Louis-Philippe Dalembert: Three Women Facing Fortress Europe

In The Mediterranean Wall, the Haitian writer and Prix Albertine finalist draws on actual events to depict the journey of three female migrants forced to flee war, climate change, and dictatorship. Louis-Philippe Dalembert has written ten novels along with short story and poetry collections, and has taught in several universities in the United States and Europe, including Sciences Po in Paris. His latest work published in France, Milwaukee Blues, was nominated for the Prix Goncourt.
© Marco Castro

This is a novel of noise and fury recounting the nightmarish journey of a trawler trying to reach a barricaded Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 750 men, women, and children are huddled on board, hoping for a better life. The poorest among them, the Nigerians, Sudanese, and Eritreans, are squashed into the hold without access to fresh air or daylight. Those who paid a higher price are on the deck, but are still prey to the brutal smugglers and the unforgiving elements. All of them are fleeing wars, dictatorships, or the effects of climate change.

Drawing inspiration from the sinking vessel rescued in 2014 by the Danish oil tanker Torm Lotte, Louis-Philippe Dalembert writes from the perspective of three women: Shoshana, a Nigerian Jew, Semhar, an Eritrean Orthodox Christian, and Dima, a wealthy Syrian Muslim who fled her country with her husband and two daughters. The first two are chance companions who met in a hangar waiting for several long months before making the crossing. While there, they were at the mercy of the sexually abusive guards and forced to work as slaves to pay their way onto the boat.

Underpinned by references to religious texts and the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s Nabucco, The Mediterranean Wall shines a stark light on the specific risks facing female migrants – the first of which is becoming pregnant during the journey. Combining documentary precision and fictional flair, Louis-Philippe Dalembert shifts between portraying the crossing and recounting the past lives of characters caught in the web of geopolitics, armed conflict, and global migratory flows. Shoshana, Semhar (nicknamed “Tenacity”), and Dima are strong, emancipated women who have not fled alone, but with a brother, friends, or family. None of these migrations has been chosen, but rather imposed by political or environmental pressures that have made their lives unbearable. Despite the work of charities, female migrants come face to face with a European fortress where nationalist identity politics are thriving. Some, like Shoshana, will have to prove that they are not economic refugees. Because after reaching “solid land,” another jungle of administrative hurdles awaits the characters in The Mediterranean Wall. A beautiful, powerfully political novel.


The Mediterranean Wall by Louis-Philippe Dalembert, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Schaffner Press, 2021. 352 pages, 17.99 dollars.

Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.