Who Am I? Art, Literature, and the Shaping of Identity (Part I)

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“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.

Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”

–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)

For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.

For Jean Valjean in Les Miserables this is a moment of importance. When he throws off the chains of his past he embraces who he wants to be, rather than what his jailers put upon him. As such this query is the perfect vehicle to connect and place the tenants of history (identity and agency) out into the world via art, performance, film, and literature. It is a question that serves as a singular piece in a common language filled with poetry about identity and family. And often the question shifts not Who Am I? But rather Who Do I Want to Be?

Over the past few months I’ve thought long and hard about these questions. It came up while I was watching the latest rendition of Alex Haley’s Roots, reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel Children of the Earth and Sky, navigating through an interactive cultural exhibition called Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, and when I witnessed the phenomenal theatrical performance of District Merchants at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In this first post I wanted to take a look at how individuals impacted by displacement (either forced or voluntary) in Roots and Children of the Earth and Sky navigate the question Who am I?  In the second post I’ll take a look at how individuals and characters in Crosslines and District Merchants answer Who do I want to be?

Displacement & Identity

There is a moment repeated over and over during the latest rendition of Roots. It is a moment where each parent takes their new child out to greet the stars and tells them: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself.”

The passage of history is often marked by the movement of people. With each arrival these individuals have to choose what to keep and leave of their former lives. This is most evident in Roots, which is in part a story about the indignity of slavery of having families torn apart and brutalized, but also about how, in their absence, slaves and freedmen were able to create tethers between the past and the future. Even if the new adaptation wasn’t perfect, the story the producers tried to tell emphasized the importance of passing down culture and stories: wedding rituals, prayer beads, music, and song. And while the traditions change with time this stage setting moment beneath the stars serves as a vehicle to connect each generation to one another through a single view. Consequently positioning each character not just in time or place but in space. One piece of a larger “Kunta Kinte” tapestry.

I know there were mixed reviews about the re-make but as someone who hadn’t ever seen the original in its entirety I found it to be poignant, putting much of what I had learned as an Early American historian on the screen. Though we moved from generation to generation pretty quickly it was clear to see how one displacement begat another one as Kunta’s Kin were moved from one location to another often without any real authority or choice of their own.

That feeling of displacement and identity is also illustrated in Guy Gavriel Kay’s book Children of the Earth and Sky. Set in a world influenced heavily by real history, Kay develops characters that are each, in their own way, displaced “from what they were and where they were.” This novel is about patience, strength and how each individual when uprooted from their home deals with loss. As with the individuals in Roots, for Pero the painter, Marin the banker, and Leonora the widow the journey is as much about forging an identity based on their new situations as it is about where they came from. For Danica Gradick, simplistically the fighter, it is voluntary leaving a home decimated by raiders in order to search for the last family member she has left.

She said, “You have been loved, Neven. You never stopped being loved.”

“My name is Damaz.”

“You were named for your grandfather who–“

“My name is Damaz! I am a Django of the army of the Khalif. What you are saying means nothing.”

“That last is untrue,” said Skandir, but not harshly. “What we come from matters.”

(COTEAS, Guy Gavriel Kay)

In the passage above, Danica is in a foreign land looking to making a connection with her long lost brother (Damaz/Nevin, the soldier), kidnapped during a raid when they were young. For her, home is no longer the place where she lived, but a human being. However the choices she makes in the search for Nevin are defined by her heritage as a warrior and a pirate, and also a need for vengeance.

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The same can be said of Pero the painter and Leonora the widow, both of whom are selected as spies by their homeland but who after an unexpected turn of events have to adapt to new situations. For Pero it is painting and spying on a man whose sons are vying for his throne – and finding himself being used as a pawn between the two. Leonora, upon the loss of her new husband, finds herself in need of a new mission one that permanently removes herself from the power of the family that abandoned and exiled her and the government that expects to control her.

Both individuals find themselves rising above expectations. Taking the strength of displacement as a moment of change. A moment to grasp a new opportunity in order to survive.

What I love about Kay’s writing is in how he pushes each characters into situations that test and shape who they are. For individuals like Nevin/Damaz it is an unexpected choice, but it is also a gorgeous tapestry of forging identities far from where you began.

I began this post thinking about how the individuals depicted in COTEAS and Roots each answered the question Who Am I? For one group it was finding it amidst oppression and slavery, finding individuality and connections in a system that so regularly tried to beat and destroy free will. For the other group it was about adapting to change (though not quite as perilous as slavery) that came from a need to control one’s own destiny. While both are fictional the stories they tell are about connectionabout human beings looking to define themselves beyond the circumstances in which history has placed them.

A fundamental element of truth amidst the storytelling.

In the next post (next week) I’ll take a look at how  the Crosslines exhibit at the Smithsonian and the recent play at the Folger Shakespeare Library District Merchants address how individuals have interacted with that second question who do I want to be?

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