Identity and the Crisis of Belonging…
“The meaning of “identity” we currently use is not well captured by dictionary definitions, which reflect older sense of the word. Our present idea of “identity” is a fairly recent construct, and rather a complicated one at that. Even though everyone knows how to use the word properly in everyday discourse, it proves quite difficult to give a short and adequate summary statement that captures the range of its present meanings” (Fearon, J, D 1999, pp 1-2).
In this essay we will identify characteristics of this crisis of identity in reference to Damon Galgut’s ‘In a strange room’ and Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Kitchen’. Galgut’s novel shows a journey into the spaces ‘in between’ and the boundaries imposed while Yoshimoto uses identity shifts in the discourse of deaths and moving to other places. Analysis of identity is problematic because of the results of the relationships between the characters in each novel because ‘In strange room’ focuses on a cultured identity while ‘Kitchen’ focuses on a gender identity, albeit cultural nuance as well. Both novels use techniques that create uncomfortable moments of silence where the reader is compelled to consider the mundane and everyday aspects of the human condition.
“Spacio-temporal transitions acquire value by virtue of being unordered, ‘marking-free’ zones beyond spatiotemporally fixed orders. This is where new things can take shape. In the In-Between- in the Already-Left-Behind and the Not-Yet-Arrived- much is possible” (Hofmeister 2002, p 114).
Personally I enjoy exploring the liminal states with my own writing, which is why I am attracted to the qualities of the liminal states and senses of the self, through discontinuity and the sense of journey in the two texts that represent meditation. It is through meditation and journey we discover our identity through love experience and finding places that we can call home and our sense of belonging culturally, gendered, and so on.
Identity “refers to the ways in which individuals and collectivities are distinguished in their social relations with other individuals and collectivities” (Jenkins 1996 as cited in Fearon 1999, p 4). Identity is how individuals redefine themselves through journeys into the everyday assessing boundaries at the edge and a kind of schizophrenia ensues. Identity also includes the politics of race, gender and sexuality; these novels both grapple with social and personal zones of identity in crisis. Identity for me is a grey-zone as it is in-between it is not easily defined but can be found at the edge in the silence after. When we stop to think about it, in ‘how’ we could understand it, it’s outside language that we can understand so therefore the ‘word’, as in in a novel: the written word, can only direct a concept of that and our understanding will follow in afterthoughts. That will be based on an individual’s life experience and life expectancies will have variances. These novels, ‘In a strange room’ and ‘Kitchen’, already put us into spaces that have qualities of expectancy. For example: ‘In strange room’ already identifies an awkward space in transition, as also does ‘Kitchen’ which is in a constant state of transitional zoning.
A good example of transitional identity in ‘Kitchen’ is the character of Eriko who transitioned between genders. This transition is introduced in the following segment:
“Mikage,” he said, “Were you a little bit intimidated by my mother?”“Yes,” I told him frankly. “I’ve never seen a woman that beautiful.”
“Yes. But…” Smiling, he sat down on the floor right in front of me. “She’s had plastic surgery.”
“Oh?” I said, feigning nonchalance. “I wondered why she didn’t look anything like you.”
“And that’s not all. Guess what else-she’s a man.” He could barely contain his amusement.
This was too much. I just stared at him in wide-eyed silence. I expected any second he would say, “Just kidding.” Those tapered fingers, those mannerisms, the way she carried herself… I held my breath remembering that beautiful face; he, on the other hand, as enjoying this.
“Yes, but…” My mouth hung open. “You’ve been saying all along, ‘my mother’ this, and ‘my mother’ that…”
“Yes, but, could you call someone who liked like that ‘Dad’?” he asked calmly. He has a point, I thought. An extremely good answer. (Yoshimoto, B 1993 pp 12-13).
This notions towards the concept of transgendered-ness and this aids in recognising a crisis of identity. In the sense that Yuichi, Eriko’s son, is describing his mother, who is also his father, to the protagonist character Mikage he talks of his mother’s plastic surgery and Mikage wonders why Eriko doesn’t look anything like Yuichi but that was not all because what was hidden behind the plastic surgery was the fact that ‘she’ was originally a ‘he’. Female Eriko/ Male Yuji is the perfect example of a character in transition. Male Yuji made the decision to become Eriko after the tragic death of his wife, Yuichi’s mother. He believed that his motherless son would need the strength and comfort of a mother so he became that. He became the character of a ‘mother’ so completely that his own son identifies him as a mother over a father. An identity in crisis could be demonstrated as this merging in almost a state of identity-less-ness. Mikage’s connection to food, via the kitchen, is a methodology for fulfilling senses of the self through identifying the kitchen as a place that locates home, warmth and security as a kind of anchor as zones for eating are in a communal sense. In this sense she is filling herself with the presence of love and sharing in this ‘spacio-temporal zones’. These liminal zones are where our identity finds the ‘edge’ and weaves connectivity and grounding preparing the individual for the next event. Perhaps locating identities and representations of this through written accounts of human journeys.
‘In a strange room’ Galgut takes us, the reader, on three journeys, as we become the passenger in his meditation of being a traveller into different places, spaces and zones. These take us to one, The Follower; two, The Lover; and three, The Guardian. It also takes us on three journeys to different countries like the protagonist’s touring companion into his own life journey. In the blurb on the back cover of ‘In a strange room’ there is this following summary:
“A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels with little direction, letting the chance encounters of the road dictate his path. But although he knows that he is drifting, he is unable to settle. The people he travels with shape his purpose – as if he can exist only in the eyes of others. And yet each journey ends in disaster.
A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, ‘In a Strange Room; is an extraordinary evocation of one man’s search for live, and a place to call home” (Galgut, D 2010, back cover blurb).
It is the ‘strangeness’ and the sense of being alone and disconnected that the protagonist envelops a sense that he is adrift and alienated and without identity. Alone we travel on his journey of self-discovery finding paths that end with cul-de-sacs and take us to nowhere really. You end up at an end only to be spun around and sent in another direction.
“Beautifully hinged… The novel’s landscapes are breathtaking, agoraphobic in scope and exotic in detail, ranging far from the safety zones towards the unknown and disaster. But it is the internal questing of the narrator that is most disquieting and revealing… ‘In a Strange Room’ is swift, exquisitely written and its journeys are geographically and psychologically fearless” (Hall, S 2010, as cited in Galgut, D 2010).
It is a haunting example of life in a meditative process that inquires into senses of self that leave us alone in thoughts trying to unravel location, senses of security and home, inside boundaries imposed by societal norms. Societal norms act as a benchmark to guide us towards the sensibility of who is in the group and who is on the outside. In the novel, even though people are from other places, culturally, it never really mattered as we were taken on a journey travelling with the protagonist into an endless, lonely, shapeless landscape of not belonging. This ‘Strange Room’ encompasses quite the nonsense of identity and what that even means anymore. Our attitudes and behaviour changes with the protagonist as it would with real-life situations as we merge with his loss of senses of self through location of identity. This is a representation of an identity in crisis.
A deep resonance of empathy is drawn from the protagonists in each of these written works. I identify with this as an ‘author-in-progress’ as I try to find a sense of depth of location, identity and mapping of what it means for me as a female writer in society at this moment in time that converges with technology and the degradation of landscapes and senses of losing what it means to be human in society today. These kinds of works remind the reader of society through dislocation, discontinuity and the mortification of humanity through apathy and ‘senses of self’ that could be applied in words- that silence and meditation may prove ineffective as constructs. So in view to writing myself, poetic verse of this kind, helps awareness of these conditions that I like to follow and take writing to a whole other level. These novels eloquently provide fugitive ‘avenues’ into the social constructs of ‘the-self’ identifying ‘itself’ through discourse imported as published works like this as individual’s journeys of identity into the world, and the crisis of that.
In conclusion, we might find notions of identity are ‘blurred’ in ways of portraying things like in everyday discourse of that ‘coursing’ us in different directions. With this method of analysis it might not be simple to locate its meaning in totality but does capture its essence as an ‘event-processing’ itself relocating. This demonstrates the quality of being in- the ‘in-between, the already left behind and the not yet arrived…’ states that might be required to make senses of identity that are in a crisis of constant on/off change continuously, where meditative thoughts and silence are viewed in that gapless playback philosophically. Life is an ephemeral state of change, as melancholic as it is we seem to cling longingly adrift…
“He has always had a dread of crossing borders, he doesn’t like to leave what’s known and safe for the blank space beyond in which anything can happen. Everything at times of transition takes on a symbolic weight and power. But this too is why he travels. The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside, nothing stays divided any more, this stands for that, weather for mood, landscapes for feeling, for every object there is a corresponding inner gesture, everything turns into metaphor. The border is a line on a map but also drawn inside himself somewhere” (Galgut, D 2010, pp 85-86).
Fearon, J. D 1999, ‘What is the identity (As we now use the word)?’, Stanford University, California, pp 1 – 2
Hofmeister, S 2002, ‘Intermediate ‘Time-Space’ the rediscovery of transition in spatial planning and environmental planning’, Time and Society. Volume 11. Number 1, p 114
Yoshimoto, B 1993, ‘Kitchen’, Grove Press, New York, pp 12 – 13
Galgut, D 2010, ‘In a strange room’, Penguin Books, South Africa, back cover blurb, page II and pp 85-86