Identity in Literature

The word identity is defined as the set of personal and behavioral characteristics which define an individual as a member of a certain group. Based on race, ethnicity, religion, language and culture people distinguish themselves from other groups and form their understanding and pride in who they are. However, individuals may possess more than one cultural identity as a result of geographical and social mobility and their desire for belonging to a particular community.

Identity in literature may refer to the author's adoption of a new culture and language as a means of expression following a migration from his country of origin to another one. As a result the genre of "migrant literature" has developed which explores the issues of migration, exile and formation of new identity in immigrants. Also it could be associated with the deliberate use of pen names by authors as an attempt to hide their origin or gender. Usually female writers choose to express themselves under male pseudonyms so that their works can be published and equally accepted within society. Of course writers use pen names to achieve a greater effect by inventing more artistic pseudonyms, to escape possible consequences of their writings or to be differentiated when writing different genres.

Migrant literature, sometimes referred to as "migration literature" or "immigrant literature," describes the literary works of writers with immigrant backgrounds and their experiences in the new country in terms of treatment and acceptance by the local population. The term immigrant literature carries negative connotation because writers feel that the expression belittles their works and efforts and views such works as "a marginal type of literature."

Migrant literature originated in the twentieth century following the migration movements of Europeans, Asians and Mexicans to North America, people coming from former colonies to Europe and movements of guest workers, exiles and refugees after the two World Wars. As a result of their movement migrant writers had to leave behind their native language and culture and adopt those of the new country in order to be assimilated and included in societies. Some writers preferred to write in their mother language which could better express their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

The most common topics in migrant literature are the lives of immigrants and the difficulties which they encounter abroad such as hostility, racism and nostalgia. Migrants discuss the problems in their native countries and the reasons behind their emigration. Migrant writings also focus on the search for identity because immigrants usually feel rootless and nostalgic when they try to become members of a new group. Since most immigrants are obliged to become bicultural and bilingual in order to be accepted, the main themes in migrant literature elaborate on "the process of acculturation, integration and identity formation."

Migration is a global phenomenon which means that there are migrant writings in almost all countries in the world. Migrant literature can be used as an umbrella term to include several other types of writings such as "exile literature," "postcolonial literature" and "Gastarbeiter literature." "Exile literature" and "Gastarbeiter literature," in particular, deal especially with migration and the economic, political and social conditions in the native country. "Postcolonial literature," resulted from the large number of people who relocated from former colonial centers to "imperial centers" like France and Britain.

In the United States the migrant literature is more popular as an "ethnic literature" and is mainly coming from people of Hispanic origin such as Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. In the American literature there are literary works of ethnic groups such as Native American, African American, Chicano/Latino and Asian American in which their individual ethnic identity is emphasized. The most popular migrant literature is the "Chicano literature" which is the product of Mexican Americans who either moved to the United States or were living on former Mexican territories which were annexed by the United States after the victory in the Mexican-American war (1846 – 1848).

In order to disguise their true ethnic or racial identity and gender, in particular, many female authors had to use male pen names because of gender biases. If they wanted their works to be taken seriously they needed a masculine pseudonym, however, most of them became even more successful after revealing their true identities. Some examples would include Mary Ann Evans better known by her male pen name George Eliot. After publishing her first novel, Adam Bede, she revealed her female identity, but continued using her masculine pen name. Charlotte Bronte, one of the most famous female novelists, originally published her works under the male pen name Currer Bell. Her sister, Emily Bronte, also published under a male pen name, Ellis Bell, but contemporary publications of their works carry their real names.

Identity in Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Reimagining the Melting Pot and the Golden Door: National Identity in Gilded Age and Progressive Era Literature By Prchal, Tim MELUS, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2007
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory By Norman Ravvin McGill-Queens University Press, 1997
Beyond Border Politics: The Problematics of Identity in Asian Diaspora Literature By Zhang, Benzi Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 31, No. 1, June 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
La Langue Est Gardienne: Language and Identity in Franco-American Literature By Pinette, Susan Quebec Studies, Vol. 53, Spring-Summer 2012
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction By Karen Christian University of New Mexico Press, 1997
Fictions of Identity in Medieval France By Donald Maddox Cambridge University Press, 2000
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