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.