Yesterday, I was a guest on the Only in Miami Show, hosted by Grant Stern every Monday night, from 7 to 9pm, on 880am The Biz in the South Florida Market and on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Tune-in Radio and iHeartRadio.
The interview is available here. We discussed Haiti, and the release of my memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos.
As described on the website, “the Only in Miami Talk Radio Show is a two-hour entertainment oriented broadcast focused on current affairs and sports talk.”
Do I look smitten? You bet! Grant is a delightful individual who makes a trip to Little Havana worthwhile. By the way, if you like Nicaraguan food, check out Yambo on SW 1st Street & 16th Ave. Grant highly praised their carne asada!
PLEASE, ROLL THAT R
In his appointment book, Grant had me down as Jessica, which is my middle name. In Haiti, everyone still calls me Jessica.
When I was ten, I asked Freda, my mother’s most exuberant cousin, who was visiting from Carrefour, why Haitian people only use middle names. As I read Les Aventures de Tintin in the adjoining bedroom, I could hear the sound of water hitting her back in the shower and her voice floated out of the heat and the steam. “Your first name is to remain secret,” she said, “because the devil should never know your full name. Otherwise, it will make you his.”
“The devil should never know your full name…”
Freda was superstitious. I liked having her around because she was such an inspiration for strange stories. In Carrefour, she had grown up surrounded by the occult. She didn’t try to hide her beliefs, so I came to know them all:
Don’t walk around with a single shoe, otherwise you’ll be the cause of your mother’s death. Don’t comb anybody’s hair after the sun’s gone down; otherwise their memory won’t be as sharp. At dusk, if you see a huge black moth, run away from it because it brings bad news. If you’re sweeping, don’t sweep people’s feet (ask them to move) because it’s believed they won’t get married. When a child is a baby or a toddler, don’t go around constantly saying that it’s pretty because too many compliments will turn the child ugly. They call that “giving jok.”
As I slapped a mosquito off my ankle, I wondered if the devil knew my name. I made strange shadows on the wall, and practiced a devilish laugh.
“Don’t play with your shadow,” Freda said. “It will take you away while you’re asleep.”
“At dusk, if you see a huge black moth, run away from it because it brings bad news.”
I’m named after my great uncle, Michel Fievre, a prestigious attorney-at-law in Port-au-Prince, who died in 1981, a few months before my birth. Weeks after the funeral, Michel’s daughter, Aunt Nellie, called. I imagine the sun beating down on the kitchen table, through the back window, as Nellie requested that I become her father’s namesake.
“No,” my father protested. “People will think we named her after la première dame.”
Michele Bennet was the wife of then-president Baby Doc Duvalier. She had married him the year before and their wedding, Haiti’s social event of the decade, had cost an unprecedented $3 million. Michele was famous for her cruelty and enthusiastic shopping.
“They’ll say I’m a Macoute,”Papa continued, referring to Baby Doc’s private militia. I can almost see my father as he listened to the cries, squeals, and rustles in the blackness around the house.
“Let’s use Michele as a first name,” Mother suggested. “No one will know.”
“They’ll say I’m a Macoute,”Papa continued, referring to Baby Doc’s private militia.
The name Michele was only used on my birth certificate and passport. For most people, I was simply Jessica. Even my school transcripts did not carry my first name. As for my family, they nicknamed me Jessoue or Jess. My sister Jenny called me ma belette (little weasel) or ma rose (after a song by Zin, a famous Haitian band) or macaque (monkey). I loved the way my Uncle Claudy sounded the name Jessica, as if I were the prettiest girl in the world.
“I don’t like the combination,” I told Mother one day. “While Michele sounds sweet and submissive, the name Jessica clashes against my tongue and makes me feel I’m supposed to be a brat.”
Reading the Sweet Valley Collection, I identified with Jessica Wakefield, the self-absorbed twin, often thinking up excuses for her reprehensible behavior, whether she was trying to steal her sister’s boyfriend or snubbing the nice new girl in town. I dreamed of becoming “Hurricane Jessica,” flighty, flirtatious and frivolous. She was beautiful and popular, didn’t have acne or greasy hair.
When I moved to the United States at 21, however, Jessica was put aside, and Michele asserted itself as my first name. Michele means “Gift of God” and “Who is like God.” I had some big shoes to fill: Saint Michael is one of the only two archangels given personal names in the Bible. In the Book of Revelations, Michael was the field commander of the Army of God in the fight against evil.
Michele was to be strong, intelligent, and reliable. I decided to become a teacher, and enrolled at Barry University.
The first day of my Intro to Exceptional Student Education class started with a roll call—the professor reading out last names, Adams (here!), Brown (here!), Fellini (here!)—and just before my name, a long pause, a frown, the scrutiny of the student roster. The teacher cleared her throat: “Michele?”
I suppose it’s a good thing my parents didn’t decide to name me Jevousaimetropmadame.
“I was to be strong, intelligent and reliable.”
I answered to Fever, Fiener, Feeveer, really just about anything that started with the letter “F,” and boy did I appreciate when someone asked me how to pronounce Fievre. It was even better when they rehearsed it once or twice just to make sure they got it right. I was constantly correcting people: fē-evr′. “Please roll that r.” It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I hated going through life with everyone mispronouncing my name. (I’m so glad Grant got it right!)
When I started my first teaching job as an ESE teacher at a middle school in Davie, I allowed the students to call me Ms. F. and chuckled at how my name alone, a constant threat of bad grades, could be used as a motivator.
Sometimes, I long for my days as Jessica, the evenings spent playing on the porch of my parents’ house, shielding my eyes to watch the strong sun fall behind the hills, as long orange and brown shadows crept on Thomassin. I remember the dusty streets, the smell of Mother’s cornmeal porridge, the sweet taste of dous makòs.
I’m not a brat. I’m not a saint.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve simply become M.J., a teacher, writer, and editor surrounded by stacks of unrevised manuscripts and ungraded papers, and bookcases stuffed from floor to ceiling with books by friends or writers I admire. I take comfort in their colorful covers, and in their stories.
I’m just me.