Part of what it means to be an American, lately, is to be a subject of curiosity and concern for people from elsewhere. Friends in Canada and Europe often ask me how I live under the threat of gun violence or accept the loss of what they consider basic human rights. Louis-Phillippe Dalembert’s 2021 novel Milwaukee Blues, out this week in Marjolijn de Jager’s English translation, makes me feel the same way those inquiries do. Dalembert is a Haitian writer who has lived all over the world; his novel—which circles an act of police brutality against an African American man in Wisconsin, modeled explicitly on the killing of George Floyd—strikes me as his attempt to explain to a Francophone reading public what the hell has been going on here.
The novel’s primary subject is Emmett, a former college football star, father of three, and Whole Foods security guard who has been murdered by the police outside of a convenience store. (Yes, Emmett like Emmett Till: His parents, Dalmbert writes, “must have been activists.”) To tell his story, the novel shifts perspectives, chapter to chapter, from the Pakistani Muslim clerk who regrets calling the police over a counterfeit bill, to various people, white and Black, who knew Emmett as a child and in college—a teacher, friends, ex-girlfriends, a coach. These sections deliberately swing from precise observation to cliché, reflecting the way that people’s profound experiences get flattened into hollow slogans as they circulate on social media.
The last third of the book swerves in an unexpected direction, focusing on two activists—a young Haitian American woman, Marie-Hélène, and a dreadlocked white American Jew, Dan—who work together with a local religious leader to organize a march in Milwaukee in Emmett’s memory. Dalembert spends a striking amount of time on Dan: “a vegetarian like many true Rastas, and an Ashkenazi Jew,” with grandparents who were “civil rights activists” and “early members of the local NAACP” who now decry “those fascist wheeler-dealers leading Israel today.” Dan is more comfortable with radical protest actions than Marie-Hélène; when she calls him “Ogou Feray with kosher sauce,” referencing “the Vodou spirit of war,” he’s delighted: “That’s brilliant, it suits me.” The novel ends by imagining Dan and Marie-Hélène, many decades in the future, each telling the story of the march and protests they led to “their grandchildren . . . who would be human beings first before being Americans, Jews, Haitians, Blacks, Whites.”