Notes on Craft: On Second Person Point of View
by Olakunle Ologunro
The second person point of view (POV) is a very tricky one to pull off. It’s not as though the other POVs are easy, but with the second person, there’s the additional damage of trying to tell the reader’s story and failing woefully at it. With the first person POV, you can help the reader feel through the character. That way, when the character says: “I pulled at one of the cornrows underneath my black church scarf to make sure I was not dreaming,” you are able to picture her doing just that. (1)
The same thing can be said for the third person POV where the writer allows the reader to see, almost like a movie being played, the characters and everything they get into or out of. And this is why, when a writer says: “Dr Lustucru’s wife was not particularly talkative. But he beheaded her anyway, thinking to himself that he could replace her head when he wished for her to speak,” your interest is piqued because you have been offered an exquisite slice of human interaction. (2)
But how does one make the reader settle into a story that is not theirs? How do you tell the reader, “After you won the American visa lottery, your uncles and aunts and cousins told you, in a month you will have a big car,” when the reader hasn’t even been to the airport?
I honestly wish I had the answers. You know, the ability to say this is what you should do to make it work. Write it this way, remove that. But I don’t. I can only talk about what should guide your stories: heart, empathy.
I have written some stories in the Second Person POV. In fact, I won my first fiction prize ever with a story told in the second person. This was in 2014/5, and I didn’t know then, some of the things I do now.
Here’s another of those things: When writing a story in the second person, it might work better to not throw the reader abruptly into the action. For example, a story that opens with “You are eating rice in your dinner dress” can fail to achieve the desired effect. Instead, do what I call “laying the groundwork.” In other words, ease the reader gently into it. The opening paragraph of Chika Unigwe’s beautiful story “Borrowed Smile,” does this very well:
It is not possible to describe it if you have never been there. But you know it because you have lived there. It is what you will call a ghetto neighbourhood. Metal sheets nailed together in a row. The metal is rusty and dark. Like the lives lived in them. They look crass and rough, like the work-abused knuckles of Sunday. Continue reading.
Or you can take a cue from Otosirieze Obi-Young’s thoroughly modern epic:
THE MANGOES HAVE BEGUN TURNING reddish and yellowish when the man starts coming to the cathedral field, and often you see him jogging in his green-and-white Super Eagles jersey and sparkling-red boots, or in the pitch lying and stretching himself on the dark-brown sand, or in the canteen buying snacks and drinks, or under the mango tree a stone’s throw from the pitch, sitting in his black Jeep. Continue reading.
This is not to say that a story that begins by putting you in the action is a bad one. No. One thing I have come to realize with writing is that there are different paths to a destination. What matters is that you arrive there, triumphant. In the eternal words of Binyavanga Wainaina, “You can do anything, just do it well.”
And this is why I love what Moje Ikpeme did with the opening of his piece in Lolwe, “Tell Me Something Happy”. Here’s an excerpt:
It is Obiageli who insists that you start therapy, and gives you her hours, as she is out of the country for the next month. It is also Obiageli who swallows the cost of transportation, effectively ending your last-ditch excuse, when Sanwo Olu suddenly bans okada and kekes in most of Lagos, leaving more than half the city stranded and throwing your already shitty life into more chaos. Continue reading.
“I haven’t failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” is a very famous quote by Thomas Edison. Let’s twist this a bit and apply it to using the second person POV. In my years of trial and error with that style, I have found many other ways to make it work. One way is to put yourself in the story and attempt to tell the reader their story. I, talking to you. “Conference” by Naja Marie Aidt is an example of this:
It’s strange to meet you here, after so many years, and to still feel disturbed just being near your body. The way you’re settled in the chair like a large contented animal, like a large wild cat licking itself in the sun, or an elephant bathing in a river, like a person resting on top of another after pleasurable sex, it has an intimidating and shameless effect on me. My complete attention turns toward you and I’m unable to relax. It’s as if I am overflowing my own banks. Continue reading. (An aside: this is one of my favourite shorts of all time).
In this style, you are in a relationship with the reader. You are a teacher, a friend, a lover, a neighbour, and you both have a shared experience, or something that links you together, just like it links Hema and Kaushik in Lahiri’s spellbinding piece, “Once in a Lifetime”:
I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Continue reading.
I will stop here so I don’t bore you. Second POV is an endless discussion, really. Just like every other point of view in fiction.
But I am open to taking questions. Write me firstname.lastname@example.org. Send me your questions. I’ll try to answer them to the best of my knowledge.
Will you be here in the next two weeks? I promise I won’t be late this time.
(1) “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.