Oe all have multiple identities – the faces we wear at work, with our friends, with our partners, our parents, our children. These identities are an integral part of being human – necessary, some would say, for our survival. Some identities are however easier to hide than others: visible lines are drawn by the color of the skin, the classification of our sexual organs, our mother tongue. As a half-Pakistani, half-Nigerian and Muslim woman, raised in Britain and the United States, I have faced such lines all my life. I wanted to take elements of my experience – especially the less visible parts of my dual heritage – and weave them into a little-told story about South Asian migration to Africa (being the product of such an experience myself). ).
My first novel, We Are All Birds of Uganda, tells the story of two second-generation South Asian immigrants struggling with their dual identities: one, born and raised in London; the other, born and raised in Uganda. The novel explores the difficulties the protagonists face as a result of their status as migrants, against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s August 1972 edict expelling all Asians from Uganda.
Literature has long been preoccupied with characters that contain multiple selves. Gilgamesh battled his half-god, half-human lineage in some of the earliest Mesopotamian tales. Poor old Dr. Jekyll thought he could separate his two personalities without consequence. Times have moved on, and in a world where the importance of representation is increasingly recognized, modern fiction has examined some of the most realistic and relevant dual identities we can embody. The books below examine some of the factors that give rise to these dualities.
1. The Last of Fatima Daas
In this autofiction, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, Daas discusses her queer Muslim identity as a second-generation French Algerian immigrant. Each chapter begins with the same line: “My name is Fatima Daas” – emphasizing and affirming the author’s Muslim name, the invocation is reminiscent of the chapters of the Koran, which all begin: “In the name of ‘Allah…’. the story is told in memory fragments that take you through the defining moments of Daas’s life. A beautiful exploration of the double identity and the process of reconciling their hardest conflicts.
2. I Am Not Your Baby Mom by Candice Brathwaite
Brathwaite peppers this refreshing, honest, funny, and down-to-earth memoir with terrifying statistics (“Black babies have a 121% increased risk of being stillborn and a 50% increased risk of neonatal death…compared to white babies”) as she explores the life of a black woman and a mother – specifically not a baby mother. I first read it before becoming a mother, but have come back to it many times since. This is a book that everyone should read. Brathwaite describes in unflinching detail the near-death experience she suffered after the birth of her first child, the impact of having children on her career and relationships, and — most importantly — her identity as a black woman.
3. How to Be Both by Ali Smith
As the title suggests, this novel tells two parallel stories: half the story of Francesco, a sort of resurrected time traveler from the 15th century, who comes to observe George, a child living in present-day Cambridge struggling with a recent loss, who is the protagonist of the other half of the novel. A major theme is the experience of apparent opposites – including masculine and feminine, sorrow and joy, past and future.
4. If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar
A beautifully moving collection of poems by a Pakistani-born woman who was orphaned as a child and now lives in the United States. The book traverses themes of belonging, sexuality, identity, violence and grief. The title poem, in which Asghar describes “a dance of strangers in my blood / the old woman’s sari dissolving in the wind”, is one of my favorite poems anywhere.
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When Nigerian-born Ifemelu moves to America, she must contend with American society’s perception of her identity. The protagonist vacillates between embracing what she initially perceives as a Nigerian American dual identity – complete with the perfect American accent – and one that feels more true to herself which she explores in a blog about race.
6. Jhumpa Lahiri’s namesake
In her debut novel, Lahiri examines how our names shape identity, telling the story of a Bengali American family and their son, Gogol. Covering three decades of Gogol’s life in the United States, Gogol is constantly torn between two identities: the Bengali culture of his parents and the American culture in which he grew up.
7. Maybe I Don’t Belong Here by David Harewood
In these memoirs, Harewood recounts the events that precipitated a psychotic episode that led to him being severed and hospitalized, and their aftermath. It’s eye-opening reading and a subject that we don’t hear enough about – black men’s mental health – as Harewood explores the side effects of being black and British. “There was now half black and half English and I could feel myself slowly separating,” he wrote. Medical notes from Whittington Psychiatric Hospital read: “Patient believes he is two people.”
8. Coconut by Florence Olájídé
Young Olájídé is sent by her Nigerian parents to a white foster family in Britain, then returns with her family to Nigeria years later where she struggles to reconcile as a young Nigerian woman raised in Britain. Brittany. The clash of cultures, unfamiliarity with home and the desire to return to England, combined with the pride of being Nigerian, are all beautifully addressed.
9. Stitching by Natasha Brown
Don’t be fooled by the length of this less than 100-page short story – it packs a punch. Told in snapshots, the story follows an unnamed black woman as she visits her white boyfriend’s parents’ home in rural England for a party, amid disillusionment and discomfort with the multiple identities she was forced to adopt by working in the city and mixing with the white middle class. In the end, she must make a choice about her life.
10. The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch
This haunting classic explores the potentially devastating consequences of a failure to reconcile dual legacies. The protagonist is a mix of Native American and white blood and despite having a fairly happy childhood, he eventually descends into sadness and an identity crisis that his girlfriend and sister misunderstand.
We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan is published by #Merky Books (£12.99). It is shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Thursday, September 8.