Waveney Ann Moore: An island author with a cause
The title of the book The Island Sisters has a nice ring to it, conjuring up swaying palm trees, sunny beaches and women who enjoy a tight bond.
This first novel by longtime St. Petersburg resident Micki Berthelot Morency has all of that, but don’t be fooled into believing it’s a tropical version of a Hallmark movie. It’s not.
It’s gripping, poignant and enraging, delving as it does into the often-hidden scourge of physical, emotional, childhood and sexual abuse.
“If you’re looking for a beach read, this is not a beach read. I wrote the book because I just wanted to pay homage to the real women I knew,” Morency told me, adding that the idea came from “something that was happening to a friend” and grew into a novel about four women.
“It’s the story of four college freshmen from Haiti, St. Thomas, and Guam whose unyielding friendship is their touchstone across oceans and through labyrinths of forced marriages, violent men, motherhood, and dreams of freedom,” she explained. “To succeed, each woman must make choices that will challenge her long-held cultural beliefs and live with the consequences of her actions.”
The good news is that despite the sadness and challenges, there is justice and triumph.
The title of the book hints at Morency’s background. Her late parents were Haitian immigrants who instilled respect for education and a craving for success in their seven children, who were brought to the United States in the 1970s. There was no room for day dreams and wishful thinking. Morency, who has lived in St. Petersburg since 1986, describes herself as pragmatic and realistic.
She writes as a way to cope with what’s happening in her life and around her, she said.
“Domestic abuse is timeless. It’s universal. It does not discriminate. Women of just about any background can be a victim of domestic abuse,” she said, adding that her book shows women there’s a way out.
She spoke of what she described as one of her most satisfying jobs. It was as a long-term case manager at a women’s residence in St. Petersburg.
“These women came in broken with their children. That work was my most rewarding, because I had women come in homeless and I had women going on to homeownership,” she said. They overcame obstacles, earned college degrees, embarked on professions and their children began succeeding in school, she said.
But back to the story Morency has woven around a sisterhood of island women, each wearing a gold bracelet – a “bangle” in island terms – to symbolize their enduring friendship.
“I wanted to portray the different ways that abuse can be levied on women,” Morency said, pointing to the character Ella as an example. Ella wasn’t physically abused at first, but was initially naive about all the ways in which her husband cruelly manipulated and controlled her. And, added Morency, “You can be in a marriage and in a relationship and be sexually abused.”
The Island Sisters is a novel that encapsulates the dreams of many immigrants. It’s wonderfully detailed with the images and sounds of island communities back home and in neighborhoods like Miami’s Little Haiti. Morency writes of the “tamarind-brown eyes” of a character’s love interest, of the process of straightening Black hair, the not-so-secret prejudices in Caribbean countries – and elsewhere — regarding skin color and hair texture. She brings attention to what she refers to as “the two Haitis,” one of abject poverty and the other rich. Monique, one of the island sisters, is light-skinned and from a wealthy Haitian family. On the other hand, there’s Ella, who aspired to become a doctor so she could return to Haiti to help the impoverished community in which she grew up.
Morency told me that she wrote about immigrants “because these are the women I know well and I just happen to have spent some time in St. Thomas and Guam.”
She clarified, though: “I did not actually witness anyone being abused in Guam or St. Thomas. I just used these settings. I was lucky to have grown up in a nuclear family where I have never seen my father raise his hand to my mother.”
But growing up in Haiti, “I’ve seen women running out of their home screaming … and everybody is going about their business,” she said.
Morency herself has been fortunate. “I have been married all these years to a wonderful man,” she said of her marriage to Dr. Yves Morency, who worked as a physician in St. Petersburg for more than two decades.
“People would ask me if I was abused. Not as a child, not as an adult. Maybe that’s why I’m so indignant and incensed when I see it and I want the women to get out, even though I understand how difficult it is to get out when you have so many obstacles you have to overcome. But at the same time, you don’t have a choice. You owe it to yourself and your children to be safe. It’s a right.”
While this is her first novel, Morency has had several pieces published in recent years, including a column in the Tampa Bay Times and a story in the 100th anniversary issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in 2020.
“My first published story was in 2013, but I’ve always been a writer,” she said. “I love to read and I love to write. My goal is, after I read a book, I want to learn something that I didn’t know before and that’s why I seek to read authors from different communities.”
Morency has been an advocate for Black students, mentoring International Baccalaureate students at St. Petersburg High School while her own daughters were in the program. She opened her St. Petersburg home to Haitian children who needed to come to America for medical procedures. When the stairs of her then Driftwood home were not convenient for one teenage boy, she asked her late mother Gabrielle to take him into her home off 22nd Avenue S.
Morency credits her sense of giving to her mother and grandmother, two “very strong” island women.
“My dedication is to helping people by showing them the way, by empowering them, by giving them an opportunity to be healthy, to bloom,” she said. “I want to send a message to women that you are strong. You have the power to seek your own freedom.”
Morency’s debut novel, The Island Sisters, which is dedicated to her mother, is being published in June, 2023 by BHC Press.