The Continuity of Identity through Writing


Studies of identity have emerged only in the last few decades.  Gleason (1983) argues that this emergence was stoked up partly by the writings of the neo-Freudian Erik Erikson (1968).  It is certainly his writings  in  the  1950s  and  1960s  which  spotlighted  identity  development  (identity crisis).  Originating from  the  Latin  idem,  which  is  translated  as  identical,  similar,  (de  même), Identity ''signifies the 'sameness of an individual' at all times or in all circumstances''1. There is this notion of endurance and perdurance 2 when we examine identity over time, when we analyse a person’s identicality  throughout  a  lifespan,  that  helps  us  capture  continuity  in  one's  ''varied tapestry of one's life' 3. This implies studying identity diachronically, rather than synchronically when determining whether two coexistent objects are of the same genre. However, we can not wish to prevent change, or as Heraclitus argued that one could not bathe in the same river twice. Thinkers, such as Hume, would argue that identity over time is a sheer fiction, being noticeably based on a misunderstanding of Leibniz's law that if a thing changes something is true of it at the later time that is not true of it at the earlier 4. Such opinions, even if refutable, pose the problem of how  to characterize identity over time and despite change. The idea of change and sameness in identity  is  the  nub  of  this  article  which  seeks  how  English  Moroccan  writers  preserve  the sameness of their identity  through their writings, despite living abroad (as in the case of  Leila Lalami), while raising other related questions: can writing help in shaping identity ? Can identity be separated from the process of writing?


Born  and  raised  in  Morocco,  Leila  Lalami  is  a  Moroccan  writer  who  received  both  an English and American education. She was born in Rabat, Morocco, where she held a B.A degree in  English  from  the  Université  Mohammed  V 5.  Then  she  had  to  move  to  London  when  she received a British Council fellowship to study in England. After graduating from the University College in London, she returned to Morocco to work as a journalist and a commentator. She was also offered a job to work as a teacher at the university. But despite all that, she chose to fly to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. She has then made the US her permanent home. Being a student of English literature at an early age, living in London and afterwards in the US, Lalami has surely been fed an English and American culture that could instigate a change in her personality, say identity. “As learners acquire a foreign language, they also gain a new awareness of who and how they  are--they  develop  a  second  language  (L2)self  (Granger,  2004)" 6.  Leila  Lalami,  for  one, developed a second self, when she developed a second language as it is the case with all foreign language learners. In a report titled Foreign Language Learner Identity 7, Tomeica René Johnson, M.A.  stated  that  language  learner  social  identity  is  negotiated  in  three  contexts:  the  foreign language  classroom,  the  study  abroad  setting,  and  face-to-face  interactions.  In  the  foreign language classroom, language learning lacks authenticity which can be  criticized  in terms of its over-emphasis on linguistic accuracy (as opposed to competency accuracy) as an instrument for developing competence and the use of assessments that do not involve language in use. Be that as it may, students in  a foreign language  classroom are allowed access to the artifacts of  another culture.  Learners tend to examine the structure and function of a given language which allows them to permeate another culture. These learners bring their cultural background with them when studying  another  language;  “their  pre-established  first  language  (L1)  identity  is  reinforced,  renegotiated  and reformulated along with the L2  identity  as they move through the succession of lessons  and  graded  assignments.8”  Lalami,  of  course,  experienced  the  same  process  when  she attended foreign language  classrooms; she  had an opportunity to study abroad where she had the opportunity  to express herself in L2, and she also had a face-to-face interaction with  foreigners who  showcase  the  other  cultural  mores  she  had  to  face.  All  of  these  aspects  we  can  say contributed to enhance a change in Lalami's  identity , but does this change perturb the sameness of her identity over time?  Can  we say that the same person who was born and raised in Morocco has changed their  identity  once and for good? All of these questions can  be answered when we examine her writing of fictional works.



One  of  the  terms  which  Lalami,  I  think,  was  obliged  to  use  in  her  book,  Hope  and  Other Dangerous Pursuits, is Harragas, which she translated literally in a post about her book as ' those  who burn 9'. The term is used to describe  those immigrants who risk their lives to reach the other bank of the sea, to immigrate to Europe so as to have a better life. But they burn, figuratively, their lives for what, says Lalami,  “would very likely be a third-rate job”10.  The theme of Harraga is a national theme in Morocco which was very popular in the 90s and the early beginning of 21th century. This begs the question: why would Lalami choose a topic that is related to her Identity as a Moroccan?  Does  her  Identity  preserve  the same sameness of identity despite change and the influence of foreign language  learning? Digging deeper in an acquired identity to find a term that could  substitute  the  term  Harraga,  which  is  so  completely  extraneous  to  the  English  and American readers, and then coming up with the original term written in bold letters is what most Moroccan  writers  prefer  to  do.  Lalami's  real  identity  is  then  manifested  in  her  writings.  The awareness of herself as a Moroccan citizen who worries about news  coming from home, despite living in a foreign land, pushes us to form a conclusion that writing helped Lalami to express her real identity in a foreign milieu. The sameness of identity over time is still  persistent  in the case of Lalami. Her characters speak with a foreign language,  yet their names and backgrounds are familiar  to  Lalami's,  as  she  has  noted  in  her  blog:  “There  was  something  in  the  stories  of  the Harragas that seemed completely familiar to me.  Back  home, I never had to look very hard or very  far  to  find  the  kind  of  misfortune  that  drives  people  to  desperate  acts 11”.  However,  we cannot  easily  surrender  to  such  premise.  Lalami  wrote  this  story,  mainly  for  an  American audience,  those  who  believe  in  an  American  dream.  Harragas  also  have  a  dream  which  they endeveaour to pursue despite jeopardy. Lalami had the opportunity to immigrate and pursue her dream but there are many others who could not share her American dream.


An  analysis  of  Lalami's  Hope  and  Other  Dangerous  pursuits  stresses  the  connections between individual identity and  (groupness), while demonstrating a sense of continuity that is felt by Lalami's affiliation to a Moroccan Identity which is reassured at the level of the group by a connectivity  which  runs  back  through  history  and  is  carried  by  tradition.  At  the  level  of  the group,  she  still  shares  the  same  concerns  of  any  Moroccan  woman  who  read  the  news  of  her country  on  a  daily  basis.  Personal  Identity  is  the  sum  of  all  of  our  characteristics,  traits  and dispositions. Erikson describes  identity  as “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal  sameness  and  continuity,  paired  with  some  belief  in  the  sameness  and  continuity  of some shared world image”12.  (Erikson  1970). Lalami expressed this continuity and sameness in her  writings,  when  she  hit  on  a  topic  that  is  related  to  her  native  country,  Morocco,  while comparing it with  another continuity, and that is of the American dream which she had also the opportunity  to experience. Americans would  sympathize  with those immigrants who burn,  risk their  lives  in  order  to  immigrate,  a  thing  which  Americans  had  done  themselves  to  seek  their dreams in  a then  new world. They would empathize with those immigrants who are “assembled from the same deep and wide pool of human possibilities”13. It is through one of the phases of identity development that we can read Lalami's novel and that is identity achievement when she explored different identities and made a commitment only to one, and that is the identity of her as a  Moroccan  writer.  Writing  in  the  case  of  Lalami  helped  shape  her  identity's  continuity  and sameness, though tinged with other acquired aspects of a new life and identity.


The  idea  of  a  multiplicity  of  identity  within  the  self  can  be  described  as  polyvalence which is a  state of simultaneous coexistence within a  single  entity, structure, or concept. In the case of Lalami this idea of multiplicity is understood partly by her choice of themes. Living in Oregon, or any place in the United States and bringing up stories related to her native home tells us that Lalami struggles to highlight her identity in another culture where it is most threatened to be  distorted.  There  is  no  doubt  that  living  in  another  country  has  its  temptations  to  adapt  to another life style which is completely different to that you left at home. Lalami said in her blog  “I took my notebook in the dark living room, sat by the fireplace, and started writing ”14.  Then, she started writing about an illegitimate son from Casablanca, her home town.


One would argue that the act of writing about one's identity in a foreign country is an act of resistance to change, or it is an apparatus for self-formation 15, or self writing, and in the case of Lalami, say, Self-rewriting. Coming to know one's self again through literature and writing opens up a dialogue between text and self, an exchange or a symbiosis where the text takes from the self, and the self comes to be recognized through the text. The continuity of self through writing is obvious in the case of Lalami. She writes in foreign language in a foreign land about her home town,  about  the  people  she  scrutinized  when  she  used  to  live  in  her  native  land.  If  we  would argue  that  a continuity  of  Identity  is  unpreventable,  we  would  be  more  than  comfortable  to pinpoint  aspects  of  it  through  the  writings  of  Moroccan  writers  writing  in  foreign  Languages. However,  change occurs  leaving  room  for  heterogeneity  to  take  place.  As  I  pointed  out  in  the beginning, change is inevitable, but stasis is always therein, confirming a continuity of identity over time through writing. 


Footnotes:
1Edwards, John. Language and Identity. London and New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009. p.19
2(retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/#5 on 15 June, 2013)
3Edwards p .19
4http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/#5 ( 15 June, 2013)
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laila_Lalami (June 16, 2013)
6 http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/12463/JOHNSON-MASTERS-REPORT.pdf  (June 16,
2013)
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 http://lailalalami.com/hope-and-other-dangerous-pursuits/about/  (18 June, 2013)
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/identitycrisis.htm   (June 19, 2013)
13 Edwards. p.20
14 http://lailalalami.com/secret-son/about/ (June 20, 2013)
15Michel Foucault tells us about a form of self writing called the hupomnemata in an essay titled Self Writing in his book Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. In its simplest definition, the hupomnemata is a notebook, or journal of sorts for the Ancient Greeks.



References:
1.    Edwards, John. Language and Identity. London and New York: Cambridge University
Press. 2009.
2.    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity/#5
3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laila_Lalami
4.  http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/12463/JOHNSON-MASTERSREPORT.pdf
5.  http://lailalalami.com/hope-and-other-dangerous-pursuits/about/
6.  http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/identitycrisis.htm
7.  http://lailalalami.com/secret-son/about/

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