September 26, 2014

“Who Am I Now?”: Five Writers Tackle Identity

By Will J Fawley
We see other people as fixed entities, but our experience of self is often very fluid, Thin Air Director Charlene Diehl said in her introduction to the evening's readings.Who Am I Now?” is a question that acknowledges that we do not simply have one identity, but an evolving spectrum of identities. It is a question we must continually ask ourselves.
Five authors from across Canada and around the world read from their latest works on Wednesday night, offering us a glimpse into the diverse perspectives of their characters and the identities that they are searching for in some way or another.
André Alexis
Alexis read from his novel Pastoral, which was full of lush descriptions of trees and hills, grasses, and all forms of nature. “He walked by the side of the road, trampling on young thistles, dandelions, chicory and tall grasses. The smell of the weeds clung to his walking shoes and rose up so that, although he was by the side of a highway, it smelled as if he were in an endless field.”
Despite or because of this natural setting, we find a character not asking who he is, but who someone else is. In this wonderful look at identity and mistaken identity, Father Pennant, a pastor, sees Mr. Fox, the Mayor of Barrow, walk on water and speak in tongues. Father Pennant is troubled by what he cannot understand and thinks Mr. Fox must be the devil in disguise.
I don’t feel like I know enough about Father Pennant to really understand who he is since Alexis read a selection from the middle of the book, but his perception of Mr. Fox’s identity raises a number of questions that make me want to learn more about both characters and the world they live in – one which seems larger and more complicated than the simple rural tale they at first seem to inhabit.
Doretta Lau
Each of the evening’s writers had an interesting take on identity, but I was particularly drawn to Lau's perspective in the first story of her collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? “God Damn, How Real Is This?” gives us a glimpse into a world in which Communicative Time Travel allows people's future selves to text them advice and warnings about themselves and their futures.
After the reading I briefly spoke with Doretta Lau. I was so excited by her story that all I could think of to say was that it was interesting. I immediately felt stupid and thought, what a stupid word to describe such a wonderful story. Then I went home and read the second story in her collection, “Two-Part Invention,” in which she writes, “There is no word more uninteresting than interesting.” I completely agree. And if you are reading this, Doretta, I am sorry. Interesting is not just an uninteresting word, but a placeholder for a real description. What I meant by interesting, in this case, was: funny, timeless, thought-provoking, and poetic.
David Alexander Robertson
Robertson read from his novel The Evolution of Alice, which tells the story of Alice, a single mother who has lost a daughter. The blurb on the back of the book describes its perspective better than I could, “When an unthinkable loss occurs, Alice is forced onto a different path, one that will challenge her belief in herself and the world she thought she knew.” The selections Robertson read from on Wednesday night focused on several moments of Alice’s life, showing her as a woman of many dimensions, not just mother or friend, but both of those things and possibly many other things as well. ‘Who is Alice? And who will she become?’ are questions left in my head after the reading. I feel like she is much too complex to understand in just those brief moments Robertson shared with us at the reading. It makes me wonder if identity is something too complex to ever really understand. It is fleeting and as Robertson so accurately describes it, evolving.

Martha Baillie
Baillie read from her novel The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. The selections she chose were beautiful and poetic and elusive. From my brief introduction to the novel, it seems to me that it is deeply rooted in fact and perspective, yet still somehow dreamlike. I don’t feel like I can say what it was really about other than it is narrated by someone who is archiving snippets of Schlögel’s life and attempting to understand who he really was.
This take on identity is very much that of an outsider looking in, trying to create a whole from the many pieces of a person’s life. I was intrigued by this fragmented approach because it provides enough detail to make you feel like you are getting to know the intricacies and eccentricities of Schlögel, but also raises many questions that make you want to know more and more.
I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote from the reading which sums up my initial thoughts on the selection Baillie shared with us, “It is mostly through speculation that we exist for others, and for ourselves.”

David Bergen
David Bergen is one of the most well-known and respected writers in Winnipeg, and I have to admit I have never read any of his work, so it was really cool to get to see him read from his new book, Leaving Tomorrow. The novel is about a young boy growing up in Alberta. In the selection Bergen read, Arthur feels that he doesn’t fit in with the other boys in his small town because he doesn’t like to fight, but instead desires knowledge over violence.
The selection was engaging and funny, probably even more so to a room of readers and writers who laughed aloud at the pieces of themselves they saw in Arthur as he struggled to wield his vocabulary instead of his fists.
Arthur describes himself: “I was a void sucking up all knowledge. And this being so, I was also a lover of character and I wanted to be someone other than myself.” Arthur longs to be a character from a novel, someone who belongs in his or her world because it was created just for them. He lives in books because he wants to live these other lives and escape from the real world where he doesn’t fit in and has no desire to fight.

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