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.