Tuesday, July 9, 2013

WHO AM I? You Are Who You Say You Are and Other Possibly True Thoughts about Identity

When I was ten, one of my favorite books was Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. On the surface it's a time travel book, but there are some insights in it that struck me, even as a ten year old, as kinda cool. Now that I think about it, the book may have set me off on a lifetime quest.

Here's the gist of the story: a girl, Charlotte, is sent to a boarding school in the English countryside. The first day is overwhelming and confusing. She's in a strange place. She's meeting a bunch of new people. The girls all sleep in a big dormitory. Everyone has been going to this school for a while. They're friends, joking and fooling around, while Charlotte sits shyly on her bed and watches.

The next morning she wakes up and there's that feeling of strangeness again. She's in an unfamiliar place. She doesn't know anyone. She's homesick. So she doesn't realize at first that things are different. It is the same dormitory with the same beds. The same school. But the class schedule is different. The girls are different. One of them calls her Emily.

It slowly becomes apparent to Charlotte that she has slipped back in time and switched places with a girl named Emily. It's the bed, it turns out, that the two girls sleep in that makes the switch possible. The story unfolds with Charlotte and Emily switching places every other day, experiencing the lives of the other.

I think my ten-year-old self was attracted to the time travel aspect of this story, but also to the idea that it might be possible to escape your life--escape yourself. And there's a creepy notion at the heart of this book: Why are the girls able to pull off this switch? They don't even look very much alike.

One morning Charlotte simply wakes up in Emily's bed, people call her Emily, and she doesn't correct them.

I heard this idea once, that some authors explore the same subjects over and over. Jane Austen writes about marriage. Faulkner explores his little town in Mississippi. Fitzgerald keeps trying to figure out how the rich are different from you and me.

My go-to subject, I think, is identity. Somehow, even when I'm not aware of it, in my stories and books, I circle back to this theme. Who am I? my characters ask. How do people perceive me? Do people really know me? Can I change? 

No big shocker, my soon to be published first novel Thin Space plays around with this subject too.

Bear with me while I digress for a moment. When I was teaching high school English many years ago, I had a set of twins in my homeroom. Ned and Ed (not their real names) were identical, although there were slight differences in the shapes of their faces if you looked closely, if you took the time to get to know who was who.

I am ashamed to say that I did not take the time. I had Ned and Ed in my classroom for roughly fifteen minutes a day for an entire year, but I never learned which boy was which. These kids were on the annoying end of the behavior spectrum. When I reprimanded one of them, which I did, a lot, I always had to take a guess at the name.

Me: Ned, sit down.
Ned/Ed (glaring): I'm Ed.
Me: Whatever. Sit down, Ed.

It hit me one day how upsetting that must've been for those boys--to have people mixing them up, not taking the time to figure out who was who. And not caring enough to bother.

What would that be like--to be a twin? To have people--maybe even your closest friends and family--squinting, pausing, wondering--if you were you. 

Or if you were the other one.

You can read Thin Space on Sept. 10--exactly two months from today!--to find out how I answered that question.

In the mean time, since I am still clearly enamored with the topic of identity, I'm starting a teen guest blog series called WHO AM I?

I'll be posting the responses soon...


  1. This is really interesting--the idea of identity, but the idea of a go-to topic, as well. I think about this a lot. I find that I keep returning to the question of how much our sexuality defines us, and how we choose (or don't choose) freedom.

    1. The weird thing is that you, as the writer, don't always see your own theme.