Words by Saskia May
Ancient and magical is the tradition and art of storytelling. Literature can offer us explanations for human behaviour, it can draw out our hidden feelings, and it can enable us to form profound connections. In times of uncertainty and darkness, many of us turn to the comfort and wisdom found in a book. Here I discuss my top picks for books that explore identity and lived experiences.
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946)
With frequent analepsis – a narrative technique where a past event is described in the present time – the linear narrative of this novel and an orderly sense of time is disrupted, creating a sense of the uncanny. A lanky, motherless twelve-year-old living in a sweltering Southern town, Frankie Addams finds herself at odds, for she ‘belonged to no club and was member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person’. Frankie’s brother is to be married and she yearns to join the wedding, to become a member of the party and escape from her hometown. For anyone that has ever felt the ennui of spending a Summer in a small, quiet place, this is a must read. McCullers masterfully captures Frankie’s sense of loneliness and alienation as she faces expectations of becoming a heterosexual adult. We are not informed of Frankie’s somatic bodily changes, so that a coherent tale of female puberty is withheld. McCullers masterfully depicts a woman whose body does not have to signify womanhood, or the supposed telos of human development; heterosexual reproduction. In this short yet unsettling read, McCullers portrays the pains of yearning and severs the notion of the dynamic, futurist adolescent.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)
Haunting, poetic, and strange, The Bell Jar is a must read when it comes to identity. I read this book in the Spring of the first lock down, and it was an immersive and needed slip away from reality. It could seem like the pretentious book of choice by an English lit student, one that bears similarities to a Quentin Tarrantino film fanatic who will mansplain ‘Pulp Fiction’ to you at any given moment, but I promise that The Bell Jar offers far more. In 1953 Esther Greenwood spends her Summer in New York City as an intern at a magazine. Returning to her home of Massachusetts, Esther is rejected for a writing course taught by a famous author and with her self-esteem shaken, her future hopes disrupted, and her sense of alienation growing, she experiences a psychic break. I have often felt the fervent need for academic validation, a point of reference to define myself by, so this book resonated with me. Esther’s identity has been constructed around her academic achievements, and facing failure for the first time, she must consult what it truly means to exist without the validation of grades or scholarships. As a reader, you come to struggle with placing Esther’s sense of self-image just as she does, questioning what exactly constitutes reality.As her mental state worsens Esther is sent to hospital and captures the image of her depression; being trapped under a bell jar, unable to breathe. It is through electric shock therapy that Esther re-enters the world – reborn through death- the bell jar broken and lifted. Plath does not romanticise mental illness and whilst the book captures great pain, there is hope for recovery. The Bell Jar is a book that never loses its grip on you, uncanny, and beautiful.
Geovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)
A classic Queer text, Geovanni’s Room is one of those magical, tragic books that you will never be able to forget. Baldwin captures a doomed love affair in Paris between American narrator, David, and Italian bartender, Geovanni. The novel strips away the American myth of fresh starts, depicting the shame that David has always felt due to his sexuality and has spent a lifetime trying to run from. For David, Geovanni is not only beautiful, but appears devoid of feelings of shame, bringing to him a joy and a freedom that he has never before encountered.
Yet David can never break free of his self-loathing, leading to the demise of not only his own happiness, but Geovanni’s too. Featuring poetic descriptions of early morning Paris markets and heart-wrenchingly painful moments of tenderness and despair, this is a book that captures a character struggling deeply with his identity. After finishing this book, I felt a little empty inside, as if I too, had lost something. Geovanni’s Room is Baldwin’s only book which features only white characters. Questioned on this choice, Baldwin, a queer Black man, claimed that he could not tackle both the evils of racism and ignore the agonies of homophobia; for him, they were insidiously intertwined. American identity, according to Baldwin, is a series of tales, a defence by which one shields and escapes, as David does, from horrific realities.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde (1982)
A beautiful and memorable coming of age story, Audre Lorde’s Zami is rich in its exploration of the different constituents of identity, from race, and class, to sexuality, to body image. Consulting her experiences of life as a queer, Black woman in the 40s and 50s, Lorde’s work enables us to reflect on what it means to live and to love amidst a patriarchal, racist, and homophobic American society. Zami is an important read regarding intersectionality, the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, who built on the idea of former black feminists. For Crenshaw, intersectionality is about how multiple identities – race, sex, gender, class, disability, sexual orientations, – overlap – in addition to the ways that these identities relate to systems of privilege and oppression. Zami works to celebrate different elements of identity and does not, as Crenshaw notes, ‘treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis’. From struggles of heartache, financial worries, and academic pressure, Lorde takes us into her grief, triumphs, and love affairs. ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other peoples fantasies for me and eaten alive’, Lorde writes, capturing the urgent need for her to assert her identity. Lorde’s exploration of her sexuality and consideration of motherhood, of all female bonds, brings to mind the ‘Lesbian continuum’ which Adrienne Rich mentions in her essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’. This was a special read for me and would be one of my ‘desert island’ books. It is sensual, candid, and a wonderful take on the strength and magic of female relationships.
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
A modern classic, Girl, Woman, Other explores the interconnected lives of twelve predominantly black British women. Raising timeless and topical questions surrounding race, gender, and class, Evaristo chooses to forgo punctuation, instead creating a work that reads more like poetry than traditional prose. Whilst characters are united by the struggles of living under the patriarchy, Evaristo delves into the differences of their lived experiences, shining a light on colourism and class struggle. Witty and searingly honest, the characters consult complex mother-daughter relationships, sexuality, and what it means to be a black woman in the UK in the 21st century. From a lesbian playwright, to a non binary speaker, to a teacher, and a banker, Evaristo captures a breadth of realistic and realised identities. Each chapter awakens readers to a point of empathy where they come to understand and appreciate the differences of other characters. Evaristo’s work not only covers grief, loss, and heartache, but celebrates joy, friendship, creativity, and the beauty that comes in appreciating a wealth of unique identities.