“Sunrise, Sunset”
by Edwidge Danticat
from the September 18, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

The last time Edwidge Danticat had a short story published in The New Yorker was just before we started covering the magazine’s fiction on this site; on November 24, 2008, her story “Ghosts,” which takes place in a Haitian slum, appeared in the magazine. I remember admiring that story a lot, and it may have been one of the reasons I decided to start covering the magazine in 2009. That said, I don’t recall ever having read anything else by Danticat, though her name is certainly familiar.

In “Sunrise, Sunset,” we first meet Carole, an older woman who grew up knowing, she thinks when comparing her life to her daughter, Jeanne, “real tragedy”:

Growing up in a country ruled by a merciless dictator, Carole watched her neighbors being dragged out of their houses by the dictator’s denim-uniformed henchmen. One of her aunts was beaten almost to death for throwing herself in front of her husband as he was being arrested. Her mother’s only means of survival was cleaning the houses of people who were barely able to pay her.

Carole has since migrated to the United States from Haiti, raising her family under better circumstances. Now, though, a new tragedy is beginning: she is started to lose her memories to dementia at just the time when her Jeanne is beginning her trek into motherhood.

The story moves back and forth between the two, offering their accounts of what’s going on, of the trials they are going through, and how that affects their relationships.

I’m anxious to hear how folks feel about it below! Please feel free to comment on the story or on Danticat in general.

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By | 2017-09-11T12:01:37+00:00 September 11th, 2017|Categories: Edwidge Danticat, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. David September 12, 2017 at 11:52 am

    I had never read anything by Edwidge Danticat before, so on Sunday, when I saw on The New Yorker‘s twitter that this week’s story was by her, I read “Ghosts”. At first I was not sure about that story because it seemed like it might be just a “let me tell you about the place where I am from without really telling a story” story. But then the story kicked in and it was great. It was thoughtful and very well written. So I had high hopes for this new one.
    .
    In the first part of “Sunrise, Sunset” it sounded like just another story about how sad and frustrating and difficult it is when someone has Alzheimer’s – both for the person with it and for those closest to them. But this is not news and the descriptions both from the first and third-person perspectives don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Danticat layers on top of that another familiar topic, the immigrant parent who had a very difficult life growing up whose kids take their lives for granted and who don’t seem to understand how lucky they are. Again, it’s all old news. But because of the experience I had with “Ghosts” I was optimistic that this one would turn into something more. And then it was over. Really? That’s all? Oh.
    .
    Today I started reading the novel Ties by Domenico Starnone (which has been reviewed here at the Mookse). I loved it from the first sentence (“In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife.”). I am only 10 pages in and it is a phenomenal read. I mention this because the story (so far) is just a wife addressing her husband with her complaints about the fact that he has taken a girlfriend and seems to have completely abandoned her and their children. This too, like “Sunrise, Sunset”, is not exactly a new or original idea. But the writing is so exceptional and wonderful that it elevates it to a completely different level. Dandicat is a good writer, but she is not this good. Her subject is rather sentimental and the emotion she evokes does not really rise to anything more interesting than that. When she has a particularly good and original idea for a story like with “Ghosts”, she can do a lot. But when it is something more familiar like “Sunrise, Sunset” the result is much more mundane.
    .
    One final thought: Dandicat is asked in the interview about the idea of writing from two perspectives in the story: that of the mother and that of the daughter. My recollection is that some parts are also written from the perspective of the son-in-law. I also found the switching of perspectives to be a bit confusing at times, so maybe it just was not clear that there were only the two perspectives. I’m curious whether anyone else was distracted by this problem.

  2. Jerome Harlan September 13, 2017 at 10:08 am

    I enjoyed the story very much. It was quiet but beautiful. It reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri or Yiyun Li’s stories. The switch in point of view was not confusing to me at all. Stories by women that involve domestic issues are often called sentimental. That never happens when men write similar stories. I think the fact that Danticat can write both this story and Ghosts shows that she is indeed a very good writer, one with incredible range. I can’t wait to read all the stories her new collection.

  3. David September 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Jerome, if you think she has something to say about having Alzheimer’s other than to say that it’s sad, frustrating, and difficult I would be glad to hear it. Danticat is certainly a writer of greater skill dealing with this material than, say, Nicholas Sparks, whose book The Notebook is a novel about someone with Alzheimer’s that is pretty universally regarded as very sentimental (even though he is a male writer), but that does not mean she does anything more than show familiar experiences and describe familiar emotions related to the experience. Yes, it’s sad for Carole and her family that she is suffering from the Long Goodbye, but unless Danticat has more to say than that the story really is just a sentimental one.

  4. Clara Lloyd September 13, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    David, Jerome, every story has already been told. Like Jerome, I like her take. You have your right not to David. I thought the story was layered and sensitive. I have perhaps read more of her work and I am dealing with this in my family right now. It is, in my opinion, a wonderful story.

  5. Dennis Lang September 17, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    I certainly share the sentiment of those deeply moved by this story, written with compassion and understanding.
    Some time ago I read the nonfiction book “How We Die” by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. Among the chapters was one on “losing” a close friend to Alzheimers. They’re gone but still present. It can be harrowing as a loved one slips away, soon an entire life lost and forgotten, and those who care most, impotent to change the course, often unable to face that reality directly.
    The various personalities, the family dynamic with its multiple viewpoints in which this author engages us I found especially powerful.

  6. Ken September 17, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    I thought this was pretty flat and prosaic. After what I’ve considered three good stories (also by women) by Groff, July, and (the more earthbound) Goodman, this seemed so lacking in subtext, so on the nose what with passages like “Her husband doesn’t insist. Throughout their courtship and marriage, he’s never pressured her to do anything.” and so many others that tidily, obviously sum up someone’s personality/mentality are examples of telling when you could be showing. Nothing in this is left to speculation. Even the back stories are (clumsily) sketched in. At times there is an obviousness as when it’s twice mentioned that the more people below the balcony, the greater likelihood that if the baby is dropped someone will catch it. Even the device of dangling the baby seemed rather manipulative, unearned. Obviously, I’m touched by the plight of the character, who wouldn’t be, but that’s not enough.

  7. Greg September 24, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    David – Thanks for stressing that it’s the quality of the writing that makes the difference with familiar material.

    Jerome, Cara and Dennis – Your appreciation of this story is so heartwarming!

    Ken – You have taught me that sympathy alone doesn’t make a great story….in other words, you have shown me the necessity of remaining objective.

    I enjoyed these excerpts:

    “Doesn’t she realize that the life she is living is an accident of fortune? Doesn’t she know that she is an exception in this world, where it is normal to be unhappy, to be hungry, to work non-stop and earn next to nothing, and to suffer the whims of everything from tyrants to hurricanes and earthquakes?”

    “…but during the hours that he was gone 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.”

    “Jeanne will now know what it’s like to live that way, to have a part of yourself walking around unattached to you, and to love that part so much that you sometimes feel as though you were losing your mind.”

  8. William October 9, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    sunrise sunset edwige danticat

    This commentary goes beyond the story under discussion to deal with writing in general. While thinking about why I didn’t like Danticat’s story very much, why I thought it was not a good story, I roamed beyond comparing short stories to thinking about what makes good writing, including both short stories and novels, and drawing on both “literary” fiction and genre fiction.

    Because I am always reading both literary fiction and mysteries, during the time when I was reading “Sunrise, Sunset” and thinking about my response to it I also was reading two mystery novels: “Havana Bay”, by Martin Cruz Smith, and “The Outcast Dead”, by Elly Griffith. Both of the mystery novels were easy to read and held my attention, while the Danticat story was hard to read and I had to force myself to stay with it.

    My reaction to Danticat’s story was similar to Ken’s:
    I thought this was pretty flat and prosaic.
    Obviously, I’m touched by the plight of the character, who wouldn’t be, but that’s not enough.

    What was different between the two mysteries and the Danticat piece? Several things. One was that I was interested in the outcome of the novels, I was interested in what would happen to the characters. And it wasn’t mostly suspense. In fact, very little of it was the suspense of the plot. I find in many crime novels that the reveal — who was the murderer — is anticlimactic and contrived. in these two mystery novels it was mostly that the authors created characters whose lives I could believe in and whose fates I wanted to find out about.

    I also realized that I was held by the dialogue in both novels, whereas in the story it was mostly characters rambling around inside their own minds. In fact, this was the first contrast between the novels and the Danticat story that I became acutely aware of. Sure, there was some dialogue in the story, but it was not captivating. It was dead-end non-communication. It didn’t portray human relationships, as Smith’s and Griffith’s dialogue did. I realized that I am tired of ruminative narration. Give me interaction – dialogue being one powerful form of interaction.

    As Ken said, the topic is potentially moving but in this story it was not. I found the treatment wooden, unemotional. One way to emphasize this fact is to contrast “Sunrise” with two other stories about old age and dementia – “Ladies Lunch”, which was in the New Yorker several months ago, and Alice Munro’s classic “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. I think both of those stories are strong, especially the Munro piece. Munro takes Alzheimer’s and crafts an innovative and creative plot, whereas Danticat delivers a mundane rendering of the trouble between a mother and daughter brought on by dementia. For me, it never comes to life. It’s not enough that a story portrays a situation that we encounter in real life. To become art, it has to portray that situation in a new and creative way. Otherwise it’s journalism.

    Another form of interaction is action – violence and death. Gory stuff, eh? Only for potboilers. Not really. I offer for your contemplation Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”, a gem of a story that includes an Indian slitting his throat with a knife; and T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”, complete with violence and death. Also Akhil Sharma’s “You Are Happy?”, which appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago and which is told from a young boy’s perspective and features an honor killing of his mother for alcoholism.

    In fact, I think much of great fiction focuses around life and death and their profound implications. For instance, I just finished re-reading “The Death of Ivan Ilich”. Also, I mentally ran through several of George Saunders’ recent stories. Death, or the spectre of death, features in many of them: “Mother’s Day”, “10th of December”, “Escape from Spiderhead” (a gruesome death), and “Home”. In “Semplica Diaries” the young women suffer a fate worse than death. In one of Saunders’ earliest stories, “CivilWarLand In ad Decline”, the central character sees the ghosts of Civil War-era people.

    Another aspect – “Sunrise” and much other so-called “literary” fiction is non-subtle, they tell their stories in obvious language. It’s all laid out in clear form for us. Overwritten. Whereas the Cruz Smith novel had me paying close attention because the author didn’t immediately explain everyone’s feelings and motives to the reader. In fact, much of what happens in the early going was only made clear later in the book. There was subtlety and ambiguity. Inference is not something that Danticat appears to understand or even be aware of. In Saunders’ “Home”, in contrast, there is something that the protagonist may have done in Afghanistan, but it is never named. Not every short story writer has to write like Henry James, but we do want something more nuanced than O. Henry.

    Imagery. Danticat does have a scene in which the demented grandmother dangles the infant over a railing. To me it wasn’t convincing. It didn’t carry much menace, although in principle it should have. I can imagine her thinking, “Let’s see, what would be scary?” Too deliberate. Not truly felt. Contrast the Etger Keret story in which the father sees a man about to leap from a building and runs up the stairs carrying his son to try to stop him. And an old woman misinterprets that the man is going to throw his son off the roof and pleads with him not to. A brief moment of chaos and fear sharply described. I really felt that situation.

    In Alice Munro’s story “Miles City, Montana”, she has a moment when a baby is found lying at the bottom of a swimming pool. That’s an image that clutches at the heart. It’s striking. Danticat’s image didn’t do that for me.

    How does an author convey authentic fear and dread? I don’t know. I only know that I can sense it when it occurs. And feel its absence when the author is straining unsuccessfully to achieve it.

    I end with an exotic and unlikely comparison. While I was thinking about the scene where the demented grandmother holds the baby over the railing, suddenly there popped into my mind Sidney Lanier’s verse narrative “The Revenge of Hamish”. Do you remember it? I looked it up. (As many people have observed, you can find anything on the Internet.) Hamish, the huntsman, is driven mad with pain and humiliation after a whipping ordered by the laird, Mclean, and seeks revenge. He grabs the scion and threatens to toss him over a cliff unless the Laird endures the same lashing that Hamish suffered. That happens. But it is not enough. Here is what ensues:

    Stern Hamish stands bold on the brink, and dangles the child o’er the deep.

    And there as the motherly arms stretched out with the thanksgiving prayer —
    And there as the mother crept up with a fearful swift pace,
    Till her finger nigh felt of the bairnie’s face —
    In a flash fierce Hamish turned round and lifted the child in the air,

    And sprang with the child in his arms from the horrible height in the sea,
    Shrill screeching, “Revenge!” in the wind-rush; and pallid Maclean,
    Age-feeble with anger and impotent pain,
    Crawled up on the crag, and lay flat, and locked hold of dead roots of a tree —
    (https://www.poetrysoup.com/famous/poem/the_revenge_of_hamish_16101)

    Hokey? Sure. Melodramatic? Sure. But – convincing. Chilling. At least I find it so. Sometimes you have to take a risk to get an effect. Certainly Danticat, with all her reputed skill and contemporary regard, didn’t get anywhere near to this moment of tragedy.

    Sometimes I am ready to think that crime fiction is the true inheritor of the mantle of yesterday’s quality writers. John Banville’s mystery novels about the Dublin pathologist Martin Quick, for instance, which are written under the pen name Benjamin Black, to my mind combine the best of literary fiction and the mystery novel. Certainly I believe that good writing transcends genre, as does bad writing.

  9. Greg October 11, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    Thank you William for this terrifically extended post on what you truly find captivating in fiction.

    And you sure have lots of guts to come onto a literary forum and espouse on how you prefer some types of genre fiction over art (i.e. literature)!

  10. William October 11, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks, Greg. It was a pleasure for me finally to express these ideas that I have been gestating for a while. I decided that I needed to “come out” for what I really like, and admit that I don’t like some writing that I am “supposed” to like and that I do admire some writing that I am not “supposed” to respect.

    I would only correct you on one point — I think that some genre writing *IS* art and literature. It’s all In how well it’s written.

    .

  11. Sally October 12, 2017 at 12:56 am

    I too feel I need to “come out”. I follow this page religiously, but never comment. Writers of color never seem to do well here. Do we really have to dredge up the entire history of western literature, poetry, and genre writing, to take down this woman’s story? Not saying you have to enjoy it, but those of you who do know her work–and based William’s generalizations he does not seem to–want her to just give you exotica. (As in her “Ghost). This topic, William seems to be saying, has been better covered by white people, all while neglecting an entire other layer to this story. I think I will be seeking what I usually come here for–a second look at New Yorker fiction–elsewhere. Incidentally, this is an interesting blog I came across while searching for other “reads” on this story. https://people.clas.ufl.edu/mbryant/2017/10/10/clues-about-dementia-fiction/

  12. Greg October 12, 2017 at 10:04 pm

    Sally, these parts of your post have given me pause:

    “Writers of color never seem to do well here.”

    “This topic, William seems to be saying, has been better covered by white people, all while neglecting an entire other layer to this story.”

    I never imagined we ‘regulars’ in this forum may have an implicit bias…hmm…….

  13. Dennis Lang October 14, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Sally, much appreciate your perspective and the link! Although I can’t comment on the bias you suggest.
    I have noticed however, and maybe it’s typical of blogs of this type, there can be tendency of contributors, as you say, “to dredge up the entire history of western literature” is assessing the accomplishment of a story. Good line!
    It’s like the author’s work is being graded on a curve with other authors on subjects similar–or remote. How does this approach enhance our understanding of the particular work? (I don’t mean that rhetorically.)
    Coming from a film student background (years ago) It would be like watching an Antonioni and criticizing it because Fellini would have made it another, more effective way. A total disservice to Antonioni’s work that fails to analyze it on its own merit while expecting it to be something else.
    I’m rambling….
    I still believe the measure of a story is its impact emotionally and intellectually, and the creativity of the author in engaging us in a unique perspective.

  14. Greg October 15, 2017 at 1:29 am

    I absolutely love the ending to your post Dennis:

    “I still believe the measure of a story is its impact emotionally and intellectually, and the creativity of the author in engaging us in a unique perspective.”

    And as for your question, “It’s like the author’s work is being graded on a curve with other authors on subjects similar–or remote. How does this approach enhance our understanding of the particular work?” I believe comparisons are done in order to put the piece of art in its proper place in the literary canon. I like how F. Scott Fitzgerald said it:

    “Nobody ever became a writer by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say…..you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find a way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter.”

  15. David October 15, 2017 at 6:33 am

    Dennis, you ended with “…engaging us in a unique perspective.” The word “unique” is necessarily a comparative one. Something cannot be a unique perspective unless it is a perspective no one has ever given before, thus you can only say this about a work after comparing it to others.
    .
    You seem to suggest that film study is somehow less comparative than the analysis of writing, but it certainly is not. Comparing how one film deals with a subject to how another does or how one director’s body of work compares to another’s or even to make comparisons within a director’s body of work (eg; “His early films are much better than his more recent work that seems more derivative and repetitious of themes handled better in the earlier work”) are as common in film analysis as they are with writing. The issue is not to say that you want all directors to do things the exact same way or with the exact same style (your Antonioni and Fellini comment). No one does that either in discussions of film or writing.
    .
    If someone uses comparison to the very best as a way to criticize (eg; “This story was not as good as the best one ever written, therefore it is deficient”) then that would be foolish. But comparison is more often used to elucidate ideas that are genuine reactions to the work before the reader. To explain how you found a work to be ineffective at expressing some ideas or feelings one might want to reference someone who communicated those ideas or feelings better in another work to show by comparison how this one was deficient. Not deficient simply by being “lesser than” but being deficient because it fails to do something on its own. Of course, comparison need not be critical. Pointing out the strengths of a story can involve showing how an author does something much better than other authors might do it and explaining how it gives, perhaps, the “unique perspective” you value.
    .
    You might recall that even you recently said of one story that it was “the most memorable story for me of all the ‘New Yorker’ fiction” and based on that went on to claim that the story “deserves a … thoughtful analysis”. Those are comparative claims. That’s an example of what you call “grading on a curve”. And there is nothing at all wrong with doing it.

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