Interview with Becca Griesemer
Becca Griesemer is a Staff Writer for The Beacon
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at the Miami Book Fair International
Michele Jessica “M.J.” Fievre, 29, is a Haitian-born published author. She is currently in FIU’s creative writing graduate program working on her memoir, which will double as her thesis.
BECCA: From what I’ve read, I know that your inspiration comes mostly from your childhood in Port-au-Prince. If you’d grown up in a less complex place—I’ve never been to Haiti but from what I read and what you write, it sounds like a very beautiful and dynamic place—do you think it’d change the way you write today?
M.J.: It probably would have. After all, we write about our experiences—mine is probably completely different from yours. I might still have written about my life, but the story would have been quite different: happier, maybe, or even more dramatic. In this life, I’m definitely touched by whatever I’ve experienced in Haiti.
BECCA: Why do you think your writing could have been more dramatic if you’d grown up elsewhere?
M.J.: Well, only when I came to America did I realize how difficult it had been to grow up in Haiti—for my generation anyway. The things that I took for normal were, in fact, quite peculiar. When I immigrated to the U.S. I realized, well… you’re not supposed to be afraid to go to school sometimes in the morning because they are shooting downtown. Normal people don’t—normal: quote, unquote—don’t experience these things. When you spend your childhood in Port-au-Prince, you don’t know any better, you don’t realize how strange life in Haiti actually is. But then, you step outside… and you realize, “That wasn’t normal at all; that wasn’t a regular way to be living.”
BECCA: How do you think living in Miami has changed the way that you write—or has it, or do you think it’s still similar but just from a different location?
M.J.: Before I moved to Miami, I was mostly into fiction. In fact, I never even thought that there were writers out there brave enough to tell their stories without hiding behind the main character of some novel. We do have a lot of nonfiction in Haiti, but mostly social, economic, and political essays… some biographies, yes, but these are overly factual, nothing that gets very intimate. As a new graduate student, therefore, memoir as a genre was quite new to me. For the first time, I considered writing something about myself without the camouflage of fiction. I became interested in digging deeper into what all those past events meant in my life.
BECCA: Have you already written a book like that, or are you in the process?
M.J.: Well, the piece that I published in Haiti Noir is actually from the memoir I’m working on. When Edwidge Danticat and Akashic Books accepted “A Rainbow’s End,” I was still at a stage in my life when I wasn’t ready to reveal certain aspects of my life. I decided to fictionalize the story. Beside the names of all the characters, however, I didn’t change a thing—so, yes, I’ve been writing about my life. I’m using my memoir as my thesis for the creative writing program and I’m hoping to defend it in the spring.
BECCA: Wow. Have you thought about where you want to maybe settle down in the future? Do you think it will be here in Miami or back in Haiti?
M.J.: Well, at first I didn’t really like Miami, particularly its unpredictable weather. You’re planning to go to the beach and—ooops!—suddenly the wonderful sun is gone and it’s raining. Also, I was taken aback by how laidback life is here; I felt that I needed to be in an environment where things are faster and more focused. I’m starting to really like Miami now—for the very reasons I disliked it at first. And it’s close to home. I don’t really want to go to a place where I won’t meet other fellow Haitians. It’s also important for me to mingle with other cultures and share stories related to our “expat experience.”
BECCA: When you do make a decision on where you want to stay, will writing be a factor in that decision?
M.J.: Part of the reason I chose Miami as a new home was because I wanted to attend FIU. My godsister had mentioned different creative writing programs, and FIU was my first choice. I decided to earn a teaching certificate first so I could get a steady job, and then I started working on my master’s in creative writing. I’ve almost graduated now and, yes, I can write anywhere. I might choose to remain in Florida, however, because of the flourishing writing community here: the Women Writers of Haitian Descent, the Stones (team members of Sliver of Stone Magazine), the Miami Poetry Collective, the WWOHD Literature Circle, the writing workshops offered by Gulfstream Magazine, etc.—the community helps me grow as a writer.
BECCA: Have you always been a writer? How did you know this is what you wanted to do and base all your life decisions around?
M.J.: My sister Patricia introduced me to literature. Because I was a very active child who couldn’t settle down, she knew she had to help me choose books that would captivate me. I soon became a voracious reader—until one day I realized that I wanted to create stories of my own. I was eight or nine when I wrote my first story as a birthday gift for one of my elementary school teachers. I’ve been writing ever since, and my parents were delighted by my interest in the craft. When I finished my first novel, however, my mother was reluctant at first to invest in the self-publishing venture. I was only sixteen, after all. She worried that no one would take me seriously. It took a lot of convincing, and in the end my entire family was very supportive.
BECCA: Can you walk me though the process of writing a story, starting with the initial idea? Do you conceive an idea purposefully, or does it come to you?
M.J.: When I’m working on my memoir, I focus on a specific topic and try to find my way to a story. Recently, for instance, I chose “breasts” as a topic. I put down everything in my life that I could think about and that was somehow related to “breasts”: my first bra, my first visit to the doctor, my reaction to my mother showing me her breasts after a scary operation to get rid of some fibroids. While exploring this particular theme, I finally stumbled upon the story. So that’s my process for memoir—I work on a specific topic until I find the story. For everything else, I free write. Because life is very hectic, I can only devote myself to writing three times a week. On a “writing day,” I wake up at dawn and just write whatever comes to my mind—more often than not, after a few minutes, a story emerges. Let’s say your character is a math teacher. You start wondering, “So what is special about him? What does he want?” And more comes. You then imagine a scene: what he’s doing, what’s on his desk, what he’s thinking, if there’s someone else in the room. You think about all those details and very soon you find what he wants and what the obstacles are and you even find an ending.
BECCA: I read Room in New York. Was that something you wrote when you first woke up in the morning?
M.J.: This one I wrote when I was at the FIU conference last year on Hutchinson Island. We had morning sessions every day with John Dufresne and I started writing this piece there, and finished it in Dufresne’s class the following semester. At first, I simply knew that the two characters were in a room, and I was also aware of their conversation. The story, however, wasn’t done until I realized what kind of individuals these characters were.
BECCA: You left it open-ended. It doesn’t say whether she murdered him or not. Do you know what happened in your head?
M.J.: I don’t, and I really don’t think it matters. Just the fact that the woman can even consider murder, I think, is the whole point. You also do get the dynamic of their relationship and comes to some kind of revelation. I didn’t think it was important whether she actually followed suit.
BECCA: When I read it I got the chills at the end when it said the man rose and the hot breeze went through the room, and I didn’t feel it needed to go further either. But I was wondering if you knew and it was like a secret. Do you have a favorite piece you’ve written?
M.J.: One piece that will always stay with me is one that I wrote about witnessing the burning alive of a man when I was a kid. It’s titled On a Balcony, because I’m watching the scene from my balcony. On an emotional level, it was a very difficult piece for me to write. It’s going to be published in the Southeast Review in January. I submitted it for a contest judged by Robert Olen Butler, the messiah of flash fiction, and when I heard I was among the finalists I got very excited because I have a deep admiration for this writer. My second favorite would be the piece I wrote about my mother’s breasts, because I felt particularly intimate with the piece since I’m very close to my mother. I recently published it on The Nervous Breakdown. It’s titled Barbie, Tits and Training Bra.
BECCA: You mentioned that you can write anywhere, but I’m wondering if there’s a certain mood or environment that’s more conducive to you writing. For example, when some people have a few drinks, that’s when they write their best stuff. I’m wondering if you have some trigger thing that helps you write.
M.J.: I realized that I write better when I’m surrounded by people who are not paying attention to me. I started writing when I was still in high school. I would just sit there, in class, not at all disturbing the lesson, and write. There’s something soothing about people talking around me but not addressing me directly. Sometimes it happens at FIU. If I get inspired, I simply disconnect and start writing—somehow I do manage to keep track of what’s going on in the class too. Writing and listening—I’m kind of doing both. I will even volunteer ideas during a discussion, and yet I’m in the middle of writing a scene. You know (pointing at the book fair), I could definitely write in an environment like this one.
BECCA: That’s really interesting because for most people it’s the opposite: they have to be in a room, by themselves, quiet. Would maybe things that were happening around you infiltrate to the piece?
M.J.: They might. Let’s say I’m working on the description of a character, and I lift my eyes and there’s someone sitting there, they might make it into the story.
BECCA: I have to tell you that I love that your emails are followed with quotes instead of contact information, and I really like the quotes as well: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart” (William Wordsworth); ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible” (Vladimir Nabakov); and “The story exists in absolutely perfect fashion in the air” (Jules Renard). And I’m wondering where you heard or read those, and what they mean to you.
M.J.: Well, I have a friend named Laura, and I keep telling her that she’s my guardian angel because whenever she sends me information about a journal or online magazine and I submit a piece there it gets accepted. She’s really good at finding out what people’s niches are. She’s the one who told me about the contest for the Southeast Review. She’s also the one who told me about thenervousbreakdown.com and I write stories for them now. Well, I had these depressing quotes under my email signature—they described the world as a very dark place. Laura said, “Well, those quotes are kind of you but I found three quotes that are exactly you,” and she sent me these new quotes. She was right: I fell in love with them as they were expressing what I thought about writing. I’ve kept the quotes ever since.
BECCA: That’s amazing. Do you remember what it said before?
M.J.: They were excerpts from poems—really dark quotes, about being meaningless in this world. And I was thinking about that from the standpoint of a writer. If you think about the percentage of people reading your work, it’s so small in comparison to the general population and how big the universe is. Sometimes I feel really, really small and tiny. These quotes translated this feeling.
BECCA: I write as well, and I too tend to write things that I feel are pretty dark. Then I want to write something that’s more “happy” and optimistic, but it’s tough. I’ll start writing something light, but it’ll inevitably turn back into a darker piece. I’m wondering do you write what you’d call happy pieces, and is it more difficult?
M.J.: Yeah, it’s hard for me to write “happy.” Just like you said, it tends to turn into darkness. What I try to do is create some kind of texture, just because I know that it can really hard for the reader to follow a piece that is all dark. At first, my memoir was so dark that by the time you finished reading part one, you were breathless. For this reason, I’ve been working a lot on texture. I can’t change the story and make it lighter, so I’m playing with the delivery—the tone and the images I choose. I hope to create a balance between the voice and what’s actually happening. I put a light joke in the middle of darkness, and it creates this texture that you want.