Discussion: “Where We Come From,” Judy Budnitz

Please use the following questions as a starting point for your response to the Judy Budnitz story “Where We Come From”. You don’t need to answer all of the questions, or even answer any of them in full, but please keep your response focused and relevant.

  • How is defamiliarization at work in this story? What familiar things does Budnitz make strange, and how? What effect does this have?
  • This story is, in many ways, very close to reality, but it’s decidedly not realist fiction. How does Budnitz accomplish this movement between the quite plausible setting of this piece and the fantastical events that take place?
  • What role does narrative distance play in this piece? Whose thoughts does the narrator have access to, and whose not? How close is the narrator to those characters’ thoughts? What does the narrator’s position relative to the characters allow Budnitz to do that she might have more difficulty doing with a different kind of narrator?
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13 thoughts on “Discussion: “Where We Come From,” Judy Budnitz

  1. Defamiliarization, or the process of making the familiar unfamiliar, is an effective literary technique that adds depth to a story. Defamiliarizing a character prevents the character from becoming predictable and ensures that the story doesn’t “tell itself” to early on. Both a story, and the characters, become memorable and complex. Budnitz, in “Where We Come From” took the story of the Mexican immigrant and did just that. The story at the surface level is about a soon-to-be mother’s plight to cross the border into the US, so that her son can be an American citizen. The plot alone doesn’t not tell the story though. The reader is never completely comfortable or familiar with everything that is going on. The story is told to the reader by some narrator. This narrator, in telling the story, does not produce an absolute picture and is somewhat distant from both the characters thoughts and the world of the story (e.g. “…common in that part of the world…”). Distance between the characters and the events in the story and the narrator provides room for the reader to become a part of the story. The reader is now active, and must interpret as they read. Narrative distance is also one of the critical tools that Budnitz uses in making the familiar unfamiliar. The narrator is rarely explicit, and instead a majority of the insight the reader has into the world of Precious is implicit. By not being explicit, what may be familiar elements are no longer as familiar because the narrator can present them in a new way. For example, the idea of civil unrest as a consequence of a government failing to provide for its people is not an unusual narrative. However, the manner by which the narrator presents the story prevents the story from telling itself, and we are taken through the deaths of each son.

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    • Budnitz does a very good job of defamiliarizing the US. Budnitz makes the US seem to be this wonderful place, this heaven on Earth, a real paradise the people can come to. It made America a place that was to perfect for normal people to be able to live in, which gave me the feeling that it was defamiliarized. Budnitz also use her great sense of imagery to make the settings seem to be of a different wolf than wha we live, which is why it is not considered realistic fiction. Another thing that plays a big role on making this piece seems so unfamiliar is how the story is told, or the point of view it is being told. The narrator is not the young girl nor a character in the story, more like a person watching the scenes unfold infant of them, which adds to the defamiliarization. It makes the readers unable to connect or understand the characters and what they are seeing, feeling, and hearing in the story. It creates a rift or a distant feeling from the piece.

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  2. Throughout “Where We Come From,” the author, Judy Budnitz manages to present the concept of having children in such a bizarre and almost surreal way, that from a very early point in the story even the seemingly simple concept of what a “child” is becomes horribly defamiliarized in the mind of the reader. Budnitz manages to do this by creating a painfully intense disconnect between the protagonist, and her eight children. The reader is only ever told the name of the youngest child, and even that name, Precious, is used to essentially dehumanize the character, in that her mother treats her as more of a house pet, then her actual human child. In choosing to implement this lack of emotional attachment between the mother and her children, Budnitz successfully causes the reader to become defamiliar with the commonly accepted idea of what the relationship between a mother and her child should be. By incorporating this defamiliarization into her narrative, Judy Budnitz is able to convey the strenuous life that is a mother of 8 children living amidst a two-year drought. The mother’s portrayal is clearly meant to be interpreted as someone whom is only hanging on by a mental thread and is not only trying to survive, but is also attempting to take care of her uncomfortably large family.
    Another example of defamiliarization from within the text is upon the loss of her seven sons, the mother is only left with her daughter, Precious, whom she initially resents, but in response to the loss of her other children she becomes overly protective and affectionate towards her daughter. With a name like Precious it is easy to see how the mother is viewing her daughter. She no longer views her daughter as a person, but as more a conduit for her affection, akin to that of a house pet. One possible explanation for this defamiliarization could be that the mother is disengaging herself from any true feelings she has for her daughter, in order to protect herself from the potential pain caused by the loss of her daughter, which she believes is inevitable.
    The defamiliarization present throughout Judy Budnitz’ piece is used to desensitize both the readers and the mother’s character to the loss of one’s family, which under normal circumstances, can be a very emotionally crippling turn of events.

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  3. The defamiliarization in this story and magical realism really reminds me of other latinoamerican writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude, and in this story the use of these tools seems to accomplish the same end goal: of making the reader question their perceptions about what is happening. The use of this defamiliarization, of purposefully divorcing yourself from the perceptions you already cling to, manages to show events in a new light, in this case a fantastical but emotionally harrowing retelling. The choice to put us squarely in the heads of only the mother and Precious sets up the whole of the story, by showing us who the main character is before we are even aware that it is the main character. By showing us the thought process behind the mother’s life, we begin to know who the daughter is and how in the end the grandmother has such a deep effect on the young boys life. We also learn about this young boys life only through the thoughts of the adoptive mother, making the narrative a mothers narrative, and making the point of loss and exclusion only more poignant as all mothers have what is most beautiful to them taken away in a the cruelest manner, and we feel for each of the mothers, but in different ways, even though their circumstances are so very different. The fantastic elements of this story also seem to serve the purpose of exaggeration in order to show the people who could never been in that position, what it is like, what it feels like to a person under those circumstances. The magical realism is key in understanding how Precious views her life and how it is her unique perspective on the experience of life, becuase the reality is what you perceive it. Although the narrative voice may seem disconnected, and especially in the first part, like a storytelling; I think that this serves to give what seems like an objective stance on this thouroughly emotionally devastating piece because it is a telling of the events transpired, nothing less and nothing more. Of course it is much much more than this, but the use of the distance allows for us to feel like this is just the way that things exist and it provides the saddest of responses to issues (immigration), that of not only loss, but of hopelessness.

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  4. By Samuel Antezana

    The concept of defamiliarization allows this story to become a more effective tale of a mother (Precious) who has been born and raised in Mexico, wanting to cross the border into the U.S. in order to give her family a better life. I believe that the most effective use of defamiliarization comes from the way Budnitz classifies humans with her story. Human life is almost a commodity, at least the way Budnitz describes it through her characters. Precious is the daughter of a mom who had more affection for her sons than her and once all of her sons are separated from her mom, Precious becomes the number one child to be cherished (this is where we see the irony behind her name). As I read, especially towards the beginning and heading to the middle of the story, human life is defamiliarized by the way death is described, it is something that happens so commonly in Mexico (according to the story) that the parents of the dead children often tell one another that the other should be lucky to still have at least one son or daughter left. The loss of value for life is apparent with these interactions between the mother and Precious, especially because she begins to protect Precious and care for her like she was the only child she ever had. This defamiliarization made me cringe because I could not understand how one could value their child as more of a commodity than a loved one.

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  5. (This is Josh Tan BTW)

    Where We Come From, as the discussion questions states, has facets of defamiliarization. The way that this is utilized in Where We Come From is through the description of the country that Precious originates from, as well as the United States. She claims that America gives you free dishwater immediately after you cross the border, which we all know is an exaggeration. Not only that, but she also states how there is food as far as the eye can see, which is again an exaggeration. These exaggerations are the cause of her own perception of her country. Her country is often described as poor, and desolate, which causes herself to fantasize a life for her unborn son in America. Her characterization of American children is also defamiliarized, as constantly repeating the fact that her son, if born in America, will be big, strong, fat, etc. It’s an interesting thing to think about, considering that this may be the characterization that a lot of countries give America, and we have nothing really to say other then it is normal occurrence for us to see since we were born here/live here.

    This story, as can be seen through the question above, shares realistic and fantastical elements. The setting is realistic, and nothing indicates that it would not be a realist fiction until Precious’ gestation period lasts for four years. Obviously this is an impossible feat, but Budnitz was able to incorporate this fantastical element by focusing on the determination and suffering that Precious had to go through. By doing this, the readers are rooting for her to eventually have her baby in America.

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  6. Defamiliarization has a huge but not obvious presence in this story. Judy Budnitz uses her words to create this effect of unknowing. The first example of this is when Precious’s mother is thinking about how Precious probably wouldn’t survive for very long. She says it would almost be better to kill her right when she is born. Death is so prominent in their world that it becomes semi-okay to consider imposing it upon someone else. Another example is when Precious was pregnant for years. The concept of someone wanting to birth her child in a free country is familiar to the reader. The concept of waiting nearly four years is what is unfamiliar. This leads into the fantasy. The story of a girl trying to cross the boarder to give her child a better life is very realistic. However, the length of time that she was pregnant for and the intelligence level of the child create the aspect of fantasy. The narrator has access to several people’s thoughts at different parts of the story. It is always the mother figure though. At first, it is Precious’s mother. Then it is Precious. Then it is the adoptive mother of her son.

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  7. Judy Bunditz uses a lot of defamiliarization in her story “Where We Come From”. Even in the first couple of paragraphs, defamiliarization is at work in the way that the narrator describes Precious’s mother and her pregnancy with Precious. She is not happy, or excited, as would be the familiar response to a pregnancy. Instead, she is disappointed and feels uncomfortable about the situation. I think that this use of defamiliarization really works for the story. Even though those first couple of paragraphs were short and did not make up the majority of the story, the reader is able to draw so much from just those few short scenes and the description of how Precious felt in her mother’s womb.

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  8. Stephen Meyer

    Budnitz uses defamiliarization by attaching this fable-like quality to a situation which normally wouldn’t warrant such a presentation. For example, the fact that the mother had “seven sons” and that all of them were stolen, how Precious was smuggled in through so many different means, how she claims that she was pregnant for “two years”, et cetera. Through language, Budnitz is able to take a realistic situation and make it fantastical through prophecies (like how Precious eventually earns her name, the mother’s “seven sons” almost seem to echo the Seventh Seal from Revelation). She also accomplishes it through repetition, as seen through Precious’ repeated attempts to sneak into America through different means which echoes fables like Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs and their studies of slight variation.

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  9. Bunditz does an excellent job defamiliarizing the idea of America in this work. From the way that Precious speaks about America and the idea that it is this perfect paradise gives us as an audience, and also us as Americans, a distinct and resonating idea of how people from other countries see America in terms of this land of perfect untampered prosperity. She also does well by placing the audience in the perspective of the mother at first and how the relationship between her and her kids is also somewhat unfamiliar. Her use of narration also works well because Bunditz is able to give Precious’ entire backstory without really telling the story from her perspective. By following the mother the audience is led to believe that this will be the mother’s story and automatically assumes her to be the main character. By switching perspectives midway through it easily establishes why Precious is so desperate to have her child be an American baby as well as establishes a nice parallel between Precious and her mother. The narration makes moments such as when she is being taken advantage of by the Hopper all the more heartbreaking because the way the narration allows for the reader to figure out what is happening even before Precious does. Which causes the reader to wait for the moment in which she figures out the truth.

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  10. I think Bunditz does an exceptionally brilliant job of subtly defamiliarizing many concepts throughout this short story. Three themes she repeatedly defamiliarizes in this piece are. 1: the normal mother-daughter dynamic, 2: concepts of America and lastly 3: pregnancy as a 9-months phenomenon.
    Starting with defamiliarizing the mother-daughter dynamic, some of us have sisters or/and are females but the idea that our mothers would love us less because we are women is hardly a concept we come across living in America. However, undervaluing female children is a sad reality and by defamiliarizing our conventional concept of the mother/parent-daughter dynamic we are better able to relate to the characters and understood the story in its cultural setting of Mexico. Because Bunditz does such a good job of defamiliarizing this norm her readers understand the actions characters make. For instance when Precious runs away from her mum we understand that without making the story feel rushed.
    On defamiliarizing America, Bunditz has to do this because she wants her audience to see Amerca the way her characters see America. As a foreign student who grew up in a 3rd world country I understand the way Precious sees America because I have been surrounded by such ideas. However, Americans don’t see American the way foreigners do hence Bunditz defamiliarizing the normal concept of America helps her audience relate to the characters’ ways of thinking.
    Lastly, defamiliarizing pregnancy takes the readers more in depth into Precious’s head. Showing how strong willed she is to the extent that she can hold her baby in for 4 years just so it’s an ‘American’ baby. This use of magic realism just goes to serve as perspective for people wh would never be in this situation.
    In all I enjoyed this piece so much and I learned so much about defamiliarizing. From last class I thought it was just a concept up in the clouds but by seeing it in action more intimately I am excited to add this technique to my writing arsenal.

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  11. I saw defamilirization in this story. What it did was change the tone, making the story seem mysterious, pure, tantalizing, and unorthodox, unfocused and ethereal. I saw defamiliarization in the rape and in the description of being with child, as Precious described her body as a hammock, and her baby as an invisible audience. The story was able to do things with the concepts of labor and gestation that stretched it past the bounds of realism. In those instances, it was willpower that defied reality, and the characterization seems accurate enough that it is not a problem. Also, the author’s distance from the piece combined with the defamiliarization are responsible for hazy, unfocused otherworldly feel to the story. Narration has most access to a different person’s thoughts with each part: Precious’s mother for 1, Precious for 2 and her baby’s new mother/parents for 3. The narrator is fairly close to the thoughts. At least, enough that the character’s desires and motivation are clear

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