Myriam J. A. Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder is a fiction novel that explores the lives of multiple characters (Ma Lou, Sonia, Taffie, Olivier, Leopold, Richard, Ann, Didier, Sara, Jonas, and more) as their choices and circumstances lead them to where they will be during the fateful 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, which ultimately resulted in the injuries or deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
There is a lot you could unpack in What Storm, What Thunder. If I were to do a full discourse, or even a focused one, it would easily be pages and pages long. To keep things blog-length, today I’ll share my thoughts, a couple key themes, and some quotes that stuck out to me.
Content warning for book: trauma, sexual abuse/rape, death, suicide
What Storm, What Thunder is a moving fictional account centered around core characters. In each chapter, we grow closer to the them as we learn about their day-to-day lives. As circumstances are revealed, it becomes clear that “good” and “bad” are not so black and white.
I was 20 when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit – oblivious to the world around me in my privileged life of college, visiting relatives over holiday break, working second shift, etc.
Wisconsin doesn’t see a lot of earthquakes, and the one time I “experienced” an earthquake in California, I slept through a tiny tremor so really didn’t experience anything at all.
I had the audacity to be disappointed.
What Storm, What Thunder is an privilege and honor to read – both because it is in honor of the thousands of lives lost and because it is humbling to read.
I was sheltered from many things growing up, then told I was naive. As an adult, I understand the importance of learning about the world. But even that’s romanticized, isn’t it? How fortunate am I, to learn about something in a book instead of experiencing it.
While What Storm, What Thunder is not a novel of happy endings, it remains a story of resilience and humanity in the face of on-going turmoil.
In October 2021, Myriam J. A. Chancy wrote an article for Oprah Daily to talk about Haiti and her experiences with family members surrounding the earthquakes. She points out how in the United States, there’s this expectation to just move on.
“My well-meaning friend responded by saying that the drift of one’s childhood was inevitable, that I needed to put this behind me. I retreated to my apartment. For those of us with ties to Haiti, there was no ‘putting behind.’ The death toll of the 2010 earthquake matched the population of Cincinnati, and I realized that hardly any U.S. resident would be able to even imagine waking up one morning to find their American landscape wiped out, destroyed. Disasters happen elsewhere, never at home, until they do.”Myriam J.A. Chancy on Haiti’s Uncertain Future and What We Must Learn from It
Definitely read her article to gain more insight!
Where did the money go?
Something that stuck out to me in What Storm, What Thunder was the notion that we don’t always understand where our donated money goes and what it’s being used for. One of the characters mentions how people donated money to an organization, but that organization ended up saying they weren’t going to use the funds for Haiti because they actually don’t don’t use funds for current disasters. Nonsense, basically.
The NPR article 5 Years After Haiti’s Earthquake, Where Did The $13.5 Billion Go? shares, “With few exceptions, donor nations and nongovernmental organizations insist on keeping control of their projects, which are set according to their own priorities . . .
“A growing reliance on U.S. and other international contractors helps explain why the payoff of foreign aid in Haiti often seems so low. For instance, it cost more than $33,000 to build a new housing unit in one post-earthquake program, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said last year. That’s five times more than one nonprofit, called Mission of Hope, spends per house, using local contractors.
‘International companies had to fly in, rent hotels and cars, and spend USAID allowances for food and cost-of-living expenses,’ Johnston wrote in the Boston Review last year. So-called danger pay and hardship pay inflated salaries by more than 50 percent.”
Essentially, money went to other countries coming in to “help” instead of the people who wanted to do the most good.
It turned out that the poor prayed to the wrong gods and the rich didn’t pray at all: they demanded.”
(Check out the articles linked in the above quote if you’re interested in learning more.)
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
A current that runs through the chapters is the idea that if people do not see something, it is not real for them. If we can turn a blind eye, we can ignore whatever has happened, as if it isn’t even there, as if there isn’t a living, breathing soul before us.
Yet we still think, Whatever happens to them could never happen to me.
In October of 2021, Chancy wrote an article for Oprah Daily in which she stated, “The death toll of the 2010 earthquake matched the population of Cincinnati, and I realized that hardly any U.S. resident would be able to even imagine waking up one morning to find their American landscape wiped out, destroyed. Disasters happen elsewhere, never at home, until they do.”
We do not know how to help because we do not bother to understand, or we understand enough to know that we don’t what happened to them to happen to us – as if it’s somehow contagious (it’s not). What Storm, What Thunder shows us that not everyone’s compassion needs to extend around the world; being there for your neighbor is a big way to make a difference.
Have you ever seen a homeless person on the street corner and looked away, pretending you weren’t there? Me, too. Let’s be honest with each other about it. Sometimes we just don’t know how to help, or we were taught that our help doesn’t make a difference (it does). It’s not realistic to give $100 to everyone you see, but every little bit makes a difference. While a smile won’t put food on the table, the humanity of acknowledging someone shows them that they are still worthy as a person.
Here are some quotes from the book related to the notion of turning a blind eye:
In Tibet, monks and nuns are setting themselves on fire to send smoke signals, trying to get us to look at what China is doing to their people. But we all look away unless it’s us, or someone we love, going up in flames. You don’t know what collective you belong to until your own house is on fire.”
Even if the unthinkable did happen where he was from, such things were invisible or unclear: there were no obvious signs of vulnerability.”
The below quote occurred before the earthquake took place. Mother Nature literally said, Be careful what you wish for. And she didn’t discriminate. Rich, poor, any race, any gender, any age – they all perished.
‘Pouf,’ said the first man’s wife with a flap of hand. ‘Ni vu, ni connu.’ The French phrase might be translated as ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ but here it had the macabre implication that if you were never conscious of someone, you were freed of the guilt of their disappearance: never seen, never known…. / ‘Make everything disappear? … That would be quite difficult. And anyway, we might be swept up with the others.’ He smiled wickedly. ‘We would need a very selective, method, no?'”
Chancy’s writing style is easy to follow while also being descriptive. I found these lines poetic:
“Out they went, little arms flailing in that smooth, devil-may-care way that only children have – miniature dancers with hidden internal choreographers named happiness and simplicity, love. That’s what they were – love in movement, her love, Olivier’s, all the world’s love wrapped up in their little fists pumping through the air, feet following, drumming the earth for joy.”
He wondered what it would feel like to be a sea turtle now, to know the secret of survival beneath the water, to plunge deeper down knowing how to survive for a time without the need for air, collapsing into a smaller mass, having faith in an inner circuitry designed for collapse in atmospheric pressure, not being afraid of cold, of heat, of darkness.”
“We’d lost our legs – sea legs, land legs, the ability to stand up for ourselves. I needed to cleanse the bones myself, to put all this behind me, return to the land, to my mother’s land, remember everything, and forget the last two years of death begetting death. But, for some time, before going to the waterfalls, I did not know where to start. How to rise again and set out. I am just an old market woman. A relic.”
I wanted to leap out of my own skin, become a werewolf, or a soucouyant. Leave my life behind, like a heavy coat, shed it all and fly away between the shards of light in the night sky, stars and faraway bodies. I understood them, the soucouyants, their cries, desires, even their insatiability. I dreamed, once, when I was a child, of becoming like them: of flying away.”
Overall, What Storm, What Thunder is a novel with messages that linger, encouraging you to learn more and think about how we are all connected.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking to learn about Haiti and its peoples, and the impacts of the earthquake, as well as anyone who enjoys historical fiction and literary fiction.
To learn more about Myriam J. A. Chancy and her work, check out these sites:
– Author website
– Myriam J.A. Chancy on Haiti’s Uncertain Future and What We Must Learn from It
If you wish to make a donation to Haiti relief funds, research the organization to understand how monies are used before making a decision. Chancy provides a page on her website with suggested relief fund organizations.
(Oak + River Books assumes no responsibility for losses or damages occurring as a result of making a donation or utilizing other parties’ websites.)