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Essaying Identity

By Sarah Moorhouse

On Not Knowing

Emily Ogden, University of Chicago Press, April 2022; Peninsula Press, September 2022

Black and Female

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Faber and Faber, August 2022

All the Women in My Brain

Betty Gilpin, Flatiron Books, September 2022

‘Were my mind settled, I would not essay but resolve myself’ claimed Michel de Montaigne in his essay ‘On Repenting’. His ‘Essaies’ are the pioneering example of a form founded on uncertainty and experimentation. Grappling with the problem of identity before the modern sense of the word, Montaigne demonstrated the impossibility of capturing the self within solid bounds. Meanwhile, modern pressures to define ourselves are ever strong. From the ubiquity of the ‘bio’ on social media platforms to diversity questionnaires on application forms, we are constantly invited to pin ourselves down into categories. Labels, from race and gender to political views and sexuality, promise to organise us into groups and tell us who we are.

The ‘personal essay’ exposes this gap between labels and experience. Today’s essay-writers remind us that alongside the allure of a fixed identity, we remain curious about aspects of ourselves that defy labels. Maggie Nelson’s ground-breaking portrayal of gender fluidity, The Argonauts (2015), and Claudia Rankine’s formally experimental portrait of race relations, Citizen (2014), measure categories against their own complicated experiences. Pursuing a roundabout progression, they take up Montaigne’s project of essaying. In so doing, they invite us to consider the cost of identity politics to individualism and what might be its alternative.

Emily Ogden injects the genre with new momentum in her new collection On Not Knowing. She presents fixed identity as an illusion, suggesting that we ‘bind’ ourselves to moments of heightened experience — what she terms our ‘revelations’ — to construct our selves. We find ourselves, Ogden proposes, living by an ‘impoverished version’ of our original experiences:

In my very attempt to be durably changed by something, to incorporate it into my life […] I abandon the love I had at first. And worse, I proof myself against the breaking of a new love.

Love is a broad concept for Ogden. It encompasses taste: from music to art, the state of our passions is inconstant. Ogden asks whether, in ‘incorporating’ our tastes into the stories we tell about ourselves, we found our identities on false ideas of permanence.

With romantic love, this question becomes troubling. Ogden reflects on her relationship with her husband with a lyrical clarity. She describes a visit they made to John’s cave, the birthplace of the Book of Revelation. Ogden excels at distilling abstractions, such as love or hope, into images. In this instance, the couple’s relationship is bound to John’s ‘moment of revelation’: the cave ‘shines’ as if ‘someone has decided to gild it’. As Ogden and her husband ‘gild’ their ‘revelation,’ they learn to ‘dig back through’ to the rocks beneath the gold, acknowledging that things do not remain fixed in a state of perfection. They ‘pass into or out of love’ because to clench onto the extreme of passion would be to defeat it.

In the tradition of Montaigne’s unsettled prose, Ogden demonstrates that identity cannot be understood directly. It emerges, instead, through what she calls the ‘negative image’ of our everyday lives. Ogden develops this idea in scenes depicting the early childhood of her twin sons, as they learn to ‘knit life and limb together into a wholeness they can recognise as theirs to preserve’. She marvels at the process by which her sons discover the ‘outlines’ of their selves. They learn that they can’t take the nose off their faces; that ‘I’ is separate from ‘you’; and that by telling stories, they each claim a character. Through these explorations, her sons come to realise a consciousness for themselves, and Ogden finds the identity of ‘mother’.

Stories are our antidote to categories and, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declared in her 2009 TED talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ we need lots of them. Stories, Ogden writes, ‘suture up our parts against a primordial awareness that we are in pieces,’ allowing us to stitch together our memories and knowledge into ‘the little jaunty things we call selves’. In stories, identity is adaptable, and uncertainty about who we are becomes a source of new possibility. By placing storytelling at the heart of her essayistic practice, Ogden revitalises Montaigne’s model of personal writing, bringing elements of a memoir to the genre.

On Not Knowing demonstrates how love and trust allow us to ‘riff’ upon our identities. This is, as Tsitsi Dangarembga reveals in her autobiographical essay collection, Black and Female, a privilege. Best known for her novels, this volume is Dangarembga’s first published work in non-fiction. Its deft use of personal narrative to enrich and sharpen her ideas is reminiscent of a novelistic approach. Dangarembga shows us the constraints upon autonomy that result from having the outlines of our identity imposed upon us, offering a dark echo of what Ogden describes as the ‘structuring matrix’ of culture.

Where Ogden characterises culture as a kind of mother who teaches us her rules of language and convention, Dangarembga’s notion of culture is overshadowed by empire. Empire, she explains, sought not to nourish but to restrict black people to the status of ‘not white,’ defining them by negation. Blackness was — and, she suggests, is — understood through its distance from whiteness. The ‘I’ in white society, therefore, becomes a collective term that excludes ‘melanated people’, who are driven to ‘identify with themselves as "not-I"’. This language of negation stands in contrast to Ogden’s ‘negative space’ of selfhood. What for Ogden is a zone of possibility becomes vacuity, a space of non-existence, when the boundaries of identity are imposed through racial categorisation.

Dangarembga explains how, throughout her life, colonialism has sought to constrict her identity. Born in then-colonised Zimbabwe, her family moved to England so that her parents could pursue higher education to improve their prospects. Tsitsi and her brother were placed in foster care for three years; by the time the family relocated back to Zimbabwe, the children felt detached from both countries. Dangarembga’s descriptions of the wounds that she inflicted upon herself in this time, grieving a homeland that she could scarcely remember and dealing with a sensation of wrongness that she could not place, linger through the essays. Whilst Ogden reveals how we bind ourselves to fixed ‘revelations’ to create stable identities for ourselves, Dangarembga describes the trauma of being bound, forced to navigate the constraints of empire and national borders.

Dangarembga traces how moving to England and then back to Zimbabwe replaced her ‘certainty that I "was"’ with the restrictive categories of race and gender. She explains, ‘blackness is a condition imposed on me, rather than being an experienced identity’. This distinction between the ideas we build about ourselves and those that we do not choose is crucial. Dangarembga’s language asserts this contrast again and again: she uses ‘black’ as a term according to which she has been ‘classified,’ whilst offering ‘melanated’ as her preferred descriptor. Words, we realise, make our identities, whether they are imposed or chosen.

The ‘wounds’ of empire that ‘burst open’ are uncovered in Dangarembga’s essays, forming her central metaphor. She creates a safe territory for herself in language, declaring: ‘I write to raise mountains […] over the gouges in my history’. Proving that the act of writing can be a tool of decolonisation, she offers herself as a successor to Toni Morrison. In an interview with Jana Wendt in 1998, Morrison articulated the central goal of her writing: ‘I stood at the border and claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’ For writers aiming to construct an identity that is not circumscribed by the legacy of colonialism, laying claim to the territory of personal perspective proves a potent tool. Dangarembga charts her progress from having ‘never thought of [herself] as a being in the middle of things’ to realising the potential of storytelling to centre herself.

Cleansing the wounds of empire, Dangarembga’s essays are assertive and discomfiting. She begins with personal trauma and filters everything, from language to Enlightenment philosophy, through the destructive lens of race. However, her wounds are echoed firmly by the hope of healing, a process that Dangarembga describes as a ‘knitting together and reintegration of the parts that were mangled and crippled’. Like Ogden’s sons who learn to knit life and limb together, Dangarembga uses words to knit new understandings, conceiving of a world that is hers to inhabit. Ogden’s sons undertake this process as infants; Dangarembga, whose childhood formed a period of what she terms ‘non-being,’ starts from maturity.

These essays grapple with the difficulty of grasping one’s whole self, reimagining Montaigne’s experiments. Dangarembga offers a path back to the amorphousness of personality without rejecting the necessity of defining ourselves. She describes how

Being categorised as black and female does not constrain my writing. Writing assures me that I am more than merely blackness and femaleness. Writing assures me that I am.

Stories disperse dimness; like Adichie, Dangarembga uses them to resist the ‘single story’ of postcolonial identity. Writing allows her to ‘order a disordered life’ and her work stresses the necessity of being exposed to a diversity of perspectives. Only then can we envision identity in a way that isn’t constrained by expectations.

Betty Gilpin explores different boundaries that societal expectations place upon our potential in her glossy memoir All the Women in My Brain. Reflecting on a career in Hollywood that took off when she secured a starring role in the Netflix show GLOW, Gilpin’s memoir offers an entertaining take on the complicated balance of identities involved in the acting world. Acting offers the ‘perfect allegory’ for the ever-changing performance of her ‘million selves’. She invigorates well-worn debates about the pressures of being female, describing Hollywood’s appropriation of actress’s bodies with wryness and humour. The acting world forced her to ‘give whoever is in front of you the girl they want’ and, as Gilpin uncovers through scenes of frustrated young adulthood, to conform to the ‘Barbie’ type. As Dangarembga describes being relegated to ‘not-I,’ Gilpin also worries that her conformity to external pressures has left her ‘being-less’.

At times, Gilpin handles the essay form clumsily. She wields her metaphor of ‘brain-women’ with so heavy a hand that it becomes less convincing as the essays go on. This is compounded by the studied irony of Gilpin’s voice: injunctions to self, such as ‘type it out, Betty. You can do this,’ pepper the pages, detracting from what is otherwise a thoughtful and timely work. Gilpin shows how the best moments of acting allow her to ‘slough off’ her ‘carefully curated identities’ and instead find an affinity with others on stage: ‘buried inside … we were the same’. Gilpin suggests that beneath the many women jostling for dominance in her brain is an element that remains untouched by external pressures. The triumph of her narrative is in ‘learning to be a protagonist’; in regarding herself as an individual, she commands the ‘negative space’ to form her identity.

Ogden, Dangarembga and Gilpin do not deny our desire to define ourselves. Indeed, they demonstrate that we constantly do so by essaying new narratives. Reinforcing Adichie’s campaign against the single story, these writers do not reconcile their identities into a single plotline. Incorporating elements of storytelling into the essay form, these writers showcase its potential to house, in a kind of palimpsest, multiple narratives. Recognising that we cannot reconcile our experiences into a singular whole, they follow Montaigne’s example: ever unsettled, we must essay ourselves. SARAH MOORHOUSE has just completed her MSt in English Literature and is working as a Research Assistant in the English Faculty. She hopes that this means she has learnt to read.

Art by Eloise Cooke


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