It’s not so easy to talk about identity. First of all, the concept itself is an abstract one. What does it mean for something to be something else, anyway? And even beyond the discomfort that can result from talking about our own or wading through the thicket of clever labels that always crowd out someone else’s, there’s the fact that the English language is fighting us the whole time, perpetuating the awful illusion that identity is stable.
The main culprit, I think, is the verb “to be,” which is identical for the eternal and ephemeral and allows me “to be” a human being and hungry without differentiation. It seems to fix all with the same stamp of perpetuity. And the stock phrases we casually employ are little better. To talk of finding, discovering, understanding, or even constructing this thing, identity, all suggest “identity” to be a lump of ore to be mined, smelted, and finally crafted into an easy-to-read signifier: straight, gay, introverted, extroverted, boring, fun, hip, square, et cetera.
When I find myself employing these terms carelessly, a quote from John Fowles’s The Collector comes to mind. In the novel, Fred Clegg, a drab bank teller, thinking himself in love with the beautiful and vivacious artist, Miranda, kidnaps her and keeps her hostage in his basement. Because this is a novel, Miranda keeps an eloquent journal of her captivity and writes of the situation, “I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me. I’m meant to be dead, pinned, always the same, always beautiful. He knows that part of my beauty is being alive, but it’s the dead me he wants.” And seemingly, that’s how our language’s quick phrases want identity as well—as frozen and lifeless as taxidermy.
We can’t alter the structure of the language to try to better convey what identity may be. But a little contemplation can often get us beyond what’s available during the vicissitudes of the day-to-day—and that’s where The Bad Version comes in.
On reading through the pieces for this issue, a number of shared attributes, such as concerns with family and place, kept recurring. However, at the most fundamental level, there was this preoccupation with identity’s slippery movement. The pieces ask question after question about the identity of people and places—how they come about, what they’re made of, what it all means.
The opening essay of the issue, Teddy Martin’s “Broken Records,” a meditation on the youth revival of obsolescent vinyl, investigates the formation of identity through cultural consumption. By choosing the record, might it also be that we are choosing for ourselves the Socratic life of attention and self-examination over the mindless immersion in sound that the mp3 makes so easy?
“With Your Shield or On It” offers an ethic of identity through action, confronting the reader with the urgent question, “Do you fall with Auden, / or Achilles”? Do you avert your eyes from disaster (like the characters in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” who turn away from Icarus’s fall) or do you hold yourself accountable for what has occurred (as the weeping Achilles does when he meets with Priam, father of the man he killed)? The only way you know,though,is at the moment of action, warns the poet: “It depends, oh God, oh gods/ It depends if I say to you, or not// Mrs. Rosenburg, your son, my friend, is dead/ The details were unpoetic.”
On the other hand, Laura Gottesdiener’s “Strange Bodies,” a holistic record of Occupy, suggests that the makeup of one’s self (and what is a human’s identity if not her self?) is not necessarily a choice, but molded by structural forces. The essay stands witness to the capitalism-incited anxiety that wrote itself upon Laura’s own body and then upon our history books in last summer’s sustained protest at Zuccotti Park.
Ben Cosgrove and Jake Cohen’s essays both engage with the superimposition of identity as well. They don’t take issue with social structures stunting humans, but rather with uninformed narratives that neglect the world’s texture and propagate life-denying caricature. Ben writes about the so-called “nowhere” of Aroostook County, Maine, while Jake takes on the “Portlandia” complex that’s grown up around his hometown of Portland, Oregon. Their pieces, though very different in tone, force the reader to engage with the same question: how do we actually know a place? And then, the corresponding follow-up (for everything has this follow-up): what does it mean for us?
Abbi Nguyen’s “Banana Tree” is one way of answering that question. In the short story, a Vietnamese mother, Lan, must confront what her children’s diaspora across the globe means for their characters as well as hers, as a mother, as a human. Andrew Waters’s mythic tale, “Jeremiah Burkhart’s 116th Dream,”takes this preoccupation with place one step further, exploring the composite identity of the South—which, in turn, structures much of what it means to be American—through its many dreams and archetypes. What does place mean for us as individuals? It means everything. It is the fabric from which we are cut.
And yet, is it possible that identity is simply too complex to be captured? Could it just be that all identities we can pinpoint are facile and false? This possibility must be entertained after reading Mariev Finnegan’s “Welfare Fraud Lady is Insane,” the account of a self-bifurcating, “saliva”-smoking, welfare-supported mystic who styles herself “Matriarch of the Erie”—a nearly incoherent persona—and the poetry cycle “For Mothers’ Day,” by Daniel Howell, which revels in the ultimate discordant image that it offers of a mother figure.
It is no failure that this volume doesn’t provide ultimate answers—there are none another can offer where identity is concerned. In these pages, though, the energy, the life, of the subjects does translate. We do not keep Miranda locked away in the dungeon; instead, she runs through the magazine, skates on the puzzle pieces. To define an identity is just a matter of nomenclature and classification. To know it is to feel it, to experience it, and know that you neither desire to nor can control it. These writers have resisted the easy temptation to assign identities, and instead have engaged with the essences, roiling, sprawling, amorphous, ineffable as they may be. And, that, ultimately, is all that anyone can do. —Sanders I. Bernstein