Bear Witness: What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy

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Dedicated to the nearly three hundred thousand Haitians who died in the January 12, 2010 earthquake, Myriam J. A. Chancy’s novel What Storm, What Thunder imagines how the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince affected so many lives. The novel is enchanting in its complexity, inviting but also deeply haunting. It brings together several generations of family and friends, following an “old market woman” who takes care of her greedy son’s daughter, a drug dealer in search of love, a mother mourning her children and runaway husband, a businessman making a new life for himself, a cab driver exploring spiritual questions, and a daughter left in the wake of her mother’s death and father’s disappearance. Each chapter begins with a different character: maybe one we’ve seen in another character’s narrative, or maybe one mentioned in passing, or one not yet seen within the book. I have never read a novel that shifts so effortlessly from one character to the next without losing momentum. This tactic makes sure no character is left behind or forgotten; their legacies live on through these pages regardless of what the earthquake may or may not take from them, whether that be family members, their homes, or their own lives.

At the start of the novel we are introduced to Sara, a mother deserted by her husband and grieving her children, who considers life in a split point of view in the wake of the devastating natural disaster. “Maybe nothing mattered,” she thinks. “The old sayings couldn’t mean anything since the world had broken in two—before the Event, and after the Event.” Flooded with memories of her children and husband, she asks, “Where was he?” before turning “away from the question in the same way that she had turned away from the children’s bodies.” Sara’s way of considering her life “before the Event” and “after the Event” sets readers up for the rest of the novel, because the earthquake appears in each chapter like a recurring nightmare. Each character’s past and present, the glimpses we see of their relationships, backstory, and day-to-day life, drastically shifts after their individual encounter with the disaster. We see Sara the moment she finds out about her children’s deaths during the earthquake, but we also see, in the same chapter, the joy of her life prior to it—“It was a happy, boisterous home, something she never dreamed for herself the day she left her grandmother”—and the mourning after—“What was she? Other camp dwellers had begun to ask her as her clothes turned to rags and her skin scaly from lack of washing.” Chancy’s structure—the constant interruption of the character’s lives through the disaster—urges the reader to bear witness. It’s like watching a movie you know the tragic ending of, but still not allowing yourself to look away. With each new name beginning a chapter, you can’t help but wonder how the earthquake will disrupt—or maybe destroy—the life of another resident of Port-au-Prince.

The shifting points of view give each character a chance to tell their own story, which makes the reader question any preconceived notions we might have about them. In Sara’s chapter, we read about her husband abandoning her after the death of their children, and it isn’t until one hundred pages later that we learn about the realities of that decision from Olivier himself. We begin to understand why Olivier leaves his wife, a decision that stems from his own struggles after the earthquake that lead him further away from her. Though it’s easy to be angry with him, Chancy gives us the complexity of his perspective, too: “Paper. The only thing I left behind. A little piece torn from an old envelope on which I had written a word of goodbye—wozo—reed, my nickname for Sara.” The last request Olivier makes of Sarah is simply, “Remember me, us.” Those words offer insight into Chancy’s aim throughout the entire novel: Remember us, the characters seem to beg of the reader, imagined mirrors of the real lives lost and mourned. Chancy is asking us not to turn from the bodies like Sara does, but to face them and remember.

Chancy cleverly weaves her characters’ stories together; though the novel features a large cast, it never feels cluttered. In the first chapter, we inhabit Ma Lou’s perspective, the old market woman who “had a smile for everyone, was everyone’s mother” as she remarks on the eleven-year-old soccer player, Jonas, who “used to count his steps all over the market.” We glimpse him momentarily in chapter one, but he appears throughout the whole novel, running in and out of markets and hotel lobbies just as he runs in and out of the pages of the novel. At one point, he comes face-to-face with a drug dealer and businessman who “looked into the boy’s face and saw myself as I once was.” We don’t get Jonas’s perspective until the very end of the novel, but by then he’s already made his mark. Jonas is significant, we understand, but not unusually so: Chancy gives all her characters the same empathetic treatment.

One of the glimpses we receive of Jonas sweeps us into a new character perspective. The “little boy of eleven years of age, who could run like the wind and dreamed of being a soccer star” delivers fresh avocados and mangoes from Ma Lou’s market to Sonia, as he often does, so she can thank the Hotel de la Montagne’s management for allowing her presence and line of work. Sonia spends most hours in this hotel with Dieudonné, a boy with an absent father, dead mother, and an enlarged heart that “skipped a beat once in a while.” Through Dieudonné and Sonia’s narrative, Chancy delivers a subtle but impactful commentary on sexuality and the multifaceted, unpredictable lives of those around us. The two meet in a club one night and settle into an unsaid yet clear platonic commitment to each other as they pursue those better suited to their love. They both have dreams of their own: Dieudonné to leave for a house in the hills and Sonia to become a mistress, to have a “rich man’s wealth but not his ring on my finger, none of his children.” After Sonia moved out of her family’s home at eighteen, she made men “pay for their desires” so that she would never be taken advantage of like her mother or her sister Taffia, whose harrowing assault we see later in the novel. Sonia often receives male attention because she is “not invisible to these men” and decides that payment for their desires will keep the power in her hands, so that one day the “payments would get us out of rich men’s beds” and “out of the island” towards her dream.

Sonia uses her knowledge of these men to try and protect her younger sister, Taffia, who isn’t so lucky. Her older sister warns her about the clubs Taffia and her friends stumble into late at night—she even pulls her out of one after a fight breaks out—and asks her gently, “You don’t want to end up like me, do you?” Despite what “people said about her, and how she made a living,” Taffia worshipped her older sister and hoped to be just like her. But she and her friends also heard the screams at night, did not need Sonia to explain. She “knew what they meant,” how boys “acted as if we girls were prizes, things to possess.” All of these warnings could not keep the assault from happening; Chancy expresses what lengths boys will go to so they may possess what they wish. The night she is assaulted impacts Taffia “further, forever,” just as the earthquake does. “Afterward, the terrible thing never goes away,” Taffia thinks, reflecting on the earthquake. “It dims but remains, lurking, an uninvited guest, a leech. The more you try to forget, the more it hangs on.” Taffia isn’t just reflecting on the earthquake, but the horrors of that night, too—two traumatizing events that never quite leave her the same.

Chancy wraps up the novel with the same perspective that it starts with: the old market woman, Ma Lou, the only character to inhabit multiple chapters. Just as Jonas runs through many character’s narratives, Ma Lou can be seen throughout the novel, often performing compassionate acts. Ma Lou regularly gives Sonia those baskets full of mangoes and avocados, the “best she could find.” Olivier reflects that Ma Lou always “spread the wealth” by paying for their uniforms, raising them, or dusting them off when they fell. During the earthquake, she helps get children like Jonas out of collapsed houses. Ma Lou is described as “everyone’s mother,” possibly filling the hole left by her son, Richard, who wants nothing to do with his mother or his daughter Anne, whom Ma Lou takes care of. Anne, who eventually loses both of her parents, wasn’t in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit; she learned about the event from a newspaper clipping several days later. She was in Rwanda, working for an NGO after receiving a degree in architecture in the hopes of opening a practice in Haiti’s capital and her home. Anne finds herself staring at a church altar in Nyamata and knows she must return to Haiti, to stop fleeing who she was or the ghosts of her parents. “It was time to return and face what was left, even if it was next to nothing,” she thinks. “The ghosts would be everywhere. But the fact was that something remained, still, even in the rubble, something stronger than memory. Ma Lou, for one, was still there, holding on.”

Despite the earthquake, Chancy suggests, Port-au-Prince and its inhabitants are still holding on. And this seems to be what the novel asks of the reader, too: Remember me, us. Hold on to the lives of those lost. Let What Storm, What Thunder reflect what truly happened in Port-au-Prince on that horrific day, but let it also reflect the lives of all those around us, impacted by tragedy, trauma, culture, and family.

Gracie Jordan currently studies dance and English at Towson University, where she served as the 2020-2021 Editor-in-Chief of Grub Street Literary Magazine for the most recent issue. This is her first publication, with work forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. You can usually find her with a book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, on a yoga mat or in the dance studio, or working on her own novels. You can find her on Instagram at @graciejordan where she documents these small adventures. More from this author →