Identity Losing and Finding a Sense Thesis

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Identity

Losing and Finding a Sense of Self: Personal and Cultural Identity in Where Europe Begins and Dictee

It is hard to imagine a work of literature, fact or fiction, poem or prose, novel or story, that is not in some way concerned with the issue of identity. At the essence of all literature, and indeed of all art and arguably of all human endeavors, is a sense of self-expression and assertion. Life, whether consciously or not, is about finding one's sense of self, and carving out a place in the world for that self to breathe. This endeavor is, of course, met with greater or lesser degrees of success by the many individuals attempting it, both in real life and in the world of literary fiction, but it is common to all. Some works, however, are more explicitly about this search for and/or creation of identity, however.

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Two such works from the modern period, dealing with similar issues of identity in markedly different ways, are the short story collection by Yoko Tawada entitled Where Europe Begins and Dictee, the novel-esque collection of pieces by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Both of these authors are Asian women who joined the Western world during the postcolonial period of the latter half of the twentieth century, and this has greatly influenced both the creation and the reception and interpretation of their works. There are indeed a great many similarities in these two works as far as the creation of a sense of identity in a foreign and/or changing culture goes, and there are even some stylistic similarities. Part of this can be seen as the necessity of the postcolonial cultural situation that both women were confronted with and shaped by, which is demonstrated by the fractured nature of their tales.

Thesis on Identity Losing and Finding a Sense of Assignment

At the same time, the authors have very different perspectives and attitudes, and it is both naive and foolhardy to suggest that their styles and perspectives are wholly derived form their "foreign" status in a postcolonial Western world. Though these facts of their existence are certainly inescapable, they are not all-pervasive nor completely dictatorial when it comes to shaping human identities, of authors or of characters. What is most remarkable about these two works when studied in unison, then, is the great deal of similarity that exists in their reflections and conclusions regarding the formation of identity despite the disparity in their styles and perspectives. Though these authors and their works can certainly be seen in light f their individual personal histories, it is through the commonalities of their literary efforts that a true concept of identity in the postcolonial world -- an identity that is both individual and unifying -- can be firmly elucidated.

Where Europe Begins

The concept of identity as a fluid and even conscious construction is dealt with explicitly right from the opening pages of Tawada's Where Europe Begins. In the opening story, "The Bath," the narrator notes that the human body is largely made up of water and is therefore highly mutable and changing; in the larger context of the story this becomes a very thinly veiled metaphor for the supreme mutability of internal identity, and not solely external perceptions. Themes of water and reflection as they relate to identity abound in the other stories of this collection, making it quite clear how fluid identity is for Tawada.

It is not merely personal identity that Tawada contends with in "The Bath" and her other stories, however, but also her cultural identity. Though this is not explicitly revealed in the first moments of the story, the importance of culture and the narrator's position in her surrounding culture quickly becomes apparent. Her job as an interpreter renders her cultural negotiations quite explicit, and a certain ambivalence -- like that of water, which always follows the path of least resistance -- has been detected in the narrator's attitude (Fachinger 46). In the lunch scene of this story, especially, where the bloated fish recalls the earlier story of the woman who turns into a fish for her greed, the narrator perceives herself -- and is shown to the reader -- as caught between two cultures, that of her own ethnicity and that of her larger society. She does not use this as an active moment to forge an individual identity, however, but rather is relieved to have a break from interpreting while people eat (Tawada 16; Fachinger 46-7). The effort involved in shaping an identity is shown to be enormous, and perhaps a larger task than most individuals are up to.

Not all of Tawada's stories, some of which take the form of poems for large portions of their text, are as straightforward and easily deciphered as "The Bath," which is complex enough beneath its surface. In "The Reflection," a monk's sense of identity is equally as lost -- or perhaps found -- as is the narrator's in "The Bath"; falling into a pond in pursuit of his reflection and eventually drowning, this tale is also a curious blend of Western and Eastern traditions and mythologies, as the monk forms a sort of modern-day Narcissus. This underlines much of the issue of identity in the works of Tawada as a whole.

Though not wholly defined by her Japanese-German heritage, which in and of itself makes Tawada highly unique among literary figures, and especially women, the East/West dichotomy and juxtaposition is a highly evident strain in her works, both explicitly and symbolically (Fachinger). Water, reflections, and the indeterminate nature of identity are all themes in another of the longer stories in Where Europe Begins, "A Guest." In this highly disjointed and purposefully fragmented story, the narrator lurches from one scene to the next with little sense of cohesion (though a definite story of sorts emerges eventually), with the same ambivalence so highly noted in "The Bath" (Fachinger). The narrator of this story surprises herself with some of her utterances and attitudes, unsure where they came from, but at the same time she is not overly concerned with finding these roots, but only notes the increasing sense of chaos that is her identity (Tawada 173; 175-7). The multitude of forces that attempt to shape the narrator's identity present themselves not necessarily in an adversarial manner, but in such a way that it seems the narrator seems to feel it is not worth the effort to even develop a personal sense of identity.

The overall commentary on identity that is derived from the collected stories in Tawada's Where Europe Begins is unequivocally ambiguous. There is a very solid perspective (often a highly similar one) from which these stories are told, but it is impossible to precisely pin down the characteristics of this perspective. Tawada's view of identity as fluid and largely dependent on external factors means that any attempt to perceive or define that identity necessarily leads to a formation of that identity; this is the reality of the postcolonial world.

Dictee

In many ways, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee comes to the same conclusions about identity as does Yoko Tawada's Where Europe Begins, but both the structure and the style of these two pieces are hugely different. Not only is Dictee a single consistent (though highly fragmented) story, but the perspective from which the novel is told is both more oppressive and more active -- or perhaps more reactive -- in its treatment of identity. That is, the central character of the novel is shown both as more controlled in terms of the external factors that shape her identity in a more active way, and is herself more active in her reactions to and (in some instances) resistance of these external forces. The similarity in the two works' ultimate conclusions but differences in perspective are accomplished in a variety of ways.

One of the most notable differences in Dictee is the use of a largely third-person narrator, interspersed with extremely alienating second-person commentary. This succeeds, in the words of one critic, in breaking down "national, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries," but at the same time it leaves the individual just as identity-less as the inactive narrators of Tawada's stories (Spahr 26). Towards the end of the novel is a section in which the concept of this character's husband and their relationship is introduced with a series of profound "perhaps"es, including "Perhaps she loved him" and "Perhaps in the beginning it was not this way" (Cha 110). Though this leads to an introspection of the husband/wife relationship, it leads to no firm conclusions or understandings of its progression.

The central figure's life and thus identity is a construct of similar scenes and strange leaps in time; the hugely disjointed nature of the novel is reflective of her identity, which is broken into many pieces, not all of the cut from the same cloth. Though the author puts this book forward as an autobiography of sorts, it actually resists any sort of association with real people or events, especially within a linear construct of history and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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