Tag Archives: identity

Parsing Her Identity With A Long-Lost Folder, Plus the Internet

In time for National Adoption Awareness Month, Granta has a personal essay by novelist A.M. Homes, who ten years ago published The Mistress’s Daughter, a memoir about meeting her birth parents at 31, in 1992.

Now 55, Homes reports on the experience of recently being given her long-lost adoption file from 1961, and the effects of the information within it — plus what she can now find on the internet using clues from the file — on her understanding of herself and her origins.

She has mixed feelings about opening the file once she has it.

The envelope takes several days to arrive and when it does I put it in my office and let it rest. I leave the envelope for weeks, having already once had the terra firma of identity slip out from under me like sand followed by a long, slow climb back to safety – I am aware that once I expose whatever is inside I will have to deal with it. I am not in a hurry.

There is the fear that there might be something in the file, a surprise that changes the narrative as I know it.

She acknowledges, though, that many other adoptees don’t have that luxury.

Even now, in most states and countries, an adoptee doesn’t have the right to know who they are and how they came into the world. The laws vary from place to place, and were mostly designed to protect the privacy of the often-unwed mother, and the often-infertile adopting couple, rather than the needs of the child.

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Wherever You Go, There You Are. Charles Manson is There, Too.

Manson Family members Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van go to court in 1970. (AP Photo)

In an essay at The Believer, Rachel Monroe lets us tag along as she hangs out with the Manson Bloggers — yes, there are people who blog about Charles Manson —  as they gossip about Manson-adjacent people and look for relics. There’s not much new going on with Manson and his followers, most have either died or are still in jail, so the bloggers look for updates on anyone who had any association with the Family.

These photographs would look banal to the uninitiated: a grandmotherly type on a bench, clutching a water bottle; a short woman standing on the beach, flanked by three young men—her sons? These people are infamous not because they’ve killed anyone—they haven’t—but because when they were fourteen or nineteen or twenty-three, they had the bad luck or bad taste to befriend some people who did.

In the intervening four decades, some of these ex–Manson Family members changed their names or became born-again—whatever it took to distance themselves from their turbulent, murder-adjacent youths. Sometimes these people write angry emails to the Manson Bloggers, asking for their photos to be taken down. It’s easy to imagine them looking back at their former selves, shaking their heads, and thinking, That person isn’t me anymore. But the Manson Family Blog is always there to remind them: yes, yes it is.

Monroe’s piece isn’t just about the Manson Family or those who still obsess about him; it’s about whether we ever truly escape ourselves. Do we carry pieces of our younger selves with us, even as we grow and change? Monroe thinks that maybe we do, and maybe that’s a little bit of a miracle — even when those pieces include teenage Manson fandom.

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On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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Growing Up in Rural Washington as a Muslim Immigrant

At SeattleMet, Hayat Norimine describes what it was like to grow up as an only child in a Japanese-Syrian household in Pullman, Washington, a small town eight miles from the Idaho border where issues of race and diversity were never talked about. “My parents never taught me to be proud of race or heritage,” Norimine writes, and it wasn’t until she was a college student in Seattle that she began to see her childhood more clearly.

In her essay exploring race, class, and identity, Norimine describes how she fell for a man from this very place she is from — a place that is “not glamorous or exotic,” and where “many immigrant kids somehow thrived.”

I had known what I was getting myself into, falling for someone who had very strong ties to the Palouse. I was only 23 when we married, and I had never wanted to be content with the first comfortable option I got. I had wanted to move back abroad, even at the risk of losing a green card. But over time my love for Owen translated to a love for the land that made him, helped him grow. I became comfortable with the idea of living there, while Owen—thinking he had made a commitment to someone who’s going anywhere but there—became comfortable with leaving.

Those dusty, yellow-brown rolling Palouse hills that never looked more beautiful? They were decrepit to Owen, a constant reminder of the land that wasted away under chemical farming to which he helped contribute. We’d drive by and he’d point to the gashes in the hills formed by water runoff, a sign of the damage endured after decades of abuse.

We were looking at the same site but saw very different things. I had romanticized returning to the land that Owen’s family held such ownership to. Owen now saw something else—confinement.

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Innocence Abroad

US passport pages with visa stamps
US Passport via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.

At The Guardian, Suzy Hansen considers American identity, partly through the lens of race, partly from the perspective she gained living abroad.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.

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The Other National Pastime: Unusual Baby Names

Image by Pedro Reyna (CC BY 2.0)

Choosing a name for your baby is a culturally fraught decision. So much is at stake: will it invite bullying? Does it correctly channel the parents’ attitude toward the cultural zeitgeist? Is it optimized for relatability and uniqueness? In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins shares the story behind her second child’s name, a boy whose mixed Franco-American heritage added several layers of complexity to the process (who knew that a Kevin could never be taken seriously in Paris?). She also looks at the broader context of naming conventions in the U.S. — yet another realm in which American exceptionalism has played out in bizarre and unexpected ways.

In the U.S., as the law professor Carlton F. W. Larson has written, the selection of a child’s name falls within “a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent case law.” Generally, you can’t use a pictograph, an ideogram, a number, an obscenity, or a name that is excessively long, but the regulations vary wildly from state to state and are often the domain of randomly applied “desk-clerk law.” It’s unclear whether you can call your son Warren Edward Buffett, Jr., when you have not actually procreated with Warren Edward Buffett. There are stricter and clearer criteria for naming dogs and horses than there are for naming people. (The American Kennel Club prohibits, among other things, the words “champ,” “champion,” “sieger,” “male,” “stud,” “sire,” “bitch,” “dam,” and “female,” while the Jockey Club recently went to court to block the registration of a filly named Sally Hemings, which has since been rebaptized Awaiting Justice.) Some of the rules have more to do with keyboards than with child protection. In California, amazingly, you can be Adolf Hitler Smith, but not José Smith, because of a ban on diacritics.

The exuberance of American names has been one of the country’s hallmarks since its founding. In sixteenth-century England, the Puritans started using their children’s birth certificates as miniature sermons. They produced some doozies: Humiliation Hynde, Kill-sin Pimple, Praise-God Barebone (whose son, If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone, eventually went by Nicholas Barbon). Charles II largely stamped out the trend during the Reformation, but the Puritans continued the practice in the New World. The Claps—a Roger and Johanna who immigrated to Dorchester in 1630—produced a virtue-themed progeny that included Experience, Waitstill, Preserved, Hopestill, Wait, Thanks, Desire, Unite, and Supply, making them perhaps the Kardashians of Colonial Massachusetts.

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A Life Measured in Swipe-Rights

Graffiti on the sidewalk reading "i saw you on tinder"
Image by liborious (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Andrew Kay found himself on the dating market and the academic job market simultaneously, and spoiler alert: they’re deeply analogous, and it turns out that living both the personal and professional parts of your life as one massive interview is not easy, or pleasant. He takes us through the whole stressful, performative, soul-deadening process in The Point magazine — the piece is long, but the candor makes it compelling.

You craft a digital avatar of yourself and send it out into the virtual world, then spend the ensuing months and years honing and revising it; you rehearse behind closed doors again and again, giving yourself forcible makeovers until your behavior, your tics—I almost said your inner being, though this last remains up in the air, a thing you gradually learn not to think about—correspond with the simulacrum. On OkCupid and Tinder, I was “a chill, big-hearted guy,” family-centered, mild-mannered, humorously self-deprecating. In my cover letter I was a young scholar and teacher of luminous promise—bold, theoretically omnivorous, a winner of fellowships and awards, an author of multiple articles with a first book in the pipeline and a second germinating. The process is exhausting: neither in bathroom nor bedroom are you free from it, devouring dating profiles on the toilet, reaching for your cell phone when you accidentally wake at 3 a.m., checking the jobs Wiki from the parking lot outside the gym. At last you crawl, parched and ragged, to the reservoirs of intimate encounter, thinking here at last you can abandon the pretension and performance, here forget and enjoy yourself—only to learn that the performance and assessment have merely begun.

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Poets Talk to Poets about the Border Wall

A man jogs by the beach towards the wall dividing Mexico and the U.S. in Tijuana, 2004. (AP)

Journalists aren’t the only writers covering international politics. In a two-part series at Poetry International, poets from Mexico to Europe, Africa to Asia,  discuss the roles borders play in their lives, and the way borders limit our lives physically, linguistically, and culturally. Whether reflecting on living in Texas near the route of Trump’s proposed wall or exploring the  psychological borders of one’s cultural identity, these writers weigh in on what it means to be a citizen, the way language moves through populations, and how movement across borders creates vitality. You can read the forum’s first part here.

Philip Metres (b. USA): Borders are notoriously porous; no wall ever holds everyone out. The Great Wall failed to keep the Mongols at bay. The Maginot Line was crossed. Consider the tunnels of Gaza—whole cars and brides smuggled through. My passport is blue, and I try to live a political life according to and beyond the ideals of the Constitution. But I am a citizen of the earth and verse, of oxygen and lung, of the hurting and longing, of hoping against hope.

Every time I attempt translation, I feel something in me transported elsewhere, beyond my own skull’s borders, like some figure in a Chagall unmoored from earth, somewhere between thrill and terror.

Martin Camps (b. Mexico): Benedict Anderson said that we live in “imaginary communities”. What does “Mexican” or “American” mean? I believe that all human beings have planetary rights to cross borders, to live where they want to live. But borders exist to preserve a world order, the ones that have and the ones that don’t. We have borders even in our cities, living in the “nice part of the city” and not going to other parts where the “undesirables” live. We have shadow borders in every American city.

Ishion Hutchinson (b. Jamaica): To be a citizen, strictly speaking, is to belong to a state, which, from an official standpoint, is always suspicious of duality. “But,” Auden says, “Love, at least, is not a state,” and I think that speaks to being a citizen of a border, without fear of either side, unwaveringly in love with both.

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Tell Me What Donut You Prefer, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

freshly glazed donuts on a conveyer belt
Photo by Scott Ableman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Have you ever thought really hard about donuts? Like, 7,000 words hard? Keaton Lamle did, The Bitter Southerner published it, and it’s very much worth the reading — an extended meditation on food, America, capitalism, regional identity, and the future. Turns out we have a lot to learn from donuts.

Lamle, who can be forgiven for reserving his most effusive gushing for Krispy Kreme rather than Dunkin’ by the accident of his Southern birth, gets a bit more personal when reminiscing about the famous Krispy Kreme “Hot Now” sign. And I’ll give him that; a freshly-fried donut is a thing of beauty and joy forever.

They are very much not all over Atlanta, or Birmingham, or Charlotte. Despite expansion around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve still got to go out of your way to find Krispy Kreme stores. In fact, it’s almost like they find you. You’re driving down Atlanta’s magnolia-draped Ponce De Leon Avenue, and red, cursive neon, evocative of a ’50s downtown movie marquee, unexpectedly beckons. Majestic Ks that trail to the end of each word — somehow without connoting the South’s tortured history with such plosive consonants and alliterative acronyms — calling you to come.

The inevitable dilemma comes when you spot that anachronistic “Hot Now” neon sign ablaze. The promise you’ve made to yourself or spouse or kids: that if it’s hot, we stop. But shit, that’ll mean pulling a U-turn across three lanes of traffic. That’ll mean turning around and fighting to get in the parking lot. Is anybody in this car even hungry? Can’t we let it slide this one time? What inviolable principle are we even abiding by with this “it’s hot, we must stop” directive, anyway?

For me, the prospect of wearing the paper sailor’s hats on Instagram usually ends the argument.

You’ll still pry my Dunkin’ Donuts medium iced latte and Bavarian cream donut out of my cold, powdered-sugar-covered, New Jersey-born hands, but Lamle’s piece is piped full of food for thought. (Zing!)

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Kimberly, No Longer With the Good Hair

Trixie Karinski, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rose Weitz, who writes about the importance of hair in the lives of women, says that we are sending a message with our locks; that hair—whether fine, kinky, purple, or cut close to the scalp—is “part of a broader language of appearance, which, whether or not we intend it, tells others about ourselves.”

Changing my hair transformed my relationships and my identity. When I changed it, it almost felt like I was being reborn, being given another chance to recast, re-create who I was—sassy, obedient, sexy, demure. But around my grandmother, I often followed her lead, walking with the weight of her expectations and the benefits of her struggle. She bought me clothes, jewelry, and gym memberships and mailed me newspaper clippings about which fruits and veggies I should eat to lose weight faster.

When hair is bound up with identity, history, and family, a hairstyle can bring women closer — or push them apart. In Oregon Humanities, Kimberly Melton tells how she finally styled hers in a way that reflected who she was, and demanded that her loving grandmother accept this as a sign of strength.

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