Edwidge Danticat on Memory and Migration


Deborah Treisman (The New Yorker) interviews Edwidge Danticat. The author speaks about “Sunrise, Sunset,” a short story about aging immigrants from Haiti. Here are excerpts of the interview:

In your new story, “Sunrise, Sunset,” you write from the perspective of a grandmother who is losing herself to dementia, and of her daughter, who is struggling with her new role as a mother. Why did you choose to write the story from two perspectives?

I was on a plane, some time ago, when a woman boarded with her elderly mother. The mother was carrying an Alzheimer’s doll, a kind of therapeutic baby doll, which was obviously meant to soothe her. The daughter was on the phone, yelling about something totally unrelated to this situation. She was obviously dealing with some painful issue of her own that had nothing to do with her mother’s illness, but the two of them being together on this plane, and the daughter absentmindedly helping her mother with the doll, showed me that they were still very much joined. That was when I got the idea for the story. I tried to write it solely from the mother’s perspective first, then solely from the daughter’s. Neither worked, so I decided to tell the story from both points of view. This gave me an opportunity to explore the characters’ individual issues, as well as the ways in which they misinterpret and misunderstand each other.

Had you already thought of taking on the subject of dementia?

I’ve always been interested in memory, and particularly in how migration can affect and distort it. I have seen many of my parents’ friends start forgetting the things they treasure most, including their memories of Haiti. You have to be so much in the present with people whose memories are gone. You’re very aware that what you’re doing with them and what you’re saying to them is not being stored. My mother-in-law has a friend who is sometimes aware that she has Alzheimer’s. There are days when she calls the house ten times asking me the same question. I wanted to capture something like that in a story, if not in exactly the same way.

Carole and Victor, the grandparents in “Sunrise, Sunset,” both grew up in difficult circumstances in Haiti and emigrated to the U.S. as soon as they could. How important is that background to the story?

Carole is trying to hang on to her past, even though it was difficult. There was heartache in the past, but also a friendship that she’s never been able to replicate, not even with her daughter. When you forget bad memories, you also lose the good ones. Carole’s backstory is what she treasures the most in her memory bank, if you will. [. . .]

Is this story one in a series, or a freestanding piece? Are you working on a new collection?

I have just finished a short-story collection. All the stories are love stories, in some way, even ones, like this one, that involve a parent-child relationship or more political situations. In our current era, there are times when it feels senseless to focus on personal dramas, but, alas, we still have to deal with these things every day. We still have complicated relationships, friendships, and different types of love in our lives. I think that this is one of the “lessons” that Carole and Victor took away from growing up during—and surviving—a dictatorship.

For full piece, see https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-edwidge-danticat-2017-09-18/amp

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