Haitian-Canadian/American author and scholar Myriam J. A. Chancy was appointed in 2015 as the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities, Scripps College’s most prestigious, external endowed professorship. Her academic publications include Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997); Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (1997), awarded an Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1998 by Choice, the journal of the American Library Association; and From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions from Haiti, Cuba and The Dominican Republic (2012). Her novels include Spirit of Haiti (2004), which was shortlisted for the Best First Book Category, Canada/Caribbean Region, Commonwealth Prize in 2004, and The Loneliness of Angels (2010), which won the 2011 Guyana Prize in Literature Caribbean Award, Best Fiction 2010. She received a midcareer Guggenheim Fellowship in Literary Criticism in spring 2014, an award that has supported the completion of her current academic work-in-progress, Autochthonomies: Transnationalism, Testimony, and Transmission within the African Diaspora, focusing on intra-diasporic black subjectivities. Concurrently, she is completing her fourth novel, Douze, focusing on post-earthquake Haiti.
Among other distinctions, Dr. Chancy is also a recipient of a Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ, 2004), for her work as Editor-in-Chief of Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, housed at Smith University; received a Martin Luther King, César Chàvez, Rosa Parks visiting professorship from the University of Michigan in 2000, and is the recipient of both teaching and preparing future faculty mentoring awards. She has served as an expert reviewer for the NEH, Prince Claus Awards, and served on the Advisory Editorial Board of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association from 2009-2012.
Scripps College: Your scholarship has investigated the subject of cultural identity and representation in Caribbean and African diasporic texts. How has your work shifted from the Caribbean context to that of “re-reading race transnationally” in your current work?
Myriam J. A. Chancy: My background and training in British, American, and African American literatures served as the foundation to recognize the ways in which culture, society, and history shape our perceptions of belonging, whether within a nation, or within ethnic groupings within the nation. Given that I was born in Haiti, then emigrated with my family to Canada—my parents met in Paris—I always knew my background was not reflected in the canons of traditional English literary studies; this led me to explore Caribbean women’s literature at the dissertation stage of my PhD and to the development of my three academic works on Caribbean women’s literature.
The first of these focused on the question of exile in Anglophone, Afro-Caribbean women’s literature, as the question of im/migration has always been central in the writings of male writers from the region; the second demonstrated the existence of a tradition of Haitian women’s literature when none was perceived to exist; and the third focused on the displacement of Haiti from Caribbean/Latin American Studies and how Haitian, Dominican, and Cuban women writers based in the U.S. navigate the issue of race and nationality more or less productively in defeat of this exclusion. Once the third of these texts was published, I considered it a final chapter of a trilogy I had been working on with regard to Caribbean women’s writing and was ready to turn to other things.
After taking a brief hiatus from academic work and living in the U.S.—a time in which I focused primarily on my creative writing and traveled a great deal—I was exposed to new ideas concerning racial constructions and cultural identity. Since I am transnational (multiethnic, multi-lingual, Haitian, Canadian, and now, American), I utilized my own experience as a compass when I returned to academic work to explore the question of how people of African descent address one another when they are not producing against a particular culture or do not perceive themselves as minority; this is what my current work concerns, and what others might learn about ontology, generally, by being more aware of conversations internal to, and among, communities of African descent.
SC: Your award-winning novels, to date, give voice to the silent histories of Haiti and Haitian people; they are known for conveying the inner possibilities of the human spirit in prose that is said to be “evocative and illuminating” and “lyrical and breathtaking.” What informs your approach to writing?
MC: The creative writing process is somewhat mysterious and difficult to describe. I generally work from inspiration. Each of my novels to date addresses a particular moment in Haitian history and attempts to revisit that period in terms of its relationship to a contemporary situation. For instance, Spirit of Haiti, my first published novel, was concerned with the period of the Kingdom of Haiti situated in the northern part of the island under King Henri Christophe, shortly after the Haitian Revolution, a period which is remembered both for its great prosperity and excesses. Given that the area retains some of the infrastructure (educational and other) created during the time of the kingdom, I was interested in revisiting the history from the point of view of those who lived in a much less prosperous present but under the shadow of that previous glory. I was inspired partly by travels through the region a few years before I decided to write the novel.
I think that good fiction comes both out of lived experience and a willingness to travel into unknown terrain; historically-driven fiction must be researched, so it also means developing research skills as well as imaginative ones. So, I attempt to evoke and illuminate the past by grounding it in research and then bring to bear the skills of craft: simile, metaphor, working the language, so that readers can be in a fully created world that might, in turn, inspire their own research and travels through the “real” world. I am also heavily influenced by photography, in my own practice, and that of others—film, and music, which I think, in turn, produces the visual lyricism reviewers have noted in my work.
SC: How would you describe the tandem between your fictional and critical works?
Generally speaking, I work on two projects at the same time: one academic, one creative. There is usually a tangential connection between the two, even if they aren’t written at the same time. As I research towards the academic project, certain items I come across pique my curiosity and are stored away for exploration creatively. In some sense, even though it isn’t always the case that my critical work precedes my creative—I was actually a fiction writer prior to becoming an academic and started publishing in my teens—I think of the creative work as representing a kind of excess, that which can’t be explained through systematic proofs and can only be addressed through deliberate acts of the imagination. Academic work is generally ontological, hermeneutical, archival, or archaeological in purpose, while creative work, though touching on the nature of being, is primarily—for me, in any case) —about creating spaces for empathy and exchange on unstable ground, ground that can’t be systematically ordered or analyzed. It requires a suspension of disbelief, some form of faith, while academic work requires diligence and systemized effort. I try to infuse the works with the best of both worlds: research-based facts for the fictional work and creative approaches to the critical. For example, I have included my own photography in some of my critical work (book covers) so that the latter is approachable and engaging rather than dry and impenetrable.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people do not know about, that you would like to share?
MC: I should have been a chef!