It’s quite common to tell a story by using one individual’s experience or point of view to indicate a larger, more global experience. It is less commom — I would even go so far as to say really unusual — to use generalities to point back to the individual.
The idea of the interplay of universal versus intimate struck me as I read “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julia Otsuka, which is about the lives of young Japanese women brought to America in the early 19th century as “picture brides” — to be married to men they had never met. Somehow, the women built lives here. The book ends in the WWII era of internment camps. Ms. Otsuka’s book is a novel — a work of imagination — competely grounded in reality.
“We” and “us” are probably the words appearing most frequently in this novel, as Ms. Otsuka weaves together the strands of the women’s collective lives to let us imagine what they must have been like for each individual woman. How can I not put myself right there on a cross-Pacific voyage when I read a sentence such as: “On the boat, we sometimes lay awake for hours in the swaying damp darkness of the hold, filled with longing and dread, and wondered how we would last another three weeks.” Or how can I not fail to feel my own chill of dread at these words: “More and more now we began to suspect that there were informers among us.”
In her last chapter, Ms. Otsuka switches her point of view. Now, the “we” and “us” are not the Japanese women, but the Americans left behind in towns vacated by internment: “All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.”
Read this beatuiful book.