We are turning the page: Books in the first person from the plural point of view


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When someone mentions the first person point of view, brains can travel to the most mundane singular perspective. For fun (yes, I’m looking for things I already know for fun), I reference the term in an old craft book from an undergrad writing workshop. I gasp at example after example of “I” and only “I”. Because of its extraordinary character and untraditional spirit, the perspective of “we,” or first person plural, stands out in my heart and literary mind. So much so that even before typing the first word of this essay, I knew which books I would turn to.

Of “we are really coolby Gwendolyn Brooks at virgins who committed suicide by Jeffrey Eugenides, popular plays using a “we”, the rare first person plural, caught the attention of readers. Here, I revisit stories entirely or almost entirely in collective voice. A combination of longtime and fast favorites, these left me gaping in awe, made my cells sing. Thanks, We the animals“This is paradise” and brunette girlsfor taking me into your we.

First impressions

To say I have a thing for opening sentences would be an understatement. Besides the title and cover, the opening line of a book often contributes to its first impression. We the animals begin: “We wanted more.Simple in its hunger, the compact three-word phrase inspires curiosity. brunette girls begins with a longer sentence, “We live in the dregs of Queens, New York, where planes fly so low we’re sure they’ll crash into us.” Justin Torres’ debut and Daphne Palasi Andreades’ opening vignette, also titled “brunette girls», share a first word, Weimmediately presenting their collective character.

Regarding the opening lines, “This Is Paradise” by Kristiana Kahakauwila differs somewhat. The story unfolds with caution, literally, “Mid-morning lifeguards fan out onto the beach and push signs into the sand.” After establishing the presence and threat of undertow, the first sentence of the second paragraph — “We don’t know. — surprises. This delayed revelation of the collective voice adds mystery to the mystery. Resembling Torres’ introduction to ‘we’, Kristiana Kahakauwila’s has three concise words, and that ‘we’ also sounds ‘hungry’. Hungry for waves.

Variations of “We”

book cover of Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

Composed of lyrical vignettes, the “we” in brunette girls offsets: get closer, zoom out, accumulate, enlarge. Names and details arrive in lists, and the lists span multiple pages. Some characters appear once; some – like Gabby, Carmen and Michaela – reappear. It gives the collective voice an uncountable feeling. Whether the brunette girls stay or go the dregs of queenstheir commonplace brings them together as well as their shared and contrasting experiences of being girls and, later, women of color.

In the other two plays, the narrators seem more concrete. “This Is Paradise” presents an alternation of “we”, in particular three groups of women: surfers; hotel staff from the “Housekeeping” department of a hotel in Waikīkī; and “career women”, who left for the continental United States and then returned. The groups reflect together on the last moments of a tourist. The “we” in We the animals involves three brothers born to a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, both originally from Brooklyn.

Dreaming the “we” and its effects in real life

book cover of This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

In all three works, the “we” represents an intimacy, a connection, a sense of belonging to something bigger than the “me”. In “Novels disguised as storiesby Tyler McMahon via Fiction Writers Review, suggests Kahakauwila, “Truth comes from layering as many viewpoints as possible and allowing a reader to experience them all.” In It is paradiseIn the opening and titular story, which spans a jaw-dropping 38 pages, the collective voice reveals multiple truths. From a strange distance, they watch what happens and what could have happened to Susan. And, through the eyes of various inhabitants, they shed light on a more faithful representation of “paradise”.

In a Minorities in publishing interview with Jenn Baker, explains Andreades, from the writing of the first vignette, brunette girls started with “we”. The “chorus of women’s voices” highlights “mainly first and second generation immigrant girls from different diasporas”. Inspired by the “vibrant and varied diversity…” of Queens, Andreades, who tends to experiment with viewpoints when reviewing, calls the first person plural “the only voice of history.” My mind keeps returning to community and representation, and I keep switching to two sticky flags and bookmarked sentences. In “Western Epistemology,” the brunette girls read the assigned texts for their high school English lessons and think, “We’re not like anyone in those books. And no one looks like us.

For between the covers, Torres, in conversation with David Naimon, states that the “we” – which includes Joel, Manny and an unnamed brother – helps illustrate the protagonist’s “queer sensibility” through his feelings of belonging and estrangement from his siblings and family. By reading again We the animals, the narration grips me. With the lyrical precision of poetry, the language and structure of the book, composed of “fragments”, create a reliable coherence. So it shocks me when it goes astray, especially in the penultimate chapter. Throughout “The Night I Am Made”, the point of view shifts from “us” to “them” and “I”, from “I” and “me” to an even more distant “boy”. And I’m very careful.

Much like the “we” of early Torres, I want Aftermost first person plural. The Buddha in the Atticone of Andreas’ influences, currently sits on top of my library stack. Under Julie Otsuka’s novel, Brit Bennett’s The mothers waiting for a review. If work that plays with the “we” (in addition to the titles mentioned above) interests you, consider turning the propulsive pages of other books I loved: Melissa Lozada-Oliva Dreaming of youby Namwali Serpell The old driftand Jaquira Diaz ordinary girls.

Also, if you fancy more articles exploring the first person plural by us really, check out “What is point of view in literature?” and “Books with a Greek Chorus”.

Of course, I choose to end with a poem that continues to haunt me, hoping it haunts you too. Extract from “We are surprised” in Shiny Dead Things by Ada Limón: “You and me // it’s us and them, and him and the sky. / It’s hard to believe we didn’t // know this before…”

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