The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat is one of the outstanding voices of contemporary American fiction, and over the years she has won numerous international awards. The title of her short story ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ is the name of a charming little game played by Carole, the grandmother in a Haitian-American family in Miami: “Carole likes to entertain Jude with whatever children’s songs and peekaboo games she can still remember, including one she calls Solèy Leve, Solèy Kouche—Sunrise, Sunset—which she used to play with her children. She drapes a black sheet over her grandson’s playpen and pronounces it ‘sunset,’ then takes the sheet off and calls it ‘sunrise.’ Her grandson does not seem to mind when she gets confused and reverses the order.”
Gathered together to celebrate new life at a christening, it is impending death that casts its shadow like a black sheet over Carole’s family, for she has been exhibiting the symptoms of dementia. The story revolves around Carole’s relationship with Jeanne, her daughter, who has post-partum depression, with each woman struggling to keep their footing in the midst of life changes. Carole wishes Jeanne would understand that she can’t afford to be sad. “Where would the family be if Carole had stayed sad when she arrived in this country? Sometimes you just have to shake the devil off you, whatever that devil is. Even if you don’t feel like living for yourself, you have to start living for your child…” There are flashbacks to Carole and her husband Victor’s life in Haiti, and the homesickness she felt in Miami when Victor left for work each day. “She was so lonely and homesick that she kept kissing her babies’ faces, as if their cheeks were plots of land in the country she’d left behind.” The relationships among multiple family members unfold like the petals of a flower, until a frightening moment involving the baby Jude that culminates in heartbreak. The tenderness that marks our finer moments and the impetus towards survival against all odds are themes that pervade Danticat’s beautiful writing.
First published in the New Yorker, September 18, 2017. Available online here
Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck with my writing, all I need is a great story to lift me up and make me feel inspired and motivated again. This is what happened recently when I heard Danticat read her story, ‘Without Inspection’, for the The New Yorker podcast. This is the story of Arnold as his life flashes before his eyes in the last few seconds of his life— a moving story of love, trauma, and migration. It reminds me in some way of Tobias Wolff’s classic short story, ‘Bullet in the Brain’as what rises to the top in those last few seconds of life is love— love, in this story, for the loved ones that the main character leaves behind.
First published in The New Yorker, May 2018, and available to read online here. Hear the author read it online here
This story comes from The Dew Breaker, a cycle of stories about generational connections between pre- and post-Duvalier Haitians in Haiti and, later, in exile in Lakeland, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York, in the wake of the dechoukaj uprising and the abuses of the Tontons Macoute terror squads.
‘Seven’ is kind of an outlier in the collection. It’s a quiet ‘he said/she said’ concerning a man and woman who meet and marry at Carnival, then reunite in their new country after seven years of separation. It’s about the silences required to sustain what passes for love and devotion.
After I read this book, I read all of Edwidge Danticat’s other books. Then I spent a lot of time in Haiti for a while and mostly read Haitian literature and history for a couple of years. One comes to understand that Haitian history is, as I think I remember Junot Diaz saying, a kind of shadow history of the United States. I should take this opportunity, while we’re here, to recommend a few other Haitian writers: Dany Laferriere, Lyonel Trouillot, Marie Vieux Chauvet, and Rene Philoctete. And a few writers of Haitian history: Laurent Dubois, Michael Deibert, CLR James, Bernard Diederich, Mary Renda. Also Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s great novel of Cuba (with its great impossibly old narrator) The Kingdom of this World. Also, for writers, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously, which is rather countercultural to many contemporary literary conversations about what literature is for, and what writers can risk and do, and which is worth reading for the time it spends on Camus and on Laferriere’s I Am a Japanese Writer alone. (Also worth reading, if you like Create Dangerously: Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant.)
First published in The New Yorker, October 2001. Collected in The Dew Breaker, Knopf/Abacus, 2004
This is a beautiful, elegant story of a Haitian immigrant to the US, working as a nurse, wedded to solitude, mulling over a pregnancy termination, wondering how to relate to the “near-father of her nearly-born child”, and grappling with silence: her own and that of the laryngectomised patients she cares for.
(In The New Yorker, 11 September 2000. Available to subscribers here)