What Can We Steal From Debie Thomas’s “My Uncle, My Brother”?
Title of Work and its Form: “My Uncle, My Brother,” creative nonfiction
Author: Debie Thomas
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the Winter 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review, a truly great journal. You can purchase a back issue from those fine folks. Or you can take advantage of the public library system (the best investment in human history) and read the piece through EBSCO.
Bonuses: Here is what blogger Maggie McNamara thought of the piece.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Drama Without Melodrama
It began when Ms. Thomas was nine. “Uncle” finds her while she is playing hide-and-seek with friends and lifts her up and kisses her in an improper manner. During successive visits, Uncle continues to act improperly. Ms. Thomas grew up in the United States in a traditional Indian home and is taught, directly and indirectly, those sorts of things are both wrong and things to keep secret. Ms. Thomas describes the home and its culture, in which “there is nothing either good or powerful about needs and desires.” Then “Achachen” shows up when Ms. Thomas is twelve. In the generic, an achachen “is the Malayam title for every kind of older brother.” Not young enough to be an equal and not old enough to be an uncle. Achachen has been taken in by Ms. Thomas’s family and is increasingly improper after Ms. Thomas shared her diary (confessing the actions of Uncle). Ms. Thomas disassociates during these episodes, feeling “a vast, gray apathy.” This psychology, she learns later, is normal for men and women who experience such abuse. At the age of twenty-two, Ms. Thomas married a premed student from Calcutta who she had never met. Ms. Thomas is very careful to emphasize that her husband is “kind and attentive” and is a good man, but she does ask, “What does it mean, as a survivor of abuse, to forge a monogamous sexual relationship with a man my father handed me to, a man who was essentially a stranger when we first slept together?” Ms. Thomas considers all of these experiences in the context of her Indian upbringing and American life and the utterly human need to maintain one’s dignity and sense of self.
So this is a very powerful piece of creative nonfiction that deals with themes that are uncomfortable and necessary. Is there a topic that elicits more emotion than child abuse? (The older I get, the sadder it makes me. Thankfully, I’ll probably never have kids, so I won’t have to worry about such problems in a more personal manner.) I can’t imagine a better way of dealing with the elephant in the room than the way Ms. Thomas does. She does not flinch from describing the acts, at least enough for us to know what is going on in the narrative. Ms. Thomas could have elicited far more emotion if she went into further and more graphic detail, but she doesn’t. Why? Because she wants to EARN the audience reaction. Ms. Thomas is going for drama, not melodrama. She is far more interested in informing the reader about the aftermath of what happened. This is far more engaging and special than simply presenting details that are guaranteed to make the reader sad and angry. The reader wants to learn about Ms. Thomas and how she dealt with everything and what she thinks it means…these are unique details that only she can communicate. The principle carries over to fiction; the reader wants to see how characters cope with extreme situations…not just the situations.
Whether or not it was intentional, the structure of Ms. Thomas’s piece mimics the psychological response that she had in the wake of the abuse. Ms. Thomas cuts the reader to the bone emotionally and then “disassociates.” She pulls back, allowing you to contextualize what you’ve read. (And she’s killer with the sentences that end each section.) This is the same technique used in…well, everything great. Think about an action movie. There’s an awesome action sequence…followed by a quiet scene. More big action…then some quiet. In a piece of drama (not melodrama), the audience needs a chance for relief and to think about what is happening, whether they do so consciously or otherwise.
And look at the stellar opening of the piece. Ms. Thomas opens with a childhood game of hide-and-seek. She’s crouched behind a rhododendron bush, trying not to be found. Then she is found by Uncle, who kisses her in an improper manner. Why is this scene great?
- The opening scene reflects one of the themes of the piece. People who do the kind of unpleasant acts in question seek children out and hide their actions.
- Ms. Thomas is engaged in a very childlike activity, immediately contrasted with an adult one. There’s the same contrast between happy and sad.
- The young Ms. Thomas placed herself in the hiding place, relating to the sense of self-blame she feels later in life.
- Immediately after the improper kiss, Ms. Thomas slides right into a meaningful discussion of the place of men in Indian culture.
…And this is all in the first three paragraphs! Ms. Thomas begins with a crucial scene that contains all of the important themes of the larger work. It’s a strange comparison, but it reminds me of what happens in the beginning of each Lethal Weapon sequel. The slam-bang opening scene ties into the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh in some way and communicates where the characters are and so on.
What Should We Steal?
- Create drama instead of melodrama. Drama is all about presenting a unique story populated by human beings. Melodrama is getting a strobe light and shouting, “Hey! Look at this! Over here! This stuff is crazy!”
- Offer your reader a chance to contextualize the high points of your narrative. If you got married every day, it wouldn’t be special, now would it? (I suppose it depends on the quality of the gifts you get.)
- Employ all of the tools in your kit, especially in the beginning of your work. Introductions should be potent! They must grab attention and prepare the reader for what will follow.