What Can We Steal from Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Diem Perdidi,” short story
Author: Julie Otsuka
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in Issue 117 of Granta. The story was subsequently reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Technique
“Diem perdidi” is a Latin phrase that means “I have lost a day” or “another day wasted.” (“Perdidi,” you see, means “ to ruin, destroy or waste.” Isn’t translation fun?) Julie Otsuka’s first-person narrator is speaking to the daughter of a woman who suffers from a degenerative condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. (The effect is much the same as that of a second person story.) In a structure somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Keyes’s short story “Flowers for Algernon,” the narrator utilizes vignettes to describe her mother’s loss of memory and increasing disconnection from reality. As editor Tom Perrotta notes, the story is haunting. The structure of the piece has a lot to do with that.
The story is driven by a constant refrain; Otsuka begins most of her sentences with some variation of “she remembers” or “she does not remember.” The idea seems strange on its face, doesn’t it? To tell a story primarily through these kinds of sentences? Otsuka’s structure, however, gets right to the heart of the drama. The narrator is indeed focused on what her mother does and doesn’t remember. Some memories are sad, some gaps in memory are painful to consider.
The repetition also manipulates the reader in an interesting way, immersing him or her in the story. There isn’t a lot of dramatic present to consider and there aren’t too many different settings to understand, so the reader can simply relax into the litany that Otsuka provides. This repetition can often be found in poetry. Think of “Annabel Lee.” Edgar Allan Poe repeats the titular woman’s name repeatedly…why? (Because it rhymes with a bunch of stuff.) T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” repeats the phrase “Because I do not” several times.
What Should We Steal?
- Avoid the difficulties of the dramatic present by using repetition. In less skillful hands (mine), the same material may be treated like a “standard” short story in which the narrator does a lot of work describing scenes and surroundings. Instead, Otsuka gets to spend her time describing the narrator’s pain and her relationship with her mother.
- Break into the toolbox commonly used by writers of other genres. When writing fiction, feel free to use techniques commonly used by poets. When you’re writing a screenplay, think about the way a nonfiction writer condensed his or her story in a fortuitous manner. At the moment, I’m thinking of the film made from Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children. It’s not odd for a film to have a narrator, but the narration in the film goes much further than most narrators, becoming a character in the same way that the narrator is a character in a novel.