115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“I," "You," "We": Narrating Beyond the Other

Rose Engelfried, Western Washington University

“‘I,’ ‘You,’ ‘We’: Narrating Beyond the Other” explores the ways nontraditional narrative styles such as second-person and first-person plural can be used to dismantle conceptions of the Other. By including readers in the texts, authors permeate the wall between “self” and “other,” allowing readers intimate experiences with characters whose backgrounds are very different from their own. 


With the current rise of xenophobia in America, the need for a window into other peoples’ lives, the need to foster understanding, is as urgent as it has ever been. In my paper “‘I,’ ‘You,’ ‘We’: Narrating Beyond the Other” I will explore the ways in which literature can create such a window, allowing readers to forge deep connective experiences with characters from backgrounds very different from their own.

I will examine the role nontraditional narration styles plays in fiction, particularly fiction rooted in cultures other than mainstream white America. Junot Diaz, for example, in his story “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie),” uses second-person narration to implicate the reader, allowing “you” the reader to assume the identity of Diaz’ teenage Dominican Republican character Yunior. Meanwhile Sia Figiel, in her novel Where We Once Belonged, employs elements of the first-person plural to open up a space for her readers to “belong” in the Samoan community of which she writes. Kristiana Kahakauwila’s short fiction collection, This Is Paradise, employs both these narrative techniques, alongside more traditional first- and third-person stories, to invite her readers into the Hawaiian culture at the heart of her text.

Nontraditional narration styles open up possibilities for nontraditional stories to reach readers who might otherwise be unprepared or unequipped to assume the experiences of those they think of as “other”—however familiar those experiences turn out to be. Each of these authors employs additional techniques to make an unfamiliar world the readers’ own. Sia Figiel provides a glossary of Samoan words at the back of her novel, but the glossary includes only some of the terms that surface in the text, and in-text translations are rare. Readers must fill in gaps for themselves, an experience that could prove alienating to non-Samoan speakers. More often, however, Figiel provides enough context that readers are left with little doubt as to the meanings of the untranslated words, resulting not in an alienating experience but in one of inclusion. Figiel’s implicit assumption that readers do not need a translation allows readers to feel that, indeed, this world and language are theirs. Outsiders do not need explanation. Thus Figiel’s readers must be inside.

Kahakauwila takes a similar approach, slipping Hawaiian words into dialogue and dropping readers into Hawaiian traditions—a Hawaiian funeral, for example—without any expository explanation. Diaz focuses on character, giving readers the experience of a DR teenager growing up in New Jersey who turns out to be little different from any American teenager learning to navigate the worlds of sex and love. Having been asked to see the world through Yunior’s eyes, readers discover that this new vantage point might not be so very different from their own.

Empathy is one of the greatest gifts fiction has to offer. In my paper I plan to trace the ways in which fiction can, and does, allow readers to make the divide between “self” and “other” more permeable, creating new windows to gaze through—and perhaps even open new doors.