Mithu Sanyal is probably best known for her excellent nonfiction books Vulva (2009) and Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo (2016). Identitti is her first novel. I was very much looking forward to this book, and I was not at all disappointed: it examines an identity scandal from all sides with nuance and – despite all seriousness – humour.
As a child, Nivedita from Essen is called Coconut by other children from the Indian diaspora – brown on the outside, white on the inside – and already agonizes over the questions of who she is and where she belongs. It isn’t until she studies Intercultural Studies/Postcolonial Theory with the legendary Saraswati at the University of Düsseldorf that Nivedita finds a self-confident way of dealing with her identity, and articulating her thoughts on her blog, called Identitti. Her blog is about sex, gender, race, and the goddess Kali, with whom Nivedita regularly has imaginary conversations. Her posts are so well received that she is allowed to give a radio interview in which she speaks glowing praise of her professor. But at that very moment, it comes out that Saraswati, who claims to be Indian and a person of colour, is actually named Sarah Vera and is white. Immediately, a shitstorm breaks out on social media. The fronts harden. Nivedita is accused of continuing to stand by Saraswati, and consequently faces anger and criticism. Actually, what she wants is to get to the bottom of Saraswati’s story of reverse passing.
Of course, the book immediately made me think of Rachel Dolezal from the US. Dolezal was the subject of a similar controversy a few years ago: She was a white person pretending to be Black, and she was president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her behaviour has been called the height of Blackfacing, among other things.
In Sanyal’s multi-layered book, the different characters offer very varied perspectives on the relevant issues in such a case. Race, the (im)possibility of transracial identities, whiteness, the provability of identity, interracial relationships, adoption, and so on, are all thoroughly discussed. These emotionally charged debates that strain friendships are enriched by Nivedita’s blogposts. Other perspectives emerge in the form of numerous newspaper articles and tweets. In fact, the novel features tweets from real-life personalities who like to speak publicly about identity politics in Germany – Sanyal, the epilogue says, asked them to make short contributions for this purpose. They include Simone Dede Ayivi, Kübra Gümüsay and Felicia Ewert, to name just a few.
I would say that this book is quite unique for the German context. Discussions about identity have long been conducted on Twitter, and the number of corresponding nonfiction books has grown significantly in Germany in recent years. But Sanyal has created a fictional story that takes a multi-voiced, smart, and critical approach to a highly complex topic. Sanyal herself says in the afterword, “Identity struggles are struggles over fictions in reality,” and so she weaves the two together in her book. For me, it was a particular pleasure that the book is set in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area – not only because I have family connections there, but also because otherwise many current debates in Germany (including in fiction) have a strong Berlin focus.
Identitti may seem almost absurd or detached at times – if only because of all the postcolonial jargon – but as a person who has studied Postcolonial Studies in English herself and lives in Germany, it was refreshing to read this book with reference to one’s own context. The book also definitely conveys an awareness of the elitist element of academic discourse:
“In the circle of students selected by Saraswati, they communicated with each other in a fantastic academic code of abbreviations in which one word could replace entire vast concepts of thought: desi, happa, subaltern. Imagined communities, critical race theory, intersectionality. … [so] a tremendous, unprecedented sense of commonality emerged, even though most had only vague notions of what an imagined community should be and would not have recognized subalterns even if they had been served to them on a platter garnished with parsley.”Identitti, P. 101 (poco.lit.’s translation)
None of Identitti’s characters is flawless. They argue and sometimes they forgive. Having the debate is often painful, but it moves everyone involved forward. In this way, the novel is a plea to have difficult conversations, not to judge hastily, and to embrace the unspeakable messiness of identities a little more. I already know I’ll be giving this book as a gift a lot in the coming months.
(Identitti has not yet been translated)