Ever since reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Virgin Suicides in 1993, I’ve been fascinated by the first-person plural voice and how it can operate in a story or novel. The plurality brings a unique choral quality to the narrative. A clique of teenagers (Virgin Suicides), a band of brothers (We the Animals by Justin Torres), a small community of Japanese picture brides (Buddha in the Attic by Julie Ostuka). The repeated incantation elicits a whimsy and lyricism that propels the narrative along; but in many of these stories, intense violence arises within the hypnotic prose.
I teach a workshop of advanced fiction here in Austin, Texas, and I’m always encouraging my students to experiment with new forms and voices, particularly ones that offer up inspiration and invention. With “Together,” I decided to take my own advice. At the time, I had taken a short break from writing a novel due to a string of family crises. One of the more troubling events was my mother suffering a nervous breakdown in September 2012. One psychiatric ward admittance led to another and then another until my mom had become acutely depressed and anxious, making it difficult for her to participate in her former life. Over the years, my mom’s condition has presented a multitude of unexpected challenges for my older siblings and myself, one arrangement shifting into another, with hopes of providing our mom with what she needs.
Not surprisingly, my mother’s mental illness brought sharper focus to some childhood memories, and I started to write a series of short fiction partially inspired by these moments. The fictional hinge of “Together” opened up when I decided to place the piece into the first-person plural voice. Unfortunately, when my siblings and I were kids, we weren’t a united front; instead, we were isolated from one another, each of us like a firefly captured under an overturned Mason jar, and in our own distinct ways, we did our best to get by. That said, as adults, this began to change in coping with my mom’s three-year-plus journey of facilities, doctors, and treatments. As time passed, we did our best to work together as we attempted to make the best decisions for her and her care—and she has experienced long stretches of stability. On one memorable morning in August 2013, we moved her to an assisted living facility in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. My older brother, who spends most of his time living in foreign cities as a film producer, demonstrated his expert skill in assembling a small apartment of IKEA furniture in record time (for each project he moves to a new city, where he often sets up a new apartment). We were all impressed his agility with the screwdriver and intuitive understanding of the cryptic assemblage instructions.
“Together” is a fictionalization of what might have been for my siblings and myself during our younger days, but eventually what we learned to become later in life. Though it’s a sad short story, I feel like the moment at the ending resonates with love, compassion, and hope. That families can persevere through most circumstances if they remain together in one form or another.