One of my favorite times of year in South Florida is November, when the Miami Book Fair International rolls into town. This year, M.J. Fièvre debuted her new book, A Sky the Color of Chaos, a memoir detailing her tumultuous childhood in Haiti and her journey towards understanding her father.
I was excited to learn more about Fièvre’s book and her writing process, and in this in-depth email interview, you can also learn more about Fièvre’s literary process, what she hopes the book teaches readers, and how she came to better understand her father and herself.
What prompted you to write a book based on your experiences?
When I enrolled in the Creative Writing program at Florida International University, my main interest was fiction. I was working on a fantastic novel and had a growing penchant for graphic novels. I didn’t set out to write a memoir. In fact, I didn’t think that I had a personal story worth telling until I sat in Dan Wakefield’s nonfiction workshop.
Several factors explain my initial indifference toward nonfiction. Not only violence, both at home and in the streets, is commonplace in Haiti—so that it never occurred to me that its ramifications could be worth exploring—, but emotional needs remain a very bourgeois concept in a third-world country. Emotional trauma often goes unacknowledged because there are other immediate necessities, such as the fight against hunger and physical ailments. I didn’t feel the right nor see the point in telling my story of generational trauma, in writing about how my father’s bumpy relationship with his own estranged father affected him, and in turn affected me.
I was the product of a culture of silence. During the Duvalier era (1959-1986), there was no freedom of speech. It was a time when the army controlled all aspects of society and mass communication, and speaking out or writing about Haiti could get you labeled as a communist and sent to the torture chambers of Fort Dimanche. Any rebuttal was deemed as politically subversive and quashed. As hundreds of ordinary Haitians vanished without a trace throughout Duvalier’s regime, Haitian society, dominated into silent compliance, soon succumbed to a culture of fear. Civilian silence grew.
Although the days of Papa Doc and Baby Doc’s repressive and stagnant dictatorship are long gone, Haitian citizens still haven’t come to terms with what was done to them. Even when they are fed up and frustrated with the unending crisis, most don’t dare to publicly criticize or voice out their opinions, due to fear of repercussions. Torture, disappearance, censorship and rebellion have constituted the lives of Haitians for so many years, that people my age are still affected by the country’s generational trauma and reluctant to challenge the status quo. Haiti’s deeply troubling past is unfinished.
Until I attended Florida International University, I’d never considered sharing my experience in Haiti. Everything I wrote about my homeland up to this point was under the guise of fiction. Professor Wakefield and my classmates showed such interest in my memoir, however, that I felt encouraged to explore the genre.
There is a phrase in your book that says, “Time is an object.” How important do you think this phrase is to your book, especially concerning the themes of the book?
This is a quote from chapter 9: “Papa sucked the air out of my existence with his chaotic mood changes, suicide threats, and rages. Time became an object, something that burned the tongue and lodged in your throat to choke you.”
I was referring here to the visceral reaction we experience, whether we’re in a state of waiting or remembering. This can apply to my personal life, growing up in Haiti—afraid and simultaneously needful of understanding my emotional fear and my emotional scars—, but also to the country as a whole, because of the long-term effects of torture and violence on human beings.
Haiti’s history has been marred by a wave of crime and political violence that continue well into present day. They say that time heals, but when history repeats itself over and over, when time is no more than the Sword of Damocles, when a country falls prey to the lack of transitional justice and a nonexistent reconciliation process, how does the nation move forward?
How difficult or easy was it to write a book this personal?
Writing about my personal experience was both liberating and petrifying.
Liberating because, before I wrote the memoir and came to terms with my past, my life remained an existential crisis. I couldn’t stop wondering, Who am I supposed to be? I grew up hearing the clichéd “everything happens for a reason.” Yet I couldn’t make sense of the shootings, the killings, and my father’s uncontrollable range. Being able to write about it all was a relief. When you grow up in an environment on which you have no control, you start living in a permanent state of disconcertment. Writing about that environment gave me back some control. I could challenge the illusory reality my mind had created as a way to survive the trauma.
The hard part was keeping it all together after writing for long stretches. I couldn’t stop imparting blame and crying. The feelings were overwhelming. That’s when I learned to write in spurts: 30 minutes of writing followed by an episode of Lost Girl or The Office or House M.D. and then a creative reprise. I also learned to stop thinking during writing. Ray Bradburry once wrote, “The trouble with a lot of people who try to write is they intellectualize about it. That comes after. The intellect is given to us by God to test things once they’re done, not to worry about things ahead of time.” I couldn’t agree more.
I also struggled with the weight of the responsibility I felt to write about Haiti authentically. But what was really “authentic”? Haiti is so complex. Read Edwidge Danticat, read Katia D. Ulysse, read Fabienne Josaphat—there are many facets to Haiti, and these master writers do an amazing job unpeeling the different layers of the country. I zealously worked on avoiding clichés and focused on introducing multi-dimensional characters.
One of the poignant parts of the book is the complicated relationship between daughter and father, and the inner workings of the father, who was belittled by his own mother as a child. How important has it been to you to understand your father as you work(ed) to forgive him?
My relationship with my father was the most influential in my life. I both loved and despised him. I admired his thirst for knowledge, his sense of humor, his hard work and his perseverance. I looked down on his inability to be the master of his emotions. I feared his instability and, above all, I feared that I might become him. I’d inherited his quickness to anger and I understood, even as a child, that I was on a journey—that it might be okay for me to be reigned by my emotions at the moment, as long as I matured by the end of adolescence. A grown-up being a “boule de nerfs” (bundle of nerves) was unacceptable, so I needed to work on bettering myself right away.
I was 13 when I started reading books on the teachings of Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov, the Bulgarian philosopher, pedagogue, alchemist, mystic, magus and astrologer. Aïvanhov spoke of the importance of self-control. But he warned:
“Suppose you want to control a machine: however much will-power you may exert you cannot do so, because you do not know how it is supposed to work nor what knob you have to turn to start or stop it. Control and mastery imply the need for knowledge: you have to know where the machine gets its energy from and then act on the right wire or the right switch. Once a machine has been started, if you don’t know how to stop it, it will not stop; and if you try to stop it without knowing how, it will break you to pieces unless, of course, you break it first . . . The same law applies to our inner lives . . .”
I wanted to understand the machine – my father – so that I would, ultimately, understand myself and get some self-control. He was a key. And as I consciously made an effort to know him better, I learned the art of compassion. It wasn’t until I worked on the memoir, however, that I really made sense of everything I knew about my father and his upbringing.
Haiti is a place that America has never chosen to understand. How do you think this book will open readers up to Haiti, its charms, and its challenges?
Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemala’s only Nobel laureate for literature, once famously said that “to live in Guatemala one had to be drunk or just plain mad.” I’ve heard many variations of this statement about Haiti, coming from people who have never even been there. When Americans hear the word “Haiti,” most imagine a bleak and violent place where corruption and impunity run rampant. UConn professor of public policy Thomas Craemer pointed out that the stereotypes of Haiti (“poor,” “densely populated,” “over-crowded,” “aid-dependent”) can often be found across the spectrum of the U.S. media.
Of course, a lot of the stereotypes are true—the coups, the shantytowns, the instability, the dire fate of boatpeople who decide to risk the fury of the ocean to reach better shores. But Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” There’s so much more to Haiti than the unrest and poverty. In A Sky the Color of Chaos, I describe the beauty of nature. I talk about the food, the music, and above all the art of storytelling. I talk, for example, about my nanny, Felicie, the inexhaustible storyteller who taught me how to splash a bit of coffee on the ground to feed our ancestors. Every time I visit Haiti, I am a ghost made into temporary flesh by my passion for stories.
I learned a lot about my craft simply by listening to Haitians tell stories. Whenever I introduce characters with questionable motives, for example, I’ve learned that I need to make them multi-dimensional. Otherwise the depth of the story is lost. Character-driven stories remind the readers that Haiti is not just a shocking headline about a coup or an earthquake. Haiti is a country with people who love, who hate, and who have wants and needs. My book humanizes my homeland.
What do you hope readers learn from the book?
Nigerian-British writer Amina Mama says, “the greatest threat to humanity is the growth and acceptance of a misogynistic, authoritarian and violent culture of militarism.” Literature provides an important avenue for influencing readers and promoting social change. A Sky the Color of Chaos will, I hope, inspire change, as I address the interrelationship between political chaos and personal trauma. The book is a condemnation of silence, in a country still somewhat dominated by fear and self-censorship. The memoir shows how important memory is to quell the collective struggle against truth and non-remembrance.
How does it feel to have your book highlighted at the Miami Book Festival International?
I’ve been to the Miami Book Fair on several occasions—as a contributor to Akashic Books and Edwidge Danticat’s Haiti Noir, as an editor of the All That Giltters anthology, and also as a poet at the Miami Poetry Collective’s Poem Depot. For the first time, however, I get to present a work of literature that is entirely my own. I’m shaking with excitement.