Exploring Your Identity
(BASED ON THE LAND OF LOOK BEHIND BY MICHELLE CLIFF)
In her introduction to her first book, The Land of Look Behind, Michelle Cliff writes about investigating and claiming her identity. Cliff was a light-skinned black lesbian Jamaican who had been taught by her family to pass as white, and after leaving Jamaica, she began an academic career and was working on her dissertation on “game-playing in the Italian Renaissance.” When Cliff decided that she needed to begin investigating her own identity, she discovered that she wasn’t very articulate; she couldn’t create much flow to her language. Yes, she could easily write intellectual academic prose—she even dreamed in medieval Latin—but writing about herself? That was hard. Nearly impossible.
Cliff was also working a nine-to-five job, so she just allowed herself to write fragments, notes. She collected quotations. The Land of Look Behind is a series of pieces written as fragments—one or two paragraphs at a time—or notes. As Cliff explains, that was all she could do at the time:
My dissertation was produced at the Warburg Institute, University of London, and was responsible for giving me an intellectual belief in myself that I had not had before, while at the same time distancing me from who I am, almost rendering me speechless about who I am. At least I believed in the young woman who wrote the dissertation—still, I wondered who she was and where she had come from.
I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal. . . .
When I began, finally, partly through participation in the feminist movement, to approach myself as a subject, my writing was jagged, nonlinear, almost shorthand. The “Notes on Speechlessness” were indeed notes, written in snatches on a nine-to-five job. I did not choose the noteform consciously; a combination of things drew me to it. An urgency for one thing. I also felt incompetent to construct an essay in which I would describe the intimacies, fears, and lies I wrote of in “Speechlessness.” I felt my thoughts, things I had held within for a lifetime, traversed so wide a terrain, had so many stops and starts, apparent nonsequiturs, that an essay—with its coldblooded dependence on logical construction, which I had mastered practically against my will—could not work. My subject could not respond to that form, which would have contradicted the idea of speechlessness. This tender approach to myself within the confines and interruptions of a forty-hour-a-week job and against a history of forced fluency was the beginning of a journey into speech.
Despite the seemingly unfinished form of the prose, this writing helped her to discover who she was and thus who she was as a writer. It was absolutely integral to her artistic development and led her to write several novels and nonfiction works. To put it in terms I often use with students: Cliff gave herself permission to write “badly.” To move forward with our writing into a new area or an area that presents psychic difficulties, at certain times we should not expect eloquence or a well-formed structure. We should simply try to get down or dig up hidden thoughts, emotions, experiences, intuitions. (As William Stafford instructed, the antidote to writer’s block is to lower your standards.)
At the same time, as Cliff argues in her introduction, the fragmentary nature of the writing in The Land of Look Behind also reflects something of her experience and that of her people:
We are a fragmented people. My experience as a writer coming from a culture of colonialism, a culture of Black people riven from each other, my struggle to get wholeness from fragmentation while working within fragmentation, producing work which may find its strength in its depiction of fragmentation, through form as well as content, is similar to the experience of other writers whose origins are in countries defined by colonialism. . . .
I wanted . . . directness in my writing, as I came into closer contact with my rage, and a realization that rage could fuel and shape my work. As a light-skinned colonial girlchild, both in Jamaica and in the Jamaican milieu of my family abroad, rage was the last thing expected of me.
In other words, the purpose of writing is not always to write beautiful sentences or show off how brilliant we are. Sometimes the writing most valuable to our progress is exploratory, tentative, disjointed. In this mode, we must put down our armor and let our unconscious speak; by doing this, we can begin to articulate repressed emotions and experiences, begin to approach our deepest wounds or trauma. And often this material provides our richest and most complex writing. But we may be able to find this material only when we seek exploration not perfection, process not product.
A Notebook about Your Identity
Keep a notebook. A book about claiming your identity. A notebook asking, “Who am I?”
The subject of this notebook is “you.” Your identity. Your racial and ethnic identity. And any other ways you choose to identify yourself—gender, sexuality, class, region, country, family, immigrant, and so on.
Keep it as a diary or journal. A dream book. A quotation book. A book of secrets. A book of truths. A book of who you are. A book of rage. A book of your history, your family’s history. A book of what you love. A book of what you hate.
Allow yourself to write in fragments. To not be articulate.
Allow all the languages inside you into the book. Ways of speaking. Dialect. Your bilingual being. Your multilanguage being.
Put in quotations that strike you.
Don’t hold back. Anger. Love. Grief. Shame.
Put in the things you might feel ashamed of. Secrets. (As Cliff observed, there’s often a voice inside us saying, “Don’t reveal our secrets to them. Don’t make us seem foolish, or oppressed.”)
Begin writing about experiences that are difficult for you to write about. Trauma. Abuse. Repressed memories. At first you may only name or label these subjects. But keep returning to them periodically, writing what you can. This will allow or prod your unconscious to work at articulation and recovery in between the times you actually write (and your unconscious is both creative and knows how to heal itself; see Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul).
Keep asking the question: Who am I? Who are my people? What history led to and produced me? What is the history I never learned that I need to know in order to know who I am? What is my buried history? What is the buried history of my people? My family? My country?
Create a second self, a new self, a doppelgänger. Allow the shadow self, the self you have been afraid to develop, or the self-certain voice that family, society, community may have tried to silence. As the Jungians suggest, allow yourself to seek the voices of the many gods within you.
Additional Assignment: Write about the first time you became aware of or discovered your racial identity.
Do this assignment with other facets of your identity that are particularly relevant to your writing: gender, orientation, class, region, generation, and so on.