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This novel about Haiti's 2010 earthquake shows us: People persist

Tin House

On January 12th 2010, a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, killing an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 individuals. In the chapter "Dying Together" in The Art of Death, a work of macabre and brilliant commentary, Edwidge Danticat writes about watching the television coverage in Miami that day, in a state of shock.

Perhaps because the images of the helplessly trapped were so hard to take, a lot of the television news coverage quickly shifted to foreign-led professional rescues ... Among the stories that might have been too devastating to watch are some that my family members told of hundreds of people who individually or in small groups kept vigil near a pile of rubble and spoke to their trapped loved ones as they slipped away, dying so close yet beyond their reach.

Danticat points directly at the cacophony the television cannot show, but soon she moves into a mode of detached rumination.

It takes a rare rigor to shift from visceral grief to the detachment of a literary critic or a journalist. Danticat demonstrated the skill of the former. Haitian-Canadian-American writer and scholar Myriam J. A. Chancy demonstrates the skill of the latter in the new novel What Storm, What Thunder, a product, Chancy writes in her acknowledgements, of listening to the stories of survivors for six months after the earthquake — and for years after.

The novel, shifting from one character to the next, skipping non-chronologically from 2014 to the day of the earthquake ('Douz Janvye' in Haitian Kreyòl) to the days before or the months after, is as far as possible from a maudlin account of a terrible tragedy: It is a precise, albeit fictional, reconstruction of the many kinds of individuals and experiences during and after the tragedy; carving out the lives of those in Port-au-Prince markets or displaced-people (IDP) camps or in a cab in Boston with a razor-sharp palette knife.

This past August, the deadliest earthquake since that fateful day hit Haiti, killing 2,200 and injuring many more. Chancy, in a recent interview with NPR's Weekend Edition, responded to the coincidence of a fresh disaster like an investigative reporter, excoriating the corrupt NGO infrastructures that permeate post-disaster Haiti: "The question is not so much what can Haiti learn," she said. "I think the question is what can we learn from Haiti now going through two earthquakes in recent history. And people persist."

Ma Lou, an elderly woman who runs a stall in in a Port-au-Prince market, is a fulcrum for What Storm, What Thunder, beginning the book by introducing us to a number of key characters we will meet later with a learned stoicism. "That's what we old market women do: we watch," says Ma Lou. "But this time, the lot of us market women sprang to action, even as our bones creaked for lack of cartilage and oil."

Somehow ... Chancy rarely tips into a state of utter hopelessness, nor does she strip away agency from even the most abject of people.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking set of characters consists of a family, parents Sara and Olivier, whose two daughters are immediately crushed in a house, and whose eccentric son, Jonas, loses a leg and exists in a liminal space between life and death throughout the book. Meanwhile, Sara descends into madness in an IDP camp; Olivier's seeming abandonment of her an open question until he steps out in his own chapter later in the book.

Somehow — despite the stories of sexually exploited teenagers in IDP camps and the opportunistic monetization of water by a Haitian businessman — Chancy rarely tips into a state of utter hopelessness, nor does she strip away agency from even the most abject of people. She has unimpeachable credibility — and a clear purpose: People do persist, not merely suffer.

Chancy evokes for the reader a remarkably sober and intense proximity, perhaps not unlike the people Danticat mentions in The Art of Death — those who sat vigil in the aftermath of the earthquake, talking to their dying loved ones through rubble. Not since W. G. Sebald has somebody succeeded in evoking such a rich sense of the history of disaster.

Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.

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Kamil Ahsan