Identity’s spiral

Public holidays have very little meaning for me beyond the arrangements they require, so I can’t claim to have spent Heritage Day pondering my heritage.

Yet, in September, I thought a great deal about identity and, since identity is made up partly of that which we inherit – genetically, culturally and politically – I can’t really say that Heritage month made no claim on my consciousness at all.

Spiral-lIf you think of identity as a spiral – with the outer coils relating to large “facts” and the inner point constantly coiling towards the minutiae of self-realisation, then I can roughly say my identity is this: I am South African, a woman, white, straight, middle-class (in that I am neither rich nor poor) and educated. Then there are the bits of identity I have accumulated through context of my birth and adulthood here and now – and through maturity – which inform my own understanding of myself and the world. I am a humanist, an atheist, a feminist. Then there are the facts of my life: the work I do, that I am a mother, that I speak and read in more than one language, that I like exercising, and music and books…and so on ad infinitum.

I like the “ad infinitum” part – I love the details of the project of living my life as well as I can, according to my ever-evolving idea of “well”.

While the minutiae are my particular life are not interesting to anyone but me, I cannot imagine a single person’s life in which personal and social identity does not have meaning to them, or is not worth thinking about.

So it has been interesting to be given, through my reading, a chance to re-examine the outer edges of the coil; to step back and see the whole of me in my context.

I did not seek the books I read this month in order to think about identity. They came to me, as books do, randomly. And they stretched the inner point of that coil a little further, as books always do.

The first was a novel by an Israeli writer called David Grossman. It sucked me in, tumbled me about and spat me out, so that when it was finished I put it down beside me, curled up and lay there for half an hour, stunned, spent, desolate, inspired and inexplicably hopeful.

The book is called To The End Of The Land.

I will not make this a review. I will not diminish the complexity and rewards of the book by revealing the details with which the story rewards the reader. I am deeply grateful that I took this book on recommendation without reading anything that had been written about it before, because it would have robbed the story of its power.

But I will say this: this book affected me in the way I have come to expect to be affected by books from writers in countries with hard, dark histories, where cruelty and beauty sit together like two hunched crows, bickering over the last bits of flesh on the bones of nations.

Countries that are like South Africa.Categories-of-Persons-WEB

Because the book had such a profound effect on me, I could not read a novel immediately so I picked up Categories of Persons – Rethinking Ourselves and Others, a book edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini. I was expecting dour, academic pontifications on national identity.

What I found was one of the most engaging collection of essays I have ever read, anywhere.

If you have any interest at all in who you are, who “we” are, how we find ways to be South African together, buy this book. Every essay delights with its humour, or intimacy, or research, or slant-wise approach at the question each of us asks at some point or another: who am I? – Karin Schimke is an independent writer, a columnist and a poet.

  •  This column first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013


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