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Who Do We Think We Are?

I was talking to the great Trinidad-Tobago novelist Earl Lovelace a few weeks ago (if I can’t drop a name or two in my own blog, where can I?) at the Vancouver International Authors Festival. Earl and I and Merilyn Simonds and a group of other diehards tended to gather in the festival’s hospitality suite in the Granville Island Hotel after a thirst-making day of readings, panel discussions and on-stage interviews (I interviewed the American writer George Packer about his book The Unwinding, which is another blog altogether).

Several of us were sitting in the suite talking about writing. Specifically, why we write. Who are our ideal readers? Who are we trying to reach with our work? After listening quietly for a while, Earl leaned forward on the couch and said: “You know, the question isn’t why we write. We write because we are writers. The question is, What do we write about?”

Looking back over his books, he said, he’d noticed that most of them tended to focus on a single major theme. “I always write about rebellion,” he said. “All my characters have been rebels, fighting against one thing or another. I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true.”

His new novel, Is Only a Movie, concerns a young Caribbean actor whose minor role in a movie is to die an ignoble death. He refuses. He insists on a more dignified death. “He rebels against everything,” Earl said, “even the way he is asked to pretend to die. He thinks he deserves a better death.”

“What about you?” he asked me. I had to think about it, because most of my writing has been nonfiction: natural history, the environment, our relationship with the natural world. I could have said I write about nature, but I knew that wasn’t what Earl meant. He wasn’t asking what topics we write about, but what themes recur beneath the surface of our work.

“Identity,” I said, surprising myself. “In my fiction, I seem always to be concerned with questions of identity, in particular self-identity. Who we are, and who we want to be.”

I was thinking, of course, of Emancipation Day, which is “about” – in the limited sense in which a novel can be said to be “about” something – a man who refuses to accept the identity he was dealt at birth (not unlike Earl’s man in Is Only a Movie), and who insists, despite much opposition, that he is in fact a different person altogether. E-Day is my only novel, so it was hard to talk about recurring themes. But when I got home I began to think about some of the short fiction I have written and published over the years, and the theme of identity has, in fact, been present in all of them.

When I was twenty, I wrote a short story about a man who finds a wallet in the street, and sets about becoming the person identified in the wallet. Miraculously, the man who owns the wallet never shows up to claim it. I didn’t call the story “The Identity Thief,” because that term didn’t exist when I was twenty, but I could have, and I still might.

My first published story, which appeared in Saturday Night magazine in the early 1980s, was called “Fugue,” and concerned a young man who wakes up on a bus without the foggiest idea who he is, where he comes from, or where he is going. He gets off at the next stop, which happens to be a rural village not a hundred miles from the one I grew up in after leaving Windsor, and proceeds to make a life for himself there, as one perfectly easily could, at least in those days. People in rural Ontario don’t ask you a lot of questions about yourself, or ask for ID when they hire you to help with the haying. And they pay in cash. He never does remember who he “really” is: like Jack in E-Day, perhaps like all of us, he is the person he has become.

In another story, “The Man on the Island,” published a few years ago in The Walrus, an immigrant from Barbados, who is living in Toronto and trying to find work, spends his days writing endless letters of application, creating a different persona for himself in each one. If he sees an ad for a photographer, he describes himself as a photo-journalist; if someone is looking for a bartender, he is the best bartender Barbados has ever produced. Since no one ever replies to any of his letters, he feels free to invent himself anew in each one.

I didn’t know I was writing about identity, or the lack thereof. Like Earl, I didn’t know that a large part of my writing life would be devoted to characters trying to figure out who they were. It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I discovered that my father was someone other than the person I had known all my life, and that therefore I was not the person I had always thought I was. The theme of identity had somehow been embedded in my psyche long before that. Perhaps it is a particularly Canadian concern, this obsession with defining and inventing ourselves. Perhaps the quintessential Canadian question isn’t, as Northrop Frye said it was, “Where is here?” Perhaps, like Alice Munro, we most often ask, “Who do we think we are?”


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