Exploring Issues of Identity & Belonging - Study Notes

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1 Exploring Issues of Identity & Belonging - Study Notes Sometimes Gladness by Bruce Dawe Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung Skin directed by Anthony Fabian The Member of The Wedding by Carson McCullers Overview of Identity & Belonging Questions of belonging and identity are fundamental to being human. Who am I, Where am I going, and where do I belong are questions that we ask ourselves every day. Since these questions are so significant in our lives, issues of identity and belonging are the foundations for any text. Identity doesn t exist in a vacuum. Our identity is informed and shaped by the people, groups and things around us. Identity and belonging, for that reason, are almost synonymous. We work out who we are by establishing where we belong. We constantly compare and contrast ourselves with others: who are we like? Who are we not like? Who do we want to be like? In each of the texts on the Identity and Belonging context list, this comes through strongly - from John Book in Witness thinking about how he is like or not like the Amish, to Frankie wanting to be like the adults in The Member of The Wedding, to the various struggles of the contributors in Growing Up Asian in Australia who are constantly comparing themselves with their Anglo peers, to the metaphors Dawe creates in his poetry which hold up powerful images that compare things like ants, or football supporters, to the elements of life and identity. We often characterise life as a journey - a journey of living, passing obstacles, experiencing and learning. Certainly this is the way we often represent life in a text (particularly narrative texts such as Witness) - as a journey that people or characters are going on. Whether a text is fiction or non fiction, looking at the text through a framework of The Journey of Identity and Belonging can help us understand which issues of identity and belonging are given particular significance in this text. The stages of the identity journey are listed below: One and apart from the world: In this stage of the journey a character or person belongs to one or several places, cultures or groups yet feels apart from it. A group, culture or place can have a strongly defined sense of identity - yet a character or person can question how much they belong or to what extent their identity is shaped by the places, groups or cultures. Reason to question and challenge certainties: In this stage, a catalyst arises for a character or person to actively question their sense of identity or belonging. This may arise because of identity conflicts that emerge from competing places, groups or cultures or because an event occurs which makes them question the accepted practices, views and values of a place, group or culture. Desire or cause to journey and change: In this stage, a character of person desires or is forced to journey away from what they are used to in order to discover a new and better self. Assume a disguise: In this stage, a character or person undertakes a journey, but assumes a disguise in order to prevent people from mistaking them for their old or lesser selves. Pass the entrance with the disguise: Part of any journey is to broach new places, cultures or groups. The entrance way to these places are guarded to keep out people who don t belong. In this Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 1

2 phase of the journey a character or person is able to convince those who guard the entrance way that their disguise is real. Clarifiers and confusers: Journeying into a new place, culture or group in the disguise of a different person helps clarify for the person the feelings of belonging that they enjoy and the attributes of identity that empower them. However, for a character or person this stage of the journey, with the excitement and power that come from their disguise being accepted, can also confuse them or blind them to what is truly meaningful for them in terms of identity and belonging. Disguise revealed: No person on a journey of identity and belonging can wear a disguise forever - (or if they do, there is never any resolution to their journey - or there is a tragic resolution). In this stage of the story a crisis occurs - such as a decision or an action a character or person must undertake - that finally reveals who they really are. They must reveal their disguise and present their true selves to the world. True identity recognised: After a character or person s disguise has been revealed, the true identity is revealed to others, but also to themselves. Acceptance and understanding: In this final phase of the journey, a person or character must come to accept their identity and accept the barriers and opportunities that exist in their experiences of belonging. Of course not all of these stages happen in every text - and if they do, they don t necessarily happen in this order. Some texts focus only on one or two elements. A simpler way of thinking about identity and belonging in texts is to examine what contributes to positively clarifying, developing and supporting a sense of identity and belonging and what factors create barriers and confusion in achieving a sense of identity and belonging. Immediate and Bigger Contexts for Belonging & Identity: Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes Belonging and identity are separate ideas but also inseparable ideas. Our identity is influenced by everything around us - from the groups, people, places and cultures that we most feel we belong to. It s important to recognise that people have many contexts for belonging - starting with the small (you, your family, your partner), to the much bigger (your country). Below is a list of different generic groups people can belong to. In thinking about the texts on this list, think about the immediate contexts for belonging and the bigger contexts for belonging: Me My direct family My partner My indirect family My friends My friends friends People in my class People in my street People in my neighbourhood People at my workplace People who are in the same clubs and organisations as me People who like the same music/films/tv shows/food/clothes/accessories as me Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 2

3 People at my school People the same age as me People of my culture People of my gender People of my religion People of my state People of my country People of my political beliefs People of my moral beliefs People who speak my language Exploring issues of identity and belonging: Many texts that deal with identity - and certainly most of the texts on this list - show us that conflict occurs when a sense of identity and belonging is challenged, threatened, destroyed or forcibly imposed. When an individual or group feels any of these things, one of two things seems to happen: 1) they engage in conflict in order to regain their sense of identity and belonging; 2) they engage in conflict because they no longer have a sense of identity and belonging. Sometimes Gladness Bruce Dawe s poetry is often lauded for the way it captures ordinary Australia and reflects on the concerns of ordinary individuals through the use of the vernacular (slang / informal language) in the poetry. His use of the vernacular is caught perfectly in Mrs Swipe Speaks Out : So I said to her I said I m not one to complain I said as you know only too well I said but if you think I m going to put up with this nonsense indefinitely you ve go another think coming... Mrs Swipe, is, of course taking a swipe. Language - how we speak, the idioms we keep coming back to, are a core part of our identity. Certainly this is one reason Dawe makes an ideal choice for the Identity and Belonging Context. His poems are about capturing moments (or in fact whole lives, sometimes) and reflecting on a sense of cultural connectedness, alienation or, at times, indifference. Disconnectedness is a strong theme throughout Dawe s poetry. In his introduction to his Sometimes Gladness collection he has this to say: Too many good people get lost this way, and the omnipresent influence of the media, of the shallow and dehumanising value-system purveyed by the consumer society ( Happiness is a Kellog s breakfast ), make it all the more important for us to get over this simple-minded view of ourselves which was a stereotype fifty years ago. The poems below are good entry points in considering how Dawe examines and explores issues of identity and belonging in his poetry: Life Cycle - Life Cycle is perhaps Dawe s most well known poem. It relates the experience of Victorian football fans - whose footballing cultural identity is shaped at birth and follows them through to their death. Dawe writes that at birth children are wrapped in club-colours. Later on, with their support for their team inculcated deep within them, the tides of life will be the tides of Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 3

4 the home-team s fortunes. So great is their passion for their team that they will not grow old as those from the more northern States grow old.../ That passion persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons, / enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions. The cultural experience of being a passionate Australian Rules football supporter is captured here, but in terms of identity and belonging this is not just a poem about barracking madly for AFL teams. The experience here has the potential to happen anywhere. Though Dawe says that supporters will not grow old as those from more northern States grow old, this is a statement about how we can view the attributes of the cultural identities we are proud of - they keep us young and passionate - more young and passionate than those around us. This poem could speak of support for any sporting team, or our love for music, film or any other cultural experience that can be core to our sense of identity and belonging and where the experience becomes so central to how we live our lives that the tides of life will be the tides of the [culture s] fortunes. Homo Suburbiensis - As in so many of Dawe s poems, such as Homo Suburbiensis, a particular time and place is captured - but the experience can be universal. We can locate the same experience from the poem in our own context. Homo Suburbiensis tells of a place apart from a world of variables. For the man in this poem it is being alone in the evening in his patch of vegetables, / and all the things he takes down with him there. The experience of being alone - of being apart from the noisy world - but still hearing vaguely the clatter of a dish / in a sink that could be his, hearing a dog, a kid, a far whisper of traffic allows for quiet reflection and introspection. It s a place for thinking - for not being part of things, but apart from them and considering them. In this place of thought, this man can think: he thoughts can offer / - time, pain, love, hate, age, war, death, laughter, fever. These are conflicting ideas. This thinking place is not for resolving the great dilemmas of life, but for considering the compass of them. This poem asks us to think about where our place apart is. Where can we be apart from those things so central to our everyday existence and identity - yet still be able to look upon them and consider them? Enter Without So Much as Knocking - Like Life Cycle, this poem chronicles a person s life from birth to death and looks at how they respond to their cultural context. In this case, Dawe views the cultural context as a highly commercialised and compromising landscape through which we travel like we are almost on an industrialised factory line. The poem begins with a baby born in hospital - Blink, Blink. HOSPITAL. SILENCE. The baby boy is taken home after ten days, and in the background is the ubiquitous Bobby Dazzler on Channel 7. Bobby Dazzler is colloquial for someone who is flashily dressed. Here, Dawe paints the cultural context of this child as one of insubstantial tv shows, though the child is lucky in this case because it didn t mean / a thing to him then... The and then... is the important part, because eventually this culture will become engrained in him - it will mean something to him. In the next stanza the child s home is characterised as a commercialised environment. It s well equipped. His mother is economy-size and his father an Anthony Squires- / Coolstream-Summerweight Dad (Anthony Squires is the name of a men s clothes shop) and his siblings straight off the Junior Department Rack. The child s identity is rapidly being shaped by the consumer cultural world around him - by clothes, by appliances. The third stanza portrays the life of consumerism in more depth. The boy s mother has won a quiz and took him shopping. The rules of this consumer and cultural world are rigid but confusing: WALK. DON T WALK. TURN / LEFT. NO PARKING. WAIT HERE. NO / SMOKING. KEEP CLEAR/OUT/OFF GRASS. NO / BREATHING EXCEPT BY ORDER. This congested and confusing landscape - that structures our movements and make our decisions for us - is one that we all belong to in the consumer world. Despite this, there is hope. In the following stanza the boy admires a pure / unadulterated fringe of sky, littered with stars / no one had got around to fixing up yet. Though most of the landscape is consumed and constricted by the drive-in screen ( where / giant faces forever snarled screamed ) there are still spaces where we can find Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 4

5 freedom and identify with the natural beauty of the environment. However, for the boy of the poem soon this space and freedom disappears because adulthood leaves behind the childhood innocence and brings with it a dog-eat-dog world: soon he was old enough to be / realistic like every other godless / money-hungry back-stabbing miserable / so-and-so. His philosophy becomes looking out for Number One. In this stanza the grown man speaks in his own voice - using a string of cliches to describe his daily existence. No longer is his life one of looking at the stars, or even of the wellequipped smoothly-run household of his childhood but a real battle. The poem finishes with the death of the man - his corpse being done up like a hairstyle or a cake ( Probity & Sons, Morticians, / did a really first-class job on his face ). His death is portrayed as like a conclusion to a game show of life, where the man had an automatic smile with nothing behind it. Death is a cyclical return to the beginning - the final lines of the poem Blink, blink. CEMETERY. Silence - the same as the line at the beginning of the poem, except for the place, of course, and the fact that the Silence is not fully capitalised - because it is enduring? Or more gentle than the silence at the beginning? The poem raises several interesting questions about identity and belonging. How much of our identity is shaped by the consumer environment around us? How much choice do we have in shaping our identity - is it shaped from our context right from birth? Can there no longer be any childhood identity in our adult world? Is adult life always a battle? Thinking about the poem in terms of the title and the Latin quote that goes with it raises further questions. The title Enter Without So Much As Knocking - is ambiguous. Does it mean that you are welcome to enter (life) any time you like - or that you are compelled to do so? The Latin quote, which means remember man you are dust and to dust you will return suggests that life is framed either by certainties and a set course, or that we must take our opportunities when we can to carve out our unique identity and enjoy our sense of belonging. Compare this poem to Televistas which marks the milestones of a couple s relationship through the television shows they watch. After You Gary Cooper: This poem seems almost to be an inversion of the seize the day philosophy. In this poem, life is seen through the lens of a western action movie. Gary Cooper was a American actor well known for the roles he played in westerns where he perfectly encapsulated the role of the stoic, emotion free hero who could cope with anything. We can t all do this. As Dawe notes at the start of this poem, life can be a bit of a / bastard if you don t happen to have / the basic formula for facing it. The formula is the hero cliche that Gary Cooper portrays in his films. It s a tempting formula to identify with, to want to be like. Dawe goes on to write about life as Life a character equal to the manly roles that Cooper plays. Life is that taciturn hero with the steel blue eyes who will shoot an awful lot of hot lead / in your general direction. What do we do about this? Do we turn and shoot back like Gary Cooper or do we tell Gary Cooper he s welcome to it (go ahead Gary, after you...)? In After You Gary Cooper, Dawe sees no need to act out this archetypal manly role Gary Cooper has created: Personally, I m damn glad / I won t be any closer to the old Wild West than / Ranch Night at the local theatre, he writes. It s not about being a whimp, about copping out - rather, it s about not buying into a stereotypical identity for the sake of looking good for twenty / gunsmoke-glorious seconds... An interesting contrast to After You Gary Cooper s antihero themes, is the entrenched masculinity of Weapons Training where an army seargent instructs new soldiers how to protect the crown-jewels while shooting with a burst / from your trusty weapon a mob of the little yellows. The Machine/The Ant Lion: These two poems are good examples of the metaphors Dawe creates in his poetry for the type of society we live in. In The Ant Lion he imagines the cars on a highway as being like a procession of ants. The traffic cop is like an ant-lion who waits for his prey. Once Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 5

6 one unwitting ant-driver is puller over, the lion is seen by passers-by, now only the unwritten code / of the colony can save others: / Beep-beep! Flick-flick! go the warning / signals. It s an interesting analogy of identity to compare our workday society to that of ants. It seems to suggest that we are drone like. Here society is seen not as a utopia but more like a dystopia. A related poem is The Machine. The vast machine that gives its name to the title of the poem, is the thing that somehow is society. The citizens pray to it, send their sorrows to it and It takes them in; it does not, in it turn, / Think of its citizens who dream of it. There s a strong anxiety in this poem about how a soulless society - its consumerism, and pressures of pop culture and bland suburbia - can overwhelm and destroy its citizens. This anxiety comes through strongly in two other Dawe poems: The New Creature and In The New Landscape. Links: Compare this text to: Lyrics of Australian Identity - We can compare and contrast Dawe s view of Australian identity to a number of iconic Australian songs. The Go Between s Cattle & Cain and Streets of You Town are good places to start. Find the lyrics to the songs at: Suburbia - Images of suburbia recur throughout Dawe s poetry. A great text to parallel to this is Arcade Fire s hit 2010 song The Suburbs. The lyrics speak about a desperate alienation felt in the suburbs, and Spike Jonze s award winning music video that goes with it perfectly captures it. Watch the video here: Another great image of suburbia can be found in American poet Linda Hogan s Potholes. It can be compared and contrasted with Dawe s The Ant Lion or The Machine. Find the poem here: poem-for-suburbia.html Life Cycle Lyrics - One of Dawe s most famous poems is Life Cycle. Over the decades many bands have done a similar thing in songs that chronicle the life of a person. Two interesting ones to compare to Dawe s poem are My Friend The Chocolate Cake s Midlife s Tale (see the lyrics here: ) or Harry Chapin s Cat s In The Cradle (read the lyrics here: Killing Time At Home - This might not be the first text you would think of to compare to Bruce Dawe s poetry. This 2003 UK short animated film (it s 3 mins long) shows a future dystopia where disposable friends can be bought online. It creates a vision of an industrial consumer culture - and how our identity is shaped by it - that can be linked to Enter Without So Much as Knocking and also In The New Landscape. Watch the film here - Growing Up Asian in Australia Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes This collection of writings from second, third and fourth generation Asian-Australians goes to the heart of many of the issues of identity and belonging. Like the film Witness, the collection explores the issues that arise when two distinctly different cultures merge and connect somehow. However, unlike the film, this collection of writing looks at the tensions that can arise when two distinct cultures exist side by side and fail to connect with each other. For some of the voices in Growing Up Asian in Australia - this is the cultural divide between Asian and Anglo culture. However, it is Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 6

7 also about the identity divide within your own culture. About the generational divide between children who want to be one thing and parents who want them to be something else. More than any other text, this collection is about navigating the competing claims or forces of identity and belonging. But it would be wrong to see this text as just about the Asian-Australian experience of growing up. Many of the issues around identity and belonging that are explored by the authors in this anthology aren t unique to growing up Asian, because they re about growing up - no matter who you are and where you come from. In her introduction to the collection Pung says: Growing up is a funny time. During no other period will we experience so many firsts : first day at school, first friend, first love, first fear, first heartbreak, first loss, first epiphany. Growing up is about these important milestones in life. Milestones are the signposts and cross roads on our journey of identity - they re the points in life we reach towards, and they re the points in life where we assess who we are, how we feel about who we are, and what we want to do next. The collection has been divided into several sections. Interestingly these sections draw their names from terminology that is deeply embedded in (Anglo) Australian culture. I have arranged the anthology around loose themes selected with a certain irony, Pung writes at the start of Growing Up Asian in Australia, picking out traits that have been worthy of collective national pride - the Battler, the Pioneer, the Legend - to show that these heroic characteristics are not confined to those with white faces and First-Fleet heritage. Terms like battler and pioneer (and digger and mate ) have become important reference points in white Australian culture. They are the labels for icons in our culture that help us explain what is unique about being Australian - how it is different to being American or English. But as Pung notes, they are also terms that have been used exclusively - they belong only to white Australians. Pung s use of the terms not only highlights the heroic characteristics of Asian Australians, but also challenges ideas such as the fair go which are central to Australian identity. How much of a fair go have non-white Australians had in the country of mateship? Pung s collection is eclectic. Some of the pieces of writing are narrative recounts - stories of childhood and growing up that emphasize some of the joys and struggles of exploring Asian identity while growing up in Australia. Other pieces are less narratives than reflections or essays - while others capture (sometime random) moments and feelings. Here s a discussion of some of the pieces that are a representative sample of the anthology as a whole: Being bullied and identity - We-Lei and Me p In this piece, Aditi Gouvernel recounts her experience as the only Indian child in a Canberra primary school. Mercilessly bullied by Barry West, she was happy when a Chinese boy, We-Lei turns up and takes some of the bullying normally handed out to her. However, she quickly identifies with the injustice of the bullying being meted out to We-Lei and goes to his aid. It s a simple but powerful story of surviving bullying and identifying and finding belonging with those who have similar experiences to you. This story can be compared and contrasted with Baked Beans and Burnt Toast (p. 329) where Jacqui Larkin relates her primary school experience of being teased and stared at by Peter Nugent. She later meets Peter in Hong Kong. He s learnt Cantonese and left behind suburban Australia: It was all football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars...i knew there was another world out there beyond the whole...meat pie thing. It s a nice little story about how both bully and victim are struggling with issues of identity. Tony Ayres Silence (p. 234) is also about bullying and makes an interesting companion to the pieces mentioned above. In Ayres piece, a neo-nazi enters a restaurant to confront Ayres and his Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 7

8 partner for being poofs. It s not the grown Ayres who stands up for himself, but the young Asian waitress who is serving him. I want to be like someone else - and identity - Exotic Rissole p This story operates on the grass is always greener principle of identity: something different is more interesting than what you re used to (See also Shalini Akhil s Destiny (p. 176) where she relates how as a young girl she wanted to be Indian Wonder Woman). In this story Tanveer Ahmed admires everything about my best friend, Daryl in primary school. Daryl (known as Lynchy ), on the other hand, seems to admire everything about Tanveer - readily helping himself daily to Tanveer s mother s spicy food. Despite his mother s delicious spicy food, all Tanveer wants is to taste the exotic rissoles of Daryl s mother and to see his house - he has never been invited over. The strong sense here is that Daryl is ashamed somehow of where he comes from. There s a touch of sadness to the different paths the boys take - and the fact that they never see each other after primary school. The story is an interesting reminder that while growing up Asian in Australia often meant yearning to be the same as Anglo-Australians, there were also Anglo-Australians who yearned to be like them. Parents, expectations and identity - Perfect Chinese Children p. 103 In this piece Vanessa Woods relates the experience of growing up with the pressure to achieve academic excellence (Similar parent expectations for academic excellence can be found in Five Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother (p. 287) and The Courage of Soldiers (p. 291)). When she achieves 96 on a Maths exam, her mothers asks her What happened to the other four per cent? The pressure becomes intense, and as Vanessa develops an aversion to school so does the emotional terrorism. The story is a fascinating reflection on the identity divide between generations - the different goals and motivations that children have from their parents. However, it is also a case study in empathy - that though there are things that divide us, we can understand each other. Vanessa does her best in Year 12 in the end, and though her mother doesn t overflow with constant affirmation, Vanessa understands the things her mother has done to help her - and in her sacrifice, I see love. The relationships between children and their parents is a big theme throughout Growing Up Asian in Australia. The relationship is critical to a sense of belonging and identity - yet so often it can be fraught. Perfect Chinese Children is an example of the difficulty many of the author s in this collection identify their parents as having in communication with their children. Conversations With My Parents (p. 130) by Oanh Thi Tran is another example. In this story, Tran relates her experience living in England and calling home to have abrupt, awkward conversations with her mother - I never get the opportunity to tell my parents I miss them or that I love them. The need for children to connect with their parents is powerful. This comes through in Amy Choi s The Relative Advantages of Learning My Language, where she relates, with regret, that she was never particularly kind to my grandfather. After he dies, she realises too late how important being able to speak to him and learn from him would have been. Paul Nguyen s You Can t Choose Your Memories is similar. Nguyen s father was distant from him as a child, but when his father became sick he spent more time at home: He was a homebody like me. He liked pizza as much as I did...i thought to myself, This is a man I could love. And then he died. Being a teenager and identity - A Big Life p. 220 So much of Growing Up Asian in Australia is not necessarily about being Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Indian, of Thai - but simply the painful, awkward, confusing and joyous process of growing up. It s about growing up - a difficult enough process - and then having the added complication of being Asian in an predominantly Anglo country. This piece is a brief, edited extract from Jenny Kee s memoir Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 8

9 A Big Life. It s about the universal experiences of growing up - not wanting to move schools because of friends, school being about popularity, the first kiss, the school formal - and arguments with parents about what to do after school. Kee s journey as a teenager is, in its own way, fairly typical of many teenager s experiences. How does this story compare to My First Kiss (p. 216) or Towards Manhood (p. 195) which are both stories about the struggle on being a teenager, and being Asian, and being gay? Links: Alice Pung s Website - Compare this text to - Don t Peak in High School - this collection, subtitled From bullied to A List bears many similarities to Pung s collection. A range of well known Australians are interviewed and relate their experiences being bullied for being different when they were growing up. Some of the contributors, like Benjamin Law, are even the same. You can read some of the pieces from the collection here: t-peak-high-school-bullied-listinspirational-guide-coping-bullying-teenagers-benjamin-law and here: Does My Head Look Big In This? - Randa Abdel-Fattah s semi autobiographical novel follows the journey of a 16 year old Australian-Palestinian-Muslim girl and the various problems she comes across from her white Australian peers at an exclusive girls school in Melbourne, particularly after 9/11. Like Growing Up Asian In Australia, this text looks at difficulty faced by non-white Australians to connect with Australian culture. Read more about the book here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/does_my_head_look_big_in_this%3f Growing Up in Australia - the origins of this piece are actually unclear. But it has been a web viral hit since it was written sometime in the early 2000s. Essentially, it deals with Anglo-Australian s experience of growing up in Australia: I'm talking about hide and seek in the park. The corner milk bar, hopscotch, billy carts, cricket in front of the garbage bin, skipping, handstands, footy on the best lawn in the street. British bulldog 1-2-3, go home stay home, slip'n'slide, the trampoline with water on it, hula hoops, pogo sticks, stepping in enormous puddles, mud pies and building dams in the gutter. The smell of the sun and fresh cut grass. 'Big bubbles no troubles' with Hubba Bubba bubble gum. A choc-top Mr Whippycone on a warm summer night after you've chased him round the block. When 20 cents worth of mixed lollies was a meal and smoking fags was really cool. How does this typical white experience compare and contrast to the experience Asian-Australians in Growing Up Asian in Australia? Find a complete version of Growing Up In Australia at - New Boy Short film: An oscar nominated short film based upon a story by Roddy Doyle. The short film looks at an African boy s first day in an Irish school. He is bullied but overcomes this. Watch is on Youtube at: Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 9

10 Anh Do An Asian-Australian comedian who is author of The Happiest Refugee. He in interviewed in the Tall Poppies section of Growing Up Asian in Australia. Anh came to Australia when his family fled from Vietnam. His comedy often deals with the experiences of being Asian in Australia. See a video of some of his comedic reflections on this topic at: The Member of The Wedding Carson McCuller s novella The Member of The Wedding tells the story of 12 year old Frankie. No longer a child ( Who is this great big long-legged twelve-year-old blunderbuss who still wants to sleep with her Papa ) and on the cusp of teenager-dom, Frankie feels little sense of belonging to her peer group - it was the summertime when she felt that the world was separate from herself. Physically, she feels awkward and separate from girls her own age - Frankie was too tall this summer to walk beneath the arbor as she had always done before. Other twelve year old people could still walk around inside. Socially, she has also become alienated from her friendship group. The novel begins with the narrator telling us She was in so much secret trouble... Later, it gives us more information: There was in the neighbourhood a clubhouse, and Frankie was not a member. The members of the club were girls who were thirteen and fourteen and even fifteen years old. They had parties with boys on Saturday night. Frankie knew all of the club members, and until this summer she had been like a younger member of their crowd, but now they had this club and she was not a member. They had said she was too young and mean. Unable then to find a sense of identity and belonging with people her own age, Frankie looks elsewhere. Her older, and only, sibling Jarvis is getting married. The marriage becomes a catalyst for Frankie to explore her identity. She tells Berenice, the housekeeper, that she s ready to leave this town and I wish I was somebody else. Jarvis wedding becomes for her the location of a plan to leapfrog her awkwardness and alienation in becoming a teenager and to assume adulthood directly. She plans that she will become a member of Jarvis s wedding party. She will be like a third partner in Jarvis marriage and travel the world with them after their wedding. With this plan she undertakes an important phase in any narrative dealing with journey s of identity - she assumes a disguise - a false identity. Previously, Frankie had dabbled in illicit behaviour (shooting her father s pistol in a vacant block, stealing a knife, and having a sexual experience with Barney McKean) - experimenting with the feelings of engaging in experiences that more mature people usually have. However, her plan to assume adulthood with Jarvis wedding party is more thought out. She changes her name from the childish Frankie to the more mature F. Jasmine. Having assumed this disguise of a mature adult she needs to test it - to see if she really can pass for an adult in the adult world. To this end she meets up with a soldier who she first goes drinking with, and then goes on a date with. The date reveals her naivety - the soldier wants, of course, to have sex with her: something that Frankie had no conception of. This challenges her adult disguise - but does not dint her plan. After the wedding, and the humiliation of not being able to go with Jarvis and his new wife, and running away and being brought home by the police, Frankie moves on. The novella concludes with Frankie as a 13 year old with a good friend in Mary. The novella poses many important questions about identity and belonging. What is the importance of mentor roles in our life and in shaping and guiding our identity? In Berenice, Frankie has a Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 10

11 significant mentor. Berenice advises that we can be trapped by the circumstances of our identity - We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself. We are who we are and we need to accept this, and not fight it. But Berenice, as an African American woman in the south at a time when coloureds had far fewer rights and even less power than whites, also knows that - Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. In Berenice s vision of a perfect world, there would no distinction between the colour of people, and no war. But this adult voice of social justice and equity is lost on Frankie. She is consumed with making her own childish sense of the world. In her perfect world there would be no summer, but plenty of snow. The novella also challenges us to think about how critical a sense of belonging is in understanding our identity. Frankie s identity crisis is sparked by her strong sense of not belonging - and it is only resolved once she finds a friend she can belong to. The novella further asks us to think about the journey of identity - is it a natural part of being a teenager? Is it important for all of us to undergo somekind of journey of identity in order to discover ourselves? Finally, how do Berenice and John Henry fit into this? Though Frankie is at the centre of this novella, issues of identity and belonging are also explored through the characters of Berenice and John Henry who are compared and contrasted to Frankie throughout the text. Throughout the novel McCullers makes use of the imagery of setting to emphasise the issues of identity and belonging that face Frankie. The novel is set during Frankie s summer school holidays, and in particular, one week during the dog days (the hottest period during summer). For Frankie, the summer heat renders the town flat and dull: The sun took the color from the sky and the brick stores seemed shrunken, dark, beneath the glare... The landscape around her is bereft of life, just as her own sense of identity and belonging is bereft of meaning. Her brother s world of Alaska - far away and in the snow - is a complete contrast. And the powerful co-incidence of her brother marrying someone from Winter s hill, further re-inforces for Frankie the idea that the marriage of her brother marks the entry into a landscape as exotic and worldly as her own home is dry and pathetic. Symbolically, the seasons change at the end of the novel, and Frankie moves on. But not before John Henry dies. But why does this six year old boy need to be struck down with disease at the end of the novel? He too is a symbol - a child, on one hand, but seemingly in possession of thoughts beyond his years on the other hand. His character is intricately linked to Frankie s. He is described as a tiny watchmaker (just as Frankie is interested in the watchmaking of her father), and he is constantly chasing after Frankie, wanting to be with her - Wait Frankie...I m coming. Like Frankie he also seems to be parentless (though he does have parents he is constantly at Frankie s house) and without friends his own age. In many ways, John Henry symbolises the small child in Frankie, and his death marks her transition away from this part of her life. After Frankie s failure to accompany her brother and his wife after the wedding there was: a jellied stillness in the air and then the mutter of the first thunder. A storm at this point would have signified renewal: with rain comes life. But in the stead there was John Henry s death. Compare this text to - Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes Every teen text deals with identity or status anxiety. Questions of identity and belonging are a natural and fundamental part of teenager-dom. Journeying from childhood to adulthood is about asking all the important question - Who am I? Where am I going? What do I stand for? Where do I belong? Teen films show this particularly using the identity journey narrative structure - where characters assume a disguise or false identity in order to explore their understanding or identity and belonging. Example of such teen films which can be compared to The Member of The Wedding are: Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 11

12 Hey, Hey It s Ester Blueberger Mean Girls Saved For a full list of teen films see - Quotes - This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. p.3 This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak. p. 4 And already Frankie was too big; this year she had to hang around and pick from the edges like grown people. p. 8 There was in the neighbourhood a clubhouse, and Frankie was not a member. The members of the club were girls who were thirteen and fourteen and even fifteen years old. p. 12 The wedding was bright and beautiful as snow and the heart in her was mashed. p. 17 She was afraid of all the Freaks, for it seemed to her that they had looked at her in a secret way and tried to connect their eyes with hers, as though to say: we know you. p. 20 This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. p. 22 She thoughts of the world as huge and cracked and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour. p. 23 Frankie felt...left out of everything. p. 24 All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. p. 42. She saw in her mind her brother and the bride, and the heart in her was squeezed so hard that Frankie almost felt it break. p. 45 Because of the wedding, F. Jasmine felt connected with all she saw, and it was as a sudden member...she went around town. p. 49 He had asked who was the great big blunderbuss who still wanted to sleep with her old papa...p. 51 The sun took the color from the sky and the brick stores seemed shrunken, dark, beneath the glare...p. 66 The words did not make sense to her and she did not understand. p. 72 Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes Here you got on this grown woman s evening dress...and that brown crust on your elbows...p. 90 First, there would be no separate colored people in the world...no war...pgs The world of Berenice was a round world, and the old Frankie would listen to the strong deep singing voice, and she would agree...p. 97 She also changed the seasons, leaving out summer altogether, and adding much snow. p. 97 Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 12

13 You have a name and one thing after another happens to you...so that soon the name begins to have a meaning. p. 113 I can t ever be anything else but me, and you can t ever be anything else but you. p. 115 We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself. p. 119 Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people. p The point is that we all caught. And we try in one way or another to widen ourself free. p. 120 He brought in with him the stir of company that she had always loved and envied about this...house...p. 130 There was a jellied stillness in the air and then the mutter of the first thunder. p. 149 There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody, that she could join with to go away. p. 155 It was better to be in a jail where you could bang the walls than in a jail you could not see. p. 157 She was back to the fear of the summertime, the old feelings that the world was separate from herself. p. 157 When Frances was sixteen and Mary eighteen, they were going around the world together. p. 159 Skin Based on a true story, Skin recounts the remarkable life of Sandra Laing, a black South African born to white parents at the height of apartheid. Sandra s world was a place with strict segregation. White South Africans had the power in a society where black South Africans were classified as second class citizens. At school, white children were taught that everything about black South Africans was different and Sannie Laing, Sandra s mother, tells Sandra during the film that to be black in South Africa is to be dirt. Sandra s problems start when she first goes to school. I m not black, Sandra says to a friend at school when she asks about her skin colour. She has been raised by her white parents as if her skin were white and she believes no different. After her birth, her parents had set up a shop in an isolated region in order to hide out, and protect her. Removed from society, Sandra has no reason to question the identity her parents have carefully constructed for her. But school changes that. For the first time, Sandra is confronted with people who view her as black. Sandra does not belong here, the principal says, and eventually she is forced to leave because of the complaints of the white parents. Because this issue of Sandra s skin colour dominates the film, it would be easy to see this film as just about racial identity. After all, Sandra comes to realise that I m not white, and has to deal with these consequences. But the conflict that arises because of her skin colour is just part of a much Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 13

14 bigger battle field of issues of identity that this film raises. For Sandra, many of her issues of identity and belonging are rooted in the desperate struggle of her father to shape and control who she is. Abraham Laing s racist mentality is more fixed than Sannie Laing s. There should be a distance of six feet between black and white people when talking, he believes. And he objects to his wife talking to black people at all: Why do you talk to them...sell to them, that s all you need to do. Though he says that Sandra is special...a brave, intelligent...child, his racist mentality means that he cannot accept that she s black. He needs to make her white and he s willing to take on the whole bloody government if I need to. Though he claims that I m doing it for her, the destructiveness of his actions arise from the fact that he is motivated to conform to what is accepted by white society, and not really driven by the best interests of Sandra herself. What ultimately destroys the relationship between he and Sandra isn t that a racist society can t accept Sandra as a white person, it s that Abraham can t truly accept Sandra as black person. This is not an issue about race, but issues of identity and belonging that arise between parent and child. There are other big picture issue of identity and belonging going on her as well. How does is the individual pressured by society to conform. How does gender influence our identity? The issue of whether Sandra is black or white becomes a dramatic catalyst for exploring not just issues of race, but a whole range of issues of identity and belonging. The film shows us that issues of identity and belonging are never explored in isolation, but that one issue will always link to another. Characters: Sandra Laing: Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes While Sandra s issues of identity seem to be centered around being the black skinned daughter of white parents, and her father s fierce determination to have her classified and accepted as white, she also struggles with her identity as a daughter, sister, woman and mother in the film. Abraham Laing: Abraham is determined to have the world accept his daughter as white. He says that his determination is because I m doing it for her. However, his need for his daughter to be classified as white brutally damages her sense of self. Abraham s identity is fueled by being a white male and being the head of the family. His violent reactions to what he sees as the transgressions of his daughter shows that his sense of identity needs to be conformed to. Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 14

15 Sannie Laing: Though Sannie shares the racist views of her husband (to be black is to be dirt she says), race is not the overriding issue of identity for her. She sees Sandra as her daughter who is beautiful the way she is. Though Sannie identifies first as a mother, it is her role as a wife that dominates her life. As a wife, she needs to let her husband set the agenda, even though it is ultimately destructive. And it s because of the destructiveness of her husband that she can say in the end to Sandra: You weren t the only one Leon Laing: Leon begins the film as a loving and protective brother of Sandra, though he says: I love Sandy...but it s hard. He comes to identify closely with his father. He joins the army and participates in his father s violent reactions to Sandra s relationship with Petrus. His character shows us the pressure of men to conform to a code of masculinity. Petrus: Petrus seems good for Sandra to begin with because he gives her a feeling of belonging: How do you do that? Make me feel better, Sandra says. However, Petrus changes over the film. As his fortunes dwindle he becomes bitter. He feels his sense of dignity and power as a man has been eroded and he comes to attack Sandra both because he sees it as her fault and because he can still have power over her. Petrus mother: Like Sandra s own mother, Petrus mother is ultimately a sympathetic character. She understands that Petrus is brutal and that Sandra needs to reconnect with her own mother: We all have two go-gos, but only one mother... She helps Sandra escape from Petrus. Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 15

16 Principal: Many of the men (Abraham, Leon and Petrus), are violent at some point in the film. The principal is too. He brutally humiliates and canes Sandra in front of her class for no reason. He is the embodiment of entrenched white racist views and says that, Sandra does not belong here. His violent reaction is a response to the threat Sandra poses to white society. Doctor: The doctor shows us how people change according to the dominant influences of society. To begin with, he is the medical examiner who determines if someones is white or black. Later on, though, he helps Sandra find her mother. Quotes: Sandra: Why are they all staring? Sannie Laing: So, it s done. Sandra: I m not black. Teacher: Because they were different! Everything about the Bantu is different! Principal: Sandra does not belong here. Abraham Laing: Sandra is special...a brave, intelligent...child. Abraham Laing: Why do you talk to them...sell to them, that s all you need to do. Sandra: What did I do wrong? Principal: Ask your parents. Abraham Laing: I will fix this! Sandra: Am I really black like you? Reporter: Are you concerned that you will be arrested under the morality act? Abraham Laing: You may take her photograph, but please, no questions. Abraham Laing: I m going to get her re-classified white Sannie Laing: How will that change the colour of her skin Ticking Mind - Identity & Belonging - Study Notes 16

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