The Case of the Missing Identity:
The Examination of Identity in the Works of Fred Wah and Clark BlaiseApril 1, 1997 - CLIT 172
When a human infant is born, the beginning of a new identity is created. Like a recipe for meatloaf, the new personality has ingredients upon ingredients added into it; first a cup of mother's love, add an ounce of father's patience, sprinkle with spirit, perseverance, and hope and then mix all together with society's values and pride for one's country.
Family is the initial founding component of the so-called identity. It is within the home that one begins learning about how one is suppose to behave, what manners are, obedience to whomever is in charge and various other nucleic elements to being "human". It is also within those early boundaries that one hears stories about the past. Grandparents are often the most willing to tell the children about the family history; readily heard are stories of grandmother's ability to read tea leaves or grandfather's hunting stories; another story might spill out an ancestor's success at doing this or that. And so it is that one begins the foundations of an identity in the humble beginnings of one's home.
Once one is old enough to freely move about from the home, however, an abundance of new rules and ideas and conformities are passed on towards the individual. Society stacks upon the person a list of do's and do not's according to the population's own set of rules; one's country will itself contain a certain number of laws to abide by. As well, an overall expectation to take pride in the ethnicity and individuality of one's country is also probably expected; highlighted is the learning of one's national anthem.
As ingredients upon ingredients is added into the mixture, one must distill from that who one is, what one truly values, and what one's goals will be. None of this is an easy process, as many a psychiatrist will tell. Often searching for one's personal identity from amongst all the previous input creates an inner crisis. The individual can be at a loss for just where to probe or, once the identity has been realized, one might be horrified at the discovery.
Literature has been one way to deal with that search for self. In a country like Canada, where the Canadian identity is itself debated amongst the ideas of multiculturalism , such literature can be fruitfully found. In the examination of these texts, one's own search for self can be aided and nurtured. Two author's, Fred Wah and Clark Blaise, because of their own pursuits of the soul, have deeply explored the idea of identity.
Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, the child of Chinese and Scandinavian parents, and moved to Trail, British Columbia when he was still young. Within the framework of his writing, he delves into an exploration of his relationship with his parents, especially his father, and the places where he and they lived. One poem, "Elite 3", is quite autobiographical.
He opens the poem telling the reader that he has returned to the prairies for the first time in his youth and it is in the midst of the dead of winter. There is no joyful happy reunion with those he left behind, or a flourish of good memories erupting onto the page. One finds Wah's recollection of his time on the prairies to be as frigid as the blustery Canadian winter. There is a certain turmoil of the persona and a muddle of emotions accompanied with his memories of prairies.
Because of how the prairies were settled, a great deal of immigrants came and pioneered. Often, whole communities would uproot themselves from their homeland in order for the chance at a better life in Canada. Together, these communities would help each other tame the land and survive in their new harsh home. Because these groups settled collectively, they often held onto the old traditions of the motherland. Typically, these little settlements held on to the old traditions more strongly than even the old country. And it continues that way as the young are born into this lifestyle of observing the old ways. When an outsider wishes to enter these different pockets of tightly bound uni-cultures, they immediately become the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider. The boundary of that community versus the outside world can be so impermeable that even those who have moved there and continues to live there for a while can be forced out by the solidity of the way the others refuse to accept them within the population.
That feeling of being an alien on the prairies and, because of his mixed heritage, an outcast, as well, seeps deeply into Wah's writing. As he puts it, "...you're either a Weibe or a Friesen, or not... the Chinese didn't trust you and the English didn't trust you. You were a half-breed...". The poem seems to pronounce that not only does the environment give clues to one's identity but also one's heritage aides in the process of finding one's self.
After examining the environmental "ethnicity" on the prairies, Fred Wah questions "What is a Metis, anyway". His mixed descent results in the certain identity of "Eurasian" being unwittingly placed upon him. There is a certain resentment that surfaces when Wah writes the following:
In North America white is still the standard and you were never white enough. But you weren't pure enough for the Chinese either. You never knew the full comradeship of an ethnic community... To be a mix here on the prairie is still noticed.
For Wah, the "exotic identity" of being Metis has a negative connotation; it means that one doesn't belong to anything. One never becomes a part of the community but can only peer in and observe and "[play] the game as we all must." Addresses himself in the poem, he writes "I don't think you felt there was anyone else in the world like you." He has formed for himself the identity of being the constant outsider. For Wah, he is like the lone pine on the prairies. His skin has branded him so that singularity goes deeper than the surface. He, never having been apart of the ethnic communities, is unique and different and, from the tone of the poem, very lonely. Even when he visits "Granny Erickson", there is no refuge. "Most of the women in the store where just like Granny Erickson" but they were not like Fred Wah.
This feeling or identity of being the outsider is certainly not unique to Wah, however. Clark Blaise's work, "Eyes", echoes the same type of emotion. Blaise was born in North Dakota of a French-Canadian father and an English-Canadian mother and, because of his father's job situation, continued to move frequently in his childhood. Growing up in the United States, he had his parent's unique Canadian views incorporated into himself causing him to think of himself as Canadian. Inside of Canada, however, he has not only the United States identity to deal with, but also the English- versus French-Canadian identity . Blaise feels similar to what was expressed in Wah's poem, composed of a feeling of being the perpetual outcast, therefore labeling himself as a 'resident alien'. This is how he expresses what he feels:
Sociologically, I am an American. Psychologically, a Canadian. Sentimentally, a Quebequois. By marriage, part of the Third World. My passport says Canadian, but I was born in America; my legal status says immigrant. Resident Alien. Everywhere I see dualities. And indeed, within his short story, alienation and dualities play a very large role.
On examination of the title "Eyes", it becomes a clue as to what the rest of the text is about. Called 'windows to the soul', one can get a sense of who someone is by studying the character that surfaces in the eyes. The individual only has to do a small experiment to see how significant the eyes are to expressing ones emotions.
By covering one's mouth so that no one can see it, smile, frown, or try to do any other emotion. By looking at the eyes, one can tell what that particular person is trying to express.
And yet, through the eyes, one is always peering outwards; the individual can never see within one's self. It is impossible to be able to look into one's own soul by peering at one's own eyes. There is always the mirror, but that essence of life and truth is lost. A mirror is like a falsehood, a reversal of reality. Therefore, since one is always looking outward and can never truly look inwards, there is a sense of alienation and perpetually being outside trying to make one way in.
The narrator is, as Blaise refers to himself, a type of 'resident alien'. He is a married man with children living in, where one could hypothesize, Montreal. He feels alienated from the communities that he lives in which creates a sense of lost identity. One guide to finding his identity, though, is that the author reveals who the narrator isn't: Texan, French, Irish, English, Greek, Spanish or Jamaican. A constant feeling of movement, of wanting to find a community, of wanting to belong and no longer be on the "outside" is diffused within the story, as well.
An interesting concept that the author uses is that the narrator is always addressing "you". The narrator could be conversing with his own conscious or with the reader. If it is taken that he is talking to the himself, it creates a sensation that lures the reader in a very voyeuristic way into the story. The reader is effectively placed on the outside, virtually paralleling what is going on in the story. However, if the narrator is placed in the position of talking directly to the reader, a fascinating situation of classifying the reader with the identity of being of the male gender, married, and with children in a strange place is created. The reader then, often unconsciously, takes this role and accepts it readily.
The story opens with the narrator remarking "You jump into this business of a new country cautiously...What's the good of a place like this when two of your neighbors have come from Texas and the French paper you've dutifully subscribed to arrives by mail two days late?" Already the sensation of being an outsider is there. He is in a place where he obviously doesn't fit in. And so, the impulse to move is aroused. "You start to think of moving...in the spring you move."
Where the narrator ends up living is another place he and his family don't seem to fit in. And again, we find out what the narrators identity is not:
Your neighbors are the young personalities of French television who live on delivered chicken, or the old pensioner who shuffle down the summer sidewalks in pajamas and slippers in a state of endless recuperation.
It is in this environment that the reader meets the "rheumy, pasty-faced Irishman in slate-gray jacket and rubber-soled shoes" who, with his "leprechaun's face that sees what you cannot", comes and voyeuristically peeks in the narrator's windows.
The Peeping-Tom is "a native of the place, a man who knows the city and maybe a dozen such windows". He, in a sense, belongs to this community that the narrator is outcast from. Yet, the voyeur contains qualities of the narrator. The Irishman, because he must peer into the house, is the outsider. He is a mere panhandler, and must live the life of the narrator vicariously. By watching the life of the narrator and his wife, he becomes the 'eyes' and attempts to make the human connection with them. Because he is on one wide of the pane of glass and the family is on the other side, truly connecting with them is impossible. If one considers the windows to be the eyes of the house, the Peeping-Tom can look into the soul of the house, but he can never go within it.
The narrator understands how the leprechaun man feels on a number of levels. In his adolescence when he lived in another country, he recalls "slithering thought the mosquito-ridden grassy fields behind a housing development, peering into those houses where newlyweds had not yet put up drapes...". There is a sort of sympathy for the hobo because, for once, the narrator is on the inside. He knows what it is like to be the eyes, to be the one that does the watching instead of the doing.
Eventually, he moves again and it becomes "a city of Greeks" for the narrator as he gets to "know the city a little better". There, he goes and attends "a movie at the corner cinema" which is about the war, but "the uniforms are unfamiliar". When he initially begins watching the film, he claims that "you understand nothing, you resent their laughter, and you even resent the picture they're running.". He slowly begins to enjoy himself and eventually, he finds that "after an hour, the movie flatters you. No one knows you're not a Greek, that you don't belong in this theatre, or even this city. That, like the Greeks, you've hanging on.". In the theatre, everyone belongs; everyone is on the outside peering into the movie. This is the one place that the narrator can truly feel comfortable in. It doesn't matter if you are English, French , Irish or Jamaican. At the movies, one's identity slips away and the individual is given a new identity to live a few hours as. There are no questions; there are no choices. You can escape from the realities of one's own identity.
After the movie, the narrator finds that "you're wandering happily, glad you moved, you've rediscovered the innocence of starting over.". It is as if, with the realization that he is not necessarily an outcast, but someone that can fit in, who has an identity outside the colour of his skin and the traditions of the community, he is reborn. He has moved on beyond seeking differences and begins to find similarities. "You turn to the Greek boy in sympathy, you know just how he feels...like yours, his French is adequate." That feeling of hope, however, is shattered when the narrator says "...in this world you have made for yourself, ...the eyes would blink and your neighbors would turn upon you."
Both Fred Wah and Clark Blaise examine how one's identity is affected by the community that one lives in. Wah's conclusion, seems to be that he will be the perpetual outsider because of his Metis identity. Similarly, Blaise's character cannot find a community to fit into because his identity is always so different from those around him. Even the narrator's son, despite the fact that "he is becoming Greek, becoming Jamaican, becoming a part of this strange new land...", doesn't escape from being considered different. "His hair is nearly white; you can spot him a block away."; his fellow peers, obviously, don't have fair-coloured hair. Perpetual outcasts, Wah's and Blaise's textural identities are classified through the thoughts and emotions of others, as well as one's previous heritage.
Blaise, Clark. "Eyes." An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Ed. Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, & Nathalie Cook. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990. 630-635
Wah, Fred. "Elite 3." An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Ed. Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, & Nathalie Cook. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990. 629
Last modified: Thursday, 26-Jul-2001 12:58:19 MDT
Broken links, suggestions, problems: firstname.lastname@example.org