An Interview with Myriam J.A. Chancy

Myriam J.A. Chancy is a Haitian-Canadian writer born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and subsequently raised there and in Canada. After obtaining her BA in English/Philosophy (with Honors), from the University of Manitoba (1989) and her MA in English Literature from Dalhousie University (1990), she completed her PhD in English at the University of Iowa (1994). In 1997, she was awarded early tenure on the basis of two influential books of literary criticism published in the same calendar year, Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (Rutgers UP, 1997) and Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (Temple UP, 1997). As the first book-length study of its kind, Framing Silence was instrumental in inaugurating Haitian Women’s Studies as a field of specialization. In 1998, Searching for Safe Spaces was awarded an Outstanding Academic Book Award by Choice, the journal of the American Library Association, while her work as the Editor-in-Chief (2002-2004) of the Ford Foundation-funded academic/arts journal, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism was recognized with the Phoenix Award for Editorial Achievement (for redesign, cover art, and creative/academic content) by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ, 2004). Her third academic book, From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, closes a trilogy on Caribbean women’s literature (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012). She is currently at work on a book-length academic work focusing on Black subjectivities intra-diasporically.

As a novelist, Chancy garnered a shortlisting for Best First Book, Canada/ Caribbean region category, of the Commonwealth Prize in 2004 for her first novel, Spirit of Haiti (London: Mango Publications, 2003), and published a second novel, The Scorpion’s Claw (Peepal Tree Press 2005) to critical praise. Her third novel, The Loneliness of Angels (Peepal Tree Press 2010), was awarded the inaugural 2011 Guyana Prize in Literature Caribbean Award for Best Fiction 2010 [Caribbean Award Jury: Stewart Brown, Funso Aiyejina, and Rawle Gibbons], and was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize in Caribbean Literature (along with works by V. S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott and Edwidge Danticat) while being shortlisted in its fiction category. All three of her novels are currently taught in universities and colleges throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.

A frequently invited guest speaker internationally, delivering talks and creative readings in the areas of Caribbean, Haitian and social justice issues, and as of summer 2012 she will have a recurring invited op-ed column appearing in Port-of-Spain’s Trinidad & Tobago Review addressing Haiti/Caribbean affairs.

Chancy is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, where she teaches courses in African diaspora studies, Caribbean literature, postcolonial literature and theory, feminist theory and women’s studies, and creative writing (fiction). She has served as an expert reviewer/advisor for the Prince Claus Fund (Netherlands) and the NEH. A recent editorial advisory board member of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, she currently sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Haitian Studies (UC, Santa Barbara), the advisory board of Voices For Our America (VFOA) housed at Vanderbilt University, and the Advisory Council in the Humanities of the Fetzer Institute.

Chancy was the scholar-in-residency and keynote speaker at Union Institute & University’s July 2012 PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies Program Residency. While at the residency, she spoke with founding Penumbra editor John Giordano, associate editors Elizabeth Aiossa and Jon Ross, and Gariot P. Louima, who later joined the editorial team.

 

Editors (Eds.): You make a statement on your website that serves as a great launching point for this discussion, or any discussion, for that matter: “Write passionately and without apology.” What does that mean to you—as a scholar, writer, and teacher?

Myriam Chancy: I wrote that off the cuff when I was working on the webpage. But I remember one of my very first publications as a scholar had part of that sentence as a subtitle. It was called something like “Sans Frontières/Sin Fronteras: Women writers of color writing without apology.” As a young scholar, I had published a piece with an overview of what women of color were writing about across differences of ethnicity. I did so in the context of my own PhD program, in which there was a lot of resistance to what women of color were doing in terms of epistemes, their knowledge bases, and their aesthetics, their perspectives and so forth. The essay was trying to investigate what were the differences in terms of knowledge base and expression. What I determined was that, across the board, whether you were looking at Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, Gloria Naylor, etc., in the early 90s, they were writing unapologetically about issues facing women of color and were using aesthetic strategies, also unapologetically—fragmented writing styles, styles we might think of as postmodern. They were doing so out of a cultural impulse—this is how one translates culture into literature, whether that was from an oral base, or call-and-response. So that’s what I mean by “write passionately…”

Recently it has had more to do with that struggle for an authentic self on the page; it’s something that’s an ongoing struggle, both for myself and others across racial and class lines. In the early 90s, I thought it was an issue that had solely to do with women of color, but as I’ve gone along my career, I’ve realized that, for most writers who are concerned about bringing to the fore social justice issues, that it really isn’t about a discrete identity. It’s about the degree to which we allow ourselves not to censor and do the work we should do on the page, and take the risk that we should. To do so without apology is my directive.

 

Eds.: Is that how you in part define authenticity?

Chancy: Yes, and I’m using that term differently than the ways in which it circulates especially in literary discourse having to do with ethnic literatures, specifically where authenticity has more to do with whether someone is from a particular ethnicity or culture and whether he or she is being “authentic” to that origin. I’m using it in the sense of coming truly and deeply from the spiritual self, from a place where someone is not responding to the dictates of the market or a particular audience, but actually writing about a core sense of self and some value which may not be shared by all but that one wants to express and have disseminated into the world.

 

Eds.: The Loneliness of Angels (excerpt on page 80) features a character named Rose who lived in the climate of fear in her home country of Haiti. Two issues surrounding this environment come to mind. First, you suggest that your country is full of people who live in fear, and second, that it is a state viewed as something less than sovereign, less than free—by its own leaders and certainly by colonial/postcolonial nations, including the United States, which occupied Haiti from 1915-1934. You write about your country as one that even though it is historically uniquely sovereign, it is not treated that way. Can you speak to that?

Chancy: Haiti is uniquely positioned in this hemisphere and in the Americas because of the Haitian Revolution and the manner in which it became sovereign (via a slave rebellion against the French from 1791-1804). That’s very important to know; it was the only slave revolution that was successful and that resulted in the creation of a nation-state. As I remind my students, it resulted in the United States we know today. A lot of people don’t realize that. Napoleon and France were almost bankrupted by the loss of this “Pearl of the Antilles.” One-seventh of the entire French population at the time derived its income directly or indirectly from this particular colony (then called Saint-Domingue), so they lost that source of revenue, but what they lost in terms of the war between the French and the Africans and others who fought to liberate Haiti was so monumental that the Louisiana Purchase took place. That amounts to a third of the United States as we know it today. A lot of people don’t recognize that. I always show my students what the United States looked like before the Haitian Revolution and after the Louisiana Purchase, and they’re astounded. Most people think the Louisiana Purchase was just Louisiana, not this huge swath of land from the Gulf Coast all the way up to the Northwest.

Part of what I’ve been tracing through my work is the degree to which Haiti has had to pay the cost for that sovereignty—the indemnity paid to France for those losses, which has never occurred in another case in modern history, when a winning power had to actually pay a losing power for the cost of the war. Ideologically, Haiti has had to pay for the cost of that sovereignty, and there are particular reasons for that. If you look at the literature coming out of Latin America and the American South, throughout the 19th Century, Haiti was called a place of “black terror.” But with the slave trade taking place throughout the Americas, the U.S. was a slaveholding state and there were slave rebellions throughout the Americas. In some of those cases, those rebellions and their leaders were looking to Haiti for a sense of how to liberate ourselves. In others, there is a very quick understanding of the cost of that sovereignty: being locked out of trade, repression, certain kinds of violence, and a shunning or disavowal of Haiti that takes place over time. And I argue that this is still occurring today. Now, post-earthquake/post-2010, with the reconstruction, there is a lot of lip service being paid at the inter-governmental level to sovereignty—that we should respect the Haitian state, we should respect the Haitian government. But the truth of the matter is that the economy of Haiti, which by and large does measure up to the economy of a sovereign state, is not actually controlled by the Haitian government. In that case we really need to reimagine what we mean by sovereignty today, and how do we safeguard a legacy of sovereignty that has never been respected. That is a real tension in the nation itself, which is not to say that the Haitians themselves don’t think of themselves as sovereign human beings. But their ability to play out that sovereignty is very limited.

This takes me back to the passage (see attached), which revolves around a character named Rose in 1958, one year into the Duvalier regime. This woman is about to marry, to meet her husband, but is very intuitively connected to what is going on at a psychic and spiritual level as the dictatorship is gearing up. The worse years of the Duvalier dictatorship are at the beginning of its 30-year reign. And she’s aware of the brutality that’s going on against women specifically, which is what the passage is about. In the structure of the novel, there’s a reason why this woman is called Rose and it relates to the issue of sovereignty. I utilize a structure to tell this story that has an indirect spiritual dimension. What I use is a Christian labyrinth, based on a pagan labyrinth, when people would go on pilgrimages, something that became codified in the Christian church. If you go to the cathedral at Chartres, outside of Paris, there is a famous labyrinth with four quadrants. It’s supposed to be a meditation. When you get to the middle of it, you arrive at what’s called “the rose,” which then provides you with an understanding. You’re supposed to pause in that center and receive an answer to your meditation or prayers, and then walk out in a counter fashion to the one you walked in, thinking about how you’re going to live out that information you have received. So, in the novel, Rose’s character only appears in the middle. And the information you receive there is about the Duvalier regime you don’t get elsewhere. Only she is able to release it, because as a mystic she’s been processing the pain of people who were tortured and killed during the regime but is unable to cope with what that does to her psychologically and emotionally. She eventually leaves for Canada, and what’s interesting is the same thing happens to her in that context. I parallel the kinds of violences that take place in societies that aren’t under dictatorship, but there are still all kinds of interpersonal violences that can be just as harmful. The reason I bring that up is that part of her function in the novel is to bring up the sovereignty of the self and what our responsibility is to greater liberations. If one is aware of harm taking place outside of oneself and has some access to what that means or its effect—the violence may not be directed at you, but you are aware that your neighbor has been taken away and tortured, for example—what is your responsibility? Do you tell that story? Do you keep it to yourself? If you tell that story, what does it do to you? What will it do to you socially, psychologically, and to generations ahead of you? That’s what the novel speaks to—the trickling down of the violence that the regime does to other generations and what their responsibilities will be towards that. One last point: the Duvalier regime is a major interruption of the sovereignty of the state from within, because in a sense the state becomes kidnapped by the dictatorship.

 

Eds.: What you’re getting at is that Haiti, even though it was looked to as a model for sovereignty and gave a boost to American expansion, what it got from the U.S. in return was an occupation. Some historical and scholarly accounts of that occupation view it as buttressing a weak Haitian government; others call it a way to protect American corporations and their interests. How do Haitians and scholars like you see the occupation?

Chancy: There are mixed views on that question. For some who lived under the occupation it is remembered as a time of great repression and suppression. On the other hand, even people who are still alive from that period will tell you that a number of things were built then. So it’s hard sometimes to reconcile some of the infrastructural legacies—hospitals, roads, even the capitol building was built by the American occupiers, though now under (post-earthquake) reconstruction, the French are going to rebuild it. You can see traces of the occupation still standing that many Haitians view positively, but I think, for the most part, that what people are aware of is what was negative. There was a lot of violence, segregation that hadn’t existed before the occupation, because the United States purposefully sent in troops from the American South. The language (of President Woodrow Wilson, who authorized the occupation) of that time clearly states that was why Southern troops were sent, because they were thought to better handle “Negroes.” So the language of the occupation, the behavior under the occupation [were negative]. There also was a feminist movement during that time, in the 1920s, which documented lynchings, rapes, burning of women on the pyre, things that you never would have imagined would take place under the watch of U.S. Marines. But these were acts performed by U.S. Marines. The real reason—this is my view, one shared by a number of scholars—that the U.S. invaded Haiti at that time and occupied for so many years is because of the First World War. The occupation coincides with the beginning of the war, and Germany had heavy economic interests in Haiti at that time. If you look at a map and notice Haiti’s location, you see that it becomes very strategic to control that landmass. There was guerrilla warfare against the occupation, both by Dominicans and Haitians, and it was violently put down.

I write about this in From Sugar to Revolution. One of the things I discovered in doing that research is that there is confusion as to which year the guerrilla war ended. Officially it ended on the Haitian side in 1919; that was led by Charlemagne Peralte, who led the Cacos guerrillas and was killed in 1919. He was from the middle classes, worked with the poor and the peasant classes who were part of these uprisings, and when he was killed by the Marines. He was tied to a door and propped up and photographs were taken of him. U.S. Marines actually dropped flyers across all the rural areas where these campaigns were taking place to make clear to the people that they had killed their leader. It was very effective. What also happened was that they made a god of him; you can still see his image on people’s altars. One Haitian scholar, Suzy Castor, unlike anyone else writing about this period, dates the end of the guerrilla war to 1922…Though she doesn’t make this argument; it appears in her work like an error, I argue that this confusion results from the fact that on the Dominican side of the island (of Hispaniola) there was man named Liboro who was working with the Haitians and was killed in 1922, and that effectively ended the guerrilla war on both sides, as well as any unity between the Dominicans and the Haitians against foreign occupation.

 

Eds.: It’s wonderful how you weave history, culture and a beautiful literary feel through your work. It’s so accessible to scholars and students of many disciplines.

Chancy: Access is very important to me. In being accessible, I try to think about tools. I think of theory as a resource. And as a creative writer, I find that most theory—postcolonial theory, feminist theory, philosophical inquiry, etc.—is actually creative. Some of my students say, “I can’t read Homi Bhabha. He’s indecipherable.” And I suggest they think of him as a creative writer and see what happens. All of a sudden they start understanding what they thought they couldn’t before. I see that there are uses for dense discourses, and we’re trying to meet others halfway where they are, so at times you have to deploy something less accessible if you’re trying to talk to a particular group of people for whom accessibility means a lack of rigor or profound thinking on a subject. Part of the reason why I do my work is that I want to bring out voices that are not being heard. If I want to do justice to those voices, who am I to set myself apart from them and render my own work completely inaccessible, even to those with whom I’m trying to speak?

Earlier in my career, I made it my duty to always leave behind traces of the work I was discovering. So if I did some research on a particular topic—at that time I was doing work on what was considered somewhat obscure (especially around Caribbean woman writers) and lived between countries—while gathering all that information it occurred to me that there might be somebody else who comes out of a similar background or thinks about these issues the same way I do and doesn’t have the liberty of going from one country to another as I did, or going to independent bookstores and seeking this information out. Everything I read or collect must somehow result in a placement in a publication that is accessible to someone who needs access to that information. So how must it be written to be accessible? I try to weave in ideas so that people who are trained theoretically can recognize that I’m talking about a particular paradigm or school of thought. Yet someone who doesn’t know anything about that topic can still access it. A wonderful example of that is a text I came across as a graduate student, Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Woman, Native, Other. It took me years to realize how layered that book was. She’s a filmmaker trained in philosophy who gathered feminist theory along the way. If you read that book without knowledge of theory, it reads as a poetic meditation. With some references to women writers she’s trying to make central to her discussion (Adrienne Rich, Cherrie Moraga, and Amy Tan), the discourse appears to be a storytelling mode. Then, if you’re trained in philosophy, you realize she’s engaging a number of different philosophers, and footnotes who they are. If you’re engaged in postcolonialist theory and feminist theory that’s very dense—something she’s not foregrounding—then there’s another layer. So you can read this text again, ten or 15 years later, if you’ve acquired those tools and suddenly realize this is someone who’s speaking simultaneously to different kinds of people with different knowledge bases all at the same time.

But perhaps the reader is only reading it at one level. So I’m moving in that direction: How can I build those layers in? In my critical work now, I’m doing something where I’m trying to fold into the work highly dense theory, but by the time it hits readers, they’re willing to go through it to access it. For example, in the new book, the door of access comes from interviews—three chapter-length interviews with woman writers and artists whose work I address (Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer; Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban visual artist; and Loida Maritza Pérez, a Dominican writer). Most people think of Magda’s work as diasporic Cuban, but she doesn’t see herself that way. I really struggled with how to talk about her visual work if everyone who’s familiar with her work sees her as a diasporic Cuban….So to bring her identity together with that of many familiar with her work, I turned to geography theory, which engages speech-act theory, gender theory, race theory, and all kinds of things of which I was not aware. It’s very, very dense to engage. But that’s how, in a section of the text looking at Magda’s work, I deploy and invite my readers into that theoretical work as a means to rethink how, as literary critics, they might be doing the decoding of visual texts. I think it’s possible to do all that.

 

Eds.: You mentioned Bhabha. Some of us find both him and [Gayatri] Spivak very challenging to read. Some would question if, especially when work is so dense, the writer has an obligation to be more accessible, to provide greater access to his or her ideas. We don’t all have the same skills to decipher discourse. Do you think people like Bhabha or Spivak have less impact because of the density of their work, and do scholars and students respond better to other forms of discourse, such as looking at art as a source?

Chancy: I want to be clear about the use of art in my recent work. We have to distinguish between how art has been positioned in cultural studies and sometimes dismissed as something to investigate versus the use of art, such as the critical production of art historians and critics, and I’m leaning more on that side. Maybe there’s a bridge between them. I’m not looking at the art to produce theory; I’m looking at the art as a text. As a literary critic, I’m using the strategies of literary criticism with visual art, and using it as a text that is worthy of investigation like a literary text, then deploying theory as a means of investigating what that art can teach about that particular artist.

In terms of density, I actually think Bhabha and Spivak are different kinds of writers. Spivak is very clear that she has little interest in being accessible or even speaking to different constituencies that are reflected in what she’s speaking. I don’t think she has that interest, so I don’t think I would make the case that she needs to be accessible or can be easily accessed; she just doesn’t have that interest. There have been critiques of her work by other feminists that claim she is elitist, and one needs to consider that in thinking about the work. I, for one, disagree with some of her statements in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” at the same time as I think she has a point in terms of the limits to representation for those who don’t have the resources to disseminate what they think, regardless of class, which was part of the argument of her revised version of that essay. In terms of Bhabha, I don’t find him as impossible to read. And think it’s interesting that so many think he’s indecipherable. Because when one reads him carefully, it becomes quite clear that there is a kind of creative, meditative impulse in the way he writes. There’s a play in language that is not inaccessible, though I’ve found more recently with some younger students and scholars that some of his terminologies are becoming outdated. So, for example, he used the term “transparency” in some of his work on hybridity, and he’s hoping that his reader knows what an SLR camera and emulsions for film are. Having to describe to young people who’ve only worked in the digital age what “transparency” means is a challenge. But even once you’ve done that work, you realize he’s talking about something very tactile in the real world then moving it to the ground of something highly theoretical. He uses a lot of literature in his work, and a lot of storytelling. And he is accessible in that way. And I do think given how he writes about literature and the hybrid, the colonized and the subaltern, etc., that he is interested in access. And that’s what makes him distinguishable from someone like a Spivak.

Having said all of that, I think each of us has to make a decision about the degree to which we want to be accessible, and who our audiences are. I do think there’s a strategy to say, “I’m trying to convert those who aren’t yet converted. I’m trying to intervene in the ivory tower, and this is the language it speaks.” The danger of that, as we saw with Foucault’s work, for example, is that one can become enthralled with the ivory tower and wanting to become a power base in that tower, and then what is the work really for? When we start talking about social justice, whose social justice are we serving if we’re only talking to each other and there’s no point of access…Spivak makes that point at the end of her “Subaltern” essay when she says that the feminist scholar of color has the burden to do that work. …I think the argument should be that we don’t hear the subaltern, or we mishear the subaltern. I’m not sure that she thinks that subalterns speak, and I would disagree with that.

 

Eds.: Rose is an example of a character who has to hear the stories of those who aren’t heard and who are suppressed. Can you talk about your own sense of responsibility to tell the stories of those whose voices aren’t heard?

Chancy: That’s an interesting question, because the character of Rose says that she doesn’t have a choice because [ghosts come to her and speak to her and she has to listen, because she hears them. The issue then becomes whether she tells the stories, what does she do with them? And as a writer and scholar, I feel compelled to tell the stories. I think that’s my role, to tell the stories, to unpack and analyze them, even as a creative writer. What I want to write about and what I think I have to write about are two different things. I’m also someone who did not intend to be a scholar or move into academia, and I also left academia about ten years in, then came back. One of the reasons why I came back was that I felt I had something to offer that was different because I’m not a career academic, although I look like one! I feel it’s a place where I can serve as an interventionist. And I do take that responsibility very seriously.

 

Eds.: You really embody so much of what our journal is about—not only interdisciplinarity, but a layering of critical thinking, giving voice to others, and arousing our interest so we are piqued to engage as scholars and researchers. You layer politics upon culture upon language, upon gender, especially in bringing out the voices of women. It appears as if you’re quite conscious and intentional about it. Is that so?

Chancy: Yes, it is. But it has shifted. I am a feminist, and I make no apologies about that. I say that somewhat humorously because there still is some tension in the Caribbean about being a feminist, especially in Haiti. Even today as we have many different Caribbean women writers publishing, from many nation-states, there is still a great deal of silencing around those voices. So even though women have those voices, the silencing still exists. One brief example: there is a Jamaican literary festival called Calabash that was held for many years then suspended for a while due to lack of funds. It was revamped this year and was highly successful. A number of writers spoke highly of it, and there was a good mix of women and men. Then, more recently, someone published a long piece about how successful it was, and quoted from a number of Caribbean male writers. And the only woman writer referenced—even though there was an equal number of women and men—was an African woman writer. And I wondered how that was possible, that such a long piece presenting how successful this was doesn’t mention even one of the Caribbean women who was there and had presented…

I feel it’s really important to represent Caribbean women in literature, in my teaching, in my criticism. In my fiction, The Scorpion’s Claw, for example, I focus on women’s voices, but there are two centerpieces about male characters. My first novel, The Spirit of Haiti, has a male protagonist, and that was very intentional on my part. The main character there is ambiguous in terms of his gender and sexuality. He works as a male-to-male prostitute in the tourist trade, which is very common, but happens to be very ambiguous sexually. And he’s dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis, and his mother had died of non-AIDS-related tuberculosis. So I was trying to make a number of points there about choice, identity, and so forth. But he’s the most spiritually centered character in that novel. I was trying to make a point about the ways in which from the outside we can condemn what people do to survive, yet people who do things on the fringes—whether they’re drug traders or whatever—can sometimes be more spatially in tune than those who think they’re in the right. So what happened in my fiction is that I’ve more and more brought male voices into the picture, either as part of a mix or central to the work. The latest novel doesn’t do that; it primarily goes back to women’s voices, though it does have one character, Romulus, a male character based on a real person. The reason why I’ve done that is because I’ve realized that change cannot be led only by women, that in feminist movements in different parts of the world, women are still—even in the most privileged countries like the United States—behind in many ways. In the U.S., many women think they’re ahead of women in other parts of the world, but that’s not represented in government, they make less money than their female counterparts in other parts of the world that are not considered developed countries. What I realize is that men have to be on board, part of that conversation. In a place like Haiti, men often are privileged by their gender, but don’t realize they are as impoverished in every other way.