M. J. Fievre is a Florida-based Haitian-American writer. This is a conversation with her about her latest book. I wasn’t sure about posting it here or Wadadli Pen or maybe pitching somewhere but in the end I’m happy to return the favour of her sharing her online space with me when my book Musical Youth came out, and this post will be linked in the latest Carib Plus Lit post (with other lit! news from the Caribbean) on the Wadadli Pen site, and, provided I can find the right angle, there’s no reason I still can’t pitch it somewhere. So, here’s to my literary sistren on turning the pen to such a sensitive, complicated, and in some ways still taboo issue. I haven’t read the book yet; my questions are based on our interactions and the press kit announcing Happy, Okay? Fievre_Press Kit Here’s our conversation (conducted via email, so apologies for any stiltedness in the exchange).
Joanne C. Hillhouse: First, who’s the cover artist – I have an idea but I don’t want to guess.
MJ Fievre: You guessed right: Trinidadian poet and artist Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné created the artwork for the cover of the book.
JCH: Second, congrats on the book.
MJF: Thank you. I’m excited to talk to you about it.
JCH: Why mental illness?
MJF: I was taught to write about what you know, and I know my own experience with depression. The worst parts of depression is feeling isolated, hopeless, and powerless to change things—so I wanted to share the ways I’ve managed mental illness. When I’d reach critical low points, I’d often open a book and find hope—or just a voice that resonated and let me know I wasn’t the only person who ever felt what I was feeling (or not feeling, because a lot of the time, I just felt blank). I know now that I’m not alone in having a mental illness, so it’s important to me that other people who are struggling with feelings of powerlessness and isolation know they are not alone, and that they have the power to change their situation for the better.
JCH: There’s still some taboo around that in Caribbean circles. Do you anticipate that being a hurdle to how the book is received?
MJF: Well, the funny thing about a culture of silence is that once the silence is broken, others find a connection, and begin to recognize there’s a problem, and that many people are suffering. Once that happens, more people start speaking up, and eventually, it becomes easier to speak of the unspeakable. So yeah, there’s the awkward first moment when the whole room is silent, and it feels a bit weird to disrupt the quiet, but it’s better to take a risk that I’ll be judged for breaking a taboo, than to pretend there’s no problem. I’ve already started hearing from people who have their own stories to tell, and I hope they tell them, because mental illness is a normal part of being human. We all catch colds. If you have the sniffles, there’s no shame in getting a bowl of chicken soup, and there’s absolutely no logical reason to feel any shame in seeking out help if anxiety or depression are keeping you from living a full life. If I stuck to the cultural norm of not expressing pain or sadness, it would also make it difficult for me to express happiness and solace, and that’s no way to live a full life.
JCH: Your main character’s name is Paloma? So this is a single long narrative with a single main character? Why this approach?
MJF: Paloma is the main character of the “narrative,” yes, but I chose to present this book in a hybrid form, so it’s not a straight-forward narrative. The opening of the book is a dialog between Paloma and her boyfriend Jose, and while the language is poetic, it’s presented as a play. There’s a struggle between them. I know from my own experience, that when I was going through some of the hardest periods of my life, there were people who loved me desperately, who saw I was hurting, but didn’t understand my problems. Often they thought they could fix me, or make me happy by loving my problems away. For example, if I was going through a period where I felt ugly, that they could make me feel beautiful by telling me how they saw me. Love is pretty powerful, yes, and it can work miracles, but by itself, it isn’t a cure for mental illness, and, in my experience, simply hearing I was beautiful was never enough to convince me on its own. I had to shift my inner narrative and take a good look at myself to see that, and I wanted Paloma to go through that also, to find her own voice, and her own power—and her own path to healing.
So, in the last section of the book, the format changes; in a way, it’s still a dialog, but Paloma is the only speaker, addressing herself, and finding power in her own words; she’s building a manifesto for herself, that she can live with. I’m fascinated with how dynamic our inner lives are, and with how complicated we are as individuals. There are aspects of Paloma that no one else in her life has ever seen. Those secret parts of herself are revealed in the last part of the book, in part, because the conversations we all have with ourselves are much more intimate than any we have with anyone else, but they also tend to be way more brutal, and in the end, that kind of honesty can lead to healing.
JCH: I’m reading Paloma’s symptoms and wondering… is a person okay if their depression is situational, not clinical, if you can still taste mangoes? When do you know if you need help? What do you do if you can’t access the help you need?
MJF: There is a big difference between going through a rough time where things feel bleak, because the situation around you is disastrous, and in going through the chemical imbalances of clinical depression, sure. But in either case, no one should ever have to navigate the experience alone; it’s just the level of assistance needed that differs. Clinical depression requires someone with medical expertise to makes assessments and help formulate an individualized plan of care, whether it’s medication or therapy, or a combination of the two, or something else.
But, if a person going through a situational depression is dealing with it alone, that kind of stress can easily lead to a state of clinical depression. If someone finds themselves in a situation they feel powerless to get through, if they are overwhelmed with emotions, or can’t figure out how to manage a crisis, those people should also seek out help. Maybe they don’t need a doctor, but at the very least, having an objective professional to discuss things with can help, even for a short-term hardship. No one should ever feel like they are being persecuted for having feelings they don’t understand and can’t manage, and no one should ever have to suffer alone.
I’m not qualified to say who needs help and who doesn’t, and unfortunately, too often, those who suffer with mental illness either lack self-awareness to see they need help, or just don’t realize that life is not meant to be lived in a constant state of despair, but if it feels like way too much, or if someone is at that “I-just-can’t-anymore” stage, then that’s a clear sign to reach out.
And if you can’t reach out, hang on. Get whatever support you can from those around you, until you can get to a professional. If there’s nothing in your community, find a community online. Call a hotline. If it’s an emergency; If you reach the point where it’s life or death, get to the emergency room, even if you have to call an ambulance.
Unfortunately, not everyone who needs it will get help when it’s needed. There are many problems with adequate access to mental health services, especially in lower income areas, and that’s a problem that’s going to continue to grow until society shifts its perception of the issue.
JCH: Who is this book intended for? Can you profile the ideal reader?
MJF: Hopefully everyone will read it! But, as I was writing it, I was thinking of my own struggles with anxiety and depression, so I probably wrote it with a late-teen-young adult Black female reader in mind, but I think it’s probably also good for anyone who has been affected by anxiety and depression in some way—so as I said, I hope everyone reads it!
JCH: What are the particular challenges of sustaining a book length narrative in poetic form; talk a bit about how you navigated writing this story from a technical standpoint.
MJF: I think it’s important to realize first, that I didn’t just sit down and write this all at once. This was a book that evolved over many years. The opening section, the poetry play in two voices, was even performed as two distinctly different plays with different characters and different arcs. The last section of the book, much of it I’d written about over the years. But when I had all the separate pieces written in their initial form, I began to see the need for this book, and found a way to sort of sew it together in a way that made sense.
Someone once said that the real writing comes through in revision, and that was definitely the case with this book.
JCH: It sounds like the book is intended to help people navigate certain mental heal trials. Do you believe poetry is healing? And does writing a book like this mean that you have it all figured out or is the book part of your own healing?
MJF: I believe any expression is better than silence, and if I haven’t seen healing through poetry, I’ve found it can at least be a source of solace. I don’t think poetry alone can heal someone with mental illness. The problem is much more complex than that. But, if you look at it as a life and death battle, I want anyone who faces the same fight I’ve had to have every weapon available to them in their arsenal, and poetry is formidable. As for having it all figured out, no. I don’t think I’m done figuring it out; I’m not even sure of what “healing” looks like for a chronic illness. But, what I do know is that it can be managed. It doesn’t have to be fatal, and though it’s not always easy to do the hard work of managing mental illnesses, it’s not impossible.
JCH: Is the title meant to suggest uncertainty and if so is that an indication, a testimony on the state of being okay being elusive?
MJF: I love the ambiguity of the title; part of my reasoning is that too often, at least in my own experience, I’ve looked outside myself to see what “happy” meant, and it’s not realistic to use other people as a gauge to figure out what happiness looks like, because the exterior view is too often illusory; comparison is probably a fool’s game when it comes to life. The title can mean a lot of things. It can mean that reaching a state of “okay” is happy enough for this moment. It can mean, “I am happy to be okay.” It can mean, “I am happy; are you okay?” And it can also mean, “I am happy. Is that okay with you?”
JCH: Can you preview Badass Black Girl?
MJF: I am super-excited about Badass Black Girl. It’s a self-empowerment guide for young Black girls. It’s a book I began dreaming about writing when I was a young girl in Haiti. I like to think of it as every Black girl’s best friend. The book is a combination of things. It’s part memoir, about my own girlhood, and some of the important lessons I learned. It’s part compendium, with information about trailblazing Black women in many different fields. It’s also partly an advice book. But maybe most importantly, it’s a book filled with reflective exercises, designed to give Black girls the self-awareness and self-esteem they’re going to need to build a better, badass world.
JCH: Some reviews describe the book as a play-poem or poem-play. Do you see it as a performance piece a la For Coloured Girls? It does sound, from the advance reviews, and the synopsis, like it’s dealing with some of the same themes – not in terms of male-female relationships necessarily but in terms of the ways we are broken and yet struggle to be strong, the ways we crack even as we’re told (especially black women) that we are strong, super even. Off the mark?
MJF: As I mentioned earlier, parts of this have been performed, although in a much different form. I think it could probably still be performed. It might be cool to adapt it into an opera. I don’t think you’re too far off the mark. But the issue of how society, and Black culture, has unreasonable expectations for what Black women can tolerate before they buckle under the load—that’s hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.
JCH: Talk a bit about the physical (external) landscape of the poem. You are a child of Haiti and a woman of Miami, is the book set in these spaces? Somewhere else? Real or imagined? What guided you through the process of the world of the poem?
MJF: Yes, the book is set just outside Miami in the city of Hialeah, and has flashbacks to Paloma’s childhood in Haiti. Both Hialeah and Haiti are in the subtropics, so it’s a vibrant, lush setting, full of sensory imagery: bright colors, spicy foods; trees full of fruit so ripe, it’s bursting— music you can really get your whole body into. The setting was important to me, because of where I live, and where I’ve come from, but there’s more to it than that. In both places, because the weather is so warm, we spend a lot of time outside, and the natural world is so vibrant and full of life. There’s a special poignancy that comes with being depressed when the world all around you is bursting with life. It’s like a cruel joke in some ways: Yes, these mangos are dripping with sweetness, but I can’t taste them. And for practical reasons, that served as a contrast to the bleakness of living with depression and anxiety.
JCH: Who is Paloma? Is she you, women you know, someone wholly original?
MJF: Yes, all those women, and hopefully, someone universal, an archetype. I’d like to think that each of my readers will find part of themselves in Paloma.
JCH: Can you share a favourite excerpt?
MJF: Article XX
I Will Practice Self-Care
It starts with a lightness in the stomach,
my body, empty on the inside.
Coolness passes over my heart
& wraps around it in a perplexing fashion.
I know this feeling for what it was—
my cushion of control is eroding,
& I am scared sleepless of what
will be revealed in its absence.
The moon is throwing knives
through the trees, I think,
looking up at the sky. & I know
it’s time to hide from the world
& unfold inward—shape images
& emotions into structured plots.
I’m no longer a daughter, nor
a sister, nor a wife, nor a friend. I
no longer keep a part of myself
hidden away. I’m no longer a secret
waiting to reveal itself. I’m instead
a true tale unwinding
& I will love that.
JCH: I love that. Thanks for sharing, M.J.