Remaking the Rules: What a Nonfiction Writer Can Learn from a Novel

Remaking the Rules: What a Nonfiction Writer Can Learn from a Novel

Benefits of a Collective Narration

By Anita Gill, WTP Guest Writer

Anita Gill

Anita Gill is a teacher and writer based in Los Angeles. She has an MA in Literature from American University, and she will soon complete an MFA in Nonfiction from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Brevity’s blog, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. 

As a memoir writer, I’m embarking on a form more nascent than poetry and fiction. I cling dearly to the scant rules in this ever-growing genre, absorbing them as immutable commandments. Phillip Lopate, Vivian Gornick, Sven Birkerts, and others have established craft books on the memoir form. But here’s the challenge about relying on these writers and memoirs with literary acclaim: these craft books on writing originate from a homogenous Western group. We hold these craft rules to be self-evident, but what if they’re not? How do writers who do not hail solely from Western nations negotiate craft rules while still staying loyal to their voice?

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction who addresses this tension with innovation and grace. His new novel, The Committed, set to be published in 2019, is an example of how a writer can bend the rules to allow for innovative storytelling. The book may be fiction, but its structure proves illuminating to writers of any genre. The prologue, titled “The Ark,” was recently published in Freeman’s: The Best New Writing on Home and details the events of Vietnamese refugees on a boat in the open ocean heading to America. Its first-person plural narration allows for narrator to align himself with his fellow refugees and make the prologue the group’s shared story.

First-person plural narration can also help to highlight the differing cultural values between Eastern and Western philosophies. In “American Values and Assumptions,” writer Gary Althen explains “[Americans are] not trained to see themselves as members of a close-knit interdependent family, religious group, tribe, nation, or any other collectivity.” America is a country that values individualism. It’s no wonder that the Western world embraces the memoir form, and that fiction most frequently relies on first or third-person singular narration. But in Eastern ideology embedded in Vietnamese culture, the collective is paramount. An individual places their value in helping the community over the self.

When it comes to the benefits of a collective narration, Sadye Teiser’s craft essay in The Masters Review Blog explains it best: “[First-person plural] also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective.” The narration of a large group gives more weight to the accounts.

But that collective trauma comes into conflict when faced by Western thinkers. In the Western mindset, the pitfall of the collective identity is the dehumanization it paradoxically invites. Generalizations become the definition for everyone, erasing individual uniqueness. Nguyen uses that flaw to his advantage, honing in on the tension when the Vietnamese refugees cry out for help toward passing ships. The description of the ships passing by the ark as the group calls for aid proves heartbreaking, reaching the conclusion: “we knew, at last, how the world saw us—a flotsam of flesh and the refuse of a nation.” In a moment reminiscent of W.E.B. Dubois’s “double-consciousness,” the refugees realize how they are seen through Westerner’s eyes—a metaphor for a nation’s waste.

Keeping in a consistent first-person plural would prove problematic in propelling the narrative forward, so Nguyen’s narration switches at a significant moment. The children on the ark start to perish and a mourner makes a public plea to God asking why this is happening. Suddenly, the narration becomes first-person singular, the narrator claiming to be the sole passenger with the answer. The individual carries authority based on his personal knowledge. Mere paragraphs later, when a cruise liner passes by without offering aid, the protagonist melds back into the group. “We, the unwanted, wanted so much.”

What’s most fascinating to me as a memoir writer about Nguyen’s craft choice is the interpretations that open up in this form. By taking on the challenge of a different narrative voice (or voices), Nguyen’s text creates new perceptions of the individual in relation to the group. The story would not have had the depth of layers if he had adhered to a traditional first or third-person narration. Aware of the stakes, Nguyen pushed forward, and succeeded.

As a memoir writer, this causes me to reflect on how I approach these books on craft. Should I accept them as didactic tomes that help me to become a better writer? Or should I adhere to the rules and consider them more as “strong suggestions”? My goal in storytelling is to craft an account in the right tone. Relying on craft book commandments—particularly as they apply to first, second, or third person, singular or plural, limits my personal scope as a writer.

While I chose only to focus on the narration of Nguyen’s new novel, I believe we memoir writers can also reflect more broadly on the craft techniques we’ve previously accepted. Perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation of those so-called commandments in order to consider whether the rules elevate our voice or silence it.

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