Writing without “I”

If memory can only be subjective – and writing can be an aspect of the subjective – then why aren’t all nonfiction writers bound to including themselves in their stories? To preface with an acknowledgment that they aren’t telling an all-knowing truth, but one that is limited to their own experience? This is the question I’ve been deliberating over in the past few days. Why don’t all writers reveal their own thoughts midstory? Are they trying to play God?

One acclaimed nonfiction work that doesn’t acknowledge the writer’s presence and subjectivity is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A narrative set in a slum in Mumbai, this book tells the interwoven stories of a dozen or so inhabitants. The scenes are ugly, intimate. The exchanges between characters are utterly human. Only once did I feel the presence of an outside observer, when one mother explains to her son the extent of their poverty as if to someone who has not experienced it his entire life. We learn in the acknowledgments in the back of the book that Boo spent three years in the slum to try to understand the people and their environment. Why doesn’t she ever refer to herself? Why is she invisible? I am reminded of American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who documented what she thought were foreign cultures, but what turned out to be foreign cultures responding to a Western outsider.

So why would writers like Katherine Boo “omit” themselves from the text? Obviously it isn’t a taboo decision; a choice must have been made, at some point in the writing process. How far did Boo venture into her project before this decision was made? I can only speculate as to why this omission may be appropriate, or even beneficial, to the nonfiction work.

If we acknowledge the humanness (and consequent fallibility) of the writer, will readers be less likely to gain a moral “truth”? That is, would the focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers have been taken away from the tragedies of the slum and instead cast upon the Westerner having to live in these conditions? Would the truth of the story, the truth of the poverty of the Third World, not reach a reader? If Boo aimed for positive change in the world of Western readers, is the “omission” of her subjectivity – thus, a demand for belief – an ethical decision? Or was Boo’s intention simply for her readers to become immersed in another world, minus literary “voiceover” reminding them they’re reading a book?

With these questions in mind, I wonder what the implications are of a self-conscious /self-reflexive narrator? What would I gain (and what would I lose?) by writing with “I”?


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