M.J. Fievre is the author of the new book A Sky the Color of Chaos, which is based on her childhood in Haiti. She also edited the anthology So Spoke the Earth. She has written nine books in French, and has taught writing at Broward College and Miami Dade College. She is based in South Florida.
Q: You describe your book on its cover as “based on the true story of my Haitian childhood.” Would you call it a memoir, or is it partly fictionalized?
A: Until I wrote this memoir, I never told those things that most Haitian women never tell—those terrible, awful, intimate memories. As a Haitian woman, I’m expected to stay silent about whatever embarrassing things happened to me. There are some chapters in A Sky the Color of Chaos that I almost deleted (my legs shook and I felt like a failure) because I thought the events they revealed were too humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful to share with anybody—particularly because these events also involved other people.
As the publication date of the book approached, I was faced with the same challenges Melyssa Griffin discussed in her article “Is it your story to tell?” where she writes, “We’re often faced with the decision of whether or not we want to discuss the realities of other people in our writing.” I thought about it a lot as I cleaned my apartment. As I took the trash to the curb. As I bleached the bathtub. (When I breathed in the chemicals a quick pinpoint of pain erupted in my head.)
In the end, I decided to take some creative liberties to protect the privacy of the many individuals who appear in A Sky the Color of Chaos. As soon as I changed all the names, it became clear to me that I would need to use the “based on” label. It should also be noted that I combined some of the “characters.” All my sisters became one, which didn’t feel inappropriate because, growing up as the youngest of four daughters, I often saw my sisters as one entity whose job was both to protect me and to make my life impossible. (I often think about “Soeur” and the history of our sisterhood, about the rooms we grew up in, the vibrant curtains making shapes on the tile floor, my body cupped up into her arms before bed.)
I considered combining some other characters as well, but it felt like cheating because these characters were un-interchangeable. At some point, Sister Bernadette and Madame Lemoine almost became one, but it felt wrong, particularly because the chapter dedicated to Madame Lemoine became a sort of homage—an ode—to her memory. It’s okay, I believe, to combine minor characters in order to improve the craft, but I think any ethical writer will agree that it becomes shady business when one tries the same with characters who are larger than life.
Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
There is a section in the book where I find myself at the scene of a shooting: I’ve taken cover behind a dumpster and am lying in the mud, expecting to die. (I’ve got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it). While people are screaming around me, their cries punctuated by gunshots, the sky remains a perfect blue. There’s a lot of looking at the sky in the book because I’m taken by how indifferent to our human struggles nature often remains.
When it came time to name the book, I knew I needed the sky to be in the title somewhere. Chaos was another word that came to mind. I’ve had several working titles. I might be good at titles when it comes to short stories (it’s easier to encapsulate what happens in a short tale), but not so much when longer works are involved, contrarily to some authors like Evelina Galang whose amazing titles seem to come effortlessly.
In the end, I had three options. I was a visiting professor in Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the time, and my students at the International University were excited to help with the final selection. It created the opportunity for an interesting conversation: What exactly should a title evoke? Some titles were too violent, others too vague. I’m glad we finally settled on A Sky the Color of Chaos.
Q: In the book, you describe your own life, but you also include descriptions of what was happening in Haiti during that period. What did you see as the right balance between the personal and the political?
A: To know me well is to know my story—the experiences that have shaped me, the trials and turning points that have tested me. People are inseparable from the place(s) they come from, the places they belong to, the places that molded them. To understand who I am, one must understand where I come from, what created me. I couldn’t possibly write a memoir about growing up in the 90’s in Port-au-Prince, without rendering the events that took place in Haiti around that time.
During the writing process, I first focused on the personal story and then worked into the prose the circumstances that made this story possible. Some of the political details were slowing down the narrative, however, so I resorted to using footnotes.
Some reviewers frowned upon that choice. “The footnotes shed some light on political events and define Haitian terms, but, for me, they pulled me out of the narrative,” Debbie Hagan wrote in her review for Brevity Magazine. Lauren Prastien, from Michigan Quarterly Review, agrees: “I could not find a footnote that couldn’t have simply been woven into the narrative, and it is a disservice to the engrossing prose to have it disrupted.”
I still believe footnotes constituted the best way to make it work. I only weaved into the story whatever could inform the text. In fact, my research was guided by my memories. For instance, as I remembered the shooting outside my middle school and the “journée de couleurs” that followed, I focused my research on this particular strip of time, and the political facts in turn impacted my work as I spliced images and motifs, all through the alchemy of writing and art. The balance between story and history came naturally.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the United States about Haiti?
A: As an individual who’s lived both in Haiti and overseas, I am at a clear advantage: I can draw on my knowledge of Haitian culture and on my complex relationship with the island-nation to think about the country from both within and “without.” Not everyone, obviously, can have a realistic, balanced perspective if they haven’t lived in Haiti (although it should be noted that, in these post-Internet times, ignorance is a choice, not something unavoidable).
I can only speak of the perceptions and misperceptions in South Florida, as this is where I’ve lived for the past 14 years. Many individuals I meet seem to believe that my people are hardworking and proud, that we’re loud and love a good party. After the earthquake, one word was used over and over by media outlets: resilience.
Many South Floridians also seem to believe that Haiti is a no man’s land, overrun by poverty and chaos, a place with such a degree of famine that people will even eat cats. Granted, my neighbors did eat two of my cats, but as pointed out by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Some Americans consider all Haitians to be “boatpeople,” for instance. When I first moved to the United States, I attended Barry University to complete my Bachelor’s degree. I stayed off-campus, renting a room from an American family in Miami Shores. (The bookshelves in my room were stacked haphazardly to fit as many books as possible—some vertically, some horizontally, and some tucked behind the rows because they could not fit on the three bookshelves otherwise.)
The mother assumed that I had come to Florida in a boat and had no legal status here, let alone a passport, so when I announced that first summer that I would travel to visit my family in Port-au-Prince, she was beyond herself with worry. Would I be taking an illegal boat back? (Lady, please, do you really believe that there are boats smuggling people into Haiti?) She wondered: Why would I go back to a country where starvation and nonstop violence await? I’m not going to deny that there is poverty and violence in Haiti, but there’s also creativity, love, hard work, and beauty. (The mountains in the distance are green, the trees bursting their new leaves.)
Thankfully, contemporary Haitian writers (such as Edwidge Danticat, Katia D. Ulysse, Marie-Ketsia Theodore-Pharel, and Fabienne Josaphat) are changing what the world thinks of Haiti. Their works illustrate the intersections of literature and social activism.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m involved in many projects. I’m collaborating with another Miami-based writer and an Irish-American artist to create a graphic novel. I’m also writing a collection of dark tales about downtown Miami. A few essays are in the works, along with several poems for O, Miami Poetry Festival.
I recently received an invitation from Poetry Press Week to unveil my unpublished poetry in front of an audience of editors during O, Miami 2016. During Poetry Press Week, the new poems are not presented by the authors themselves, but under their aesthetic direction, allowing them the freedom to design a multisensory experience of their work; past presenting poets have called on actors, dancers, musicians, video artists, and djs. By encouraging collaboration and bringing together the driving forces of literary production, Press Week hopes to revitalize the poetry publishing industry and revive popular interest in this art form.
I will create and direct a 10 to 12 minute show, which I believe best embodies the work I'm presenting. I've submitted a series of poems in play format: a story about a love triangle titled Shadows of Hialeah.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m honored to be featured on your blog! Readers can follow me on Facebook and on Twitter. My blog is located at thewhimsicalproject.com.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb