Memory and the Search of Stories Past: Emmelie Prophète’s “Blue,” Translated from French by Tina Kover

By Nathan H. Dize

Airports used to be such a fixture in our lives. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us set out for the airport twice a month, once a week, sometimes even multiple times in a week for work, to visit family, to see an exhibit. Now it takes something more significant to draw us to the airport. We need a reason to be there, anywhere, in person. We need a reason to drag ourselves through security. We need masks and vaccines to feel secure as we spot an empty seat among rows of places to sit, as we wait to line up for our boarding call. All of this can be quite overwhelming now, to the point of feeling impossible. Airports, however, have witnessed this type of change in protocols before. Mask mandates might cause us to forget the changes to airport security that took place after 9/11, another moment when the world stopped, and everything changed. This is how memory and time function, a moment passes, becoming a memory in a catalogue of others, waiting for the time to be summoned as a recollection. In her English-language debut, Blue as translated by Tina Kover, Emmelie Prophète writes memory in this way, too, where the protagonist’s stopover in the Miami airport leads to stopovers in her familial past, transporting the reader back in time and to her home country of Haiti.

While Blue is set in a terminal of the Miami airport, to say that the novel is set in any one place in time would be misleading, when the novel is actually set in numerous locations, Miami, the shadow of New York City, a mountainous Haitian village named Suzanne, and the Haitian cities of Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince and many moments in time. As Prophète’s protagonist wades through the terminal in Miami, sights, smells, tastes, and sounds transport her to various places and moments in time. Like the tea-soaked madeleine for Proust’s narrator, the aroma of Starbucks sends the narrator back to her mother’s natal village of Suzanne, to her grandmother and aunties’ living rooms. “Women live better in memory,” the narrator explains, which is how she keeps alive the memories of the women she loves from afar and beyond the grave (21). When her memory is stoked by the coffee in the terminal, she remembers the daily ritual of coffee roasting in Haiti when there would be “a young girl on either side of the mortar, each with a long and heavy stick, pounding the coffee forcefully by turns. Their clothes are completely black from the dark coffee powder afterward […] I never pounded the coffee beans myself, but God, how I loved to watch” (24). There are many poetic passages like this in Blue, which allow the reader to travel back in time with the protagonist, to sit on the floor with her, and watch her memories flow by.

Even though Blue is loosely set in late October, 2001, Prophète urges us to loosen our sense of the past, present, and future to exist in a moment that we might call memory. For Prophète, memory does not need to be situated in the past, in the era of Haiti’s “president-for-life” or the various points in time when the protagonist’s aunts flee to the United States, instead, memories can be situated in the past, present, and future because they live inside of us. As the narrator sips her Starbucks, she recalls the name of her mother’s village, a place called Suzanne, in a coffee growing region of Haiti. Though the narrator has never visited Suzanne, she even struggles to place it on a map, she holds within her the possibility of visiting Suzanne. “Even now I search for Suzanne on every map, without ever finding it. Suzanne, I am sure, is somewhere, hiding behind another name. Maybe she has changed a great deal, and maybe her coffee is no more, but Suzanne is alive inside me, a lost and forlorn child, waiting for me” (25). If memory were a tense, Blue shows us that memory permits us to access the past and present as well as to imagine the future.

Blue is an intensely vivid and intimate book, but its specific genre and style may prove difficult for some readers upon the first read. The narrator weaves her recollections into the stories her mother and aunties have imparted upon her, belying the notion that her mother and two aunts “gathered in one room weren’t enough to make a story” (67). More than anything, Blue deserves to be read patiently. Passages beg to be reread and underlined; the pages of my copy are dog-eared, with Post-its flagging different pages to which I hope to return.

A Caribbean Instagrammer who goes by the handle @ifthisisparadise recently commented that physics and math-heads would find Blue fascinating. Like other stream of consciousness novels, Blue is far from linear. Fragments of memories pause and resume pages later. Similar to a constellation of stars, the memories and characters in the novel are recognizable from one page to the next, as long as the reader takes the time to trace the connection. If some readers find Blue difficult to follow, they be better poised to, as Lydia Davis suggests for new readers of Marcel Proust, “to yield, with a patience equal [to the author’s], to [their] own unhurried manner of telling the story” (Davis 44). Indeed, like In Search of Lost Time, Blue gives readers the feeling that the book may have been written from various starting points and expanded from the middle out. In this way, too, Blue calls on readers to dwell on specific passages, reading them with a deep sense of attention.

At first, it may seem like a stretch to compare Marcel Proust and Emmelie Prophète to one another simply due to the size of Proust’s opus compared to Blue. The seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time total more than 4,000 pages, while Blue weighs in at a slender 126 pages. At the same time, Emmelie Prophète is an avowed reader of Proust. The French writer is mentioned several times in Blue and in other genre escaping works by Prophète, like her 2010 book Le Reste du temps, where Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah provides an intimate connection between many of the book’s characters. These details, coupled with the fact that memory is the primary substrate for both writers’ fiction, bring these two writers into conversation.

Beyond the intertextual relationship between Proust and Prophète, when reading Blue in Tina Kover’s translation, I find helps to keep in mind some of Lydia Davis’s reflections for translating concise, memory-rich prose. When writing about her translation of Swann’s Way, Davis explains that previous translators like Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff tended to heighten Proust’s prose, replacing “plain words with more colorful ones” (Davis 45). Part of what can make Proust pleasureful to read is that, though his sentences may be lengthy, they are composed in a way that allows them to breathe through punctuation and word choice. If the challenge with translating Proust is to preserve the author’s economy of words in long sentences, the challenge with Prophète is to preserve the economy of her first-person narration in her short, rhythmic syntax; a task that Kover handles with incredible dexterity. For instance, in a section where we learn the temporal setting of the novel, the narrator muses:

I am on the trail of old loves, of love letters sent by mistake, of unique, towering tragedies. Macabre games of liberty. The day is hesitating between blue and gray. Death couldn’t have wished for anything better than this pathos, this normality shot through with anguish. Mid-October of a year to stay at home, a television year, a year in which fiction revolts. In mid-October 2001, I am dreaming illegally in a Florida airport. People have traded their hurried Western approach for one that is heavy, measured, compliant, anti-terrorist. I set up my story like a tent, at my own risk, my own peril. (41)

Passages like these fill the pages of Blue, and, throughout the novel, Kover crafts a translation that allows the vivid, and often grief-stricken poetics of the French to breathe anew in English.

Returning to the airport, the place where the novel is set and which was also the setting for my initial read of the novel, it is here where the narrator admits that she feels most alone and limited by her Haitian passport. She wonders which flight she should take, knowing full well that her options are decided for her as a matter of the state. Not all passports are equal. Though she is hampered in her ability to move through physical space, memory enables her to travel freely from place to place, encountering people and times past. Over the course of the novel, she ventures, along with the reader, into the borderless space of memory, remembering that stories, like fiction, bring us together, no matter how far apart we may be. If the novel leaves us with any lingering questions, they are: where should we go next and who will accompany us?

Prophète, Emmelie. Blue. Translated by Tina Kover. Seattle, WA: Amazon Crossing, 2021.

Nathan H. Dize is a reader, researcher, and translator of Haitian literature. Translator of three Haitian novels The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel (SUNY Press, 2020), I Am Alive by Kettly Mars (UVA Press, forthcoming 2022), and Antoine des Gommiers by Lyonel Trouillot (Schaffner Press, forthcoming). He is also a founding member of the kwazman vwa collective, which amplifies the work of emerging Caribbean authors, and a member of the Editorial Board of Reading in Translation. He teaches French at Oberlin College.

Works cited

Davis, Lydia. “Introduction to Swann’s Way.Essays Two. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021.

One comment

  1. Very nice review! The passage you selected was lovely and the whole piece made me want to read the novel.

Leave a Reply