Girls Always Elsewhere: A Port-au-Prince Story

Emmelie Prophète, Un ailleurs à soi (Montreal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2018); 119 pages; ISBN 978-2897125868 (paperback)

• February 2020

Many Haitian writers, from Jacques Stephen Alexis and Frankétienne to Yanick Lahens and Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey, have written odes to Port-au-Prince over the years, archiving the changing cityscape throughout time. They tell, among other things, the fragmented stories of occupations, dictatorships, dechoukaj, and the 2010 earthquake.1 While most narratives take place in a bounded space and time, Emmelie Prophète’s 2018 novel Un ailleurs à soi (An Elsewhere of Your Own) is perhaps most remarkable because the time during which it is set does not constrain the storytelling. Un ailleurs à soi resists labels that are too often placed on Haitian fiction, such as “occupation novel,” “dictatorship novel,” “(post)earthquake novel,” or “post–Hurricane Matthew novel,” even though Prophète provides readers with temporal markers (the novel is set after 2010 and before the end of September 2016). The book focuses on the lives of people, mostly women, living in a Port-au-Prince that invites hope, even if that means the possibility of leaving the city forever.

Although Un ailleurs à soi explores the lives of multiple characters, the narrative revolves around Maritou, the youngest of three sisters, who at the age of five is left in the care of her older sisters, Jeannette and Clémence, when their mother decides to leave Port-au-Prince to live with a cousin in New York. Through the central voice of a third-person narrator, Prophète alternates between the stories of Maritou’s entourage, delving into their pasts, their lives at the present moment, and their dreams for the future. As a masculine-presenting lesbian, Maritou stands out not only at home but also at university. She dresses in a masculine manner, and her sisters constantly tell her she needs to grow out her hair and wear feminine clothing. She begins to frequent a restaurant in Pétion-Ville called the Ayizan, owned by Quentin (a French man whom everyone calls “Blanc”), to seek out new faces and possibilities outside of Carrefour-Feuilles.2 For six months, Maritou has been borrowing money from her sisters’ savings to go drink at the Ayizan. There, at the bar, Maritou falls in love with a sex worker named Lucie, after admiring the way that she moves through the restaurant, from table to table, greeting potential clients.

For Lucie, sex work is a life she chooses, not one she has been forced to live.3 Lucie’s childhood was quite difficult, and, as the only girl of five children, she was always held at the mercy of her predatory father. Lucie, who was supposed to live a life devoted to the church like her mother, lived in a house where “all seven slept, she and her four brothers, the gaze of her father watching her, her mother who prayed not to see a thing, her brothers who said nothing” (18).4 Once Lucie leaves home, she comes to realize that life on the street is not much different: “These hands on her body were no more odious than those of her father that threatened her in every corner of these two cursed rooms” (20).5 The Ayizan is her refuge, and the ability to make choices about her own body affords Lucie the freedom to care for others, including her bashful younger brother, Badou, who is an aspiring painter, and Maritou.

Throughout the novel, Prophète intersperses fragments from a story about a fifteen-year-old girl from Niger named Fatou who commits suicide by jumping off a cliff to avoid becoming her to-be-husband’s third wife. In primary school, Fatou had always heard stories about life beyond Niger, in places like Amsterdam and in other large European cities, where girls and women could choose whom and when they marry. In order to achieve this life outside Niger, Fatou convinces herself that she must take a leap of faith, spread her wings, and thrust herself into the unknown. Maritou first encounters the young Nigerienne’s tale while in school at the Institut français. Fatou’s story keeps Maritou from sleeping; it allows her to understand that “girls from poor countries often need a beyond in order to exist, a place where they send out their dreams in reconnaissance” (62).6 Determined to find a life outside Port-au-Prince, Maritou devises a plan to leave with Lucie, to fly to the United States where the two can live forever openly in love.

Un ailleurs à soi is a novel in which every character has a chance to have their story told, from Maritou and Lucie to their family members to Quentin, the owner of the Ayizan, and to many others. Their stories, collectively, make up the cityscape of Port-au-Prince. Described in the novel as une blessure, “a wound,” Port-au-Prince absorbs all the hopes and despair of its inhabitants—the people who remain and who watch loved ones leave for foreign shores. Prophète’s novel grants us a space to reflect, to ask ourselves, “How does one walk in another city, how do we recreate our lives?” (82).7 Ultimately, Un ailleurs à soi importantly provides us with narratives of Haitian women who are living in, and in spite of, structural challenges in the home, the workplace, the church, the streets, and the university classroom. Prophète’s characters either dream of elsewhere, such as Maritou, who desires to live as an openly queer woman in Miami, or they stay and invest in the lives they have access to in Port-au-Prince, like Maritou’s sisters, who take comfort in one another and yet still hold out hope of finding amorous love in their home city.

Although much of Un ailleurs à soi dwells on the potential union between Maritou and Lucie in the United States, it is Maritou and Fatou who are the couple that perhaps best demonstrates the novel’s commentary on migration. Despite the fact that the two women never meet, the novel acts as a space where their stories can intersect. Because Fatou’s escape from a polygamist marriage leads to her tragic death, Maritou’s desire to flee Port-au-Prince causes narrative tension to build, leading readers to fear a similar fate for the protagonist. However, the poetry of Fatou’s tragic pursuit of flight inspires Maritou not to suicide but to purchase a plane ticket bound for Chile. In the end, both the young Nigerienne and the young Haitian woman have launched themselves into the unknown. Ultimately, Prophète’s novel asks readers to wonder why women and girls need an “elsewhere,” a place, imagined or real, that makes the unlivable suddenly livable. Un ailleurs à soi shows there is much in common and, indeed, much to learn through the stories of women and girls in Haiti and the world over.

 

 

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University, where he specializes in Haitian literature and history. He is the content curator, translator, and coeditor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. With Siobhan Meï, he coedits the “Haiti in Translation“ interview series for H-Haiti. He is the translator of Makenzy Orcel’s The Immortals (SUNY Press, forthcoming), Kettly Mars’s I Am Alive (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming), and Louis Joseph Janvier’s Haiti for the Haitians (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming). He has published articles in the Journal of Haitian Studies, Francosphères, sx archipelagos, and the Journal of Haitian History. He tweets @NathanHDize.


1. Dechoukaj (Haitian Creole for “uprooting”) is the period immediately following the end, in 1986, of the François and Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorships, referring to the act of uprooting the remaining traces of the dictatorial regimes. All translations in the text are my own.

2. Blanc or blan, in Haitian Creole, can mean “white person” or “foreigner”; in this way, Quentin is blan in both respects.

3. Like her contemporaries Kettly Mars (L’heure hybride [2005]) and Makenzy Orcel (Les immortelles [2010]), Prophète approaches the theme of sex work by focusing on the rapport between Haitians rather than between Haitians and foreigners, such as in the work of Dany Laferrière (Vers le sud [2006]) or Jacques Stephen Alexis (L’espace d’un cillement [1959]).

4. “Ils dormaient à sept, elle et ses quatre frères, le regard de son père sur elle, sa mère qui priait pour ne rien voir, ses frères qui ne disaient rien.

5. Ces mains sur son corps n’étaient pas plus odieuses que celles du paternel qui la menaçaient à chaque recoin de ces deux pièces maudites.

6. Les filles des pays pauvres ont souvent besoin d’un ailleurs pour exister, elle y envoient leurs rêves en éclaireurs.

7. Comment marche-t-on dans une autre ville, comment redessine-t-on sa vie?

 

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