The sense of menace that hovers over M.J. Fièvre’s childhood in Haiti, which she documents in her harrowing memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos, is as inescapable as the heat in Port au Prince. It follows her through the streets, lurks in her family’s apartment on Christ-Roi Street and later in their house in Thomassin, a neighborhood southeast of Port au Prince, even within the walls of her Catholic school. The feeling that something horrible can — and will — happen at any moment sticks to her like sweat.
Fièvre, who teaches at Miami Dade College, came of age in Haiti after Baby Doc Duvalier’s exile, years that included several coups that ended with the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990. Aristide was quickly overthrown, which led to an embargo and rampant violence, the nightly sounds of gunshots as familiar to Fièvre as the rooster’s morning crow.
Yet the threats were not only external. Fièvre’s terror was augmented by the violent torment her father unleashed upon his family, his instability and volatility making Fièvre, her mother and sister live in constant fear. The memoir, a brief but dense reflection on her youth in Haiti, chronicles the parallels between these tumultuous years of transition for her country and her family’s struggle to cope with her father’s erratic, abusive behavior. Her father was like her nation: “He was an unstable man in an unstable country.”
Fièvre’s family was part of the educated upper middle class. Her father was respected, a university professor and author, and her mother worked at a bank, which offered a level of comfort but made them a potential target. Even the maid and the driver were treated with suspicion. Fièvre, who inherited her mother’s lighter skin and wavy hair, writes: “When I walked around the neighborhood, other kids followed my steps, staring, just like you’d follow a strange animal to study its behavior outside its regular habitat.”
The family’s standing didn’t always insulate them. Fièvre watched in fascination from the balcony of her family’s apartment on Christ-Roi Street as an angry crowd murdered a man. “Before I could say, ‘Jesus, Marie, Joseph,’ flames were licking his body and clothes with their burning tongues. Oh the pretty colors, I thought before my brain registered the man was screaming, jerking with flames that stripped flesh from his hands.” She heard later that the man was supposedly a former Tonton Macoute, a member of Duvalier’s thug squad.
But the family’s balcony is not just a box seat to the street theater of political violence. It is also the scene of one of many disturbing domestic altercations. Her sister, Soeur, throws herself from that balcony to halt a savage beating: “Papa’s belt came down across the small of my back. I screamed for him to stop, which enraged my father more. His eyes popped out. ...‘Look at me papa,’ she said. My father stopped to look at her. There she stood on the balcony’s railing, arms at her sides, heels together, chest in, her hair, dark and soft, swept back in a smooth roll. ... It was sixteen feet to the dirt and root-laced ground below. Soeur landed with a thud.”
A Sky the Color of Chaos is Fièvre’s first book in English; she has written nine books in French, the first published when she was just 16. She writes with precision: Every sentence is ripe with flourish. Details often overtake action: the sounds of street vendors, spit that flies from a screaming mouth, the colors of tropical flowers, all the minutia that provides a retreat for a young girl who is trying to make sense of a senseless world.
The initial chapters plunge the reader into key moments of her life: the day her mother barricades the family in a room to escape Fièvre’s raging father; the day she buys a pocket knife for protection; the time she told her father she hates him. Fièvre freezes each moment, observes it in slow motion, taking time to reflect on every detail. These moments, fleeting as they seem, add up to a life wrought with fear and insecurity that she would be eager to leave behind.
Perhaps Fièvre’s only real haven existed in the world of the imagination. She writes about the many ways storytelling was her refuge. She would listen to the stories of the family chauffeur for hours. She stayed up late frightening Soeur with creepy tales. Even her father stoked her imagination. Telling stories allowed her to hide from his moods. “Sometimes Mother and I would switch places, and I became the storyteller. My stories were not the subtle kind — for the streets were hot with violence.”
As she matures, Fièvre plots her escape. A series of tragedies occurs, providing her with a bottomless source of motivation. She clings to the idea of becoming a doctor in the Dominican Republic, flirts with running away with a boyfriend. Finally, she realizes that she can write her way out of her circumstances and earns a scholarship to Barry University in Miami.
A Sky the Color of Chaos is a strikingly honest, raw examination of Fièvre’s life, of the fears that could have left her as damaged as her own father or as ravaged as her country. And she knows that she will always carry them with her.
“Little girls, they’re afraid of everything,” she writes. “They don’t yet know that the shadows trailing behind them are also a part of who they are.”
Amy Reyes is a Miami Herald staff writer.