Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and now a longtime resident of South Florida, M.J. Fièvre is a poet, essayist, short story writer, translator and the author of numerous French-language novels. At 34 years of age, her most recent work is the English-language memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos, chronicling her upbringing in the turbulent Haitian '80s and '90s. An avid blogger and sought-after local expert on Haitian Creole, she is currently a professor at Miami-Dade College. During this year’s Miami Book Fair, she’ll be part of the fair's lineup of contemporary Caribbean authors. Ahead of her appearances, New Times spoke with the author about modern Haiti and her latest work.
New Times: You’ve been writing for some time now and you have a sizable catalog – some might think that a memoir at your age is a little early and maybe even a little presumptuous.
M.J. Fièvre: I do expect condescension from people who will think that I’m too young to have undergone any genuinely interesting and instructive experiences — or, having had the experiences described in A Sky the Color of Chaos, too young to know what to make of them. But isn’t it silly to pretend that nothing meaningful happens to the young? Also, you don’t have to be somebody [famous] to write a memoir, as it is not meant to chronicle fame or accomplishment. A memoir is not meant to give a sweeping overview of someone’s life either; instead, it covers one specific aspect, one specific theme in a writer’s life. In this case: growing up in Haiti in the violence of the '90s. A memoir is not an autobiography. So, no, a memoir, at 34, is not presumptuous.
What are the biggest differences between your generation and your father’s generation that are specific to the Haiti you both experienced?
Even though the Haitian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press, my father’s generation lived in a culture of silence. During the Duvalier era, unrelenting curfews were imposed on the people of Haiti and few dared speak against the regime because of the risk of being sent to Fort Dimanche, where political opponents were interrogated, tortured, and murdered. Fabienne Josaphat’s novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, describes these historical times, when extreme violence was used to control the impoverished island nation. Yes, there were sometimes riots and demonstrations, but those were rare occurrences, and the “fauteurs de troubles” (the troublemakers) were often executed publicly.
The decades of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were some of the most turbulent, in fact, nothing short of a war zone with atrocities at all levels. How did the end of the Duvalier Era affect your childhood?
After Baby Doc was exiled from Haiti, some of the former Tonton Macoutes fled the country while many who remained were subject to violent reprisal. In the second chapter of A Sky the Color of Chaos, I describe the burning of a former macoute right in front of my house. It’s one of the passages in the book that are very hard for me to read. It was certainly very hard to write! The memory of this man, in flames, screaming, will stay with me forever. As a child, I knew from that point on that I could never be really safe in Haiti; that I would always have to watch over my shoulder, and expect something, anything, to happen.
How is Haiti’s literary diaspora shaping the modern ideology on Haiti? When it isn’t political/civil unrest, it’s a natural disaster; when will Haiti catch a break?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In America, more and more writers of Haitian descent are sharing their experience, and it’s not all dark. Writers like Edwidge Danticat, Katia D. Ulysse and Fabienne Josaphat publish many stories of hope, challenging the stereotypes—poverty, misery, and violence. From time to time, Haiti does catch a break. New roads have been built. Health statistics have improved. The number of children with access to schooling continues to increase, along with the number of households with access to a source of water. Those are small signs of progress—but they’re there. The literary diaspora bring stories of turmoil, chaos, and confusion, but also of hope and perseverance.
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What can we expect from your reading during the book fair? Will you revisit your memories and tackle another memoir in the future?
On Saturday I will be part of two panels in connection to the book. Around noon, I’m joining writers Hector Duarte Jr., Fabienne S. Josaphat, and Katia D. Ulysse for “Land of Upheaval: A Literary Journey Through Haiti’s Modern History.” We’ll discuss Haiti’s recent history, viewed through the prism of literature — from the days of Papa Doc Duvalier, to the tumultuous reign of President Aristide, to the earthquake that displaced more than 1.5 million people. Later that afternoon, I’ll take part in “The World Over: Memoirs of Place,” with Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Nikki Moustaki, and Suki Kim. I’m hoping to bring to life the horrors and the beauty of growing up in Aristide-era Haiti.
On Sunday, I’ll be reading at Sunday Salon with Orange Island Art Foundation. This event will feature readings from Florida writers James Tabard, Cecilia Fernandez, and myself, who have all been published by the indie imprint Beating Windward Press.
Another memoir is very unlikely, although I will probably continue to write essays in the future. For now, I’m devoting all my energy to fiction—flash fiction pieces and a fantastic novel.
On Saturday, November 21, and Sunday, November 22 at the Miami Book Fair. Visit miamibookfair.com.