Eyes Open: Young Girl Narrators Teach Me to See
When I started writing, I was always choosing children as my narrators, always girls, who could get away with folksy simplicity because, to my estimation, they were children and adorable and wasn’t it cute that they were a bit feisty? I took a writing workshop focused on child narrators with Tayari Jones, and she asked me why the characters were so good? My MFA instructors criticized the same thing—there was no grit, no tension, because the characters were all so good. This goodness was a problem, but for the life of me, I couldn’t make these girls not good. To my estimation, not good was bad. I was a girl who was raised to be good. I couldn’t exactly make my girls bad, could I?
But as I get older, and as I read more, I see that this view of the child narrator—the dichotomy of good/bad, the emphasis on the wide-eyed innocence of a child—is not particularly useful. We don’t expect an adult character to be good or bad. We expect nuance. And these days, as I encounter a new young girl narrator, I see that it is essential to be wide-eyed, yes, but neither innocent nor wise.
(Why not a young boy? No reason, really. Writers and readers alike have their comfort zones, and for me, being a cis-gender woman, I’ve grown up on narratives by and about girls at all stages of life. That’s not to say there isn’t story, nuance, and depth with the fellas, I just can’t speak as widely to it.)
Recently, I started reading Calling My Name, the debut novel by Liara Tamani, forthcoming from HarperCollins in October. This is the coming-of-age story of Taja, a young African-American girl growing up in Texas. She is hitting puberty, questioning her faith and spirituality, and struggling with her place in her family—not the oldest, like her brother, and not the baby, like her sister, but a middle child grappling with all its attendant annoyances.
Taja’s story is told in short, episodic chapters that stand on their own, flashes into her life that are told with such beauty, such clarity, such richness, that I often have to stop after I finish a chapter, letting myself absorb the exquisite craft of what I’ve just read.
And while the writing is gorgeous, and the conflicts are so spot on, the thing that strikes me is Taja herself. She is young, but not innocent. She’s questioning but not naive. She’s manipulative but not malicious. And she is a noticer. Her eyes are wide open.
Her narration takes me back to Brown Girl Dreaming, to The House on Mango Street, to Leaving Atlanta, and straight back to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is perhaps where all young girl narrators always lead me. But the girls in these books are noticers. They observe and question and assess. They have hard edges that the world has given them, they maintain the softness they were born with, and they notice things. They are interested. They are engaged.
I remember still the aggravation I felt when I taught college English. I would ask freshmen, what are you interested in? What are you passionate about? What do you like to do? And so often, I got a shrug. A student trailing off with a coy smile, a chuckle that played me for a bleeding-heart fool: “I don’t know, nothing?” They asked the question but didn’t want an answer.
What frustrated me wasn’t that they were being difficult, but that they really seemed to be telling the truth. They weren’t interested in anything. They had no hobbies. They didn’t like to do things. And to that end, they didn’t notice things (like how frustrated their teacher was getting). I was astonished when a student wrote in my semester evaluations that I wore too many scarves. Someone had actually noticed my scarves? I HAD CHANGED A LIFE!
So when I read a girl narrator who notices things, I get excited because I know I’m going to see. I’m going to relive those early days of discovery. Our world has gotten very small; we know far more information than we ever used to, for good or for bad. But how much do we discover? How much do we see?
It doesn’t escape me that these child narrators who I admire are written by grown women. It’s the character who sees, yes, but from the imagination of an adult. Because an adult is giving a child a voice with which to question, eyes with which to see, I am reminded that I have done so. I have seen and discovered. I did it before, as a child, no less; I can do it again. I can be a noticer.
That wide-eyed realness of a young girl narrator allows me to see again, to stop being impossibly adult and obsessing over the news and making to-do lists. The crushing mental load lifts ever so slightly so that I can see. Really see. Where my knee-jerk reaction as a writer was to make young girls folksy and simple, what I wanted was this: the ability to see, a way to discover, through those girls. Because I think at the intersection of wisdom and innocence, we get just that: discovery. And that’s where story is born.