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January 28, 2007

Ishoo Wun

So why does hybridity necessarily dovetail with adolescent identity searches?

First, let's quickly define "hybridity". I did this before in a triumphal, let's-change-the-world way. But we need a more working definition. So for now, "hybridity" means the process or product of a melding of two cultures, subcultures, forms, processes, or dynamic structures.

Got that? So you mix, combine or meld two things, and the process is hybridization. The outcome of that hybridization is a hybrid, or hybridity. This could be, for example, American yoga (melding American understanding of religion and exercise with an Indian tradition form), or Eminem (melding white, working class cultural norms and understanding with a "traditionally" black, working class art form), or nanotechnology (biology and robotics), or wholistic (holistic) medicine (western traditional medicine with western science-based medicine with eastern traditional and science-based forms), or the Prius (gas-powered and electric-powered), or me (Chinese and white).

Got that? Okay, let's go.

Hybridity, especially of the racial sort, but of many other sorts as well, is a topic frequently explored in YA (young adult) fiction. That is to say, when authors grapple with multiraciality or hybrid identities, they tend to turn to YA, or Bildungsromane (trans.: Bildung means "upbringing", "education", "personal formation" in German; Roman means "novel"). Most novels of hybrid identity either fall entirely within the scope of YA or a Bildungsroman, or else begin with youth and the identity-forming years.

But that is also to say that when you approach YA novels and Bildungsromane that aren't otherwise about hybrid identities, their form and format very often leads them into an examination of some type of hybridity or hybrid identity. The two---identity search and the exploration of mixing and melding---seem to be closely associated in our cultural thinking ... or perhaps merely in our narrative form.

Of course, all teens are definable as being in the midst of the basic and essential identity search: "finding themselves", who am I? and all that. Given. Teenagerhood is also a process of transitioning from childhood intellectual and emotional dependence to adult independence of same. Dependence on the conceptual constructions of another means necessarily a lack of flexibility. When Mommy says playing with yourself is bad, she doesn't mean (or perhaps she simply didn't say) that doing it in front of other people is bad and doing it when you're alone is acceptable, and doing it when you're lonely is good, and doing it instead of being promiscuous with strangers is virtuous, and experimenting with it is dangerous but exciting. Playing with yourself is just bad. Period.

Which is why we say that teens "experiment" with drugs and sex: not to see what happens when you mix this drug or that action with your body chemistry, but to see what happens when you challenge something Mommy or Daddy told you. The experimentation fractures your understanding of "do" and "don't" into "do sometimes" and "don't do under these circumstances" and "think first because you don't know what to do here." The confusing but comfortingly black and white instruction set of childhood is replaced by an ethical code which requires interpretation. Teens are introduced to the necessity for flexibility, to an ambiguous world in which ambiguity is often what allows you to survive or to be yourself.

For a few short years, teen minds are so soft and flexible that they can literally be turned around overnight. A concept they always held to be sacred can be flipped in an instant. Faith can be killed, or created, in an afternoon. Three different adults can tell them three different things and they can act on all three beliefs simultaneously, while consumed with rage at the contradictions.

Ah, teens.

Adolescence is the moment we come closest to touching ambiguity as a substance, and not just a state of understanding.

I have a tendency to use "ambiguity" and "hybridity" interchangeably because, obviously, this is my experience of being what other people consider a hybrid. But they are not exactly interchangeable. Ambiguity is defined by its use in words and communications. It is "doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention," or "Doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation," or "unclearness by virtue of having more than one meaning."

What I mean by interchanging them is to underline the fact that certain things about me are verbal or conceptual constructs, and not actualities. Race, for example, is a conceptual--and verbal--construct. I am only multiracial if you consider my race/s to be:

  1. distinct
  2. mutually exclusive
  3. important
In defining me as a hybrid, you are giving me two or more distinct, mutually exclusive, and important values and meanings. Which means that my singular meaning to you, my meaning, being and purpose as a person contains within it more than one distinct, mutually exclusive, and important meaning. Which makes my meaning, and which makes me as a person, ambiguous.

The synonyms of "ambiguity," which is to say, the word's connotations, are "vagueness, equivocation, deceptiveness." Its antonyms are "explicitness" and, oh irony!, "clarity." Ambiguity, the lack of a clear meaning, is, in itself, neither bad nor good. It simply is. However, our culture (and perhaps to a certain extent all human cultures) values clarity, hard definition, and shuns ambiguity. Probably why it is only since the European Enlightenment we have even had adolescence, much less a culturally-understood search for oneself.

Most people in our society go through an extended moment of recognizing that their categories are not, technically, all perfectly dovetailed. The things they thought were hard, neighboring truths about themselves are, when taken to logical extremes, terribly contradictory. And becoming adult means--in essence--acclimating to what seems like contradictions when looked at in this way. Becoming adult means learning to ignore what seem to be personal contradictions--or learning not to mind that one can't explain oneself to oneself. Learning to accept one's own mystery and the mystery of others. Learning to live meaningfully in the absence of a single, clear meaning of life.

Lovely enough, but it's a process that isn't seen at all, being internal. It's a process that's impossible to tell stories about directly because it's manifested mostly in tantrums and acting out.

So, often and often, some sort of obvious hybridity becomes the metaphor for the process of disambiguation (or more accurately, enambiguation) that happens beneath the surface of every zitty teenage skin.

This is often some sort of racial hybridity or hybridity of biological genesis. After all, in our society we permit people to leave behind with rage of adolescence the hybridity of being both parents and children, being both friends and enemies, lovers and fighters, teachers and students, athletes and drunkards, artists and accountants. We move forward no longer seeing that these are any contradiction. We actively avoid the hybridity of male/female, desire and friendship.

What we can't let pass is the hybridity of race. Not in this society, with our racial hierarchy. Such things can't be ambiguous. Whether you're a father or son right this second isn't important. It doesn't impact your status or how a stranger will treat you. But whether you're black or white right this second really, really does. So racial hybridity or hybridity of genesis become the stand-ins for all such adolescent processes.

All Graeco-roman heroes' tales are Bildungsromane, coming-of-age stories. Because the very definition of the hero is a semi-divinity: someone born of a mortal and an immortal parent, who is himself mortal, but possesses superpowers. A hybrid. There is always a near-climatic moment of reckoning with one's hidden parentage. There's always a moment in which the desires and limitations of the human are forced, through action, to meld with the powers of the god; a moment in which the hybrid potential is fulfilled by ignoring the contradictions inherent.

I'm exposing myself to severe flame-action, but that's Jesus' story as well. Son of a human and a god, he finds himself three times: at the temple when he is (no coincidence here) twelve years old lecturing to his elders; in discovering his ministry, which exposes his superpowers of reasoning, persuasion, love, and leadership; and on the cross, where he discovers his superior powers of self-sacrifice. He is in himself a hybrid, but he is also one aspect of the ultimate contemporary western hybrid: the trinity, simultaneously father, son, and holy spirit. (Yeah, and no coincidence, either, that protestant sects violently debate the nature of that hybridity; it is also protestant sects that raised the racial slave trade in North America to an industry, and that went to war over ending that same institution.)

And then of course, in these atheistic times, the hybridity between the natural and supernatural---which makes into story our ability to fulfill our own potential by ignoring categories---becomes more and more abstract and less and less religious. We no longer believe in gods or fairies, so the hybrid coming-of-age story becomes related to what we recognize as fantasy only.

I'm not gonna say that the slide from the more obvious forms of hybridity in our society to fabulist literary forms is seamless. China Miéville points out that the magical races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) in Tolkienesque fantasy are rigidly held to biologically determined character virtues and flaws and that that is profoundly reactionary and bigoted. Obviously, not all swords and sorcery writers think such things about human races. And the hybridity in the YA magical protagonist is not always racial (being half-elf, for example) but otherwise genetic (being of a line of witches, for example). But the connection between the two is an obvious one, and one that is made usually without a great deal of reflection or philosophy.

Which is why you see so many protagonists of Young Adult fiction who have magic in them. Usually, they got it from one parent. Usually, that parent is missing or dead or presumed dead. Usually, that parent turns out to be either alive him/herself, or alive in the form of a close relative with similar aspects/powers. Usually there is a reckoning with that parent, with that parentage. Usually--always? almost always?--there is a moment where the implications are thrown to the winds and the potentialities of both parentages are melded. Always this is the climax. Always it leads to a new hybridity of two old, seemingly mutually exclusive states of being or doing. Always this new hybridity is understood as the becoming of the protagonist, the protagonist's total being.

I can only half-remember examples of the many, many books like this I read when I was young. The albino kid from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, which was my favorite series, sticks out. Here, the kid (SPOILER ALERT) is raised as an orphan by relatives, and later discovers himself to be the secret son of King Arthur and Guinivere, displaced in time. King Arthur, of course, is a magical being simply by virtue of his position in the imagination.

Or, more recently, there's the Harry Potter series, in which the human racial diversity is a matter of extreme blandness, but a deep discomfort with racial ambiguity is only semi-intentionally displayed through the conflict between Muggle and Wizard families. The main hybridity there is in Harry, whose mother was a Muggle. Harry is raised as an orphan by relatives who obfuscate his magical heritage, and the magic in his Muggle heritage. This hybridity is mirrored, naturally, in Harry's arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort, who was the son of a witch and a Muggle, raised contemptuously by his Muggle family, and "rescued" by Dumbledore and Hogwarts School. Both hero and villain face a reckoning with their mixed heritage, but only Harry, and by implication only, makes peace with both, although he allies himself with the magical world. Voldemort is portrayed as succumbing to evil because of his hatred of his Muggle half--like a half-Jewish Nazi.

There's also a more complex and nuanced discomfort with the whole issue of authenticity and cultural genesis evidenced in Hermione, who is herself a Muggle with magical abilities, an analogy to, say, Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray, who is a white girl with mysteriously black powers of dancing. And then there's Neville Longbottom, who is feared to be a Squib, a pureblood wizard with no magical abilities, the analogy to the Oreo, the black person who is white on the inside---or perhaps to the aristocrat with common tendencies.

An early exchange between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley, both pureblood wizards, about the value of mixed-bloods intentionally promotes Rowling's diversity agenda, and unintentionally displays Rowling's discomfort with the idea that there can be a difference in being born to a magical family and being adopted into one, or to being "naturally" magical, yet having to learn magic in school---all racial/ethnic issues rampant in current American and British demographics.

But my favorite example is not considered a YA at all, although I think it has all the markers of one. That is China Miéville's King Rat, definitely not his most popular book, and also his only full-length novel that doesn't take place in Bas Lag. It's not a coincidence that I quoted his notions of raciality in fantastical races above. He's the only fantasy writer I've seen who's created a plausible and effective fantastical scenario, that consciously promotes an actively ambiguous hybrid identity in its protagonist, rather than implying it, or fumbling the ball by calling something hybrid that actually looks only like one of its parts. (I'm sure there are more of these, but I haven't read them.)

The whole structure is there (BIG OL' SPOILER ALERT--and take this one seriously, because this book is worth reading for its own sake): a young man, Saul, raised by his father (his mother is dead) comes home to find his father killed by defenestration. Arrested for patricide, he is rescued from jail by King Rat, the anthropomorphic supernatural spirit of ratdom, who claims to be his uncle. King Rat tells our hero that his mother, King Rat's sister, was a rat as well, making Saul half-rat. Saul is then instructed in the art of being a supernatural rat.

There is the necessary revelation and confrontation of parentage when Saul discovers that King Rat is actually his father, his mother having been a human that King Rat raped. Then there's the moment of melding of identities at the climax, when Saul faces the Pied Piper, who can't compel him by flute because he's half-human, but has melded (hybridized) his flute music with a drum 'n' bass DJ's beats to catch both rat and human in Saul. This is the part that is unusual, because Saul's revelation here is that he is not two halves, but one whole, and cannot be made into a sum of his parts, like the music that the Pied Piper has created. You can't mix human and rat music and expect to catch a human and rat mix. He is something else; himself.

A very multiracial conclusion. The irony is of course that Miéville has essentialized human and rat for the purpose of making the point that races can't be essentialized. But I'll (mostly) let that pass.

A lot of this is implied in more sophisticated fantasy, like Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, where magic isn't really a result of parentage. It just happens. And the hybridity is actually an entirely internal process of melding virtuous with dark impulses, that LeGuin manifests in a shadow self.

And then, of course, there's Octavia Butler. But I'm not ready to write about her yet. She didn't follow this particular pattern at all. She created her own. That's a topic for another post.

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Comments

Claire, you are wicked smart. You have an incredible ability to make me think of things in ways I never would have dreamed.

My YA novel, Cycler, is about a hybrid boy-girl (one who cycles between boy and girl via the menstrual cycle). The character's main struggle is to keep her dual identities separate in accordinace with society's rules that you be either boy or girl but never both. In the end (SPOILER ALERT) all his/her efforts to do this fail and he/she has to come to grips with being a hybrid. If there's a second book in the series, I hope to explore the unexpected joys of hybridity. I'm printing your post out and sticking it in my Cycler Research folder.

sweetheart, i can't WAIT to read this! when do i get to read it?

plus, you didn't produce a spoiler AT ALL. narratives are limited by their shapes, and a narrative that starts out with a character trying to manage two 'contradictory' sides of his/her nature is a narrative that HAS to end with a resolution in favor of hybridity or else in tragedy a la west side story. ya know? we didn't make the rules.

seriously, when do i get to read it?

You can read it any old time. But maybe you should wait for the next draft. My editor says she has "light revisions." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm assuming the novel will be better afterward. I can email it to you.

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