Term Paper: Female Hero in New York City Novels

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Female Identity Formation in New York

The city of New York is well-known for its ethnic and cultural diversity, and for good reason. As the eastern gateway to America, New York received many of the country's earliest immigrants, and its sheer size ensures that it will attract people from all backgrounds and regions. However, much like America, the city itself is not a free-flowing mix of individuals, but rather remains geographically and culturally separated, to the point that different neighborhoods might as well be different countries. The lives of the female leads in Sapphire's Push, Angie Cruz's Soledad, and Suki Kim's the Interpreter embody this contradiction, because although all three share the same setting, each character finds herself in a world defined by her ethnic and family history. As Push's Precious, Soledad's titular artist, and the Interpreter's Suzy Park find themselves pushed into circumstances outside their control, they find that the hope for a reconstituted, autonomous identity lies in navigating the space between the ethnic and familial past and the promise of the future. By comparing and contrasting these three characters from the perspective of feminist and psychoanalytic theory, one is able to see how in each case, the successful transition into a fully-realized individual with her own agency and autonomy requires being able to integrate painful histories into one's identity rather than hide from them. Ultimately, the novels demonstrate that what gives the individual freedom is being able to re-conceptualize, in more productive ways, the differences and distinctions that family and history have forced upon her.

Before getting into the novels in detail, it will be helpful to outline some key critical concepts that will be necessary for understanding the process of identity formation demonstrated in each story. Specifically, the notion of difference, and particularly gender and ethnic difference, plays a central role in any identity formation, including in the identities of Precious, Soledad, and Suzy. In chapter five of her book Feminism and Psychoanalytic theory, Nancy Chodorow opens with a quote from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: "I would go so far as to say that even before slavery or class domination existed, men built an approach to women that would serve one day to introduce differences among us all" (Chodorow 99). Chodorow uses the quote in order to introduce the notion of gender difference and demonstrate how this difference, while rooted in a kind of genuine biological difference, is itself a social construction and thus is not "absolute, abstract, or irreducible" (Chodorow 100). Instead, Chodorow argues that gender difference is merely a more evolved form of "the first 'me' -- 'not me' division" that develops as part of the formation of the individual subject (Chodorow 101). This idea is rooted in Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror stage, which he argues is "an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives the term," meaning that this distinction between "me" and "not-me" is in reality an identification with the concept of "me" (Lacan 2).

As such, one can consider gender difference, alongside racial, ethnic, and class differences, as ways that meaning and identity are made. According to psychoanalytic theory, "identity formation and consolidation are an ongoing process […] that begins in prenatal life and continues throughout the human life cycle," and it involves a constant internalization of external stimuli and expectations alongside personal reflections on these stimuli (Mann 213). One can see this process of meaning and identity formation in the lives of the three heroines under discussion here, even if each one takes her own specific path. However, before pointing out this process in the novels, it will be necessary to further explain the notion of difference and how it relates to identity formation. In particular, it is crucial to understand how difference functions as a form of relational meaning, because it is the relationship between different ideas, identities, and histories that constitutes the central character conflict in these novels.

To say that difference functions as a form of relational meaning is to say that difference, as it relates to identity, can only be conceived of within a relationship. As mentioned above, the simplest form this relationship could take is one between "me" and "not me," because this observation of difference represents one of the earliest ways that children come to make sense of the world around them (Chodorow 101). This early relationship is not even one between two people, but rather between the child and the rest of the world, but it is still instructive because it helps demonstrate how the observation of difference lies at the root of meaning. Put simply, one cannot make sense or meaning without relying on differences and distinctions, because it is these differences that allow for definition.

Here it is useful to point out the relationship between difference and the observation of that difference, because meaning does not automatically spring from objective difference, but rather is the subjective mental reaction to the observation of that difference. This distinction is important because the key differences under discussion here, such as gender and ethnic difference, matter not because they represent an essential, immutable distinction but because they are composed of the accumulated social responses to the observation of other differences. For example, to speak of gender difference is to speak of the distinctions between two socially-constructed categories of gender, which is something far larger and more complex than the simple observation of sexual differences in biology.

Despite the fact that gender and ethnic difference are socially-constructed, they nevertheless serve to create meaning by convincing individuals to treat them as meaningful, which in turn reconstitutes these differences and perpetuates the cycle. Thus, on the one hand, the recognition of difference between socially-constructed categories such as gender and ethnicity can be seen as a kind of externally-imposed repression or control, because these categories of difference must be learned, rather than spontaneously observed (as in the case of the me/not-me difference). Society, which includes family as a crucial constituent element, teaches individuals what differences to look for and how to interpret them, which in turn controls what those individuals value.

On the other hand, because these socially-constructed categories of difference are so immediately and deeply tied to individual identity and subjectivity, it can be difficult to identify the point at which social control and teaching ends and individual, intentional selection of these categories begins. Furthermore, individuals might find it difficult to give up their conception of the meaning gained from observing certain differences, because their identity depends on these categories and meanings being maintained. This is why, for example, people hold on to certain beliefs even in the face of evidence that those beliefs are not true, because letting go of those beliefs would actually mean letting go of oneself.

While no one can ever truly escape ideology, individuals can become more aware of the categories of difference they have been taught, and in turn decide whether they would like to continue valuing that category. This point of informed, intentional decision is one of the goals of criticism, because critically evaluating received wisdom allows one to reach this point. In the same way, the process of identity formation undergone by the three main characters of the novels culminates in a point wherein they are able to begin reforming their own identities intentionally, instead of merely reacting to and within the categories of difference handed down to them by their families and society's larger influence.

To begin demonstrating this process of identity formation and reformation, one may start with the role of ethnic difference in the novels, because this distinction represents a somewhat broader and more basic form of distinction than those provided by ideas of family and gender. This is not to suggest tat ethnicity itself is simple or not complex, but rather that the socially-conditioned observations of ethnic distinction are fairly simple to understand, because in a white American hegemony, all ethnic difference is implicitly or explicitly measured against a white, American ideal. The best place to start this investigation of ethnic difference and its relation to identity formation is Push, because Precious' experiences as a black woman help highlight how white American culture teaches people to interpret ethnic difference more generally.

In some ways Precious' experience with ethnic difference is simultaneously the most dramatic and least obvious, because being a black woman in New York means being subject to a centuries-long process of racial and ethnic discrimination, misrepresentation, and disadvantaging that is relatively unique when considered alongside women of Dominican (Soledad) or Korean (Suzy) background. Of course, as will be seen, there are some similarities between the experiences of the three women, Precious' experience is unique precisely because she represents the contemporary legacy of America's founding as a slave state. Unlike families of Dominican or Korean background who immigrated to the United States and settled there, black Americans existed as long as the country did, having been brought to the United States as slaves; in fact, the first casualty of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Female Hero in New York City Novels.  (2013, April 28).  Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/female-hero-new-york-city-novels/6586208

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