiple ways of engaging difficult subjects in order to reach a variety of audiences.

Your book stresses and chronicles the many realities of unexpected natural disasters and how people react to them—not only resilience and perseverance but also desolation and despair. What lessons do you hope readers who are, in the midst of our climate emergency, increasingly at risk of experiencing such a disaster will take from this collection?

We’re all in this climate emergency together, but the reality is that those situated in the Global South bear the brunt of climate change disproportionately. So, on the one hand, this collection spells out how disaster and aid responses disregard the effects of colonialism and capitalistic exploitation in their deployment and, on the other, attempts to show how individuals and communities often face impossible odds in reconstructing their lives in the aftermath of such a calamity. How individuals in the Global North respond to these histories’ effects on their neighbors and support measures that will decrease the burden on the Global South will, over time, help us all: the neglect of the Global South and its inhabitants buys the Global North time but does nothing to decrease the effects of the climate emergency globally. By practicing empathy and learning how the realities of natural disasters exacerbated by man-made disasters (as was the case for the 2010 Haiti earthquake) hinge upon our relationships to one another, we can better respond to them while also working on the de-acceleration of climate change or options that will mitigate its far-reaching effects.

In the introduction to your book, you write that your essays have “no final answers” and that they are “largely polemical even when they seek to provide facts, figures, and a tangible sense of what Haitians on the ground have endured and will continue to endure.” What emotions do you see as driving forces of your work across this book?

I would say that I am passionate about the people, culture, history, art, and literature of Haiti, as a Haitian scholar and as someone aware of all that the country has contributed to the philosophies of race and agency, across my work on Haiti. The majority of the essays were written as op-eds and as keynotes, which are polemical in nature, designed to rhetorically engage the audience by taking up a hard line on a topic (in this case, largely the problems with the deployment of rescue and aid to nations such as Haiti in contexts such as this). One has to understand what is at stake, and this cannot be achieved by taking up all sides of an issue, as one might do in an academic monograph.

Who are some political, public, or scholarly thinkers (or works) that you’d suggest for readers who want to expand their knowledge of the Caribbean and Haiti? 

Caribbean studies is a large field, so it really depends on what aspects of the Caribbean readers are interested in, but a work related to the Caribbean that I teach and cite from in Harvesting Haiti related to exploitation between North and South would be Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. Anyone interested in postcolonial theory and the politics of the effects of colonization should read Martinican thinker, Frantz Fanon. A piece of literature related to the spirituality of Haiti would be Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove.

On Haiti, I mention a number of books in the book’s afterword, but probably the first book anyone should read is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. After that, Jean Casimir’s The Haitians. In literature, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying and Kettly Mars’ I Am Alive.

Myriam J. A. Chancy is a Guggenheim Fellow and HBA Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College. She is the author of Autochthonomies: Transnationalism, Testimony, and Transmission in the African Diaspora, among other books, including four novels, the latest of which is What Storm, What Thunder.