Monday, January 13, 2020

Q&A with M.J. Fievre

M.J. Fievre is the author of the new book Happy, Okay?: Poems About Anxiety, Depression, Hope, & Survival. Her many other books include A Sky The Color of Chaos. Born in Haiti, she is based in Miami.

Q: Why did you choose poetry for Happy, Okay? 

A: My interest in poetry is connected to my interest in plays. I’ve written plays for the Miami MicroTheater (To Accept, Dial 5 Now, 2015, and No Pill for Loverhorn, 2016), the O, Miami Festival (Shadows of Hialeah, 2016), and Compositum Musicae Novae (If You’re an Orange, I’m an Orange, 2017).

Two years ago, while revisiting some of my old scripts, I had an epiphany: they were all about the same characters—a woman struggling with mental health, and the man who loves her.

Because of my fondness for writers like Corneille, Racine, and Molière (I even joined a theatrical production of Le Malade Imaginaire /The Imaginary Invalid in 12th grade and still remember one of my lines, “He must have killed off an awful lot of patients to have made all that money!”), most of my plays were in verse.

As I rediscovered my scripts, I got curious and went back to my poetry from college and here they were again, these characters who’d been haunting me for a long time.

I’d studied poetry under Denise Duhamel and Campbell McGrath at Florida International University; I’d published poems in The Caribbean Writer, The Writer’s Digest, The Mom Egg, P’an Ku Literary Magazine, and The Miami Herald; I also worked as a poetry editor. I therefore felt empowered to work on a poetry book. The result was Happy, Okay?

Q: The book is divided in two parts, with an interlude. How did you decide on the book's structure?

A: Once I realized that I’d been writing about the same characters for so long, the weaving of their respective journeys began.

In Part I, the reader meets Paloma, a young woman who suffers from high-functioning depression. (People living with this kind of depression—dysthymia—are often high achievers who make you think everything is all right all the time.)

At first, Paloma’s lover, Jose Armando, doesn’t understand her inability to fully enjoy life. Together, they explore some of the dangerous myths surrounding depression, including the fact that if depression isn’t severe and persistent—or even “justified”—then there isn’t a real problem and one should simply show resilience.

After I wrote Paloma and Jose Armando’s story, the question was: What’s next? Not just for them, but for the reader—and for me.

I was diagnosed with depression in high school and I can hide my struggle so well that you’d have no idea what I’m dealing with unless I clued you in. As a business owner, I hold down a high-stress job; there are times when depression affects my productivity because it’s so intrusive: I’m fine until, all of a sudden, I’m not.

The interlude in Happy, Okay? reflects this preoccupation: Where do we go from here? I wanted to become a bit prescriptive and share specific steps that the one could take to push through their sadness.

While I wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage the kind of indulgence that would prevent the reader to seek professional help, it was also important that others realize that allowing yourself to reach out for help is only half the battle. 

How do you help yourself when depression tries to trick you with awful, untrue thoughts like, “You’re not worth it, and no one cares”?

I liked the idea of a manifesto—a map that readers could use to bring more purpose to their days, a list of habits that would keep them from spiraling out of control. I’ve learned an array of coping mechanisms, such as journaling, to help forestall major emotional slides—and I was eager to share some of my hard-earned wisdom with the readers.

Part II is my manifesto. It’s not about recovery, but about embracing this ongoing journey. 

Q: How was the book’s title chosen? 

A: The book reflects the duality that exists in all of us. In my case, while I’m on a lifelong journey to find balance/happiness, I also tend to be a pessimist (a penchant closely linked to depression, which I’m actively fighting).

Very often, I AM happy but I don’t FEEL happy—while it might be a strange idea for those who don’t suffer from depression, it’s my reality: my circumstances don’t always match my emotional experience. So, Happy, Okay? is me reminding myself, “You’re all right, okay? Even though you feel that everything sucks.” 

Q: The book—as the subtitle indicates—deals with anxiety, depression, hope, and survival. What do you hope readers take away from this book? 

A: I hope to create awareness of high-functioning depression.

On a good day, those with dysthymia have focus and mental clarity. They feel like capable, productive individuals.

The bad days (which often come for “no reason at all”) are exhausting: I fight with myself to get out of bed and regain control of my mind.

On occasions I’ve been close to ending it all, but no one would have been able to tell: I wasn’t “failing at life” or dressing like a complete mess. I’m often in situations where others don’t believe I’m struggling because my life isn't falling apart (yet).

The lesson, here: We need to believe people when they ask for support. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: It’s been a busy year. I have a new book coming out later this month; it’s titled Badass Black Girl: Questions, Quotes, and Affirmations for Teens.

I’m an educator by trade: I taught K-12 for many years, later becoming a college teacher. During my middle and high school teaching career, I was involved in many clubs—the ESOL Club (for English learners), the (highly competitive) Academic Club, the French Club, just to name a few—because of my interest in empowering young adults.

I discovered a trend among my Black students, particularly the girls: Many of them suffered from imposter syndrome; they felt that they were just “faking it” and weren’t as together as people thought. Because of issues like racism (very often,  covert) and micro-aggressions, many were plagued by the feeling that the people they interacted with only just tolerated them and their existence in the world. 

Badass Black Girl is a guide for these young Black girls. You can read the blog on

I’m also working on the release of a web series titled Comic Sans, in collaboration with my husband, the artist Thomas Logan.

Set in South Florida, Comic Sans is a comedic web series that chronicles the drama that ensues when a geeky Irish-American artist and a nerdy Haitian-American writer fall in love and enroll the help of their creative friends to break into the comic book world. Comic Sans is about a group of 30-somethings navigating love, work, money, art, and race.

Season 1 guest stars an important number of local artists working with different forms—writing, visual arts, performing arts, body arts, and culinary arts. Think The Office meets The Guild. The first season (now in production) will be five episodes long.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with M.J. Fievre.

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