A writer’s response to the story of identity
Words & images © Paul Ransom
POTENTIALLY IRONIC BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:
Paul Ransom is an author, journalist and award-winning filmmaker. He can also be pigeon-holed as 50-something, left-handed and from a working class, migrant background.
Confession. I caved. I tuned into a TV show about books. You know the kind of thing: Celebrity X interviews a bunch of authors while other celebrities chime in with intercut pearls of insight, and various orthodoxies – literary, political and jingoistic – are breathlessly confirmed. As an author, arts writer and blogger it was nearly enough to make me throw down my pen in protest. Yet, amidst the prize-winning smugness, a gem shone brightly, at once obvious and mysterious. It is something most artists are at least passingly familiar with.
In the book doco the point was oft made. Literature lets us empathise. It gives us a human scale window into the experience of others. Film does likewise. So too theatre and other artforms, especially those that are naturalistic and narrative. This is the obvious bit.
However, it is the curious mirror of that phenomenon that concerns me here; because literature doesn’t just let readers experience otherness it virtually compels writers to inhabit it. It is not just that we get intimate with our characters or even that we have multiple personalities on tap, but rather that we experience, in a very tangible way, the sublime and elusive mechanism of self watching self. Self creating self.
Fellow artists will likely have their own take on this. The classic actor/watcher thing. Becoming your own audience. Getting out of your own way. Being totally present whilst maintaining a wider perspective. The seemingly ego-less momentum of flow. All standard practice for writers, dancers, guitarists, et al. Same goes for athletes, acrobats and those engaging in amorous pursuits.
The point is that selfhood as we experience it seems to be rooted in a fundamental and existential relationship; for just as we triangulate self with other we also appear to have an internal other to help echo-locate who we are (whatever that means). Furthermore, the slow and deliberate process of writing seems to bring this paradoxical double-helix of self-shaping into clearer focus. Like a mirror regress. A still point ever receding, one keystroke at a time.
My reason for mentioning this is less about indulging a penchant for metaphysical musing and more to counter (or add a side note to) something in the aforementioned book program that jarred. There was much talk from Celebrity X and guests about identity, and about the way ‘good books’ help shape and give voice to it. While there is truth in this – and the various contributors were clearly well-intentioned – there appeared to be an unquestioning acceptance of a brand of identity that I would regard as almost antithetical to my lived experience as a storyteller and artist.
In fact, I was disappointed – discouraged even – by the explicit alignment of literature and creative processes with the standard memes of identity politics. Surely any artist would know in their marrow that the reductionist constructions of ethno-nationalist, class, sectarian and gender identity are at best banal, if not hollow and sometimes nasty. Why were these supposedly well-read and intelligent people spouting all this identitarian cant in a show about books?
- Before I lurch into similarly orthodox complaints about PC and bourgeois-progressive virtue – or indulge in the snide dismissal of bestselling authors and celebrity opinion – I should perhaps ask if it is me who has it wrong. Celebrity X and friends are widely respected, critically acclaimed, etcetera. My combined book sales would scarcely brush triple figures. I will count myself lucky if more than twenty of you read this article. Perhaps I’m just jealous.
Yet, my experience of art and identity, and my relationship with the unfolding process of ‘Paulness’ does not chime with the televised sagacity of the book talking gods. While they speak of race and place and other forms of anchoring, I feel the ground always shifting. For me, the simple question, who am I, is profoundly unanswerable.
Yet, what I am not is an ethnicity, a gender, a generation. As tags they may be accurate enough – and indeed they may occasionally be revealing – but as states of being they are woefully narrow constructions.
- For more on the identity theme, check out My Identity Is An Irrelevance (And So Is Yours) elsewhere on this site.
Thus, when it comes to the creative process, the boxes of nationality or disability do not necessarily get ticked, nor do the names of favourite gods get religiously checked. Though social/historical externalities do inform and impact my work, they are not core to either the process of writing or the deeper (metaphysical and spiritual) mechanisms of self-narrative. If, through writing, I am indeed creating a literature of identity, it is a lot less singular and more intriguing than cis-hetero, legally blind and white. Moreover, it is an identity which, in its fluidity and almost quantum physical super-position, makes the rudimentary silos of colour, caste and coital preference seem lumpen and prosaic.
Decades of writing have revealed an unfolding of identity far more rewarding than politics and tribal affiliation. Indeed, rather than confirming pre-conceived notions about ‘who I am’ my art has blurred the lines. Beautifully so. In fact, so central and systemic is this continual slippage of Being that I would not even say I am a writer without resort to an asterisk.*
* I write, yes…but these words are not who or what I am.
Obvious though this may seem, it also points to something profound about the atomised identity complex we recognise as I. While clear that the phenomenon of consistent/persistent self owes much to memory and other highly patterned processes in both the wider universe and in our brains – and is further reinforced by the externalities of family and culture – it is also evident (to me at least) that self is less destination, more journey. More verb, less pronoun.
Or, as one of my characters1 likes to say, “The self resists knowing.”
Deeper still, my not entirely knowable self appears to be in a formative relationship with an ‘other-self’. A watcher, listener, observer self. Not an internal critic or shrink. Not an alter or muse. Maybe not even a ‘self’. This other has no voice as such. No discernible persona. If anything, it is a kind of arena. The empty canvas on which the colour and spectacle of Paul is incompletely revealed.
Across decades of creative practise I have not so much given shape to an identity but come to accept that it has no settled shape. As I type today, the only fixed point I can identify in the swirl of self is the eye of the storm. The still centre. Force me to reduce it to a grab and I would likely declare:
“The self is a void.”2
It may seem strange, but what good writing does for me is to loosen the screws of the self’s wobbly construction. The more I inhabit and give voice to various characters – the more I pretend to be someone else – the more I get a sense that I am (also) the other. As if I contain within me my own opposite and am, in fact, a co-entailed twoness. Like the double mirror image.
Although my writing was not the author of this experience, it helped me become more familiar with it. Writing is such a deep dive. It can take the scribe to territories unexplored by the bearers of flags, and in doing so, invite readers to similarly unclaimable terrain. This is the adventure beyond nationalist borders and binary ideology.
Perhaps the greatest story ever told is incomplete. A tale of permanent change. A narrative without three acts, where the pay-off isn’t heroic triumph or vindication but a grateful embrace of uncertainty. In this identity drama, the characters are contingent and porous, and as they make their way past the plot points they bleed into each other, until the one is revealed as the other. Not as an indistinct and blobby oneness but as a cast of ‘and/also’ entities. Separate and unified.
And in this mysterious and counter-intuitive dance a core relationship is celebrated. The marriage of opposites. The awe-inducing impossible/inevitable of acting/watching. The yin/yang of everything and nothing.
At any rate, this is what I hope you might one day get from one of my books; even if Celebrity X and friends never get round to plugging them on national television.3
1: The character in question is the titular figure in a novel I am currently writing. However, unlike the books venerated on the above TV show, mine is consciously un-identitarian. This being so, I do not expect Celebrity X to put it in on her reading list, let alone visit me for a fawning interview piece.
2: Unpacking this further, I wonder if the self – as in, the core, indivisible self – is an act of witnessing. The spectacle of self, the drama of our lives and the constant churn of our thoughts and feelings is the novel, the film, the durational performance piece that the central self quietly and uncritically observes. We may even say that life is the act of noticing. (Here we might also wonder about observer created realities and other such quantum mechanical strangeness.)
3: You can check out and/or buy both of my recently published books by clicking on the following titles: The Pointless Revolution (non-fiction, Everytime Press, 2019) and The Last Summer of Hair (fiction, Truth Serum Press, 2021). Happy reading, folks…and may your identity be gorgeously scrambled.