8 Books that Use Direct Address Storytelling
Sarah Cypher, author of "The Skin and Its Girl," recommends stories written to "you"
Writing addressed to a specific “you” generates an effect unlike the electricity of classic second-person narratives. Instead of a jolt, direct-address writing delivers a subtler charge, like opening someone else’s mail or overhearing one end of an emotionally raw monologue.
While drafting The Skin and Its Girl, I found myself adrift in a storyline that spans 200 years across Palestine and the United States. My first-person narrator seemed inexplicably omniscient, and she was immune to revisions that tried to reel her in. In the final revision that changed everything, I placed my narrator at a gravestone and had her address the entire thing to her deceased aunt, who’d kept an important secret from the family.
As a device, a narrator who addresses a single, stable “you” creates an anchoring through-line. And as a rhetorical move, it felt intuitive—able to embrace all the worlds orbiting in the galaxy of this novel, and to contain sprawling tendrils in an intimate message.
Although capable of becoming an almost-invisible device, direct address turns up everywhere—in fiction and nonfiction, classics and contemporary books. In many of these, it enables a more powerful kind of communication, revealing a layer of the narrator’s self that can only make sense when hauled out a little ways and offered in the direction of someone beloved. Its intimacy presents the reader with an affective challenge: the conceit is that the narrator needs to tell their story to a specific listener because that person is the only one capable of understanding, yet in “overhearing,” the reader is invited not just to be a voyeur, but to crack open the narrator’s isolation.
I love this tacit challenge, love that it holds the door open for us to empathize anyway, to imagine another life, another city, another history; to enter into a form of community. These eight writer-narrators all step into a space of new power, and as they reckon with that power to shape a story through artifice, they each choose a listener who knows the stakes and who will keep them as honest as they know how to be.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” With this opening line, the novel sets out its basic terms: young Celie, burdened with two pregnancies by incest, narrates from a culturally imposed silence. We soon figure out that every chapter consists of one letter from Celie to God, elevating the act of storytelling to a kind of prayer.
Across the novel, however, this initial format undergoes some (ahem) meaningful adjustments. Without spoiling it for folks who have yet to experience this classic, I’ll say that Celie addresses only chapters in the novel’s first half to God. Most of the second half, however, is addressed to her beloved-but-absent sister Nettie. (And some of the novel’s middle chapters are physical letters Celie receives, the only true epistolary material.) Celie’s dynamic relationship—to silence, to her imagined listener, to her sexuality, and to her own power as an uneducated Black woman enduring life in a violently patriarchal South—is, for me, the novel’s most electrifying structural choice. Communicating to God and then to absent Nettie allows Celie to be entirely honest about her life. She doesn’t need to alter what she says in order to protect or appease an in-the-flesh listener.
The Color Purple continues to be an influential text, in part because of the ways it uses both form and content to express skepticism toward the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, masculine literary landscape it entered in 1982. Walker models a different set of authorial choices that shift power to her main character, giving Celie not only something that must be said, but also the force of an oral storytelling tradition, which doesn’t tell stories to thin air; there is always a listener. Like so many of the other novels on this list, Celie’s two listeners are individually and specifically capable of bearing witness to her pain, yet also safely distant from her: they are listeners-in-stasis, with limited power to steer the story’s events. This passivity is not weakness. On the contrary, it is as powerful and significant as holding open a door that might otherwise have shut the narrator in silence.
Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, translated by the author
Bastašić’s debut novel was first published as Uhvati zeca in 2018, and after winning the 2020 EU Prize for Literature, she translated it from the Serbian for its 2021 publication in English. Obsessed with reflections and doubles, the novel uses direct-address narration as the writer-protagonist Sara tells her side of the story to the addressee: her estranged childhood friend, Lejla.
Many years after the Bosnian war, Sara has emigrated to Dublin and is living with her Irish partner, pursuing literary ambitions, when Lejla calls out of the blue. Lejla’s brother, missing since the beginning of the war, is in Vienna and Lejla needs someone to drive her there from Mostar, Bosnia. It’s a bizarre favor after so many years of silence, and the resulting road trip with Lejla—who is both predictably maddening and maddeningly elusive to Sara’s first-person narrator—opens up their youth, fraught risky sexual situations, and the male gaze. Meanwhile, they are also pulled down into sharply differing versions of the events that drove them apart, centering on Sara’s police-chief father in the Serbian Christian stronghold town, and the efforts of Lejla’s Muslim family to efface their identity after her brother’s disappearance.
The narrator’s direct address is unstable, referring to Lejla as you in the childhood story but as she in the present-day road trip. The intentional wobble offers a way of exploring femininity, sexuality, and violence as it is experienced along the intimate, convoluted lines of an entangled friendship, and it also seems aware of how easily Lejla’s side of the story might shatter Sara’s own version. Acknowledging this tricky hall of mirrors, Catch the Rabbit draws from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and without ever pressing the novel’s conflict themes too hard, it instead captures their fragile dynamic indirectly, in gentle but insistent fairytale undertones that put me in mind of Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree.
Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar
Split between two direct-address storylines, this novel alternates between contemporary Brooklyn and a historical narrative footed in Ottoman Syria. As bird artist Laila Z builds a life in 1930s America, she keeps a diary of unsent letters to a woman she had loved in Syria. Almost a century later, second-generation Nadir discovers the journal in a condemned building. Laila’s letters are interleaved with his own story, which he narrates to his mother’s ghost as he struggles to come out to his friends and surviving family as nonbinary.
Both narrators are linked by their search of an apocryphal bird, Geronticus simurghus. As Laila writes about her adventures in the wilderness beyond Dearborn, where she hopes to make a sketch and prove the bird’s existence, we learn in the present-day Brooklyn storyline that Nadir’s ornithologist mother met with a fatal accident while protecting the building where she was convinced the bird was nesting. After her death, Nadir becomes intent on finding the lost Laila Z illustration of the species, setting up a structure in which these two storylines embrace the search for both the bird and its image; its living existence and its representation in the scientific record.
Like Nadir’s ornithologist mother, Joukhadar is driven by gaps in the record; he aims to add queer and transmasculine lives to America’s historical and literary archives. Direct address allows both of his queer storylines to span the gap between life and death, old world and new, and the gender binary, enlivening and embroidering the space between. That action of speaking across a mystery also parallels an important movement in the story’s content, the idea of transmigration: the east-to-west journey of Syrian immigrants to America and the migration pattern of a rare bird. This is the novel’s cardinal movement, and it trains us to identify a similar pattern in the narration itself—not only Nadir’s movement across the gender spectrum, but the voice of each character speaking to a distant listener, sounding out the shape of gorgeously wild terrain.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
In The Friend, we overhear a meditation addressed to the narrator’s writing mentor known for philandering with his students, who has recently died of suicide. She is part of a prickly intellectual crowd that brims with opinions about the literary world and vocation, but her focus is newly consumed by heartbreak. Also there is the mentor’s grieving Great Dane, Apollo, whom she adopts and bonds with. Like his Olympian namesake, he brings some light into her darkness, opening her attention to the substance of her love for a dog and her dead friend, as well as to the ethical dimensions of adapting real life to fiction.
As with many of the others on this list, The Friend’s narrator is a writer, bringing a keen consciousness for the universe of storytelling. She shares summaries of other stories and films, rumors and factoids she’s heard, conversations, and also nods to the form and archetypes of a fairytale. In other words: for this narrator, writing without awareness of an audience is impossible—and writing about someone’s suffering is treacherous ground too. Talking about would center only the speaker’s experience and risk flattening her mentor’s death into just something that happened, mere fodder for a new manuscript. Yet the narrator instead talks to him, implying she still has business with him, opening a place big enough for the grief necessary to buoy this novel. It makes her grief both more credible and accessible to the reader, even while the text leans into its metafictional layers.
Addressing absence is a powerful way to use this kind of “you” storytelling. The novel thrives in the one-way space where the narrator speaks without hope of getting an answer. As much a meditation on the act of turning a person into a subject, Nunez explores the shadow play of ego across others’ experience, and what it illuminates about our own feeling.
The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine
Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine, winner of the 2019 Dos Passos Prize, approaches his sixth novel from an intriguing distance: the writer is the you, and the first-person narrator, Dr. Mina, is writing his novel for him.
The situation is this. An unnamed writer has traveled to Lesbos to help the Syrian refugees there, but even after two years on his therapist’s couch, he still finds himself unequal to the task of telling “the refugee story.” Consequently, his character becomes the novel’s you, a lurker at the edges of his own project. Meanwhile, the true storyteller is Dr. Mina, a Lebanese American like the writer, and a trans woman surgeon who witnessed the same horrors on Lesbos. She says at the outset, “I’m writing now. I’ll tell your tale and mine,” and as she immerses herself in the crisis, she often addresses the writer directly to talk about what he cannot, equipped with a perspective he does not have.
The narrative finds all sorts of layers on which to explore the distance between doubles. The immigrant’s split identity is a big one—unable to inhabit one’s full identity in either Lebanon or America. So is the shadow of Mina’s boyhood, the person her family recognizes haunting the true self they will not. Dr. Mina ruminates too on the slippery motivations of Western volunteers in a crisis zone, and her own position as a volunteer who feels more at home among the refugees than among her fellow helpers. Even Lesbos itself is charged with the instability of being a borderland between one difficult place and another.
Alameddine’s wry humor can flip to a tragic tone on a dime, ideal in this war-zone novel that is in search of an elusive “right” perspective for interrogating our species at its best and murderous worst.
Besides being a device for one queer character to speak to another about a shared experience of marginality, direct address activates this essential distance between two realities, just as a telescope requires the distance between its two lenses in order to see anything at all.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
When searching for perspective on difficult material, direct address can also be aimed at a past self. This memoir’s “house” is a haunted one, referring to the years when the author was the victim of an abusive relationship. She and her girlfriend were writers getting their MFAs, and Machado’s approach to the material is arresting and vivid, full of interplay between the content and the process of writing about it. Central to both layers is a warping instability—of self-boundaries in the story, and the chimeric quality that arises from the different genres and literary tropes Machado selects for each chapter: “Dream House as Noir,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®.” In these, she allows the container to shape the material, mimicking the uncanny and often-terrifying quality of not being in full possession of oneself.
Our guide through this haunted house is Machado-the-narrator, the I who brings not just hindsight but cultural knowledge to the page. But it’s a you we’re following, the victimized past self: “[Y]ou are this house’s ghost.” Direct address creates both distance and compassion for oneself, a way of both closing off a series of painful events and holding open communication with a younger self.
I’ll admit to an obsession with self-aware queer writing, the kind that is an active participant in its own creation, skeptical of its authority yet blazing with a refusal to remain silent. The approach also highlights the truth that narrating the story of one’s own victimization is hard not only because it’s so personal but also because telling a trauma story means gaining the ability to be one’s own narrator, and for many queer people, it is often for the first time.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Direct address lights up other kinds of memoir too, even ones whose intended listener is still alive and certain to read the text. In this situation, Laymon addresses Heavy to his mother, a Mississippi intellectual committed to Black liberation. It’s a risky and deeply ambivalent text, for he also writes as a son who was beaten “for not being perfect,” for not measuring up to her standards of speech and conduct that were meant to help him survive a life in a nation with a “brutal desire for black suffering.”
“I wrote this book to you because, even though we harmed each other as American parents and children tend to do, you did everything you could to make sure the nation and our state did not harm their most vulnerable children.”
The project involves not writing “a lie.” Instead, Laymon writes through the body. He tells the story of being an obese kid and later an anorexic writing professor, marking time by his weight and age; of being an obsessive eater and then a compulsive exerciser. His experience with sexual trauma in childhood, his feminism, and his development as a writer parallels his mother’s own compulsions and the larger story of a family whose fierce intellectual drives are weighted against self-destructive tendencies.
Intentionally, however, the narrative keeps a firm elbow against a tokenized reading. Laymon’s repetition and syntax have an oratorial quality that hums with the intensity of speaking directly into one ear, resolved not to do “that old black work of pandering and lying to folk who pay us to pander and lie to them every day.” The telling lives between one body and another: such as in the thick alliteration that tugs at the mouth as it grazes over the book’s plosive repetitions. In the sound is a staccato plea for his mother to pay attention, to remember where they’ve been, to stay awake, to not forget the painful past in the same way America repeatedly forgets all its sins.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In Vuong’s best-selling debut, the narrator, Little Dog, addresses this hybrid novel-memoir to his mother, a Vietnamese manicurist in Hartford. Because she is illiterate, the pairing creates a charged space containing both safety and confession as Little Dog recounts a working-class upbringing inflected by trauma, his mother’s survival of the Vietnam War, and his first gay relationship.
As an esoteric fusion of story and craft, the novel opens the overhearing reader to the range of language. This is a narrator who is concerned that the word laughter is trapped inside the word slaughter; one who, in most of the novel’s 70 instances of the word word ties language somehow to the body, to the physical world. It shines among these other works in the direct-address family, and yet it’s also an interesting counterexample to this list. We believe Little Dog addresses the narrative to his mother because she has the history to understand his hurts. Her illiteracy isn’t her fault, but at the same time, Little Dog has an adept hand in his own story’s composition.
The choice to embed his communication to her in a text replete with sophisticated literary techniques underscores, for me, how class markers can result in mutual difficulty. As one of the few people in a working-class family to attend college, I’ve at times gone back home and felt the dangers of this slow erosion of context from around conversations. Here, Little Dog’s barriers to being understood by his mother rise alongside the cultural and linguistic ones they faced as immigrants to Hartford. As a result, sometimes the eavesdropping literary audience gains an edge over the speaker’s intended listener, reversing the “a story only you would understand” dynamic. No single human listener can understand the whole story.