(Orlando, FL: Beating Windward Press, 2015)
In Heaven, everyone has his own sky. Everyone knows what shapes the clouds make.
Here, the sky is always the color of chaos.
– M.J. Fièvre
M.J. Fièvre’s memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos, takes us on a journey through the author’s formative years and the violence of Haiti in the 1990s. It is poetry written as prose. This beautiful book exists in a harrowing setting and reminds us that we are all more similar than we think. It shines a light on the fact that many of us simply win the existential lottery of how, when, and where we are born. But there is no lottery for how we react to those circumstances.
Her story begins when she is eight and ends at twenty-one while a student in Miami. It illustrates the mixture of concerns facing people in an ultra-poor, unstable society. Murder and mayhem may be worrisome for a young Haitian but so are friends and family and school and just fitting in.
The details of daily life are the bricks and mortar of this story, including the toys she played with, the food they ate, her concerns and small triumphs. The way that Fièvre presents the story of her youth makes it easy to relate to what she is going through even though, for most of us, the circumstances of Haiti are completely outside of our experience and scope.
Beyond any anecdotes, storylines, plot, or events, the real beauty and compelling quality of this book resides in the depth of Fièvre’s writing. There is poetry in the smallest details. I found myself re-reading sentences, ideas, and passages from the book simply to absorb the beauty within: “Little girls, they’re afraid of everything. They don’t yet know that the shadows trailing behind them are also a part of who they are.”
The primary antagonists in the book, the ones that shape her, are her father and Haiti itself. The country is one of the poorest and most volatile in the world and has historically been so. The heat in Haiti is literal and figurative:
….it was so hot on that street it sometimes felt like Hell had broken loose and come nestling with the inhabitants. Lucifer illuminated the Vacancy sign so his two best friends – lust and insanity – could crash the party.
The figurative heat comes from unstable politics and a revolving cast of strongmen leading the nation. From Duvalier through Jean-Bertrand Aristide, citizens were disappeared, beaten, imprisoned, and tortured. General mayhem was the rule of the day, and continues to be. All of this is served up through the eyes of our young author, and it is heartbreaking.
Of course, some aspects of Haiti are merely magnifications of how the world works. Harsh realities are simply better concealed in some cultures. This “reminded me that the world was divided into two classes: the people who cleaned and the people who could afford to treat the people who cleaned as if they were commodities.” Fièvre’s father, the other important formative character in her life, in some ways reflects Haiti: volatile, violent, unpredictable, and at times, gentle. Although he is a highly educated attorney, he is a tortured soul.
The relationship with her father is excruciating. He is a complicated, angry, inconsistent man. As things grow more anarchic in Haiti he begins purchasing weapons to protect his family. One could argue that it is symbolic of his complex love for his family; however, nothing her father did was ever that simple:
He was an unstable man in an unstable country. He was in a permanent rage, yelling, hitting, crashing his fist against furniture, his eyes mean, his lips rippled by the stormy waves inside. I’d lost my papa in some dark hole, and I could no longer reach him. As I watched him break one of his guns, slip a bullet into the barrel, take aim, and fire in the air one night to scare away potential attackers, I prayed to be protected from him who slept with a loaded gun by his pillow.
The details of her daily life are interspersed with chaos. Or perhaps it is the reverse. Yes, she and her sister listened to George Michael but they also listened, on her “Barbie radio-cassette,” to President Aristide as he delivered a speech about “pè lebrun,” or “death inflicted by placing a tire around a person’s neck, dousing his or her body with gasoline, and setting it afire.” She listens as the President exclaims, “Oh, the pleasant aroma.” This is the pure, naïve child exposed to horror on a daily basis.
There are many instances of a single line being freighted with an imposing level of complexity and meaning: “I kept a list of random deaths in my weathered Hello Kitty diary.” Our young author has a Hello Kitty diary. How cute. How normal. How many little girls can relate to that? But, like her memoir and like the author herself, it is important to separate the cover from the contents. Fièvre persevered and in many ways flourished. But she is also a reminder that our external influences do shape us:
Something wild was growing inside me. A rage that tried to understand and that tried to survive in a messed-up world, a world in which the twelve-year-old I was didn’t just worry about the color of her lipstick, but about gang attacks and sex crimes.
From the very beginning Fièvre reacts to her surroundings by always considering the future and life after Haiti. She had a plan and explains her penchant for writing despite early interest in becoming a doctor:
There’s a pain in the world that follows people like their shadow, despite reason and proportion. But stories, even sad ones, keep the darkness from wrapping us in its long barbed sleeves. They spin us out and back into their embrace. We glide in their magic, beaming, breathless – forgetting what worries we have.
At times I was reminded that Fièvre’s story, despite being set in extreme conditions, is the story many of us share about coming of age – that feeling of freedom and wonder we have as we enter the world as young adults:
I took new routes across town and found myself driving down unfamiliar streets, which gave me the most exhilarating feeling: the realization that not a single person on earth knew where I was. I was not lost, just temporarily misplaced.
This eloquently captures the essence of both the fear and the hope that most young people feel, and yet she shrouds the idea in beauty and leaves much of the interpretation to the reader.
A Sky the Color of Chaos is elevated to a level of greatness by being that perfect mixture of compelling events and characters and masterful detail with stunning prose. Fièvre does not hand feed us but rather lends us sentences that convey feeling as much as meaning. Her descriptions of everyday life seem to conflict with the horror around her, and it is largely this juxtaposition that keeps the reader on edge.
After the 7.0 earthquake that destroyed Haiti on January 12, 2010, Fièvre seems to have forgiven the country and even embraced its complexities. Fièvre also forgave her father, perhaps because it brought her peace, and not necessarily because he deserved it. The most stunning part of this memoir is that it is dedicated to him. We can all rise above. Despite the horrific details of her work, A Sky the Color of Chaos never stops being anything but a profile of humanity, courage and vision.
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Jeff Knops has degrees in History and Political Science. His work and pleasure has brought him to Asia, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. He lives and reads in the Pacific Northwest.