Night Women by Edwidge Danticat, 1993
The magic trick:
Using first-person present-tense narration to emphasize contrast
Oh, the first-person present tense. It’s the worst. Instantly pretentious, no matter what. So when I started this story and got: “I cringe from the heat of the night on my face. I feel as bare as open flesh,” well, I was ready to call it quits.
I did not stop reading, though, and that’s to my benefit because “Night Women” is very good. The present tense carries on throughout the story, but you what – it actually really works.
It sets up the heartbreaking contrast between what is happening in the now – a prostitute’s son sleeping, the mother whispering sweet stories into his ear as he dreams – and the what will happen soon – the arrival of one of her clients in the very same room.
The story wouldn’t be nearly as effective told in the past tense. First-person present tense. It’s the best. And that’s quite a trick on Danticat’s part.
There are two kinds of women: day women and night women. I am stuck between the day and night in a golden amber bronze. My eyes are the color of dirt, almost copper if I am standing in the sun. I want to wear my matted tresses in braids as soon as I learn to do my whole head without numbing my arms.