Zeina Mohammed is a member of the 2018-19 MALA Young Leaders Fellowship. Fellows participate in monthly digital seminars, dinner discussions, and other MALA events. As part of the program, Fellows reflect on their multiple layers of identities – as daughters, sons, professionals, athletes, and so much more – and share those reflections into the MALA story collection. Personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change – challenging stereotypes, building bridges, and inspiring action. In a country as diverse and complex as the United States, the identities of Muslim Americans remain layered and contested. We all have stories to tell: stories that deserve to be collected, conserved, and celebrated. We are honored to share the stories of our Fellows here.
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote a theory called the “Anxiety of Authorship” that I think is extremely relevant in the discussion of my identity. The anxiety of authorship theory suggests that a male writer faces the anxiety of how to distinguish himself among his predecessors; however, the female writer suffers from insecurities that stem from not having enough female predecessors to guide and validate her writing.
Written in the 1979, this theory may be antiquated in its portrayal of the struggles of a female writer, but I do believe that it is extremely relatable to the identity crises suffered by numerous children of the diaspora (like me!).
The underlying assumption that there is an unease that comes from not seeing mirrors of yourself in your past is, in my opinion, an extremely valid one.
In short, my answer to the question of, “how do you choose to define yourself” is this: I don’t, not anymore.
What has become evident to me in my two decades participating in our (at times frustrating) society is that identity is only one-third about how you see yourself and two-thirds about how others see you. It is not until I understood this fact that I allowed myself to reject the notion of needing to find labels to desperately tether myself to fellow humans to feel whole. I observed that people will attentively listen to you describe yourself to decide how best to fit you into the catalogue of stereotypes and preconceived notions we attached identity groups. It’s human nature, we all do it. I’ve determined a set of acceptable answers to common questions in an attempt to minimise the amount of ownership others have over the way the world will describe me. If I’m going to be put in a box, I would like to at least be able to pick out the color.
I don’t know that I would like “straight, black, Sudanese, Muslim, Arab-African, female socialist” to be written on my tombstone and I definitely haven’t determined whether or not I identify as “American” now that I hold a U.S. citizenship. The only thing that I would definitively assert about myself is that I no longer define myself through my proximity to set constructed sub-sections of people. To get to know me is to understand the literature that has shaped my life – that’s what defines me.
We understand the world through the limitation of the words we know. It is not until a child is taught colors in school that they become aware of the existence of “blue” or “red.” While it may have been aware of the different hues that paint the world, the concept of colors created a system of identification and organisation. If the function of language is to allow humans to understand the world we live in (both metaphysically and socially constructed), I would argue that literature enables us to imagine where we would fit into that world. And, as we can only fathom concepts that we can put in words, I believe that the process of self-identification is entirely reliant on the options awarded to us.
These options come in the form of census questionnaires, societal labels, representation in the arts. For a four-eyed, nine-year-old child of the diaspora, those options were presented through books. Growing up a Sudania disconnected from my culture, I frantically searched for belonging in the spines of the endless selection of books I consumed. Looking for myself in the dining halls of Hogwarts or the myths of Olympic heroes, I was determined to find a kindred lost soul that would take me by the hand and lead me to the promise land of label-less existence.
As a child, I knew the answers to all of the questions. Religion? Muslim. Sex/Gender? Female. Nationality? Sudanese, later Sudanese-American. Race? Black/African-American/African. I could answer the question “where are you from.” albeit I’d need more than a second of that person’s time to fully communicate that the answer would make them no closer to understanding me as a person. The lack of diasporic literature that I was exposed to growing up left me in the habit of settling for representation in what I was reading. Any small similarity to a character and I would feel temporarily validated. While I witnessed my friends find doppelgängers, I settled for long-lost relations. It wasn’t until I found Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, that I began to understand that I am not alone in my confusion.
A breathtakingly beautiful collection of poems that explores her complicated relationship with her homeland, Elhillo was the first author who blessed me with the words to describe myself and my untethered existence.
Her line, “I have an accent in every language” spoke to my lack of comfortability within any homogenous society.
She writes, “I came here with a handful of names to mark up the vagueness of my body african arabized colonized” and gave me the strength to reconcile with the fact that I may never find a word or phrase to adequately describe myself to strangers. That I will have to resort to anecdotes and seemingly sarcastic prose to communicate the utter confusion I feel when attempting to explain to people that I just don’t have the words.
Or maybe I have too many words. I don’t know.
Visit the MALA Young Leaders page to learn about the 2018-19 Fellows and to read all their stories.