Myriam Chancy is one of the most brilliant writers in contemporary Haitian literature. Her writings—classic and stylish—sway many readers in the Anglophone world, putting them in direct contact with all the exuberance that the Haitian literature has to offer. “The thing I like the most about Myriam is that she does not only tell you the story and leave you alone to figure it out, she takes you directly to the place of action,” acknowledged The Haitian Times.
Literary success comes with the author’s ability to show-don’t-tell the story, using carefully crafted characters that many CSMS Magazine readers gleefully find in Dr. Chancy’s works. In many literary and academic venues, her works have been critically acclaimed, as of the case of “Spirit of Haiti,” her first novel published in 2003, which was a finalist in the Best First Book Category, Canada/Caribbean region, of the Commonwealth Prize 2004. “Searching for Safe Spaces,” a literary critique awarded an Outstanding Academic Book Award 1998 by the Choice, the journal of the American Library Association. “Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women” is another literary critique published in 1997. Her latest novel “The Scorpion’s Claw” is a must-read one that reveals the author’s maturity as an impressive novelist.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Myriam was raised in Quebec City, in Francophone Canada. Like most of us who grow up in exile, Haiti is never far from her soul—a testimony that can be found in most if not all of her works. A distinguished scholar, Myriam Chancy, Ph.D. is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Ford funded academic/arts journal, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism and a former Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Arizona State University and Smith College. She is currently a Professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Last week, Dr. Ardain Isma had the opportunity to have a chat with this fascinated author.
A. I.: Dr. Myriam Chancy, thank you for giving CSMS Magazine the opportunity to speak with you. To start with our conversation, how long have you been writing in the professional level?
M.Ch.: Thank you for this opportunity to respond to your readers. This is an interesting first question. I suppose it depends by what you mean by professional. I’ve been publishing since the age of nineteen. My first short story and first essay were both published in a Canadian publication dedicated to the writing of writers under the age of twenty-five. I was paid for those contributions so I suppose they mark the beginning of my professional career as a writer.
A. I.: Carrol Coates, who translated Jacques Stephen Alexis’s novel Compère Général Soleil into English, claimed that you are one of the most eloquent Haitian writers of today. How do you feel about that?
M.Ch.: That’s quite flattering. There’s not more to say except thank you for the compliment!
A.I.: Many Caribbean writers and thinkers (creolophone and francophone) seem to think that Haitian literature must be written solely in French or Creole. What do you think of this?
M.Ch.: Well, I think that is an impossible wish to fulfill. There are also those who think that, for Haitian writers in particular, French should not be used whatsoever and others who feel that English and Kreyol is appropriate. At this point in time, with so many people forced to reside and make a living outside of the Caribbean, and educated in languages other than French or Creole, it does not make sense to make such a demand. It also neglects the fact that for all the decades of the Duvalier regime, Haitian writers working in French were our porte-parole. On the other hand, within the island, there is a need to continue to have works produced in Kreyol and in French. Basically, I think those who can, should. At the same time, writers are artists and should have the freedom to write in the languages of their choice; we would be impoverished with fewer writers from the Caribbean and Haiti being published beyond the islands.
A. I.: Haiti is at the center of your writings, but we have learned that you grew up in Canada. How did you become so fascinated to a land that sometimes appeared so distant to children raised in the immigration?
M. Ch.: Well, for one thing, I was born in Haiti and my early childhood was spent going back and forth between Port-au-Prince and Québec City, so I am Haitian despite being raised in Canada so I am not even a first generation exile. My earliest memories are of Haiti, not of Canada. Secondly, at the time of my emigration to Canada, in the early 1970s, Canada made no demands on immigrants to assimilate. I think this is less true today. As they used to say, Canada was a “mosaic” as opposed to the US’s “melting pot.” What this meant is that there was no need to “let go” of Haiti as many people who come to the US are forced to do, so there was never any cultural break for me as there may have been for others. Also, my parents had their children quite late – they were both born in the 30s in Haiti and talked about Haiti all the time so that their memories became mine. And, finally, I was born into a very large family, on both sides, most of whose members where in Haiti when I was born so those extended ties made it easy to feel no lack of connection. In fact, one of my Aunts in Haiti used to call me la racine, as I came to know more about Haiti’s history and cultural practices than many who had remained.
A. I.: Where were you born? How did you come to be in such close communion with Haitian literature?
M. Ch.: I was born in Port-au-Prince in 1970. Growing up, I was taught to read Kreyol by reading the collected poems by Morisseau-Leroy while my mother did my hair when I was small. Both my parents have a high level of education and were always interested in Haitian letters (in fact, from them, I have original editions of L’Histoire D’Haiti by Bellegarde and Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée). Because I always read a lot, my parents and relatives gave me books by Haitian authors when I was a teenager; one was by Anthony Phelps, exiled in Quebec, and the other was by Jan J. Dominique. When I was an undergraduate, while taking a course on world religions, I wrote a paper on vodou and read Maya Deren’s work. But it wasn’t until I found myself writing my doctoral dissertation that I turned my attention to Haitian writing seriously. At that time I read Jean Price Mars’ So Spoke My Uncle and wrote on Marie Chauvet’s Amour, Colère, Folie.
A. I.: In your latest book The Scorpion’s Claw, one—especially me—gets the sense that somehow this is the way you have come to learn about Haiti’s dark period of the US occupation (1915-1934). Is that true?
M. Ch.: I’m not sure I understand the question. Here’s what I can say: I grew up knowing about the first US occupation and its damages to the Haitian psyche; in fact, it probably has colored my interpretation of US interventions worldwide as a consequence. My intent in the novel was to revisit that past and to make a connection to some of the dark periods of the Duvalier regime for those who did not know much about this period in history. I was also highlighting the ironies that abound in Haitian history of Haitians serving in the US army while also working to maintain Haiti’s independence. What you may have detected in some of the precisions of imagined detail is that I did my research. In fact, the initial draft of this novel was written at the same time as I wrote my academic work Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitan Women Writers, which was written as a response to the US invasion of 2004. At the time, I had not read many Haitian women writers beyond Chauvet and was struck by the fact that the literature begins to appear seriously around 1929, during the first occupation. I was thus led to think and read much more about the Occupation at that time and discovered things I did not know like the attempt to sanction US troops for violation of human rights and specifically of women’s rights during this period. It is one thing to know about an event from a cultural point of view and another to read first hand documents from the time period. This research inevitably influenced the fictional work.
M. Ch.: This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve been told (especially with reference to Spirit of Haiti ) that I capture scenes of violence with disarming poeticism and I’ve been asked before how it feels to write such passages. The answer is that I can’t say. I can’t think really about the violence or pathos of a scene when I am writing it; I have to wholly inhabit the situation or person and listen attentively, to my own spirit, and to something else other writers might call a muse. Sometimes I think that second voice is ancestral. I don’t know what it is. There is a hum, though, a feeling of something captured as you write that lets you know you are on the right track and that the scene will resonate with readers. The scene you’ve mentioned here is one that people respond to. I actually have a reproduced image of Péralte’s crucifixion in a children’s workbook from the mid-70s produced in Québec that I’ve had since childhood. I’ve carried this workbook around with me for a long time and when I was writing this novel, it seemed appropriate to do the image justice and release it. Besides, talking through the years with young Haitians of my generation and younger, I realized, and continue to realize, that they often are unaware of such images. Writing is my way of disseminating this information.
A. I.: Have you published in French? If yes, where can our readers get your French publications? If not, why haven’t you done so?
M. Ch.: No, I’ve not published in French. I hope one day that my books will be more widely available and that this will incite a French publisher to pick them up and translate them. Until then, they will not be available. Since my higher degrees are in English literature and I function at a higher level at this point in English, that is my language of choice for writing; it’s a strange freedom and a bind. It is a bind since English is not my first language – I learned it at age 10 – yet because I feel no responsibility to it as such I can bend it to my will.
A. I.: In the publishing business, there are two kinds of success that can be achieved: literary and commercial. But few authors have managed to secure both at once. Which one do you prefer?
M. Ch.: Well, it’s not a matter so much of preference as of reality. If you are a literary writer, as I hope I am, it takes much longer to be commercially recognized and that commercial success may never come. A high profile agent, and then a publishing house, has to take note of your relevance and not their bottom line. To be a commercial writer, you have to appeal to a wider demographic which is hard to do if you are a literary writer with, in my case, political leanings. What can I say, I like being a literary writer as it allows me to pursue my writing unfettered but it would also be nice to have a wider readership.
A. I.: In 2006, we celebrated the life of Jacques Stephen Alexis. Last year was entirely dedicated to Jacques Roumain. What do you think of these two authors considered by many in academia and elsewhere as the two most important Haitian writers of the twentieth century?
M. Ch.: I agree that Alexis and Roumain are two of our most important writers. I would add Chauvet in terms of the early twentieth century even though she, more than Alexis, did not have the time to fulfill her promise. I’m glad that Alexis has been translated via Carroll Coates as he can now be included in courses in modern Caribbean literature since so much of it is unavailable due to the language barrier. I’m not sure of translations of Roumain but I’m lucky I can read the originals!
A. I.: Who discovered your talent for the first time?
M. Ch.: It would have to be my first English Professor in college who was teaching a survey of English literature for students in the architecture tract of environmental studies at the University of Manitoba which I attended from 1986-1989. I was failing miserably at computing in an engineering class and this professor, after reading some of my work (which wasn’t all that polished at the time), told me I was a writer. So, I would have been sixteen or seventeen at that time and I worked on my writing with her through that first year of college and eventually went into arts and majored in English. After this, the first person to take me seriously and to hone my talent as publishing writer was Evelyn Hinz, Anaïs Nin’s official biographer. I took a Canadian Novel course during a summer session with her, which resulted in her working with me long-distance (she went on sabbatical shortly after) for a year; she was also the editor of an important multicultural journal, Mosaic. When I look back, I know that Prof. Hinz was the only person who inspired me to be a professor as I eventually stumbled into becoming; she was passionate, learned, relentlessly rigorous and a cut above the rest.
A. I.: Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
M. Ch.: I don’t know really. Like most artists who discover along the way they are artists, writing is something I’ve always done. As a child, I remember that that first serious poem was posted up on a wall at eye-level for adults to read and I remember feeling this was tremendous. Whenever I read and was affected by a piece of writing, I felt the power of that and it made sense to me to want to emulate that and to want to publish my work so that I could have the kind of transformative effect that other writers had had on me. I do recall that at age fourteen, while still in Canada, I discovered Alice Walker’s In Search of My Mother’s Gardens and that was perhaps the first book that traced a path in the wilderness for me.
A. I.: Women play a center role in your writings, why is that?
M. Ch. Do they? Well the influence of the Walker text is one answer. In the fiction, I think male characters are fairly central or that both genders have equal play. In fact, by the time I got to writing Spirit of Haiti (this was published as my first novel but was actually written some years after The Scorpion’s Claw), I wanted to make male characters my focus in order to demonstrate that the changes that need to happen in the world, to reduce violence, poverty, etc. need to happen as much with men as it does with women, especially with men, actually so that was why I started to shift in the fiction. In my work as a critic, I have focused on women writers because of the dearth of critical writing on women writers. Women writers are still struggling to be taken seriously, especially in academia, so my efforts have gone there. I got tired of hearing in graduate school that there were no Caribbean women writers when I was reading and meeting these women and becoming one myself. You also write what you know and I am, after all, a woman.
A. I.: We have learned through The Haitian Times that you have moved to British Columbia in order to strengthen your writing career. Do you still live there? If not, where do you live, now?
M. Ch.: I took a respite from academia for a two-year period because of a long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome I didn’t think I would win; during this time I lived in Italy, Manitoba and British Columbia. I did get a lot of writing done, as well as a lot of rest, but I’ve moved back to the US since. I was offered and accepted a tenured post as a Full Professor of English at Louisiana State University and am back at work teaching, writing, doing my thing. I’m happy to say that though I still struggle with CFS it is much more manageable now and I’ve learned to slow down and smell the flowersJ
A. I.: We know there are many Haitian writers with great talent, but they have yet to find a publisher. Was it hard for you to get published?
M. Ch.: Well, in a sense, it is always hard. I have yet to land an agent, for instance, which is what a writer really needs to be considered by the larger presses. I acted as my own agent for the sale of my four books, easier to do with the academic works and less so with the literary presses. Still, it is one book at a time and there are many things at play beyond the quality of the work like timing and the disposition of an editor. The Scorpion’s Claw, for instance, is doing well but it took ten years to find its publisher. Right now I am looking for an agent for my new novel and it is hard going even though I am already published.
A. I.: What advice would you like to give to many of our writers who are seeking to get published?
M. Ch: Never get discouraged. Try to place short pieces in respected literary journals in your area and nationally before you approach agents or publishers with complete manuscripts. Always ask editors for their feedback on your work in your cover letter even if they reject your work. Never argue with an editor for turning down your work, especially if you are seeking publication: they may have important critiques to convey that will help your writing and help place your work with them or someone else. Never act as if your work couldn’t use revision. You can decide to place your work elsewhere but if an editor is interested in publishing your work and advises some revision, give them some merit and see how you can work with their critique while preserving the integrity of your work. Never argue over cutting down your piece: that is a minor thing compared to being published. Also, do your homework before you publish: make sure the journal or editor or press you are approaching publishes the kind of work you produce.
A. I.: Do you keep close contact with the Haitian communities in the Diaspora?
M. Ch.: Since I am in the “diaspora,” I suppose I do. I haven’t lived in any areas with large Haitian populations so often I am not in the heart of a Haitian community per say. I participate in a national Haitian community from my books, readings and talks, and, of course, maintain ties with Haitian friends and colleagues internationally.
A. I.: How often do you visit Haiti?
M. Ch.: Many elderly members of my family have died in the last few years or, to maintain their health, have moved to rejoin their children outside of Haiti, so there has been less reason for me to return to Haiti lately. Those relatives who are still there don’t advise it due to the insecurity and many life-long inhabitants of Haiti, much to our surprise, have had to relocate for this reason so Haiti hasn’t been on my travel list for some time. I suppose I see myself as an ambassador for Haiti rather than a returnee.
A. I.: Many of CSMS Magazine readers have compared you with Edwidge Danticat. Do you think it is a fair comparison?
M. Ch.: I thank your readers for the compliment. Edwidge and I are of the same generation and have supported each other in different ways through the years. Beyond this sorority, I think our styles and themes (except for migration) are fairly different. We also have vastly different backgrounds and the fact that I am Canadian and she American also makes a difference, I think. I also think the comparison exists because there aren’t many Haitian women writers being published in English at this time. I’m sure we both hope there will be more and that we won’t be compared, favorably or unfavorably, but appreciated individually.
A. I.: As you and I know, Haiti has produced tons of important authors and thinkers. Which one do you consider as your favorite? Why?
M. Ch.: That is a hard question. I cannot say I have a favorite. I can say that I have been influenced most by the work of Marie Chauvet and Jan J. Dominique because they both sought to say things about the Duvalier régime that you cannot find anywhere else, and that when they published their work was dangerous, especially for women. Chauvet, to my mind, risked and lost her life in doing so and that is a fairly high standard for a writer – to risk all in order to tell the truth.
A. I.: Are you married? Do you have children?
M. Ch.: No, not married. Hopeful but haven’t found the soulmate yet! No children as of yet but I do think it is my mission to adopt a child or two in the near future, hopefully from Haiti at some point too.
A. I.: Beside writing and teaching, what other activities do you do?
M. Ch.: My undying passions are for film and food so going to the movies, cooking and spending time with friends analyzing the world and texts to death is high on the list of priorities. I’m also a published photographer and am currently bit by wheel throwing pottery. I also dabble in other arts such as stained glass and painting but am still in the learning stages. An other great passion is travel. I also enjoy Tai Chi, yoga and various forms of spiritual work.
A. I.: Is there any other book in the work? If so, when can we expect to lay our hands on one copy?
M. Ch: There are several. I am completing final revisions on a new novel manuscript entitled The Loneliness of Angels. You can find an excerpt from it in the current edition of SmallAxe. I am also completing revisions on a collection of memoir essays entitled Fractured. And I am currently researching and writing an academic work titled Floating Islands: Racial Identity Formation in a Transnational Age. Hopefully I will find an agent for the novel and it will appear in one to two years and I hope to place the others within that time-frame as well.
A. I.: As we are at the end of our conversation, is there anything you would like to share with your readers and, in particular, CSMS Magazine readers?
M. Ch.: I’m just thankful for their interest in my work and I hope they will share it with others and embrace the new work as it appears. I also want to tell the writers among them to kenbé and keep believing in their voices. There is a lot of work involved and some disappointments along the way, but it is worth it in the long run. And, of course, I’m happy that the voices of Haitian women are being valorized in your pages.
A. I.: Well, Dr. Chancy, it has been a pleasure talking to you.
M. Ch.: Same here: thank you! Mèsi anpil!
Note: For more information about Dr. Myriam Chancy’s works, please visit her website at www.myriamchancy.com