Show caption Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan, Sahira Nair and Tabu in the 2006 film of The Namesake. Photograph: Mira Nair/Fox Searchlight/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock Top 10s Top 10 books about dual identity Writers from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Ali Smith depict the delicate balancing acts required to reconcile different heritages Hafsa Zayyan Wed 31 Aug 2022 12.00 BST Share on Facebook
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We all have multiple identities – the faces we put on at work, with friends, with our partners, our parents, our children. These identities are an inherent part of being human – necessary, some might say, for our survival. Some identities are easier to hide than others, however: visible lines are drawn by the colour of skin, the classification of our sex organs, our mother tongue. As a half-Pakistani, half-Nigerian, Muslim woman, raised in Britain and the US, I have contended with such lines my whole life. I wanted to take elements of my experience – particularly the not-so-visible parts of my dual heritage – and weave them into a little-told story about south Asian migration to Africa (being a product of one such experience myself).
My debut novel, We Are All Birds of Uganda, tells the story of two second-generation south Asian immigrants grappling with their dual identities: one, born and raised in London; the other, born and raised in Uganda. The novel explores the difficulties the protagonists face as a result of their status as migrants, against the background of Idi Amin’s edict of August 1972 expelling all Asians from Uganda.
Literature has long been preoccupied with characters who contain multiple selves. Gilgamesh battled his part-God, part-human lineage in some of the earliest Mesopotamian tales. Poor old Dr Jekyll thought he could separate his two personalities without consequence. Times have moved on, and in a world where the importance of representation is increasingly recognised, modern fiction has examined some of the more realistic and relatable dual identities we may embody. The books below look at some of the factors that give rise to those dualities.
1. The Last One by Fatima Daas
In this autofiction, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, Daas discusses her queer Muslim identity as a second-generation French Algerian immigrant. Each chapter begins with the same line: “My name is Fatima Daas” – underscoring and asserting the author’s Muslim name, the invocation not unlike the chapters in the the Qur’an, which all start: “In the name of Allah …” Her story is told in fragments of memory that take you through the defining moments in Daas’s life. A beautiful exploration of dual identity and the process of reconciling their stark conflicts.
Unflinching detail … Candice Brathwaite. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy
2. I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite
Brathwaite peppers this refreshingly honest, funny and down-to-earth memoir with terrifying statistics (“Black babies have a 121% increased risk of being stillborn and a 50% increased risk of neonatal death … compared with white babies”) as she explores her life a Black woman and a mother – specifically not a Baby Mother. I read this for the first time before I became a mother, but I have returned to it many times since. It is book everyone should read. Brathwaite describes in unflinching detail the near-death experience she suffered after the birth of her first child, the impact having children had on her career and her relationships, and – importantly – her identity as a Black woman.
3. How to Be Both by Ali Smith
As the title hints, this novel tells two parallel stories: one half the story of Francesco, a sort-of resurrected time-traveller from the 15th century, who comes to observe George, a child living in present-day Cambridge dealing with a recent loss, who is the protagonist of the other half of the novel. A major theme is the experience of apparent opposites – including male and female, grief and joy, the past and future.
4. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
A collection of beautifully moving poems by a woman of Pakistani descent who was orphaned as a child, and now lives in the US. The book traverses themes of belonging, sexuality, identity, violence and grief. The title poem, in which Asghar describes ”a dance of strangers in my blood / the old woman’s sari dissolving to wind”, is one of my favourite poems anywhere.
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When Nigerian-born Ifemelu moves to America, she has to contend with American society’s perception of her identity. The protagonist oscillates between adopting what she initially perceives to be a dual American Nigerian identity – complete with the perfect US accent – and and one that feels truer to herself which she explores in a blog about race.
6. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
In her debut novel, Lahiri looks at how our names shape identity, as she tells the story of one American Bengali family and their son, Gogol. Spanning three decades of Gogol’s life in the US, Gogol is constantly pulled between two identities: the Bengali culture of his parents and the American one he is raised in.
David Harewood. Photograph: Noah Asanias/The Guardian
7. Maybe I Don’t Belong Here by David Harewood
In this memoir, Harewood recounts the events that precipitated a psychotic episode which led to him being sectioned and hospitalised, as well as their aftermath. It’s an eye-opening read and a subject we don’t hear enough about – Black male mental health – as Harewood explores the side effects of being Black and British. “There was now a Black half and an English half and I could feel myself slowly coming apart,” he writes. Medical notes from Whittington psychiatric hospital read: “Patient believes he is two persons.”
8. Coconut by Florence Olájídé
The young Olájídé is sent by her Nigerian parents to a white foster family in Britain and then returns with her family to Nigeria years later where she struggles to reconcile being a young Nigerian woman who was brought up in Britain. The culture clash, the unfamiliarity of home, and the yearning to return to England, combined with the pride of being Nigerian, are all beautifully addressed.
9. Assembly by Natasha Brown
Don’t be fooled by the length of this novella of less than 100 pages – it packs a serious punch. Told in snapshots, the story follows an unnamed Black woman as she visits her white boyfriend’s parents’ house in rural England for a party, against the backdrop of her disillusion and discomfort with the multiple identities she has been forced to adopt working in the City and mixing with the white middle class. Ultimately, she must make a choice about her life.
10. The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch
This haunting classic explores the potentially devastating consequences of a failure to reconcile dual heritages. The protagonist is of mixed Native American and white blood and despite a happy enough childhood, he ends up drifting into sadness and an identity crisis that his girlfriend and his sister both misunderstand.
• We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan is published by #Merky Books (£12.99). It is shortlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell award 2022, whose winner will be announced on Thursday 8 September.