Lipika PelhamSep 20, 2023
An Alternative History of Identity
Oxford University Press 2021
A slave woman in 1840s America dresses as a white, disabled man to escape to freedom, while a twenty-first-century black rights activist is 'cancelled' for denying her whiteness. A Victorian explorer disguises himself as a Muslim in Arabia's forbidden holy city. A trans man claiming to have been assigned male at birth is exposed and murdered by bigots in 1993. Today, Japanese untouchables leave home and change their name.
All of them have "passed," performing or claiming an identity that society hasn't assigned or recognized as theirs. For as long as we've drawn lines describing ourselves and each other, people have naturally fallen or deliberately stepped between them. What do their stories--in life and in art--tell us about the changing meanings of identity? About our need for labels, despite their obvious limitations?
In Passing: An Alternative History of Identity (Oxford UP, 2021), Lipika Pelham reflects on tales of fluidity and transformation, including her own. From Pope Joan to Parasite, Brazil to Bangladesh, London to Liberia, Passing is a fascinating, timely history of the self.
Katrina Anderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware.