Have you heard of a book called The Great Gatsby? It’s written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most folks read it in high school. I didn’t make it to high school (the last grade I completed was the sixth grade) so I didn’t read it until I was an adult (after I went on to obtain a Master’s Degree). If you remember, the novel is told by a character, Nick Carraway, about another character, Jay Gatsby. The reason I’m bringing up this particular book is two fold: (1) It’s well known, and (2) it’s a popular example of peripheral narration, where one character tells the story of another character. Don’t worry this is not a rehearsal of Fitzgerald’s novel. Instead it’s an allusion to mine.
If I were to make a comparison between The Great Gatsby and my debut novel, Calling for a Blanket Dance, I’d argue it takes peripheral narration and amplifies it. Why? I enhance it with polyvocality. Both books are short reads that pack a big punch, yes. But we, Fitzgerald and I, operate from opposite ends of the class spectrum. As you probably know, The Great Gatsby is about the wealthy and critiques the American Dream by showcasing the underbelly of the uber-rich, where Calling for a Blanket Dance is an homage to the working class, who aren’t trying to stratify a system but simply want to live without becoming victims to a movable standard. The Great Gatsby is to the wealthy what Calling for a Blanket Dance is to the working poor.
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
All that aside, let’s think about the periphery. If we were in a creative writing class, I’d probably give you reasons why an author, such as myself and “old boy” Fitzgerald, would employ it as a technique. These reasons tend to be somewhat obvious, like the main character might have a secret, she or he might die during the course of the novel, they could be unlikable and therefore not relatable, and/or each story might be more important to the narrator(s) than it is to the main character. But this is not a creative writing class so I’ll not go on about those.
What I will address is the richness of peripheral narration when doubly executed with polyvocality. What happens when 11 different people tell a story about you? If they were coworkers, we’d probably get the down and dirty about your shady-ass past and how you’re not as angelic as you might think you are. If it’s your family, then we’ll get something a little more diverse, a little softness to go along with the prickly. Bittersweet, if you will. And I’ll argue here that we’d get more depth about you as a person from your family than we would from you. Using peripheral narration mixed with polyvocality gives readers a much richer and deeper understanding of a main character.
“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ultimately, it gives us more than the typical drama triangle (villain, victim, hero). Instead we move away from Western traditions in literature and step a little closer toward Indigenous ideology, like shaping an entire novel on traditional Kiowa and Comanche customs (say a Blanket Dance, maybe). Here the community has agency–not the individual–where a collective center from a tribally specific and historically targeted community wrap around each other in support, healing, and decolonization. Where we acknowledge how we are shaped by the people who love us the hardest. Moreover, where a chorus of voices sing in rhythm with a single thundering drum, reverberating out and across the planet to announce: our power is back.