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Nayu describes them to me. The haggard bodies covered with dust and blood, surging abruptly in front of the car. The limbs missing. The faces contorted in pain and disbelief. She tells me about the ranges of a scream—from the silent or guttural shock to the bellowing distress.  She was riding shotgun with her grandmother in Pétion-Ville when the earth grumbled, dust engulfing the car, swallowing the surrounding mountains flanked by shanty towns.

Becoming Abby

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

You, my dear, are a party pooper.

You’re the one who doesn’t drink the offered glass of Pinot Noir because you’ve recognized in your own drunken eyes your father’s propensity for yelling and hitting. You’re the one who refuses to puff the joint because Daddy says drugs are bad for you; besides, you heard marijuana makes one sleepy and you really want to read a few chapters of Zola’s The Human Beast before going to bed. Weeds make you hungry too, they say, and you want to finally fit in these bell bottom jeans that are so in vogue in Port-au-Prince. Party pooper! You won’t dance too close to Ben under the flashing lights because that might give him ideas and you’re only 15 and you don’t want to get sidetracked when such a bright future awaits you.  On a large piece of cardboard on your bedroom wall, you’ve written down your life goals: finish high school, finish med school, open a clinic downtown, buy a house in the mountains of Kenscoff. You’re boring, you know. But keeping focused allows you to forget the insomnia, the dark thoughts, the darker impulses, your fear, your cynicism. Eyes on the prize, and you’re the perfect follower of rules—the perfect Catholic teenager, a candidate for salvation.

SPINNING,  1991

We hear the phone first, and then the rifle shots spattering the darkness of the night—a night that holds its breath in fear. Patricia doesn’t touch me. In the dark, I hear her urgent whisper into my hear, “Something happened.”

1. Rather than a God of occasional disaster rescue miracles, I want a God whose miracles prevent the disasters in the first place.

2. Rather than a God who needed to retreat in order to leave room for human freedom and love, I want a God who finds a less painful way to make freedom and love work.

3. Rather than a system set up so that those who suffer most are also the most vulnerable (usually those who are poor), I want the wealthy to be the most vulnerable. An increase in money beyond one’s necessity could inhibit the body’s production of antibodies.

4. Rather than children being at the mercy of nature and of other people, I want no one to die or be physically or emotionally traumatized before turning twelve years old. Nobody. And the only ones who die between thirteen and eighteen should be those whose decisions represent a clear and present danger to others.

5. For every unethical action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction—immediately. If you inflict suffering, you should immediately suffer accordingly.

6. I want a small indicator button, like a low­ battery light, on the prominent C7 vertebrae that protrudes slightly on the cervical spine at the base of the neck between the shoulders. A gentle red light would glow forty-eight hours before death is irreversible, when the downward spiral toward unconsciousness or pain has won. It would indicate time for final goodbyes with loved ones and that a final welcome from God is imminent: “You’re released from this life. Welcome into the next one.”

What music are you listening to as we start this interview?

Frightened Rabbit. A friend gave me the CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautifully ragged. Like Mumford & Sons, but with more alcohol and electricity. I’m not saying anything about the alcohol consumption in either of these bands. Just the sound. I like art that’s a little ragged around the edges—and a little ragged in the center too.

 

So how does that “ragged-ness” guide how you write?

Writing my new book, After Shock, was visceral. It was in the midst of responding to the January 2011 earthquake in Haiti, where I’ve worked since 2003. (First living there, now back and forth from Florida.) The earthquake was devastating; more than 230,000 people died. This book was written in the midst of it. It’s naked, honest wrestling with faith and doubt and suffering, with God. The temptation was often to smooth things out in the writing or the rewriting or editing. But I consciously tried to keep it ragged. I distrust art or ideas that aren’t a bit messy, like reality, so I don’t want to create art like that either.

 

What right do you have to take on these biggest of questions about God and life and meaning and suffering and hope?

None. Or as much as any of us. Depends how you look at it.

 

So your book is about suffering and the people you’re with are in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and just went through a horrific natural disaster. You’re just going to make us feel like whiners, right?

No. I promise. I was overwhelmed by how much people were and are suffering in Haiti. But there is something fundamentally human in this book too. Because wherever we are, whatever our income, whatever our passport, life can crash down quickly or slowly, existentially or with a cancer diagnosis, with a child’s accident, with watching a friend gripped by depression, with seeing the aftermath of tornados on TV. We’re so vulnerable, even if life is going well. How can we be honest—and maybe find faith—in the mix of so much pain and beauty, suffering and hope?

 

What is the right time/mood to read “After Shock”?

I was talking with my brother recently and mentioned that my wife and I had the Netflix sleeve for the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” sitting on our kitchen counter for several weeks. It’s about the “lost boys” of Sudan. He laughed and said, “Really, when is the right time to watch a movie with that title?” It’s a heavy title. When you’re happy? Not really. When you’re already way down? No way. Is mildly depressed but on the upswing the sweet spot? I don’t know. Maybe there’s something like that with my book. But I hope it’s also compelling enough, honest enough, humorous enough (my friend Owen’s dating life, for example), and hopeful enough…

 

So the right answer is…

Now! The right answer is that now is the perfect time for you to read it…maybe, hopefully, surely.

 

So the billion dollar question: Where is God in all this?

I don’t know exactly. God is distant. God is near. That’s my experience. I want a God who prevents disasters. We don’t get that, and it’s crushing and baffling. But then somehow, at the same time, it seems the same God who doesn’t prevent the awfulness is, well, sometimes we experience God right in the midst of it.

 

For example?

For me one powerful experience that I write about in the book is a few weeks after the earthquake. I went to a church that my wife and I had attended while living in Haiti. Close to the epicenter. Now it was a pile of rubble. A teacher had died in the school right beside it. I went to the church on a Sunday morning. A lot of people were there. A full congregation. The words of communion, of Jesus, “This is my body broken for you,” sounded different than ever before right next to the rubble. I felt my faith, which was on life-support, resurrect a little through the faith of the people around me who had lost everything, everything. I don’t know if God was there. It seemed like maybe so. But if God wasn’t there, if God doesn’t show up in these conditions, then I’m not interested in finding God anywhere else.

 

Lessons learned?

No. Well, the seven easy steps to… No, that’s too simplistic. But I found strength in being connected with others, with being engaged with helping instead of just being a distant observer. And I found strength in being completely honest about both the faith and the doubt.

 

What’s the band singing now?

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand.

 

Meaning?

I don’t know what they mean to say, but I like it as a picture of both the search for God and the grace of being found. So there’s my interpretation, knowing only the chorus. Swim out there. Let’s search as hard and as far—and giving every bit of ourselves to help and to find meaning and to grasp for God. And there’s grace out there, whether we get to keep swimming or whether we sink down into grace like a bag of sand.

 

What do you find?

To this point, I keep finding God and faith. But I only want that to keep coming up as the answer if it’s true. Life is an incredible search.



Some things have not changed—the crunchy gravel of the dirt roads, the rooster’s crow, the buzz of bees, the bright yellow sun of the Haitian dawn. The rest is spooky in its familiarity, yet wrong in detail. A chill settles onto the top of my stomach. Even my skin has gone cold. I drive holding the steering wheel close, among the crowds of unwashed faces and men asleep against their stomachs, the makeshift tent villages. Sometimes, a humanitarian tuck comes barreling up behind me and rides my tailpipe.

“It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.”—Susan Sontag


A Chinese girl stopped me in the street, seeking money
for a black man, ill with cholera, whose name
neither of us knew.

She showed me his photo. Sweat beaded down from his
temples to his throat. His lips, sand paper parched,
opened like a goldfish’s.

His eyes rolled back, half translucent, half milky. I had seen such eyes
once in The Exorcist, in which
the demon always won.

Doctors pulled up his tee with pearl white hands
to reveal his charcoal body, which, perhaps,
was no longer his after the camera click.

Outside the photo, the sun might be red, or black
as his tan. Perhaps it did not matter –
Colours were absent in eyes of the nearly dead.

“Please help Heidi people.” Her pledge hid the heat of Haiti
and her shame of mispronunciation.
She showed me the photo again, as if

she owned it
and the image in it,
the only evidence of poverty she ever had.

Surrounded by the fresh smell of cotton steamed under the iron, I’m listening in a conversation between my mother and my husband, Hector. My fingers caress the cuffs and collars of Hector’s Guayabera shirts as I iron them. It’s Haitian Independence Day, and Mother, who is visiting us in Pembroke Pines, is helping Hector with the traditional Joumou soup. The two of them milling around, laughing and talking, the fragrance of garlic and piman—all this gives it an authentic Haitian feel. Their tongues roll around the Creole syllables with delight, and the warm cadence of their voices bring me back to the Caribbean mountains of my childhood. A soft, but unapologetic roll and clipping of words. Deep, modulated voices.

Mother has been working on her family tree.

The Wild Ride

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

After the shooting in Port-au-Prince, the Parent-Teacher Association decides that we, children, need some fun, and the nuns organize a school fair. They call it Journée de Couleurs. It is a blur of colors and smells and sounds. The sky is full with bobbing balloons, which dance around the sunrays poking through the clouds. Under the flamboyant tree, the hot dog lady covers the sausages with mustard, onion, pickle, tomato, cucumbers, celery salt and hot peppers. Breathing in the greasy goodness of ponmkèt cakes and the sugar rush of cotton candy, students, with their dark blue uniforms and white ribbons, spend their centimes and gourdes on popcorn, peanuts, homemade ice cream called ti Carole, hamburgers and a large orange soda. Deep-fried foods, shows and athletic tournaments, and rides and prizes.

April Fools

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

In front of the school, I kiss Papa and he waits until I’ve bought a humongous gummy rat from the old woman with a straw hat. Then, my father’s gone and Sister Therese is at the entrance, rushing the students inside. She wears a long navy blue habit and a perpetual scowl on her face.

The Freemasons come first because Papa Julio is an initiate.

The two gentlemen look solemn—Mr. Napoleon with his black suit and tie and shiny leather shoes and Mr. Gerard with his tan suit and brown shoes.

“What seems to be the problem?” Mr. Napoleon asks.

Couscous

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

My father is dozing on the balcony, behind the large hibiscus plant.

Papa sleeps better during the day because he’s haunted. Night haunted. And when the spooky things come—memories of his childhood, he haunts my mother. He tells her his nightmares, wakes her up—to pull her into his suffering, to taunt her into saving him.

I know because I’ve heard him.

Another Morbid Tale.

By the time you’re sixteen, you realize that most people hate when you dump on yourself. They simply can’t stand being part of your pity party. After all, last thing anyone needs is to be dragged into someone else’s bummer. Before your high school sweetheart, Junior, hangs up on you, he calls you a cry baby, which foreshadows that there will be no ever after—not for you two, anyway.

When they tell you about the car crash, you feel around for grief or sadness to match the horrific news but all that comes is a sense of something gone from the world. You remember Junior’s last words to you: cry baby.

Before I became a writer, I wanted to be a photographer. I walked the streets of Haiti, looking for that perfect picture, always aware of light–the soft, gray light of a foggy or overcast day in Port-au-Prince, the light of a Jacmelian sunset, or the bright, harsh light of a noonday sun in Léôgane. The mere mention of these places ignited my imagination. I loved the very sound and shape of these words.

Bones

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

I used to boil human bones on the stove to take out the gristle and other smelly cartilage that still clung to them, the steam rising on either side of me. My dark hair tied into a ponytail, eyes crinkled in happy satisfaction, I polished these bones and kept them in my study room closet.