#WeToo

Women writing the first person plural

Gayle Brandeis
Jan 22, 2020 · 11 min read
Illustration by Christina Yoseph

W,W, the women who write in first person plural, come to this point of view from different angles. We want to speak for a group. We want to show the danger of group think. We want to feel solidarity. We want to expose fracture. We want to try something new. We find it’s the only way to tell the story we want or need to tell.

We hold these truths to be self-evident that not all of us are created societally equal. That this inequality is built into, perpetuated by, the language itself. That women and non-binary people should not have to fall under the label “men.” The first person plural can be a way to tell the truths we hold.

In 2004, Laura Miller wrote, “the communal inclinations of women, though often praised, are riddled with ambivalence, and that makes the first-person plural a particularly fraught choice for women writers” but our choice isn’t always fraught, our inclinations not always riddled with widespread ambivalence (at least not enough so to sway us). She wrote this long before the Women’s March, long before #metoo, long before more women started speaking out en masse, through hashtag, through political campaigns, through bodies on the street. Rather than fraught, we’ve found the first person plural can be fierce. It can be freeing. Sometimes it can even be fun.

“There was something joyous, almost ecstatic, about the ‘we’ voice,” Julie Otsuka said in an interview in Harper’s about her novel The Buddha in the Attic. “I think of it being more like a song.”

Some of us come to the choral voice because we know heroes aren’t always singular, know that the idea of a the individual hero (most often traditionally the individual male hero) has led to so many silenced stories. We want to give voice to silenced stories, want to expand the idea of what a story can be and who can tell it.

“In Heaven, we are used to treating our girlhood like a territory that must be defended, staving off intruders and fending off disasters with each strategically plotted move,” writes Mathangi Subramanian in her novel A People’s History of Heaven, which revolves around a group of girls — queer, straight, Hindu, Muslim, Christian — banding together to save their neighborhood from developers in Bangalore, India. “In our mothers’ eyes, in our eyes, it’s a war we have a chance of winning.”

Besides, we know the individual is a myth. We are made of about 37 trillion cells each. About 100 trillion microorganisms live on and in our bodies. The breath we inhale has been exhaled by other humans and animals and plants. We are what we eat, all that nourishment and toxicity. The dust that coats our window sills, our bookshelves, is made up of so much dead skin, so much shed hair, all of us mingled together.

We like to think of aspen groves, the way each tree may look separate but it’s part of a collective organism, tangled underground. We like to think of murmurations, flocks of birds swooping around as one, or maybe schools of fish swimming together to scare off predators.

In her 1983 review of Joan Chase’s During The Reign Of The Queen Of Persia, Margaret Atwood categorizes the novel, narrated by cousins (two pairs of sisters), as being “concerned with the female matrix.” “A matrix is both what we spring from and what we are embedded in,” she writes, “and the ‘we’ cannot decide which definition applies.”

We are all concerned with the female matrix, with where we spring from, where we’re embedded. Some of our characters try to climb out of this bed; some of them burrow in deeper (and some, like the Orthodox Jewish women in Tova Mivis’ The Ladies’ Auxiliary, try to get out but get sucked right back in):

When we were teenagers, we would imagine that when we had daughters of our own, we wouldn’t be so strict. We would give them room to explore, let them decide for themselves if they wanted to follow this way of life. But once we were in the parental role, it wasn’t as simple. We wanted our daughters to grow up and get married, to have Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. We wanted them to pass on this tradition to their children and to their children’s children. We didn’t want them to be exposed to bad influences, ones that might make them steer from this path that had been set out for them since birth. We wanted them to avoid the confusion of the modern world, where no one seemed to believe in anything anymore. We wanted them to always feel rooted in their tradition, to be close to their families, their community, and God. And we didn’t know how to do that if we made no ground rules, set down no boundaries.

WeWe set and trample boundaries in our stories. We are a Greek chorus offering commentary, sounding the alarm. We are a Puerto-Rican-American chorus, a Japanese immigrant chorus, a WASP-American chorus, an African-American chorus, an Orthodox Jewish chorus in a small Southern town, a chorus of girls in India, a chorus of Hungarian ghosts. We imagine ourselves a charm of foxes. A shrewdness of apes. A parliament of owls.

In her 2004 article, Laura Miller also noted “for male writers, the collective narrator is most often on the outside trying to peep in — usually at a woman or women — but female writers speak from the center of the mystery.” This is not true of all of us — some of us choose to peep a story from its margins — but we do love the mystery of the collective, the contradictions and connections it holds.

Some of us narrate our works entirely in the first person plural. Others among us allow individual voices to rise from the group to speak for themselves now and then; others punctuate the “we” voice throughout a more traditionally told narrative. Jaquira Diaz does this in Ordinary Girls, threading the first person plural experience of her group of friends throughout her primarily first person memoir:

It was the same the next summer, and the summer after that: we went right back to drinking, smoking, fighting, dancing dancing dancing, running away. We wanted to be seen finally, to exist in the lives we’d mapped out for ourselves We wanted more than noise — we wanted everything. We were ordinary girls but we would’ve given anything to be monsters. We weren’t creatures or aliens or women in disguise, but girls, We were girls.

“We were girls once,” say Britt Bennett’s older church ladies, whose first person plural judgment and wisdom pepper the multiple POV, close third narrative of Bennett’s novel, The Mothers. “We would have told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toe to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself.”

Margaret Atwood uses the first person plural, herself, in part of her novel and stage play The Penelopiad — while most of the characters speak singularly, Penelope’s maids, who were hanged (more here) speak as one. (An aside: one of us — okay, me, okay, I— hadn’t heard of The Penelopiad until I mentioned my forthcoming book, narrated collectively by ghosts of the victims of Countess Bathory, when I was teaching at a women’s poetry workshop in Malawi, and one of my brilliant co-teachers, a poet born in Botswana, said “Oh, like The Penelopiad.” I was intrigued but nervous, worried my work would seem derivative, even though I had never read the work; I downloaded The Penelopiad in play form on my phone and read it on the flight home; I was relieved Atwood’s work was wildly different from my own book, although there was one scene, where Atwood’s Maids recount moments of stolen comfort — “Between the bright hall and the dark scullery we crammed filched meat into our mouths. We laughed together in our attics, in our nights. We snatched what we could” —strikingly similar to a moment in my own book, a passage that begins “We found little moments of comfort. Moments when we could slip a scrap of bread beneath a cube of bacon roasting and catch its drippings; moments when we could pass poultices of comfrey or yarrow or burdock between us, take a breath or two of sweet relief.”

We’ve heard about the “royal we”, and some of our characters, like the 50s housewives of Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, are indeed born into privilege: “Ours are calm waters, smooth sailing. Yes, some among us visit therapists, but, quite frankly, we believe this is a passing phase, like our former passion for fondue, or our semester learning decoupage.”

Many, maybe most, of our characters, however, are not born into the ruling class. To quote Britt Bennett’s church mothers again:

We tried to love the world. We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches, cared for its sick and nursed its babies. But the world didn’t want us, so we left and gave our love to Upper Room. Now we’re afraid of this world. A boy snatched Hattie’s purse one night and now none of us go out after dark. We hardly go anywhere at all, besides Upper Room. We’ve seen what this world has to offer. We’re scared of what it wants.

Some of our collective characters have a wild mix of backgrounds, bound together by circumstance, as in The Wives of Los Alamos, by TaraShea Nesbit: “We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked, What part of the Southwest? Our husbands muttered, I don’t know. And we thought that was strange.”

Most of us women who write “we” create an all-female “we”, but not all of us do. The eponymous book club of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club includes one man. Hannah Pittard’s “We” narrators in The Fates Will Find Their Way are a group of boys/men who remember the disappearance of a 16 year old girl. Anne Valente’s Our Heart Will Burn Us Down explores the aftermath of a mass shooting through the collective (and individual) experience of four high school yearbook staffers, two boys, two girls. Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe is narrated collectively by men and women patients in a TB sanitarium. Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing focuses on a secret shared by a mixed gender group of friends.

“The decision (to write first person plural) was intuitive at first,“ Lippman said in an interview, “that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone.”

Sometimes we weave our process into the narrative, create a meta-intention for our choice of point of view:

From Barrett’s The Air We Breathe: “If the voice we’ve made to represent all of us seems to speak from above, or from the grave, and pretends to know what we can’t, exactly, know — what Miles was thinking, what Naomi meant — that’s our was of doing penance. Singly, we failed to shelter Leo. Singly, then, we’ve forbidden ourselves to speak. This is what happened, we say together. This — this! — is what we did.’”

From Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts: “Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note?

A: The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully.

Also, tenderly and slowly and by pressing on even when it hurts.”

From Eleanor Brown’s Weird Sisters:

We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, or too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions and they allow us to pass off the responsibilities for things we have done, maybe for something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made. . . There are times in our lives that we have to realize that our past is precisely what it is and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.

“W“We” can be a family, a couple, a group of friends, a class (school or socioeconomic), a gender, a workplace, a community. We can be small and painfully insular; we can be large and contain multitudes.

Of course, we know the word “we” can never include everyone. Look at “We, the People”; think of all the people the writers of this phrase excluded. We sometimes weave such exclusion into our narratives. When there is a “we”, there is usually also a “not we”, sometime an oppressive or oppressed “them.”

Julie Otsuka plays with this to powerful effect in The Buddha in the Attic, starting with one “we” — “picture brides” coming to America from Japan (“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”) — and ending with another “we”, a “we” who sees these women as “them”, a “we” complicit in sending these women to internment camps. (“The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now.”)

We can use “we” to expose such injustice; we can also use “we” as a powerful rallying cry, a call to action, a way to speak collectively against power. Think of the signs from the Women’s March, signs like “Whose House? Our House!” Think of protest chants:

“What do we want?”

“Peace!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

Collective voice can lead to collective action.

InIn her introduction to Whose Story is This?, Rebecca Solnit writes “We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within — or, rather, many overlapping structures. They’re assembled from ideas, visions and values emerging out of conversations, essays, editorials, arguments, slogans, social-media messages, books, protests, and demonstrations. About race, class, gender, sexuality; about nature, power, climate, the interconnectedness of all things; about compassion, generosity, collectivity, communion; about justice, equality, possibility. Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world. The we who inhabits those structures grows as what was once subversive or transgressive settles in as normal, as people outside the walls wake up one day inside them and forget they were ever anywhere else.”

When we write “we”, we can create “we.” We can reach beyond what can feel like the terrible isolation of the first person singular and find a wider voice. A “We, the People” of our own making.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Gayle Brandeis

Written by

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony). www.gaylebrandeis.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Gayle Brandeis

Written by

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony). www.gaylebrandeis.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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