When we’re born, we’re described by a name, a gender, a nationality, a race. We’re somebody’s child, sibling, cousin. But do any of these labels truly identify an individual, or is the authentic self something we discover within? Many authors have grappled with the existential quandary of what constitutes identity.
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is an alternate history about the founding of China’s Ming dynasty. In this intricately-plotted novel, two impoverished children, a sister and brother, are told their fortunes. The boy will achieve greatness, while the girl’s fate is simply “nothing.” But when the brother dies, his little sister assumes his name – Zhu Chongba – and enters a monastery as a boy, the first step on a rise to power.
Ron Stallworth’s memoir, “Black Klansman” immerses the reader in what the former Colorado Springs police detective calls “the investigation of a lifetime.” Stallworth, who is Black, successfully infiltrated a local KKK chapter in order to conduct an investigation of their plans and recruitment efforts. While he spoke to leaders via telephone and coordinated behind the scenes, a colleague assumed his name when a personal appearance was required.
False identity is also central to another memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me”. Lee Israel was a well-paid, high-powered author until she wasn’t. One book that flopped and a growing problem with alcoholism contributed to her unspoken exile from the publishing world. Desperate for an income, she turned to selling forged letters, purportedly from literary greats. It’s a testament to her writing skill that she was so convincingly able to imitate the styles of many different authors.
Helene Tursten has created a delightfully wicked character who is not at all what she seems in the short story collection “An Elderly Lady Is up to No Good.” Maud is a Swedish octogenarian who has built a satisfying life for herself. To outward appearances, she’s a sweet, gentle, somewhat ditzy soul quietly living out her last years. Just don’t think about crossing her. Extreme bad luck seems to come to those who do, a fact which hasn’t escaped the notice of detective inspector Irene Huss, who suspects the real Maud bears little resemblance to the image she shows the world.
While Tursten’s main character cultivates an artificial facade to get away with murder, Sayaka Murata’s protagonist in “Convenience Store Woman,” does so in order to get away with life. At thirty-six, Keiko Furukura has spent her entire adulthood employed at the Smile Mart convenience store. It’s the one place where she understands the rules for behavior, which are listed in minute detail in the company manual. She repeatedly observes that “foreign objects get expelled” and understands that her neurodivergence makes her a foreign object. She studies the dress styles, conversational topics and mannerisms of those around her so she can put on a mask of normalcy and survive. Her efforts are equally likely to evoke laughter or tears.
“Gender Queer,” a memoir in graphic novel format, is a moving look at gender and society. Maia Kobabe takes readers along on the personal journey of discovering what it means to realize you are non-binary in a society where people are sorted into either/or. The author skillfully synthesizes deeply personal recollections with information meant to instruct. Throughout the story, the importance of love and acceptance shine through.
In the young adult fantasy, “Skin of the Sea” by Natasha Bowen, we meet a character who has a different sort of identity struggle. Simidele is a Mama Wati, a mermaid tasked with providing a peaceful passing for the souls of those who die at sea. Numbers are increasing as the ships of enslavers journey from Africa to other continents. Though she is meant to forget, Simi recalls her previous life as a human a little too well. One day, she makes the grave mistake of saving a boy’s life, a decision that puts her into conflict with her assigned role and with the gods themselves.