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Haitian-Canadian author Myriam J.A. Chancy makes a reading list for Haiti


If you have been following the headlines out of Haiti recently, you'll know they have made for grim reading. They tell of crisis and collapse, of cholera, of gangs blocking the main seaport and fuel depots, of mountains of trash, of protesters in the streets. But behind all these headlines is, of course, a country rich with history, with natural beauty, with people trying to go about their daily lives. We wanted to better understand those lives. And to dig beneath the headlines in a country, I always find it helpful to read that country's writers. So we have invited the writer Miriam Chancy, who was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, to pull us together a reading list for Haiti. Miriam Chancy, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MIRIAM CHANCY: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

KELLY: We're going to get to the books, all the books. But before we do that, I mentioned Haiti's natural beauty. And we hear so much about Haiti's troubles. I don't want to minimize them. But I wonder if you would start by painting us an alternate picture of what Haiti looks like, smells like, feels like to a child, to someone who loves it.

CHANCY: Sure. Well, I was born in Port-au-Prince, in the capital, and I was raised there for some years and then back and forth between Port-au-Prince and Canada. And returns to Haiti were always filled with joy and table full of food staples that were native to the country. And it's a stunningly beautiful country in terms of the fauna, the flora and the generosity of its people. And I think that's what struck me most as a child. You know, talking to market vendors and hearing the roosters cry in the morning - those are the sounds of my childhood.

KELLY: OK, the books. You've brought us a list. And I will start with a history that you are recommending. This is called "Silencing The Past." Tell us who it's by and why this has made your list.

CHANCY: Yeah. This is by a Haitian writer, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. And "Silencing The Past" has become a cornerstone text in Haitian studies and also in postcolonial studies. It provides the historical overview that's really needed to understand how the success of the Haitian Revolution, from 1791-1803, with the nation declared independent and founded January 1, 1804, has been denied and distorted over time by intellectuals and international actors for ideological reasons, underpinned by political and economic interests and the far-reaching ethical implications of denying the revolution. It was partly the basis for filmmaker - also Haitian filmmaker Howard Peck's HBO special of 2021...


CHANCY: ..."Exterminate All The Brutes." So it's really chief reading.

KELLY: Another book on your list, "Beverly Bell's Fault Lines" - this takes on more recent history, the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Tell me more.

CHANCY: Yeah, absolutely. Beverly Bell is an American activist. She was not there during the earthquake but returned a few weeks later. And she interviewed women especially and peasant people on the ground to try to get a sense of what their lives were like in the aftermath of the earthquake. And this is a book derived from a blog post which she kept at the time called "Other Worlds Are Possible." And it really gives you a sense of what was happening on the ground and what people wanted for their own futures. I really highly recommend it.

KELLY: Let's do some fiction. If people know one Haitian fiction writer, it might well be Edwidge Danticat. And of her books, though, you're suggesting a memoir titled "Brother, I'm Dying." Why?

CHANCY: Yes, yes. "Brother, I'm Dying" is really probably Danticat's most political work. And it was written in the aftermath of losing her uncle, who also raised her in Port-au-Prince, before she left when she was 12 years old. And he unfortunately died in a detention center in Florida, where there was some confusion about his visa. And so she undertakes to retrace his steps until his death and also to recount her childhood in Haiti and what culminated in his need to leave the country. Given what we saw last year in Del Rio, I think it's a really good text for readers to understand what has led up to the current crisis with Haitian migrants.

KELLY: OK, so specifically, if you're curious about immigration policy and where that stands...

CHANCY: I think so.

KELLY: ...That might be one to pick up. Let me turn you to new fiction. This is by another prominent Haitian writer, Kettly Mars. The title is "I Am Alive." How does this speak to the current situation?

CHANCY: Yeah, this is an interesting text. It's a novella. It's a quick read. It was recently translated by Nathan Dize. It tells the story of a middle-class Haitian family that appears to be unscathed by the earthquake until one member, interned for 40 years because of mental illness just at the beginning of the Duvalier regime, is released from an institution because of a fissure in the foundation of the house where he's interned caused by the earthquake and because of a case of cholera contracted by an occupant. So everyone is returned home because of this fear of contamination. So to me, the book's premise speaks to the current context of Haiti's fissured political foundation, you know, the breakdown of the social fabric. And the specter of cholera is a contemporary consequence of failed international intervention, which we see resurging right now.

KELLY: Yeah. Sadly, we see it back in the headlines.

CHANCY: Exactly.

KELLY: OK, my turn. I have a nomination, which is your recent novel, titled "What Storm, What Thunder." This is 10 interlinked short stories about the lives of 10 people. It becomes a novel through the interlinking. And this is you reckoning with the 2010 earthquake. What were you trying to capture about Haiti?

CHANCY: Yeah. You know, this novel is a choral novel, and I intended to use all those narrative voices spanning three family units across generations to give readers a sense of what people on the ground went through and also the fact that not every Haitian has this same, you know, sense of what their future might be like. And so the novel aims to give a human face to the tragic consequences of the 2010 earthquake both in terms of personal losses, material losses and, again, in terms of the vast failures of international aid, failures which we see persisting to this day.

KELLY: It's also - it's - I loved your book. And it's...

CHANCY: Thank you.

KELLY: Among other things, it was very funny. We don't get to read a lot that's very funny coming out of Haiti. And I was so glad to see that side of the country captured.

CHANCY: Yeah, well, you know, I don't want to speak for all Haitians, but I think Haitians have a very profound sense of humor in the face of calamity. It's one way that people survive.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your reading list to help us better understand the beautiful country where you were born. Thank you.

CHANCY: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

KELLY: That is the Haitian Canadian American writer Miriam Chancy. Her latest book, as you just heard, is "What Storm, What Thunder."

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Fuller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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