Scripps Humanities Chair, Author Calls For Empathy in Post-Earthquake Haiti

Hartley Burr Alexander Humanities Chair, Myriam J.A. Chancy, discusses post-earthquake Haiti at a talk on Tuesday, Feb. 14.Since Haiti’s devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, Haitians both living on the island and abroad have been in the process of reclaiming the stories that were buried in the rubble. Myriam Chancy, Haitian-Canadian author, Guggenheim Fellow, and Scripps College Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities, spoke about the role of fiction in combatting the politics of exclusion which undergird one of the most tragic natural and humanitarian disasters of our time. The event, which took place on Tuesday, Feb. 14 in the Hampton Room at Scripps, was part of the Scripps Humanities Institute’s “Walls, Borders, and Fences” Spring Series.

Combining readings from Douze, photographs, and her research amassed from the past 17 years, Chancy exemplified the power that stories have to create empathy for and give agency to the voices that are often silenced, such as those most deeply affected by the earthquake.

Douze tells the stories of twelve interconnected narrators living in Haiti after the earthquake. The narratives are borrowed from stories that people have shared with Chancy throughout her experiences in earthquake relief and research.

“Maybe just giving voice to twelve is a way to remember all the nameless dead, and to make it mean something,” Chancy said in response to a question about her role as a writer in the aftermath of the earthquake.

A literary authority on the history and reconstruction of Haiti, Chancy has written several books which center on the lives and roles of women in development, including her 2012 book, From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. In her talk, she explained that her work is deeply personal, as it is largely inspired and affected by her Haitian roots, particularly her relationship with her grandmother.

The stories in Douze are harrowing, and Chancy makes no attempt to mask the realities of the devastation. They are also complex and richly laced with Haitian culture. Her readings were imaginative and lyrical and placed the audience firmly within the scenes she described. Chancy gracefully integrated Creole into her prose, presenting an authentic voice of those for whom post-earthquake trauma has become part of daily life.

Nearly 15 billion dollars was donated to Haiti aid relief in the months following the earthquake, according to a report by CBS Interactive Inc. Much of Chancy’s work presents a darker reality of foreign aid in exposing the ways that local voices are often kept out of the reconstruction process. She urges her readers to consider the importance of grassroots development led by local actors over the fuel that foreign aid so often brings to an already burning fire.

“So much money has been poured into Haiti and what happens in this kind of situation is that it pours in, and then it pours right out,” she explained. “NGOs that work in Haiti will bring in their own labor. They will not necessarily train Haitians to do the work for themselves so another kind of infrastructure is built into the country that creates more walls, more fences in terms of the people that are on the ground.”

Chancy uses fiction as a tool to break down the exclusionary borders erected in Haiti by outside influences and prejudices. The central character throughout her novel, a market woman, binds all other characters and stories together. She is the eyes and the wisdom of the community, and the community trusts her authority above all. She, and other market women like her, protect Creole tradition in a modern context and, as Chancy argues, are the key to social, economic, and political rehabilitation in Haiti.

By inserting voices of women such as these into the center of her writing, Chancy hopes to shift the popular perception of Haiti and its people toward a more authentic lens of grassroots change.

“What do we think fiction is there to do?” Chancy asked the audience. “My answer is that regardless of skin color or ethnicity or background, fiction exists to move us. It is a kind of call to empathy. There is an emotional tenure in writing that moves us from observers to empathetic participants.”

In a media climate saturated with headlines about walls and borders, Chancy offers fiction as a respite and a solution against exclusion, prejudice, and misunderstanding. The stories she shares bridge the gaps made by geographical, cultural, and political difference.