As a child, M.J. Fievre witnessed terror both on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and at the hands of her domineering father. In her simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos, Fievre does the hard work of digging deep into her emotional past to tell this chaotic coming of age story. Whether it’s witnessing a live body on fire or having her first sexual encounter, Fievre implores her readers to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel the weight of her lived experiences. This is a woman’s journey in finding her place as a friend, lover, sister, and daughter, while also learning how to love a country and family that are falling apart at the seams.
M.J. Fievre has been widely published in English, French, Spanish and Haitian Creole since the age of sixteen. An active member of Miami’s thriving literary scene, she is the founder of Sliver of Stone Magazine and the editor of So Spoke the Earth, an anthology about Haiti. Her writing is a bridge between the Americas and the Caribbean, and her voice is an important one in an increasingly global world. This is her first book in English, and hopefully the first of many.
What made you want to tackle this memoir? And how long did it take you to write once you started?
I started writing A Sky the Color of Chaos in Dan Wakefield’s workshop at Florida International University. I was familiar with many forms of nonfiction—from news articles and blog posts and click bait headlines on the Internet, to historical memoir-ish narratives, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano —but literary nonfiction was relatively new to me. I was intrigued by the variety of topics and styles. Some of the books introduced to us by Professor Wakefield were series of related short pieces (M.K.F. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me) while others were longer, comprehensive narratives (Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, or the autobiography of Miles Davis). I was particularly interested in memoirs about loss and grief, such as Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals.
While I’ve been a writer most of my life (I published my first novel at the age of sixteen) and had the rough draft of a new novel on a thumb drive, I had little clue what I was doing when I started writing A Sky the Color of Chaos. I began by simply collecting the moments from the past that stood out for me as important somehow. I wrote them down on scraps of paper and added them to my file. I read the memoirs suggested by Professor Wakefield feverishly. Being exposed to good writing has always made me want to write. When I was in grade school, my sister Patricia demanded that I read a chapter book per week—I obliged. Very soon I was concocting my own stories, wanting to emulate my favorite YA authors at the time: Georges Chaulet (creator of female teenage superhero Fantômette) and Enid Blyton (author of the Famous Five and the Secret Sevenbook series). That’s how I became a writer. George Bernard Shaw writes, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.”
In Dan Wakefield’s creative writing class, as I discovered new authors and wrote my own nonfiction, I experimented a lot with point of view, tenses, and voice. It would take me eight years to finish the book. I started with short pieces, each with its own arc, which explains why the majority of the chapters in the A Sky the Color of Chaos are stand-alone pieces; in fact, many have been published as such. As I completed more and more pieces, I carefully selected and arranged material so that larger meanings could emerge. Soon I had a plot. Instead of a collection of essays, the memoir became a longer narrative.
Do you think that memoirs should fit the traditional narrative arc?
Most memoirs proceed in a linear, chronological fashion: This happened, and then this happened. Tension builds as new questions arise and still, in the end, everything somehow comes together. I do enjoy stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end — but I also like collages, braids, frames, and circles. The traditional narrative arc should never get in the way of creativity, particularly when stories are complex, multifaceted. I’m all for deviating from standard structures and often experiment with fragmented chronology. Think about Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, which disregards linearity and continuity. The ordering of events, liquid, recursive, mirrors Yuknavitch’s lived experience, which moves, but not strictly forward.
Many memoirists successfully use braided storylines, fragmenting the narrative into separate strands that repeat and continue. In James MacBride’s The Color of Water, for example, chapters alternate between first person accounts of his mother’s life (transcribed from interviews he did with her) and his first person accounts of his relationship with his mother and how it shifted over time. Other writers favor collages. Anne Carson’s memoir, Nox, about the death of her brother, uses photos, fragments of letters, scraps of translated language, which enable Carson to “show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” As for Paul Strohm, he wrote a series of shorts (100-word stories) that form a daring memoir titled Sportin’ Jack. When asked why he rejected the more traditional narrative, Strohm explained that he doesn’t like the doldrums writers get into, moving from one place to another (This happened, and then this happened), which he compared to getting in and out of cars in badly-directed movies. “I treat the gaps and spaces as part of the composition,” he said. “To be a bit zen about it, the gaps have something to say, too.”
It’s a writer’s responsibility to figure out how the best way to tell a particular story. Whatever narrative arc I choose, I simply keep in mind that my job is to let the reader know what they need to know when they need to know it. There’s a contract with the reader, and I am not to breach it. If I keep my end of the bargain, the reader will follow me anywhere, even if I deviate from the traditional narrative arc.
You return to Haiti after the earthquake at the end of your memoir. Why did you decide to jump forward in time and include this experience in A Sky the Color of Chaos?
The day after the earthquake, I took a leave of absence from the middle school where I was teaching so that I could volunteer my time and help Haiti. A lot happened in a few days. First, from my home in South Florida, I acted as a rescue liaison for the army. When the rescue missions stopped, I traveled to Haiti via the Dominican Republic to serve as an interpreter at a makeshift clinic in Port-au-Prince. Everything I knew was gone. To deal with the pain and devastation, I went into denial. This is not real. Can’t be. I went into repression. Into it-didn’t-really-happen. I only realized the impact of the trip when I returned to the United States. The nightmares started. I couldn’t stop imagining it all—the terrible noise of earth shaking and houses cracking, and the cries of men and the cries of women, a great dust cloud taking Port-au-Prince in its fist. I spiraled down into a severe depression that led to a two-week hospital stay. In the recreation room, I speed wrote—not about Haiti in the 90’s but about the earthquake—penning in urgent and messy surges about whatever I could put to words.
Even when I later went back to working on A Sky the Color of Chaos, I found myself writing about a universe that no longer existed, so that I couldn’t let go of the earthquake. The tragedy changed my whole approach to both writing and revising. It was as if, having witnessed the immediate aftermath of such a great human tragedy, I was forced me to grow emotionally. I was no longer the same writer; the self-pity was replaced with a thirst for understanding others’ fears and motivations. I started appreciating for myself the complexities of the various subject matters I was approaching in the book. The aha moment of the memoir didn’t happen during the first drafts when I was just trying to get the story down, or during the piecing together of all the short tales. It happened after the earthquake, when I read the draft over and could see the thing the words were trying to tell me beneath the details of the story. I couldn’t forget about my visit to the destroyed Church of the Sacred Heart. It’d become not only the aha moment of the memoir, addressing my new outlook on the three main focuses of the book (country, family, and religion) but the aha moment of my entire life.
How has the earthquake impacted your relationship to your country of birth?
After I relocated to South Florida in 2002, leaving my family and most of my friends behind, I continued to visit Port-au-Prince very often, sometimes two or three times a month. I belonged to both places, to the point of confusion: I’d plan a trip to the mountains, only to remember that I was in Pembroke Pines; I’d want to run an errand at Walmart, only to realize that I was in Port-au-Prince. At restaurants or in grocery stores in Haiti, I often bumped into friends who had no clue I no longer resided in the capital and was only “de passage.” It was as if I’d never really left. As I immersed myself in the familiarity and comfort of home, Haiti fueled my writing. I felt in the right place at the right time with all of the right people. The feeling was as warm as the Haitian summer nights.
After the earthquake, I could no longer find my bearings. For one, “downtown” was now in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Because of all the foreign missions, the day-to-day customs were becoming more and more “foreign” and I had to learn without instruction how to listen for those who were similarly learning their way through grief. There was a definitive line between what had been and what was, with a lot of room for longing and frustrations. I continued to get inspired (by memories from childhood, maybe—or a prayer in Latin. A recipe). But the world felt split open.
Everything is still changing rapidly. Listening to the radio and reading the news, I can’t keep up with these changes. I know that if I go home, I’ll feel like I’m in the twilight zone. I can’t bear to feel this way. So I don’t go. As if not going will mean that nothing has actually changed.
Are your parents still alive? And if so, how did you navigate the tough landscape of writing and publishing a memoir about family?
My father passed away in 2012. Sometimes it feels like yesterday; sometimes it feels like forever ago.
I don’t know what he would think of the book. He knew I was working on a memoir; I don’t think he realized how much of him there would be in there. Maybe the real reason it took me so long to finish the book is that part of me rejected the idea of publishing it while Papa was still around. I didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t want to shame him. Only when he died did I feel I had permission to share my story. I have to admit: At first, the writing of the memoir was fuel by vindication. The loss of my father helped me distance myself from the pains of my childhood and put the memoir into a new perspective. A lot of major (and useful) edits occurred after his death. I didn’t want to unfairly stain his memory, so that I became particularly concerned with being honest, getting it right, keeping everything transparent.
My mom is alive and well. She remains very active. I warned her about the contents of A Sky the Color of Chaos. I didn’t get her blessings. My sisters are not planning to read the book.
You’ve lived in Miami since 2002. How has living in South Florida shaped your writing?
I often compare writing nonfiction to looking at oneself in the mirror. If you’re too close, you won’t see a thing. A bit of distance is necessary for a good perspective. When it comes to writing A Sky the Color of Chaos, moving to South Florida allowed me to take a step back and write a book that truly reflects my experience in Haiti. I can only agree with Louis L'Amour in Education of a Wandering Man: “I find that distance lends perspective and I often write better of a place when I am some distance from it. One can be so overwhelmed by the forest as to miss seeing the trees.”
At Florida International University, the student body is a reflection of South Florida—diverse. While working on the drafts of my memoir, this diversity was instrumental in getting quality feedback during workshops, allowing me to improve my craft. On the ever-growing Miami literary scene, I had the opportunity to test the waters at various venues, gauging the reaction to the excerpts I carefully selected for readings at Books and Books, Luna Star Café (as part of Sir Archibald Whistler’s Honest Liars Club), the University of Miami, MOCA, NSU Art museum, and the Miami International Book Fair, among others. These reading opportunities made me a better writer.
I continue to grow as a South Florida writer, thanks to workshops and events organized by various literary organizations, including O, Miami, Reading Queer, the Miami Poetry Collective, The Writer’s Room at the Betsy, the he Center for Literature and Theater @ Miami Dade College, and the Orange Island Foundation. Sometimes I lead workshops. Sometimes I’m a mere participant. Either way, life (as a writer) is good.
Images via M.J. Fievre
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Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a writer and educator living in South Florida. She has traveled to five continents and has worked as an artisan baker, organic farmer, and deck hand on a luxury sailboat. You can often find her kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her at www.therestlesswriter.com / @xRestlessWriter.