This Month in Books: ‘Everything That We Are and Ever Have Been’

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about identities — mistaken, misunderstood, transformed, false, fictional or as anonymous as the op-ed.

In his interview with Cooper Lee Bombardier, Thomas Page McBee says that when he transitioned, he “just felt so limited, so suddenly afraid of becoming the kind of man I’d grown up in fear of.” Becoming someone you don’t want to be, he realizes, happens when you have not come to terms with who you already have been, or who you’ve failed to be:

I’m of the belief that we all have to face our own rejected parts — what Jung calls our shadows — in order to genuinely make a cultural shift.

When identities shift, cultures will follow; there is political power generated by self-actualization. As Alana Mohamed writes in her review of Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir, “It’s a forceful thing, to show up in a world that doesn’t expect you to exist, and to say something it doesn’t expect you to say.” But Mohamed also warns of the erasure of triumph, the cleaning-up inherent in actualization:

[Radical queer women who fought for queer visibility in the ’80s and ’90s] were dying not of marriage inequality, but of addiction, trauma, and poverty. If we forget them and their stories, queer history becomes nothing more than a slogan.

She argues for a cacophony of viewpoints and conflicting definitions: a queerness that “seeks to make room for us to name ourselves,” that is “ever-expanding and ever-in-conflict with itself because of this.” Mohamed imagines a hopeful future for queer identity, for all identity, pointing to the powerful potential of memory and community, even as she probes a deep rift that has breached queer culture — the Rashomon-esque inability of people to remember the same stories or to honor the same heroes: “Who threw the first punch, or glass, or heel at Stonewall? Everyone has their version of what happened that night on June 29, 1969.” A huge feud has developed over the identity of who led the charge.

Preoccupied with this same interplay of history, memory and identity, Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead erases beloved heroes of the Golden Age of film and replaces them with ghoulish impostors, rank fascists and bloviating imperialists: Charlie Chaplin is no longer the crusading satirist who created The Great Dictator, but rather he is the dictator. In his review, J.W. McCormack says this restructuring of famous personalities is an incursion of history into identity, the reality of the 1930s reshaping its legacy, its art:

As cultural monuments in any of the arts prosper, the actual culture that produced them so often plummets — into tyranny, a defiant ignorance, and death.

It’s a startling assertion that who we are and the world we will leave behind are two not-particularly-connected things. Identity can look suddenly like nothing more than another peril in a life full of them, a treacherous path in a dangerous world. “A big part of toxic masculinity is to not question anything about being a man,” McBee says. “It felt to me very dangerous to do so, even in writing this book.” Tea reflects on how her warts-and-all approach to documenting her queer contemporaries was just another way of hurting them: “It’s one thing to discuss your family’s trauma with other family; it’s another thing entirely to release their stories to a world that doesn’t love them.” In Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, when a man misstates a murdered woman’s identity, it provokes a mob of online harassers to cast doubt on his:

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And, as Levi Vonk writes in his review of Mario Chard’s poetry collection Land of Fire, identity is a tool of state power, predicated on arbitrary qualities, such as through which entrance you entered a space. And “as soon it is determined that the bird has not entered through the door — the only legitimate entrance — everything unravels”:

How did the bird get inside the house?
Through the door I said.
No. Through a window. Listen they said How did the
bird get inside the house?

The questioning continues until it has abstracted all qualities of the bird:

The bird is nameless. Who named the bird?
I said No one. The bird is nameless.
What is your name? They said.
I am nameless I said.

In her interview with Bridey Heing, Olivia Laing says she wrote her sort-of-autofictional novel Crudo to interrogate such rigid categorizations, to ask “How does one learn to be less selfish? How does one learn to soften one’s borders?” She says:

It’s a personal question, but it’s also a political question. That’s the same force that leads people to say “I don’t want immigrants in my country.”


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On the other hand, in her interview with Ryan Chapman, novelist Ling Ma asks, more or less, what has identity got to do with anything? Her protagonist, she says, became exasperated with her when she wrote an immigration narrative for the character’s family. The character refused to even tell the story, thinking it pointless:

That was really difficult to write because I feel like any time a character is a minority, their narrative is automatically an immigration narrative. Growing up I used to get asked the question where do you come from? I grew up in Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas, so you would hear that a lot.

I was just like, Can we just not have a character who needs to explain how she got to the U.S.? I think my difficulty with that came through. With chapter sixteen, there’s no first person. I couldn’t get Candace to talk about it. When I was writing it she was going, This is really cheesy, I’m not a part of this. So I had an omniscient narrator and then let her take over that chapter gradually.

Catherine Lacey, in an interview with Tobias Carroll, doesn’t get into debates with her characters about identity. Instead, she inhabits their identities so thoroughly that she marvels at how she has ended up writing something she would never say herself:

I don’t know. I don’t even remember quite where I was when I wrote that [story] to be honest. I think that one just came like from that character. I’m not sure if I would ever say that. In my life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use that description, at least in an honest way. But that character, he just said that….

I feel like when I’m writing in a place that’s really authentic and honest, it does feel a little bit like acting in a way. And then, I’m creating some sort of character, and then I’m just performing that character, and typing what they say.

This slipperiness of self isn’t just for fiction writers; you really never can know quite who you are going to become — you might die before it happens. As Susan Hand Shetterly writes in Seaweed Chronicles: A World at Water’s Edge, the British algae scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker never set foot in Japan, and yet, years after her death, her discoveries “revolutionized the harvest and consumption of seaweed in that country.” Now she is revered in Japan as the Mother of the Sea. You can visit her shrine. In death we become godlike, our small achievements in life having profound, ripple-like effects on the future; we take our exalted place in the grand human story.

(Kracht, of course, takes a different position: “The dead are profoundly lonesome creatures, there is no solidarity among them, they are all born alone, die, and are reborn alone as well.”)

So how to proceed? Be careful, Lacey warns. Remember your identity is porous:

I feel like I’m always making language out of the language that’s around me… I’m very careful. I don’t really watch a lot of series. I pretty much only watch a TV series if I’m on a plane, and I’m like really careful about what I read and when I read it. And I’m careful about who I talk to and who I spend my time around. I think it’s true for everybody, but I can’t really say it for everybody, but for me, it’s definitely true that I’m always writing a story out of the language that I surround myself with.

And as McBee points out, there is one upside to identity — most of who you are is in the past:

I’ve come to realize that everyone passes. Most of us aren’t walking around with our souls out all the time, being everything that we are and ever have been.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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