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.
Victor and Carole have different reactions to the trauma they’ve
experienced: Victor dedicates himself to “the pleasure of joy, or the
joy of pleasure”; Carole is much more severe and duty-bound. Why do you
think their responses are so different?
They are very different people. Carole is the type who holds things in,
and her husband is the type who lets them go. But, when it comes to her
condition, they agree to follow Carole’s lead in terms of how much to
reveal to their daughter.
Carole is told by her doctor that she is not a good “historian,” and
she acknowledges that it’s true. Does this complicate the difficulties
I remember when I first heard a doctor use that term, with one of my
daughters. My daughter was told that she was a good historian, because
she could describe her symptoms so accurately—when they had started and
how. I thought it was amazing that one’s ability to narrate one’s
personal ills could be seen in that way. Hearing the word “historian”
used as a medical term just blew me away. Carole, like my parents,
belongs to a generation of people who grew up during a dictatorship and,
because of that, are afraid to share too much about themselves. Off the
page, I am a bit that way, too. But now that what Carole could have
shared is slipping away, she regrets holding it back. She wishes she had
been a better historian.
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.