Overcoming Past Trauma: MJ Fievre discusses "reframing" on the New Haitian Generation
The transcript is below!
[00:05] [Host] Welcome to The New Haitian Generation. On today's episode, we sit down with the Haitian novelist and writer Michèle-Jessica Fièvre. MJ, a native of Haiti, wrote her first novel as a teenager and has since published several novels and children's books. MJ became one of the youngest people ever to be published in Haiti. MJ's current book, Happy, Okay?, offers readers a hybrid reading experience with poems about anxiety, depression, hope and survival. Let's now speak one-on-one with MJ Fièvre.
[00:40] Hi, my name is MJ Fièvre. I'm a Haitian-American writer, and Miami has been my home for the past 15 years. I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I moved to the United States when I was 21. I have fond memories of my home country where I had a very interesting childhood. Good memories, bad memories. I was in Haiti during the fall of Duvalier—I'm talking about Baby Doc as opposed to the father (the father was before my time). I was in Haiti during the regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And I have many stories to tell about my time in the country (in Haiti), but since I've made Miami my new home, I also have a lot of stories about being in South Florida and being part of the art scene in South Florida.
BACK IN HAITI
[01:43] After I left Haiti in 2002, I [visited] quite frequently. All the money I could save from my first job in the U.S.—my savings, everything—went toward traveling to Haiti because I wanted to stay connected to the country. So, I was in Haiti at least once a month for years. I love Haiti. I always tell people that I can't always explain this feeling that I get. You land in Port-au-Prince and, as soon as you step out of the airplane, you feel differently. Your heart is beating differently. And I get all those ideas rushing, my inspiration is back.
[02:32] And the people in Haiti, there's something about them—the warmth of strangers, and the fact that people laugh about everything (everything is a joke). Despite the problems that Haiti faces, there is this joie de vivre that people have even when they're struggling. So I went as often as I could, because I wanted to be immersed in that atmosphere where I felt that I belonged. I went back to the mountains where my family lived. I visited all the places of my childhood, made sure that I saw all the friends that I had left behind. So my visits were quite frequent.
[03:18] Then the earthquake happened in 2010. I went there as soon as I could. The airports were closed. I traveled to the Dominican Republic, and then took a bus to go to Haiti. I volunteered there for a few days as an interpreter for some of the American doctors who were in Haiti, helping those who’d been affected. I was in shock. It was very eerie to be in a place I’d know so well, and yet if you’d asked me to find my way home, I wouldn’t have been able to. The entire structure had changed. Buildings were down. It was heartbreaking.
[04:15] When I think about traumatic events in my life, I think that going back to Haiti after the earthquake was one of the most traumatic ones for me because I felt that part of myself had died. Of course, I had to find my center and remember that some people had lost their lives. I wasn't even in Haiti when the earthquake happened. I was there right after, but people had lost things that I could not even fathom because my family was safe and I was safe. But I felt that a lot of my childhood was gone with the buildings that were no longer standing. I think that even the atmosphere and the way people started acting after the earthquake was different. The joie de vivre that I mentioned earlier, when I went after the earthquake, I felt that a big part of it was gone. People were a little more somber even as the years went by. I felt that my Haiti was gone.
[05:40] Of course, there were things to still appreciate. A lot of countries helped Haiti after the earthquake, with different levels of success. I got to rediscover another facet of Haiti that was there all along, but that I was not necessarily paying attention to, which is the ability to recover from trauma and leverage what is left. However, I think that it was still a little difficult for me to go [back to the county], so I stopped going after a while. I still stay connected with the people in Haiti. I talk to my family every day. I have friends who are still there and when they come to visit South Florida, we talk about Haiti, we share memories, and they tell me about what's going on now.
[06:39] So, my connection is still very strong and of course, I [remain] a very active member of the South Florida art scene, which includes the Haitian art scene in South Florida. I do a lot of work for the Miami Book Fair. I'm in close contact with Sosyete Koukouy of Miami, which collaborates with the Miami Book Fair for many events throughout the year, for a program called ReadCaribbean. I'm also very interested in whatever's going on at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Little Haiti. So the connection is still there. I think that when we move to Miami, it's inescapable, we remain connected to Haiti. I think that any member of the Haitian community will agree with that statement, that's why I feel it’s okay to say “we” as opposed to “I,” because everybody is still seeking Haiti while away from the country.
ART SCENE IN MIAMI
[08:01] When I first moved to Miami, I was very excited about meeting new writers and becoming an integral part of the art scene. I remember planning my first book signing. I was still writing in French at the time. I organized [what I imagined would be] that great event, sending out all those invitations. The book signing was supposed to take place at Libreri Mapou in Miami. Little did I know that the art scene in Miami is very different from the art scene in Haiti. So, I was pretty well known in Haiti. But when I moved to Miami, I didn't realize that I was pretty much unknown here. So I waited and waited. The event was to be at 4:00 PM. 4:00. 4:30. 5:00. And nobody showed up.
[09:05] And that was my introduction to the art scene, the literary scene in Miami. And now looking back, I realize that I had no understanding of how to be a part of that scene and [there are] many things that I could have done differently. And I'm happy to say that now I'm really a part of the scene. I'm a writer. I'm also an event organizer and people turn up when I organize events, not just for myself but for others in the community.
ARTISTIC SCENE IN HAITI vs. ARTISTIC SCENE IN THE U.S.
[09:42] In Haiti, everything is through word of mouth. So as soon as I became a writer, people learned about me through the grapevine and everybody was really puzzled about this young writer (I was 16 at the time) when I had my first book out. They were very curious about me. They wanted to meet me. Even if they had never seen me in person before, they came to my events to get the book and it was very organic. You do the work, people talk about it, you get the recognition and you sell the book.
[10:24] Miami is different. Yes, there is still word of mouth (really important), but people really value personal interaction here. You have to be out there, meet people, create connections, network. And this is what I did not understand at first, when I moved to Miami: the importance of really being part of a community, as opposed to being a writer in isolation and expecting to get my work out there and appreciated just for the sake of appreciation, as opposed to establishing a connection with the reader, with other writers, with visual artists, since we're all part of a big family and people expect you to act as a member of that family. So that was pretty interesting to learn. And that's one thing I love about South Florida actually: the fact that people do enjoy being part of a community and they value the role that you play within the community.
[11:41] I have a new book out titled Happy, Okay? It's one of the most important books that I've written. For a while, I wasn't sure what direction I should take with my writing. I've been interested in so many different genres. I've written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays. I've been a ghostwriter for a while—writing books and short stories and articles on commission. I went to know why I was given that gift of writing. Was it a pure accident? Was it just in my genes? Was it circumstantial (because I was forced to by my sister to read and it later led to writing)?
[12:30] And I'm going to talk again about the earthquake. My whole world view changed after the earthquake and I really started thinking about why I wrote. And I discovered that I was very interested in writing stories that could have a real impact on people, not just, “oh, it's a relaxing book, an entertaining book,” but something that left people thinking. So when I wrote my first play, I really focused on issues that were important to me, such as mental health. I wrote a play that was performed at the Miami MicroTheater and I wrote another play that was also performed there. I was asked to write a play for the O, Miami Poetry Festival, so I wrote another one. And I noticed that they were all very connected to mental health. I thought I was writing different plays, when in fact I kept writing about the same characters, just that they were at different points in their lives, depending on what play you watched. And I decided to put it all together into one piece of work.
[13:55] I grew up reading a lot of French plays—Racine, Molière—and my plays were all in poetry format. Not necessarily rhyming, but there was definitely rhythm and I paid close attention to language. I used a lot of metaphors and similes and symbols. And it was very easy to convert all those plays, not just into one storyline, but also making it into a poem in play [format]. And the goal was to talk about mental health, what people with depression and anxiety go through, and the fact that you can't always tell when someone is going through a depressive episode. I wanted to explore as well how the people who are closest to them, deal with the issues that they're going through.
[14:54] So, Happy, Okay? follows a couple. Paloma is the main character; she struggles with mental health issues; she's depressive; she suffers from anxiety. And Jose Armando, her lover, has to deal with the different episodes that she has and he loves her but doesn't always know how to support her. So, I explore that relationship and what it means for couples that are in that situation. And, in the book, I included a manifesto, which is basically based on some personal experiences that I went through. I suffer myself from mental health issues and I had to follow certain steps in order to get better and take care of myself. So, the manifesto is a list of decisions that I had to take. Some of them are fictional, of course, because I'm still in Paloma's voice. But some aspects of the book are definitely personal.
[16:02] I think that a lot of poems are like that, where the writer puts a little bit of themselves in it, but a lot of it is fictional as well. So, I had to reconsider, for instance, how I view my childhood. I did have a difficult childhood, not only because I grew up in a difficult country, but I had a very complicated home life as well. So I had to change the way I approached the past and that's part of the manifesto, re-telling my story because the story you tell yourself is very important in the way you feel about events.
[16:43] I had to reconsider things that happened and put myself in someone else's shoes to see how it was for them and that gave me a better understanding and more empathy for people who have been in my life when I was in Haiti. So this book… my hope is that it's going to help people who suffer from mental illness and also people who are close to those who suffer from mental illness. Whether you're a partner in a relationship with someone who suffers from depression or anxiety or you're a mental health professional and you're trying to find a creative outlet for your patients, encouraging them (maybe) to write some poetry. [Many will] read my book and get some inspiration there.
[17:45] I'm also in touch with a lot of life coaches who have told me that they've been using my book for people struggling with certain issues. So, I'm definitely more focused on what I can do for the reader as opposed to just getting into the excitement of writing and not thinking consciously about where my stories are going to go. Now I really focus on the prescriptive aspect of writing and the self-help aspect. My publisher might frown upon the word self-help because my books are not self-help per se. But people are definitely more apt (after reading the books) [at finding a new] direction for their lives.
SIGNS OF DEPRESSION
[18:42] So, on the inside, if you're the one going through a depression, the signs vary from one person to the next, of course. But I've talked to a lot of people. I'm a writing coach, so a lot of my clients come to me with issues that they're battling, and a lot of it is depression and anxiety. I work with survivors of abuse and I have clients who are veterans; they might suffer from mental health issues that they want to address through writing and that they want to overcome through writing. So, it’s not just about putting it on paper, but about making their lives better.
[19:26] I've had those conversations and I think that a lot of the symptoms that they experience include a lack of enthusiasm for what they usually enjoy. I know that I'm having an episode whenever writing doesn't mean anything to me anymore, I feel sick at the idea of even having an interview about my books, and I just want to get away from the world. I feel that my life has no direction. As soon as I start feeling this way, I know that I need to be careful because it's gonna get worse if I don't stop it.
[20:07] There are other signs, of course, and some of those signs are ones that other people can see. Where getting out of bed becomes difficult. If I spend too much time in bed, my husband starts worrying. He's like, "Are you okay? You've been in bed for a little while now." Even if I'm just working in bed, the fact that I'm not around and about and working in my usual spot, it's worrisome. So a lot of people have a hard time starting their day.
[20:46] One symptom is someone who was too happy, meaning that usually they are not, but they're having a couple of days where they seem insanely happy. Like they're trying to go to the other extreme because something is going on, on the inside. So I always tell people, be very careful when someone is suddenly too jolly, when they usually have a very tempered personality, and suddenly you don't know what's going on. That might be a sign that they're about to have a nervous breakdown, which is a thing that most people are not aware of, but is definitely one of the symptoms that I've discussed with my clients. And I've also experienced this myself: after high comes a low, and you need to be aware of those extremes.
OVERCOMING PAST TRAUMA
[21:53] Writing has always been a tool for me to deal with whatever I was going through in my life. I did not notice it at first. I did not consciously realize, "Oh, I am using writing as an outlet." But even as a kid, having to deal with the violence in the country and my home situation that was not ideal, I turned to writing to feel better. As soon as I became a reader (again, my sister forced me to read all those books, so I became a ravenous reader), I also became a writer around the same time.
[22:35] I realized that writing could help me imagine a better world. The way it started actually, I would read those books, I would really enjoy them and then reached the end and be unsatisfied with the ending. And I started writing alternate endings for my favorite books. That's how it started. And I felt God-like, because of the fact that I could take control of the story and make it my own. And very soon I started writing my own stories. Some of them were based on reality, others were completely fictional. But I realized that I could create another perspective. Of course, I wasn't aware at the time that it was helping me deal with my realities. I was simply enjoying writing as an outlet.
[32:31] Later on, (particularly after the earthquake in Haiti, when I had so many wild emotions going on inside, and at some point, it got so bad that I had to go to the hospital to deal with the inner turmoil that all of this created) I realized, "Oh, writing is really helping me." I was sitting there, in the day room at the hospital, just writing and writing, and I felt better. And I realized that my entire life, whenever I held a pen and wrote a story, I was feeling better.
[24:11] I started exploring then different techniques that doctors, mental health professionals were using to help their patients with writing. And I started applying them to myself. Journaling was one; there's another exercise called “reframing” where you write the same story from a different point of view to get more empathy for the other actors in your life. And when I became a writing coach, I started that using the strategies with my clients and they were so thankful, being able to use writing to reconsider the events that they had gone through.
[25:00] I was ecstatic [when I realized] that I was using writing, not just to better my own life, but to help others better their lives as well (always reminding them, however, that they still needed a professional in mental health to deal with certain aspects, but whenever they were on their own, writing helped them). And that made me at peace with my mission. I knew now why I was writing and it made me very, very glad that I had a personal mission in life.
NEW HAITIAN GENERATION
[25:47] When I first heard about the New Haitian generation, I was ecstatic. I am from Haiti. I'm still very close to my roots. I value my connection to Haiti. When I moved to South Florida, one of my biggest worries was that I was going to lose that connection somehow, at some level. Having a program like that who helped us have a voice was God sent. I mean, I was so happy to learn about it and being able to be part of it was a real honor. I appreciate the program so much and I hope it keeps going because people need to know that Haiti is not just what they see in the news (which, of course, shows the worst part of Haiti).
[26:50] Haiti is also wonderful people—people with the will to create things, people with a world view that might be different from your own, but that brings value to the South Florida scene. And I want people to discover that side of Haiti that I'm in love with. All that beauty that we find in Haiti. To be able to talk about those aspects of Haiti that have been in the dark for so long. So, thank you. Thanks for having this program. And again, I'm honored to be on it.
[27:33] If you would like more information about the books MJ has written, please visit her website at www.mjfievre.com.
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Are the usual depression books helping you find a path to healing? No? Try this poetry collection especially for those dealing with mental illness and for people closest to them.
Create hope for the future. Paloma is faking it. On the outside, she’s A-Okay. She’s electrified at work, there is a cadence in her step as she walks her dog, she posts memes on Facebook, and she keeps up with most relationships. Looks can be deceiving, however. Inside, Paloma is just going through the motions, and she feels like things are spiraling out of control. But when things are at their darkest, dawn arrives with clarity and focus, and with it, healing. Paloma learns to value small glimmering moments of joy rather than searching for constant happiness, thus building hope for her future.
A manifesto for life. Happy, Okay?: Poems about Anxiety, Depression, Hope, and Survival is not simply a narrative spun in verse by a masterful poet. It is an invitation to readers to shake off the stigma and silence of mental illness and find strength in the only voice that matters: your own. It can be an electric roadmap to healing and a manifesto for wholeness.
In this inspiring and heartwarming book, you will:
Understand how to make happiness a decision, even when you don’t feel it in your bones
Find out how to exercise patience and self-acceptance
Attract hope and purpose back into your life