When Stephanie Hanes set out to write her first, forthcoming book, about an environmental project in Mozambique funded by a rich Westerner, editors and agents assumed it would be a memoir. “There’s this whole genre of storytelling from Africa that’s about the storyteller,” she says. But with a journalism background about as traditional they come—Hanes moved from a small-town daily to a job as a regional metro reporter to a five-year stint as a foreign correspondent—she resisted the idea of inserting herself into her story. “All this exoticism of the experience; it’s not the story that I wanted to tell at all.”
And for good reason. The first-person can be a kind of bludgeon, turning sights and sounds and other telling details of the observed world into an inventory of the writer’s own interior experience, and wielding it delicately takes more time and effort, in both reporting and writing or post-production, than many storytellers have, or want, to give.
The incentives to spend that time are also few: It’s so common a choice to fall back on the first-person to overcome the foreignness of stories complicated by language, culture, politics, food, and landscapes unfamiliar to Americans that it’s almost a cliché. And in the age of the internet, full of bloggy conversational posts, it’s easy for first-person to become a lazy choice, one that can do a disservice to the people or places a storyteller sought to illuminate in the first place.
But as Hanes wrote and revised, she realized that not all “I”s are equal. “The effective narrator is not, in fact, you,” she says. “The first-person narrator for an effective story has very little to do with your own petty emotions and your own actual experience. I don’t write about my feelings or my dog or my life. And the first person has to be a heck of a lot more competent and secure and comfortable than perhaps the actual ‘I’ felt at that time.”
The reluctance around first-person is probably an instinct to be embraced. No reader wants to watch a journalist turn into a narcissist on the page, and with notebooks full of irresistible details about unusual experiences, the temptations to indulge oneself are many. But an orthodox reflex against the first-person may not always serve the reader, or her subjects.
Jean Friedman-Rukovsky learned that the hard way when she sat down to write “The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia, which hardly included the “I” at all in its first draft. “My natural instinct is never to use the first person,” she wrote in an email. “I grew up with the reporting style of The New York Times in my head—‘impartial,’ ‘removed,’ ‘objective’ reporting—which meant not letting the reader know who you are.”
So when her editor asked her to make herself a large part of her story, an August 2013 feature for Vice magazine about the lasting impact of rape in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, she was reluctant. “It was a huge mental struggle,” she wrote, and it took several drafts to get a tone and voice she felt was right.
In the process, she learned that, sometimes, first person is actually the best tool for the job. In the final draft, “I just come out and say that I thought I would find women who felt like sad, subjugated victims, but that in fact I witnessed both power and joy in their lives,” she writes. “In my first draft, I had an entire 1,500-word section trying to get this point across—doing my best to ‘show’ it rather than ‘tell it’ to my audience. But I failed; that section felt like a messy tangent….Using the first person allowed me to say [that] in less than 200 words.”
Heather Arnet also found clarity in a personal voice. Her decision to make a documentary about Brazil’s first female president was motivated, in part, by her grandmother. “How they hell did they do that? How did they manage to succeed where we didn’t?” she responded, when Arnet asked her what question Brazil’s first female leader brought to mind.
That was the abstract question that propelled Arnet, who runs the Women and Girls Foundation based in Pittsburgh, to Brazil. She wanted to understand why a relatively new country had launched a woman into its top office, when one of the oldest modern democracies in the world, with a vibrant women’s rights movement and a soaring rhetoric about equality, had failed to do the same thing.
So Arnet used the tape of her grandmother, asking her cheeky question, to set up her own question and help connect the film more immediately to Americans. Beyond that, like any good documentarian, she removed herself from the story. But to her surprise, the viewers of her rough cut resoundingly agreed: “We want more of you in it,” they told her.
Arnet at first resisted, but after watching it again herself, “I could see you could get lost,” she says. “The overall piece wasn’t really clear.”
Arnet made herself into the film’s guiding force, an inquisitive central narrator, but one who resists becoming the central character. Instead, Arnet uses herself to reveal information the viewer needs. She used footage of a Brazilian colleague explaining the presidential portraits hanging in Brazil’s presidential palacio to give the reader a quick version of Brazil’s troubled history, and she added first-person narration to help walk viewers through complicated or otherwise dry issues.
After hearing from a woman who helped draft Brazil’s 1988 constitution, Arnet narrates: “I wondered if the other countries that currently had elected female presidents…also had new constitutions. If so, that might be an important clue on my quest to answer my grandmother Vivian’s questions.”
Once she relented on her aversion to “I,” Arnet says, she realized that “a little bit of narration [could] help you connect the dots.” (Arnet’s film, Madame Presidenta: Why not US?, premieres next month on WQED, Pittsburgh’s PBS affiliate.)
The first-person, then, can focus and clarify a story by projecting the competence of its narrator. But Anjan Sundaram, who has been lauded as an heir to Ryzsard Kapuscinski and V.S. Naipul for his first book Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, released last month, has made gold out of the opposite approach—embracing the vulnerability one feels as a story unfolds.
“I think it’s very easy as a memoirist to…see everything you went through through the lens of wisdom you have gleaned; you’re so much wiser when you finish your experience,” he says. “It’s far harder but far more interesting to really remember how you were in those initial moments as you were growing and as you were learning.”
Sundaram takes that impulse in a different direction than most writers. Rather than focus on how he felt at the time, in his book he uses moments of his own confusion or ignorance to illuminate the people and places around him. Admitting the “I” into his storytelling freed Sundaram, not to talk about himself, but to talk, in rich detail, about the world around him.
“When you insert the first person, what opens up to you is a novelist’s immensity,” he says.