Representing Identity as Fluid

I believe identity is fluid, always changing, rarely static even in those who wish desperately to fix their identity in place.  We participate in creating our own identities (I’m doing so right now as I write), but we are changed by things that happen to us—events out of our control—and that also continues to shape our identities.

As a gay man, the question of identity swarms around me.  I look out at the mainstream world, whatever that is, and I get angry, because I see gay people being stereotyped, often in negative or limiting ways.  I look out at gay culture, and I get annoyed because, it seems, gay people often play into these same rigid stereotypes.  Then, I look at myself, and although I have surface qualities and tastes that may be categorized as typical of a gay man—yes, I like nice shoes and nice clothes and I have exceptional hygiene (i.e. I take a long time in the shower)—I don’t see an absolute, and I don’t easily identify with any particular stream of culture, gay or otherwise.  I’m just, well, me.  I imagine a lot of people feel this way about themselves.

What I do find remarkable, though, is how much I’ve been formed by what’s happened to me—and not just what happened, those are merely the inciting incidents, but how I’ve remembered and re-remembered what happened.  This fascinates me the most, because I have the least control over it.  It’s a part of the American motto that we should be completely in possession of our identities and that through sheer will we can be and do anything.  To think this way, it seems to me, is folly—at times grand folly (Think: The Great Gatsby), but folly nonetheless.  (Jay Gatsby does end up dead in a swimming pool at the end).

It’s not that I’m fatalistic.  No, but rather that I see identity as the always shifting struggle between fate and will, circumstance and action.  We’re neither completely in control or out of control of who we are.   This is a fascination that’s at the heart of my novel, Dodging and Burning, and a truly remarkable novel called The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas.

The White Hotel follows a young, neurotic opera singer’s growth in self-understanding between WWI and WWII.  It’s structured brilliantly.
Each chapter peels back another layer of the main character, revealing and correcting what you thought you knew about her—or what she thought she knew about herself.  As time passes, she sees events in her past more clearly, and she continues to grow even, it seems, after she dies. (You’ll have to read it to see what I mean!)  I love this book, because it never has the character come to an absolute understanding of herself.  She just continues to pull back the layers.  Identity is represented as fluid—and it’s a truly beautiful thing.

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8 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Novels/Thrillers, Gay and Lesbian Issues, Politics

8 responses to “Representing Identity as Fluid

  1. I can’t wait to read The White Hotel!

    • johncopenhaver

      It’s a great novel … but just a warning, it’s pretty disturbing … and then somehow it’s not (hard to explain)… then it’s really sad. If you stick with it, you’ll see what I mean.

  2. This is a great post. Thanks for the book recommendation! I look forward to reading your own book someday.

    I appreciate your thoughts on identity. Replace “gay” with “Christian” for many of your sentences, and it reflects a lot of my own sentiments towards my spiritual identity. If someone thinks they fit neatly into any one category in life, they probably haven’t dug deep enough.

    • johncopenhaver

      I couldn’t agree more, Katharine. I think often people want to pin down identity, because otherwise, it seems too unmanageable, too complex.

  3. This post is wonderful. I’d like to check that book out if I ever get the chance. My entire blog focuses on the topic of this post (i.e. fluidity). I love your phrasing of a fluid identity fluctuating between two reference points.. Might the second reference you’re searching for here be agency? I think that agency is the opposite of fatalism. What do you think? This is usually where I hit up wikipedia.

    • Thanks! And I agree: in a strict sense of the terms, one can’t be an fatalist and believe in agency. I guess I see identity (and its fluidity) as a sort of constant struggle between the path set out for us by our parents and society, which can often be our fate, if we don’t choose to think for ourselves and be ourselves, which in itself is a constant process.

      • I don’t think it’s even necessary to specify where fate comes from. I suspect there is a variation in terms of where a person perceives the source of their fate is. Specifying it as a force in and of itself should, theoretically, be enough.
        In absolute terms; For a fatalist, agency is external. For someone who is not a fatalist, agency is internal.
        In reality, it flows back and forth. This is the meaning of a fluid identity.
        There are times when I feel like a failure, which means I have temporarily lost access to my agency, But then I get back up on my feet, and reconnect with myself. It is an organic process, meaning it is always happening. It is intricately intertwined with the human experience.
        If you really want to get in-depth, it’s not always intentional either. Thus enters the split between intentional versus unconscious agency.

  4. I love “For a fatalist, agency is external. For someone who is not a fatalist, agency is internal.” That’s a great way of thinking about it. When I experience loss of some sort, I certainly feel a loss of agency.

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