Fact
Dispatches

Personhood

Stephen Osborne

Most fiction is written from the point of view of the first or third person singular: I put down the Luger and stepped back from the table, for example, or She switched off the light and closed the door. Both constructions are supported by plural formations to indicate a subject accompanied by others: We could hear them; they were running down the alley. But only rarely or perhaps never do we find a narrative written entirely in the first person plural, the subject being we and not I or she (and not the so-called editorial or royal we, as in We were not amused, which is in fact a form of the singular).

A couple of years ago the American novelist Julie Otsuka published just such a work, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf), a novel of great power. It is expressed wholly (and almost impossibly) in the voice of plural narrator speaking from and of a group of women who left Japan in the mid-192s as picture brides, intended for marriage to men they had never seen but whose (mostly deceptive) photographs they carried with them. These women emerge singly and in clusters in sentences of great apparent simplicity; the result is a many-voiced narration that begins softly and, over a period of forty years, offers the lives of these women and the families they raise, largely invisible to History (they emerge and then are forced back into obscurity with the internments of World War II), and an epic dignity: “On the boat, we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years—faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times.”

At times the narrative becomes incantatory; for example, when invoking a life of service: “How to light a stove. How to make a bed. How to answer a door. How to shake a hand. How to operate a faucet, which many of us had never seen in our lives. How to dial a telephone. How to sound cheerful on a telephone even when you were angry or sad. How to fry an egg. How to peel a potato. How to set a table.” And at other times, after the babies are born, elegiac: “We laid them down gently, in ditches and furrows and wicker baskets beneath the trees. We left them lying naked, atop blankets, on woven straw mats at the edges of the fields. We placed them in wooden apple boxes and nursed them every time we finished hoeing a row of beans. When they were older, and more rambunctious, we sometimes tied them to chairs.” This is the best book I have read this year.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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