Writers are often taught to avoid repetition. Redundancy, it is said, is something that tends to turn off the reader. Many argue that repetition matters most often when it comes to the fluidity of a piece, claiming that repeating certain words and phrases leads to writing that is jerky and hard to follow. This is something that can render a piece of prose unpalatable and trite. People who write often learn, however, that rules are also made to be broken. Repetition abounds in poetry – think of Poe’s constant repetition the titular woman’s name in “Annabel Lee” or T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” and the repeated use of the phrase “Because I do not” – so why not in fiction as well? In the short story “Diem Perdidi,” which appeared in the 2012 anthology The Best American Short Stories edited by Tom Perrotta, author Julie Otsuka shows that repetition can effectively be used to manipulate the reader and enhance and improve the reading experience in the process.
“Diem Perdidi,” as is revealed at the end of the story, is a Latin phrase that translates as “I have lost a day,” or “another day wasted” in more idiomatic terms. The person who is losing these days in this story is the mother of the first-person narrator, and in a configuration somewhat reminiscent of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, the author creates a series of vignettes to illustrate the aging woman’s failing memory and subsequent detachment from reality. As editor Tom Perrotta points out, the tone of Otsuka’s story is haunting, something that is no doubt tied to the makeup of the piece and the very frequent repetition of two key phrases. These repeated lines serve as a kind of engine that moves the narrative forward while recurrently driving home the poignancy of the piece.
“She remembers…” is the first of these two phrases. It is used not only as the opening of the story, but also in the majority of the sentences that follow as the narrator incorporates it to paint a picture of a person in the throes of dementia. This is illustrated nicely in the opening of the first full paragraph on page 153: “She remembers the first line of the song ‘How High the Moon.’ She remembers the Pledge of Allegiance. She remembers her Social Security number. She remembers her best friend Jean’s telephone number even though Jean has been dead for six years. She remembers that Margaret is dead.” In addition to establishing a certain metronomic quality that induces the reader to keep on reading, Otsuka’s repetition in this case allows her to covertly describe and develop the main character. By explaining “she remembers that” certain friends and family members are dead, for example, the narrator confirms that her mother is at an advanced age while at the same inviting the audience to sympathize with the older woman and her increasing sense of isolation. When the narrator states that her mother remembers the first line of a certain song popular in the 1940s, the reader is both free to intuit that this was a song that the older woman enjoyed at one time, most likely at a significant period in her life, as well as appreciate the sense of nostalgia and poignancy that Otsuka has invoked.
The second phrase that is often repeated is the simple negation of the first phrase, i.e. “She does not remember…” and its very essence of loss heightens this sense of poignancy even further, as seen in page 153: “She does not remember eating lunch with you twenty minutes ago… She does not remember that she herself once used to make the most beautiful pies, with perfectly fluted crusts. She does not remember how to iron your blouse for you or when she began to forget. Something’s changed. She does not remember what she is supposed to do next.” By revealing over and over again what the main character can no longer recall, the author manages to achieve a certain degree of intimacy with the readers, making them privy, as it were, to the memories that the main character herself no longer has. By starting most of her sentences with some variation of “she remembers” or “she does not remember,” Otsuka gets to the heart of matter and constantly reminds the audience that hers is a story about memories and loss.
Frequent repetition in “Diem Perdidi” also manipulates the reader in a very interesting way, in that it allows the author to play around with time. Although it’s told primarily in the present tense, it’s really a story about the past and every time Otsuka repeats one of these phrases in the present tense, she’s drudging up a memory from the past. In the case of the Japanese-American woman suffering from dementia, these memories are often painful, as when she frequently recalls her family’s internment during WWII. A good example is found on page 153 as well: “She remembers being sent away to the desert with her mother and her brother during the fifth month of that war and taking her first ride on a train.” Other times, her memories involve a child who died 30 minutes after its birth, as seen on page 155: “She remembers that after the first girl was born and then died, she sat in the yard for days, just staring at the roses by the pond.” With these repeated phrases, Otsuka constantly takes readers from the present and immerses them into the past of the story so they can more acutely experience the pain felt by the protagonist. The frequent switches between past and present create a kind of rocking effect that quickly lulls the reader into acquiescence and he or she can relax and settle back into the narrative that Otsuka provides.
Although such a blatant and heavy-handed use of repetition might frighten some writers, Julie Otsuka utilizes it to her advantage in “Diem Perdidi,” creating a constant refrain that drives the story forward. Her structure, with its constant repetitions and subsequent switches between the past and present, produces a narrative with a somewhat poetic tone that reveals a narrator who is focused on what her mother does and doesn’t remember. Julie Otsuka shows that repetition can effectively be used to enhance and improve the reading experience in this short story.