…it’s August, there’s a chill in the air and the trees have lost their leaves…
My lawyers await the verdict of the court, chatting amongst themselves. I have moved away from them and I am looking out the window of the courtroom, watching the rain beat down on the sidewalks and the lawns of the park. It’s August, there’s a chill in the air and the trees have lost their leaves, although there seem to be a few glimmering buds among the branches. This winter weather reminds me of a childhood spent in Liverpool. I know by heart the nature of this country where I grew up. I know its colors, its people and their feelings but I have never known a sense of belonging here.
Yesterday while walking along the Writers’ Walk I noticed, among others, the words of an Italian writer, Umberto Eco. I seem to remember reading a book of his – a murder mystery set in medieval times. The words struck me; I recognised myself in them. Engraved on the stone were the words “Australia is not only at the Antipodes, it is far away from everything, sometimes even from itself”. That phrase summarized the identity crisis of a country that for a long time believed itself to be a suburb of London; you suddenly realize you are living your life against a geographically and politically unpredictable backdrop. One side of the country opens itself to South-East Asia, offering services and technology with dizzying rates of growth, while the other reaches out for points of contact with the avant-garde cultures of the Western world on the far side of the Pacific, not knowing whether to consider itself the far west or something else entirely. Anyway, to us they are still in the Levant. This consolidates a new cultural character, one which is forgetful of the old continent and is skeptical about the American dream. It is more open to the East, to indigenous cultures and to the more recent influxes of Italian, German, Greek and Slavic immigrants. These play a crucial role in the defining of their cultural identity, an identity that wants to distance itself from the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Celtic, as someone prefer to say nowadays. The multicultural nation is perceived as the ethical and political goal of federal politics and as the solution to the integration of uncontrollable waves of immigration. Above all it is the solution to all those people coming from a new Asia, an Asia that is suddenly less poor and more aggressive, willing to pay our universities to form their own ruling classes. A population whose citizens have the necessary capital to start businesses which are useful to us and are therefore welcome. They come in their droves to spend their holidays on our beaches, no longer just cheap labor and mouths to feed, but instead customers to be revered.
What with all this multiculturalism, Australia is far away, even from myself. It has drifted away. My parents arrived here in 1971, forced by the recession in England. The Australians call us English immigrants pom. Apart from this harmless title, in reality we have never been seriously discriminated against. It is we ourselves that sometimes feel different, and this has increased in recent years.
I said to the person writing this story: “Go ahead and write the stupid thing – make me out to be any way you like. But you will never understand that my attempt to change my name and identity is something much deeper: it has nothing to do with some trivial hoax perpetrated to win literary prizes and to mock the critics.”
He replies: “If I thought that, I wouldn’t be here to support you…”, but it’s clear that he says it just to please me. He has his doubts. He unexpectedly adds: “but to have two passports and still expect to be within the law is pretty foolish, even for me!”
Here we go; the judge calls the lawyers and asks them to make their closing arguments. The prosecutor is lost in a series of tedious citations of judgments and technicalities to which the judge pays professional attention, but I can’t follow. When my lawyer begins to speak, I go on dozing distractedly. At some point, I hear him speaking more and more passionately, enough to capture some of my fleeting attention. I’m amazed when I hear him shout:
“I wish I were a Muslim woman. To put on a veil to mask my identity. To remove it to confirm it. I would like to be a black, lesbian, Muslim woman. But instead, I am a white, integrated Western man. I’m American and I speak only English. I’m not even gay! And even if I were, there wouldn’t be much left for me to call for.
I envy all minorities, but most of all Muslim women. They have something to believe in, something to fight for. I also envy Muslim men; they are discriminated against and are forced every day to choose their own path between opposing reasons and different traditions.
I want to be a Muslim woman. I want to wear a burqa; to watch without being seen, then to take it off and show my naked body without embarrassment and challenge those who try to force me to cover up. I want to put it back on to hide myself whenever I want, to protect myself from those who frighten me, from those want me against my will.
As a Muslim woman I would bear the stigmata of diversity and oppression that would give me the right to raise my voice in a society that represses its few remaining secret passions to a whimper. I would be considered weak and forced into submission. I might be that way for real. But I might also not be that way. And I’m not because I don’t want to be weak. Weakness is a crime. In many cases I would be forced to give in. I would suffer without seeing a way out. Is this not the condition of a great many human beings who let themselves fall into despair without reacting to the thousand moral and material exploitations? But I might not suffer at all. Because I don’t know any alternative. Or else because I fight, and I make a virtue out of suffering.
To me, a Muslim woman born and raised in the West, I am given the chance to fight with conviction for rights that are recognized by everyone in the world I live in, but that a weird tradition refuses me. I can fight for a just cause having the support of many, perhaps of everyone. Would I risk my life because of some fanatic? Maybe, but the game’s worth the candle. Most likely I will come up against discussions and conflicts within my own community that here in the West doesn’t count for much. The influence of native communities on the social behavior of Muslims is limited and as a consequence, family and personal influence is reduced. But we are growing gloriously in identity and respect after having been humiliated for centuries by you in the West.
I would like to be a Muslim woman so that I could show the stigmata of my marginalization and have a reason to exist; fighting for something real. I would like to be a black, lesbian, Muslim woman, to prove every single day that I am normal, that I speak the same language and have the same feelings and the same ambitions as everyone else. That I want the same human and civil rights that my community has no right to deny me and that the state and civil authorities must guarantee me.
I would like to be a Muslim woman – a black, lesbian Muslim woman, but not an ignorant one. When other people, who consider themselves normal, realize that I too am like them and that there is no reason either to discriminate or to not understand one another, that each of us expresses ourselves in different ways and that culture, skin color, gender and sex are just a veneer, a thin skin. When they realize that the substance of all human beings is one and the same, that when they speak to me they soon forget my color, my religion, my sex and even my foreign accent…I would like to be a Muslim woman so that I could cry out that this is not true!
I would put my veil back on to confirm my identity and to cry even louder that you Westerners are not the only ones in the right, that we decide what dignity is and from under my veil I will terrorize you. Don’t be afraid of the bombs that I could carry under my long garments. Your fear is born within you, terrified of my ability to live among you whilst dressing differently, not believing your dogma, and feeling beautiful and veiled. Excluding you. Before me you feel naked, cowardly and poor. You are the different ones now, you few who still believe to be the spearhead of a civilization to which everyone must conform, a civilization that you can no longer define or even love. You are without a country and without religion. You destroyed them to free the people and you succeeded. But now you are afraid of loneliness. You neurotically create surreptitious and instrumental countries and religions that don’t penetrate your hearts and barely brush your pale skin. Country, religion and family have ceased to exist for some time in the West that you wish to defend. Whether there are many of you or few of you it simply doesn’t matter; there will always be few of you because you count for so little. Your units don’t count – they are just a shapeless mass of littleness. You are alone, a people without a name who wander aimlessly among the ruins of old decaying monuments. You have deliberately pursued this goal and you were great while you were still far from it. Now that you have achieved it, you have nothing more to dedicate yourselves to and you don’t know where to go.
Your lover has left you. The passion had been dead on both sides for quite some time. But you reassert your old love, as weak and nervous as it is unreal and deceiving, but you perceive it as being immense and profound. You speak desperately of love and of the future and of good times gone by, trying to exhume its rotting corpse. You speak desperately of country and of progress and of deep roots. You can feel it but you can’t admit that the future is gone now, that the story has ended. Religion and country are spiritless bureaucracies. How could they give you back the soul that you wanted to free yourselves from and in the end lost forever?
When I was born, women wore veils, they wore mourning and if they weren’t virgins, they didn’t marry. Adulteresses weren’t stoned to death but were sentenced to harsher punishments than men. I’m sixty years old! The women of my childhood were no different from the Muslim women of today. Social classes were rigid and not even money could overcome their separations. I was the son of a laborer, the grandson of a farmer. There were social classes and people fought to abolish them. And I, which class do I belong to now? It seems like we have won; social classes no longer exist, we have crushed them. Injustices remain however, but they are new and so different that we don’t know how to combat them and perhaps not even how to recognize them.
The women of the ‘fifties and my comrades of ’68 fought against discrimination and their demands were met. But in order to fight wars we must arm ourselves. Once success has been reached, it is difficult to put down our weapons. In order to win, they got organized, resulting in the various associations that they have today. Us men, no, our sex doesn’t exist, it isn’t recognized. Simone de Beauvoir complained when it was said that only one sex existed – the female. If first it was a privilege reserved for men to consider themselves the norm, today it is quite different. In a world of minorities and exceptions, being normal subjects you to serious discrimination.
I was looking for the freedom, wellbeing and social respect that my parents were denied. I achieved it, along with everyone else. At least I’m no longer on the lowest rung of the social ladder, neither by income, nor by culture, nor by mentality.
I grew up as a revolutionary and now I can be nothing but conservative. I am forced to do so because my generation completed the revolution. Identity crises are the price of victory. As Wellington said, “the next dreadful thing to a battle lost is a battle won.” This is how I find myself feeling guilty for being a man who is white and Western. Women make me feel guilty. I’m afraid.
But if, as well as being Muslim, I was also a woman, with or without a veil, I could fight for the freedom of all women. Without the veil when it is an imposition of a violent and tribal culture. With the veil when the West compels me to adhere to a commercial and standardized model of femininity. As a Muslim woman I would fight against corporative and arrogant feminism that coasts along, not having anything more to demand with regards to equality with men. I would affirm an alternative and creative feminine diversity, a way of being in society that is different from that proposed only by men to other men and to women who agree, thereby masculinizing themselves. I would also fight to change the whole of society – western society, male society, and my society. Society is by necessity based on power and it is always unjust because good powers do not exist. But who in the West still criticizes society? Instead, we require more power to repress the rising delinquency. We absorb and accept everything. The absolute differences of each one of us from anyone else renders us all the same. Social entropy is growing.
With the veil I would be saying that I want to be a woman even without showing my body. That being a woman can be a way of life, feeling, and taking part in society with a specific role. With the veil I could distinguish myself from those who believe that the West is the best of what God has given us and that he has charged the “whites” with spreading it. With the veil I could avenge the humiliation of the poor all over the world, who absolutely do not feel poor in their souls.
If then, one day, I go out without my veil, it would be to say that I don’t accept impositions either from those outside the Islamic world who would want me to be naked like all us Westerners who are without sex and all identical; or from Muslims who would want to impose upon me a symbol from which they do not allow me to escape.
No one today is freer than a Muslim woman. She is presented with opportunities to fight for just and opposing principles. Those which I no longer have. Muslim women can fight side by side with their men against anti-Islamic racism, which was once latent, but now has clearly exploded. They can fight against Western arrogance that would impose its own undisputed principles. Muslim women can also fight alone against whoever denies them the chance to leave home in search of a social identity based on individual choice.
I of course challenge those who passively obey the truculent and exploitative slogans of some leaders who are manipulated by others more powerful than them. Islamic movements are the only ones who nowadays despise our way or life and our material wealth. We cannot understand why they hate us and they fight us, sure that they will win. They treat us with a sense of superiority to which we don’t know how to respond, overcome with anonymity and doubts.
I live in a suburb of Indianapolis and I speak only English – that is American, like in the movies. It seems to me that everyone considers me a Homer Simpson type. Everything that happens here depicts the normality of the world. It’s true that many strange and wonderful things happen in every corner of the world, but for us, this is all there is, or better, everything else is referred to us.
But since I want to be a Muslim woman and I dare to deny that which I am and believe only in the struggle to assert myself, there is no one more Western man than I. And as such I will be condemned to death…”
Having finished his pitiful plea and the court having retired, we drank a beer almost without speaking. Who knows what that stupid statement of wanting to be a Muslim woman was about? If there had been even a remote possibility of being acquitted, my lawyer had managed to lose it once and for all. Luckily it doesn’t matter to me too much and we head for a walk from the centre to the ferry that will take us home to the other side of the river in Brisbane. On the way there the only people we meet are drunken Anglo-Saxons and aborigines. Who knows who the “others” are? Where do they go to get drunk? Do these “others” really exist?
I was six years old when I moved to my new country. We didn’t even consider it a real emigration, a new country. Rather we considered it a normal move to another culturally close region, though so remote that there were none more distant. But English was spoken there, tea was drunk and at least us English, we could preserve our deplorable habit of feeding ourselves disgusting slop and doing everything with an irritating calm.
At school I spoke with an English accent and my classmates teased me for it. Sometimes even the teacher corrected me. It was different for the other immigrants. They spoke English normally, that is with an Australian accent, the one everyone spoke with. If they still had the inflection of their parents’ language because they hadn’t gone to pre-school, they lost it within a few months. And anyway their diversity made them interesting in the eyes of the Australians who believed they knew everything about us English and so they didn’t care too much about us.
Some of us Anglo-Saxons, including some poms who were better integrated than me, felt superior to others. More than superior, we felt that we were more correct, that we were as one should be. We took on all the common prejudices learned from our parents and we often said things like “I would never go out with an Italian or a Greek or a German”. To us, the dominant group, all Italians were gangsters, all Greeks were thieves, all Germans were obtuse, and so on. Implicitly, even with all the defects we recognized in ourselves, we took for granted that at the end of the day, in every case, we were better than the others. Sometimes the discriminations would become real persecutions, usually implemented in an implicit and subtle way, almost inadvertently, if it wasn’t for the fact that at the foundations there simmered a very real violence arising from our own frustrations. It happens like that everywhere; no wonder, no real remorse.
Over the years, however, we learned that one shouldn’t consider themselves superior and that no one should in any way be discriminated against. Teachers, the television, the newspapers, and the immigrants’ organizations aroused more and more interest and curiosity for non-national groups. Discrimination remained in the memories of those who had suffered it and those who had perpetrated it, without too much humiliation for the former and without any real shame for the latter who nowadays are accused of arrogance. The Anglo-Saxons felt that they were the owners of this land that they had taken, as was God’s will, with the goal of civilizing it. And the natives considered it opportune, for their own good, to assimilate the newcomers into their culture, one which, in good faith, they considered superior. The immigrants were essentially in agreement with this way of thinking. Above all else they wanted assimilation.
When I arrived in Australia, there was no longer any real discrimination. Ethnic minorities had become the subject of much study and attention. The sufferings of assimilation and segregation experienced by the immigrants concerned the parents of my peers. The classmates who belonged to ethnic minorities, integrated and assimilated as much as was necessary, enjoyed the increased interest that came along with an ethnic identity. In particular they enjoyed the stigmata of martyrdom conferred on them by the bullying and the exploitation suffered in the past, instances that were somewhat exaggerated, almost by some form of masochism and self-denial on the part of the Anglo-Saxons. Pardon, Anglo-Celtics. My Italian, Vietnamese, Greek and Slavic peers could be proud of their ethnic roots, of the sufferings that ennoble the members of an oppressed people. And their privilege was the fact that in reality none of them had personally experienced any real harm because of their ethnicity.
We are continually robbed of our Anglo-Saxon identity, we are nobodies. We have all become American without being anything else. Nobody seems to notice our maladjustment. We can’t even claim to be pitied. We don’t have our own culture because we have the culture: but this is no longer ours, we are forced to share it with everyone. And even this has changed. We don’t hold the mystery of a world where we can be part of the community. Everyone sings and knows our songs, they read and they quote our books, either translated or in their original language, they drink our drinks – tea, whisky – they know everything about us thanks to American films. Americans suffer more than anyone else in this situation. They spread their culture with the enthusiasm of the generous and in doing so they lost it because everyone else usurped it. We are denied the privacy that we cared so much about. We are denied the strangeness that drove Rosenkranz and Guilderstern to say that in England crazy people go unnoticed, because everyone is crazy.
Since Australia has chosen the route of multiculturalism, everyone is granted a quality that is becoming more and more precious every day. Everyone but us English. A quality that I believed I possessed, for who knows what reasons, but that went unnoticed by others. Today, this quality is the most precious in the society that we live in: the personal identity obtained through the ethnic community one is part of, and a role in society legitimized by their diversity. The essence of multiculturalism. And another great thing: the ability to hide oneself and protect oneself in a mysterious and protected place, a language unknown to most of those around you. More prosaically, it seemed to me that my classmates were protected by their diversity. If they did something wrong in front of everybody, in many cases it was tolerated because, it was said, it was part of their cultural system, of their way of thinking, and it must be respected.
I too, I believe, for these reasons felt the need for a cultural identity, even a multicultural one. I immediately began to perceive this need. Of course it was in a confused and emotional way, as would happen to a ten or eleven year old girl. Of course my problem was not just ethnic. There are many poms and children of poms who are perfectly integrated. And other misfits do not react in the way that brought me to this courtroom. I could have looked for an identity and evaded anonymity by having a tattoo done on my forehead or a by having my cheek pierced. I chose another route.
There are people who feel that the more they resemble other people and the more they can hide in the crowd, the more they feel protected and safe. Others look for security in feeling that they are being looked at, observed, hated and despised, as long as they are different. They had desperately tried to resemble the crowd. Then, having lost that battle, they committed themselves to being different.
With these thoughts in mind, I await the verdict of a court that I do not trust. Decades of judgments tainted by racial prejudices against non-English immigrants are weighing on me. They will probably add something about the massacre of the aborigines to the charges against me. I will be held responsible and with my sentence their consciences can we washed clean, having reaffirmed the strength of multiculturalism. They won’t accept the fact that I feel – no, I am – really Ukrainian. More Ukrainian, more multicultural than the Ukrainians themselves. Because I want to be. I want to be because I need it for my mental health. Or for my social health. And there is not a single law that forbids me to feel Ukrainian. Why then, while I am allowed to obtain citizenship of another country, am I then thrown into the prison of the ethnicity that was assigned to me by birth? I tried to avoid the “English” prison and I ended up in an Australian courtroom! This unfair court will substitute the racial prejudices with others of a multicultural character. But they will only ever be prejudices, nothing to do with a justice that puts everyone on the same level. I am and I want to be as I like. Above all because the world that surrounds me requires me to define myself by the parameters of a “culture”, even though I am no longer able to ascribe myself to a race, a social class, not even to a family bond.
My friend approaches me and says: “Don’t worry Helen, the identity switch you are being accused of shouldn’t result in a harsh sentence. When it comes down to it, you only misrepresented yourself – you didn’t falsify any documents in order to gain an advantage which can be proven objectively.” In order to defend me, he and the lawyers mean to hurt my innermost feelings.
“Okay,” I answer him, “but you know that I don’t care about any of this. I can go by whatever name I want and they can’t take that away from me. And that’s not even enough for me, I want more, for myself and for others.”
He’s not malicious, nor is he stupid. It’s just that he was raised in the Italian community in Brisbane. He was protected by the fact that he had somewhere else to go, a faraway country, an abstraction, in some ways. But he could escape the discomfort of feeling trapped in a cultural prison, in the determinism of a chosen way of life. He is more Australian than I am, for sure. He knows how to navigate our bureaucracy, our laws and our way of thinking, which are as much his as they are mine and everyone else’s. The structures of the modern states are easily learned, they are all the same, all it takes is a generation or even less. However, if you belong to an ethnic group, you retain other structures which are more complicated and full of nuances. They are difficult to acquire, impermeable to the outsider, impossible to penetrate. And even if you do succeed in doing so, they deny the fact and in any case try to stop you.
I turn my gaze back to the park and to the rain beating down, trying to suppress a wave of violent rage and succeeding, but only because I catch the calm and curious eye of a passing dog that turns towards me and seems to say “stay cool, this matters to you.” It’s still raining and the smells that rise up from the earth and the trees are even more evocative. I could kill the lawyer for the superficiality of what he said. At the very least I could cave his face in. Like I had done to my classmate Claire Kennedy in school when she was teasing me because she had found out one of my many lies. That my mother wasn’t Irish, from Galway, that she didn’t speak Gaelic and that she hadn’t spent her childhood on a farm, grazing sheep and cultivating barley and potatoes. And that we weren’t so poor. And that we weren’t even farmers.
My mother was entirely English, born and raised in the city of Liverpool in a middle class family, a generation after having been working class. The Irish words that I made up I had taken from a book I found in the library. Claire laughed and said I was a stupid liar. That I was more stupid than I was a liar. That it made no sense to talk crap. That if you really wanted to lie, it was worth making up a juicy lie, like that you were noble by birth or your uncle lived in a castle. She didn’t understand the deep significance that lie held for me.
So I caved her face in with a well-timed hit straight to her left jaw, like I had seen done in the more typical Irish pubs. In the more typical Irish pubs in the cinema and on American TV, at least. And if my mother wasn’t Irish, at least I was quarrelsome and violent like a true Irishwoman. At least Claire would have recognized this, even if in her mental patterns I continued to be English, or pom, and my violence was a personal trait that I could not justify in any way culturally or ethnically, and therefore not even ethically.
“Helen Darville, state your particulars,” says the judge solemnly.
“Which ones?” I answer him defiantly. He is momentarily stunned. We are gathered here to establish who it is that I am – how can he ask me to give my particulars? Nevertheless, because he is narcissistic and histrionic, he decides to abandon the solemnity and to proceed in a craftier manner.
“Tell us your names, then, if you want to give us more than one!” A few titters are heard in the courtroom, while the rest hold back their laughter, sensing the tension.
“I am Helen Demidenko and sometimes I am Helen Darville, but soon you can call me by another name because I’m getting sick of both of those. Actually, maybe, as it stands, after having identified myself for so long as Demidenko and with the Ukrainian culture, I find it better to be the pom Darville, but I wouldn’t rule out …”
“We’re not ruling anything out Helen, we just want to get to the truth. Tell me how old you are.”
“That depends, Your Honor. Do you want my biological, psychological or social age? There could possibly be more ages and I’m the age I feel like being. I’ll say no more – I refuse to put my age on my ID card! It’s a violation of my privacy.”
“Now Helen, you maintain that everyone should be afforded the opportunity not only to change his or her name, but also to change his or her identity. All women, actually nowadays also men, would like to change their date of birth to be, or at least to be perceived as younger than they really are.”
“Your Honor, I wouldn’t be as extreme as all that. I think that one’s date of birth should be left as it is, although it remains a private matter. The issue is that one’s date of birth doesn’t automatically demonstrate one’s age, as we are led to believe nowadays. Therefore, when a person is asked for their personal details, they should be asked for both their date of birth and their age, which are two different things. It seems to me to be a compromise, right? So I was born in 1965, but now that it is 2004, I want to declare that I am thirty years old, or sixty years old, or however old I think is appropriate for my new identity.”
“Helen Darville, you are accused of handling documents addressed to Helen Demidenko!”
“Your Honor, I didn’t just handle documents addressed to Helen Demidenko. I am Helen Demidenko!”
“Well this is not sustainable to be the data in our possession, you are registered as Darville, Demidenko is an additional name that does not correspond to you. At the most is it a pseudonym, a nom de plume.” He pronounces “nom de plume” in a French accent to highlight his knowledge of the language that his parents or grandparents probably spoke. He has a French surname: Berger. Or is it German? This makes me even more livid because I realize that he can’t be on my side, at least emotionally. And what is more emotional than a trial?
“Who determines who I am, what name I have to answer to, what are the terms of this agreement and who defines them? You asked me my name, what I call myself; don’t I have the right to go by whatever name I please? And if you were to ask what name other people call me by; the correct question would be “what name do you answer to?” Don’t I have the right to answer to whatever name I want? If someone wants to call me by a name that I don’t recognize, or don’t want to go by, I could simply not answer. And if I don’t answer then there is no point in calling me by that name, unless I am obliged to bear the name that others have imposed upon me. This is the most serious denial of liberty that I can think of. Do you realize, Your Honor, the burden of this imposition?”
“Ms. Darville, in our country, albeit with some limitations, a person can change their name, if they wish to do so; it would have been sufficient if you had just asked for permission. There was no need to falsify the documents.”
“But I have no intention of changing my name and depriving myself of the identity of Darville in order to take on another identity. I want to have both, because I am both, depending on the place, the time and the emotions I am experiencing. In fact, soon I could need a third passport because I believe I am on the cusp of developing a new identity.”
“What would happen if everyone had multiple identities? There would be problems with public order; we would only be able to sentence half of a person, in the sense that we could only sentence the part of the person who had committed the crime…”
“Well,” I interrupt, “at least in that way the innocent half of them needn’t suffer unjustly,” but the judge ignores the provocation and continues.
“Everyone could claim to be anyone. It would be a disaster. Registry offices would be overwhelmed with work. Come on now Ms. Demidenko, or Darville, try to comprehend the absurdity.”
“Your Honor, the purpose of my two identities is not to hide or to escape from something. Rather, they allow me to be myself at all times. And you should be grateful that I decided to keep to my stated sex, because I could also have decided to have one masculine identity and one female one, as well as the two ethnic groups that ultimately are considered here to be the more serious crime.”
“But Madam, you know that the word ‘individual’ is derived from Latin and means something that cannot be divided. You want to divide yourself into multiple indivisible individuals. A person is not dividable, otherwise they would not be an individual. All the law does is ratify an incontrovertible fact.”
“Science and technology have allowed the division of the atom which is none other than the Greek translation of the Latin word ‘individual’. Your Honor, I ask you: why can’t philosophy and the law divide people’s identities? In this way the progress of physics would be mirrored in the human sciences. Why does personality have to be linked to individuality, to oneness? Perhaps the division of the atom led to the end of the matter? Rather it has led to scientific and technological progress. In fact, it also produced the atomic bomb … Would the division of a person enable the advancement of human freedom or would it lead to the end of humanity? It would be necessary to ratify by constitutional law the right to have multiple identities, in the light of new psycho-social and scientific discoveries.”
“It would be a terrible mess.”
“Only if we insisted on cataloguing everyone and everything. It would mean more work for registry offices. But I would be willing to meet them half way. We accept the fact that identity is first obtained by birth, so everyone can be properly controlled. I don’t like the idea in principle, but I understand that there may be reasons for it. If someone wants, they can keep their identity, if not they can change it or add another to it which allows them to be the person or persons they wish to be.”
The judge cuts me off and looks at me as if I were somewhere halfway between provocative and crazy.
To me, the trial, the charge to which I am called to answer is not for the falsification of my identity. I did not falsify anything. I simply added another identity onto my already existing one and I demanded that it be recognised. A civilized state, which respects the individual, should allow them to step out of their identity and to create another one. In theory this is possible in some cases. Why not acknowledge the right to have two identities? Two ID cards, two passports, two lives? All legal, of course. Is it not true that nowadays we live multiple lives, far removed from how it was in the past? There was a time where people had only one job that defined them professionally. Today most people have a second job and maybe a hobby that defines their personality and their social identity even more than their official occupation. People get married more than once and have children with more than one partner, to the point where the formalization of polygamy could be discussed, for now it is only a matter of time. We need to invent new figures and new names for relatives because the traditional ones are no longer sufficient to define and codify the current situations. The relationships between men and women, plus those of homosexuals, are blurred by nuances to the point of being indefinable. And if doubts about paternity, which one time remained veiled in doubt, can today be cleared up by DNA, then artificial insemination and surrogacy add uncertainty and a plurality of mothers and fathers. We change jobs, social class, habits and houses so often in life that life itself becomes a sum of parts. And rather than talking about our life we should talk about our lives, in the plural. And yet ethnicity should always stay the same! Why?
For the falsification of documents they can judge me, fine. If they punish me for it, then it’s only right and it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t even care about defending myself like the halfwit lawyer is trying to do. But I suffer because the entire trial is centered on the fact that two literary prizes were won under a false name. They are not prosecuting a run of the mill liar, but the very identity that I constructed while writing my novel. Any allusion to that effect makes me quiver with anger.
“Don’t be ashamed, Helen, it’s nothing! This room has seen much worse,” my lawyer tells me, diligent in the pointing out of his own stupidity, his inability to comprehend. I am red from rage, not from shame. True anger for those who do not recognize my right to be as I want, to decide who I want to be. My right to the past that I choose, constructed by my choices, maybe by my imagination and my dreams and not a past that is imposed upon me. I don’t want to feel chained to a prejudice. By all appearances, everyone recognizes the right to freedom of choice for the future, but this deterministic multiculturalism weighs me down with a past that I refuse, it deprives me of the right to choose the past for myself, and in doing so it limits my choices for the present and for the future. I am discriminated against for being in the majority. Unformed and therefore deformed. I feel sorry for those who suffer racial and cultural discrimination and I feel like one of them. But no one recognizes this feeling of mine. Officially I can’t understand it because standard Anglo-Saxons cannot have this kind of feeling!
“Of course allowing yourself to be interviewed while putting on the alleged Ukrainian accent of your father…how could you have thought up such a thing? Did you really expect that you wouldn’t be discovered immediately? You wanted to make a joke and it backfired.”
“It wasn’t a joke,” I tell him…get back to where you once belonged…a Beatles song comes to mind and I decide against explaining myself to him. He wouldn’t understand the drama of a person who is fighting for the right to an escape from the world of forced belonging. There is nothing ridiculous in what I did. Affirming that ethnic identity can be chosen is a dangerous act that subverts from common thinking. It means that we are free to choose the prejudices with which we want to be judged. If things were like that, then prejudices would lose a lot of their importance. How many would be willing to accept it? From the prejudices that I stole I reaped one reward. I will be charged with “theft of ethnic prejudice”, a new crime that will be applied in future case law. The critics deemed my book worthy of winning the prizes just because I had falsified my identity and that had given me the right to write as if I belonged to a minority, to a few minorities, even. Having failed to capture the essence of my work, they were disorientated by having said that in my writing “one feels the full weight of the Ukrainian Uniat’s opposition to Russian Orthodox fatalism”. What nonsense! They could simply have defended themselves by saying that I have shown that each and every one of us, should we so desire, can freely enter the popular identity of another culture. All you need is a little effort applied with conviction. After all, popular culture is a form of thought that is as simple and as weak as the many other thoughts out there. Yet among the many weak thoughts is the “non-thought”; this occurs when an invincible force of rage attaches itself to our unconscious. Does the fear of our unconscious entail the prohibition to challenge it? The discovery and acceptance of an overwhelming superego inflicts disgraceful humiliation upon human beings. The ego loses rational self-control. I had taken on and won the challenge with my book, which was perfectly in line – according to the critics themselves – with the Ukrainian way of life. They want to deprive me of a victory by means of a court judgment.
For some, the past can mean security, a sense of continuity. “Blood and soil” Ms. Laura Laue, my history teacher in high school, would say. Ms. Laue would rather be called Laura von Laue, but according to her, the German government had abolished noble surnames. The presumed nobility, for her, meant emphasizing her connection to her birthplace and her roots – two things that Mrs. Laue was blatantly missing. An only child and orphaned of both parents, she had immigrated from Germany after the war, barely twenty years old, after her marriage to Oliver Kennedy, an army sergeant of the British occupation who immigrated to Australia to be a mechanic in Perth. Oliver had brought Laura with him, who had just qualified to be a teacher in Munich. All in all they lived a happy life together up until poor Oliver’s death in 1965 as a result of a tumor, perhaps due to the job he held at the factory. If a misunderstanding arose between them, they always blamed their cultural diversity, their different roots. All problems were resolved by saying that they could never fully communicate because of their different origins.
Ms. Laue was obsessed with the idea that we are in fact essentially “blood and soil”. An abstract idea and typical of a certain German culture that had so much responsibility in justifying to the masses all the wars and massacres of the last century. Ms. Laue also talked about Volksgeist, drawing on the readings of a young Herder. She celebrated her ethnic origins which started out from an obscure village to meander through Rosenheim, the Alps, Upper Bavaria, Bavaria, Germany, Central Europe, Europe and … that’s it. She always needed a reference area and never failed to remember her noble origins and the peculiarities of her parents’, grandparents’, great grandparents’ and great-great-grandparents’ lives. Whenever she talked about herself she couldn’t help but refer back to medieval ancestors of whom she believed to have retained many of their characteristics. She also mentioned more or less distant relatives such as with a well-known physicist, a certain Max von Laue. Ms. Laura Laue felt that she was what her alleged relatives had been. All the places she mentioned were small villages, particular communities. All the people who built her history denoted originality and were peculiarly suspicious.
I was ecstatic when Ms. Laue spoke and I envied her. I wished I belonged to a community whose members were united by blood ties and whose behavior was at one with the climate, vegetation, monuments and homes of families who lived there for generations. Laura Laue had lived in an orphanage for five years until firstly an aunt, then an uncle had taken her in with their children in rented homes. First at Rosenheim, then at Passau, and then finally in an anonymous suburb of Munich.
It was pretty obvious, especially to me, being as distrustful as I am, that Ms. Laue was just telling us ridiculous nonsense, all the fruit of her imagination. But they were such wonderful lies! Lies in which she believed and around which she had constructed her very existence. I decided to do likewise, but I had to find the pretext on which to base my fictional past, I had to find myself a bloodline and a motherland. I who, like the androids in Blade Runner, felt different to other human beings because I lacked memories, even just collective ones. My memories were all interrupted. They seemed commonplace. It seemed to me that to be human I had to be the fruit of past generations, of successive reincarnations. I had to have a physical place from whence to come. I, Helen Darville, was the pureblood fruit of the uprooting of modernity, of the globalization of culture, of anonymity and individualism. These were the values I could rely on, the ones my parents were raised on, the ones that culture – my ethnicity – had developed for centuries. If I had been allowed, I would have worked on this and only this to find my rightful place in a society that seemed to exclude me. But after having been taught this for centuries, it was all forgotten about and instead we were assured that we were the product of our culture and that we could not escape from this destiny. For centuries, my culture denied “cultures” and adopted a universal idea and a standard of progress that all of a sudden it now rejects.
Not too long ago it was all about race. Now it’s all about “culture”, but both terms serve the sole purpose of pigeonholing you into a category from which there is no escape. They judge you on the basis of your culture with the same prejudices with which they place you squarely into your racial stereotype. Blacks can sing and dance and Jews are intelligent and the Japanese work a lot and are neat and tidy. In his Réflexions sur la question juive, Sartre reminds us how Maurras maintained that the Jews cannot understand the verse of Racine that states “Dans l’Orient désert qui devint mon ennui” because, for them, Racine was a stranger both to their history and to their blood and land. In this way I was told that I, being English, Anglo Celtic, could never have hoped to understand the specificities of the behaviours of the Italians, the Germans of the Russians. It is for this that, whenever I found myself in an uncomfortable situation, like with a teacher, or with friends who didn’t like me, or even with rude people on the bus or on the street – and all of these were frequent occurrences – I pretended to be a foreigner in order to justify my unease, my diversity. Sometimes I just thought about being a foreigner and even the thought of it gave me a moment of security. I looked for protection in my diversity because of my inability to feel at ease with myself.
I refuse to allow others to assign me to a culture, just as I refuse any concept of race that discriminates humanity, especially if my culture doesn’t exist or it is watered down like the pom culture. And being pom means being less and less a part of the new Australian multicultural society, a society that celebrates diversity, provided that it doesn’t concern itself with basic things and accepts, or better highlights, multiethnic folklore. The Anglo Saxon culture, widespread all over the world, is the least characterized, for the precise reason that it is the dominant culture. Who knows anything about English folklore any more? It disappeared with the industrial revolution and was declared definitively defunct with the advent of globalization, bundled up with the great American standardization to which we are no longer exposed. The fact that we speak the same language means that we can no longer be distinguished one from the other.
A few months after my arrival in Australia I could have spoken with a perfect Australian accent, even if my parents’ accents had never lost their English inflection. In reality I conserved my foreign way of speaking for as long as possible to justify my diversity. My maladjustment was also due to other factors. I wasn’t great at school, I refused to read and I couldn’t write. Not just because I was a pom, though. My problems derived from my family, in the jealousy that I felt for my younger sister, in the insufficient affection of my parents and so on. Normal things, things that don’t have anything to do with multiculturalism. If I hadn’t had personal and family problems, multiculturalism wouldn’t have interested me. But that’s not the point.
I looked enviously upon my Italian, German and Greek friends. Even the aborigines, who were said to be practically extinct, reappeared and their cultures and traditions were studied. One time an old taxi driver, speaking to a chatty Italian friend of mine who had just arrived in Australia, said “The aborigines? Up until a few years ago they used to say there were only a few left and that they lived on their reserves. Now they’ve suddenly been repopulated and there are festivals and celebrations of their culture every five minutes. You see more and more of them around and Brisbane is full of shops selling aboriginal art. I just don’t get it!” And he said this with sincere surprise, without hatred or arrogant superiority. The aborigines had become, like all of us, urban creatures. Like humans and the rats in the sewers, the seagulls and the foxes, all of whom once roamed freely in the skies and the woods.
In order to find and affirm my identity I began to think about passing myself off as belonging to an ethnic minority group. First of all I thought about being Italian, but I was too tall, too blonde and too far from the stereotype. Anyway it wasn’t worth the bother. There were already lots of Italians, they came from an important country and they were doing well for themselves. If I was to find myself an invented identity, I would rather something that was truly a minority, preferably one steeped in tragedy. I thought about becoming a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, but the Irish were already too integrated. The most obvious solution would have been to reinvent myself as a Jew. To begin with, I could have converted to the Jewish religion and in doing so acquire an objective right to belonging to the community. Different yet identical, with the added bonus of the halo of the population of the holocaust. It was exactly what I was looking for, but I soon began to hate the Jews because they were too similar to me, whereas I wanted to be completely different to the way I was. In truth, when I watched footage of the holocaust, it moved me and I felt a deep anger towards any racial discrimination. I felt that same deep anger towards all forms on unjust persecution, whether it be of homosexuals, members of political parties, black people or otherwise. I suffered for those different to myself with whom I identified. But the holocaust made me uneasy. In the end I hated the Jews because, thanks to the concentration camps, thanks to the deaths of six million of them, the survivors were attributed with a personality with which there was no comparison. Today’s anti-Semitism, all the more sneaky because it is cloaked in admiration and distrust, is useful to the Jews, it further reinforces their identity without them running any real risk. The Jews are the symbol of diversity and at the same time, today, of integration. They are the “richest” population, because in today’s society they possess the most precious good; not money, but identity!
And so it was like this that when the Demaniuk case exploded, I decided to pass myself off as Ukrainian. Demaniuk had been a worker in Detroit for many years when someone accused him of being a Nazi collaborator, responsible for committing atrocities at Treblinka during the war. On the true identity of Demanuik – whose very name sounds demonic in itself – the Israeli tribunal failed to reach a definitive conclusion. The Ukrainian accused of having been the executioner of Treblinka was massacred by public opinion even though we can never be sure of his true identity. I liked, in the book that I wrote, outlining the extenuating circumstances of the executioner of Treblinka, justifying his behavior through the less celebrated oppression suffered by the Ukrainians at the hands of the Russians, and especially the Jewish Communist Russians. Those hands that signed the papers. It’s so satisfying to think and write that Demaniuk vindicated the vexations suffered by the Ukrainians at the hands of the communist Jews. What marvelous superficiality (bearing in mind that I was only twenty at the time) it was to describe multiculturalism in terms of ethnicities that hated each other and massacred each other, each not understanding the other and in any case wanting to remain divided. What sublime nonsense it was to think that the relationships between people were dependant on their race, language and culture. But at the end of the day, that was how I was taught both in school and by the media.
Initially it was enough for me to make random people I met on the bus believe that I was of Ukrainian origin. Then I started telling it to new friends. When I moved to start university I was so convinced I had a Ukrainian father that I told everyone. I had even invented myself – based on lies and fantasies – a fictional multicultural family, with Irish aunts and uncles who spoke Gaelic. In this fictitious multicultural family, they jokingly spoke in Gaelic so as not to be understood by their spouses. Stories included relations and contacts with persons of note; not necessarily noted for positive reasons, but well known nonetheless. The demonic Demaniuk, for example. It made me feel good. I would describe the traditions of my people and if others perceived something different about me that was part of my real personality, then it was natural to attribute it to my being the daughter of a Ukrainian. Or to being a Ukrainian in my own right, even. I felt protected in the world that I had created for myself. On the other hand, how many people actually knew how Ukrainians really were and what they really did? And hadn’t even they disappeared in the great standardization of Soviet industrial and urban modernity?
After having passed myself off as Ukrainian for a while, I have to admit, I was getting tired of it. But it wasn’t easy to break free from the relationships that I had built on the initial harmless fib. When I went on to obtain brilliant results in my studies and I published my first stories, the fictitious personality that I had invented began to weigh on me. I had grown fond of it and most of the time I was at ease with it. But by then I had no further need of it. I had become myself, I had found the missing part of myself that had probably been left behind in England.
I had even lied to my boyfriend. At the beginning, our relationship couldn’t have been better. Every so often however, he would say something to me like “You Ukrainians…” This habit of his, which at first had given me security in the early days with him, after a while had started to embarrass me. We trusted each other to the last. We really loved each other. But I just couldn’t bring myself to admit, even to him, that I had made up everything about my descent and my motherland. And this was essentially because my fictitious identity had been all too important in the development of my character and my security. I myself had highlighted it to the point of fanaticism. I felt – and this sensation impeded me from getting out of the lie – that even to others, it was not I myself that was important, but that which I represented with my fabricated past. And if I had turned my back on my imaginary past, I realized that the judgment of others would have been liable to change. After all, they had judged me solely on the basis of what I had invented. My wish to become that which I wanted to become would not have been treated as a harmless fib, useful only to me, but as a serious deception of others. A betrayal. They would all have come across as idiots for all the prejudices they had shown. Even Richard, my boyfriend, the person who, more than all others, had accepted me for what I was. Richard, who knew all my sensibilities and my certainties, who knew in advance how I was feeling at any given moment and who knew how to understand me and make me feel understood even when I was being unreasonable. Which was often. But even so, even with him I felt shackled to my ethnic identity. I no longer knew, neither with him nor with myself, what was true and what was a lie.
When he found out about the lie he left me. Not only because I had lied to him, but also because I wasn’t really Ukrainian. We had already had other problems and in reality it had been a while since our relationship had mattered to me any more. I had cheated on him repeatedly and I had never stopped complaining to him and changing my mind about the future. He accepted all of this and he also accepted my lies that I eventually told him about lightheartedly. But he just couldn’t accept that I had lied to him about my cultural origins. He could accept and forgive a betrayal on my part because it seemed to him that it was just about one single part of me, one single part of our life. Now I understand it. The fragmentation of my personality in his eyes annihilated me as an individual. He didn’t know who I really was. I had deprived him of the right to have and to judge through prejudices. Without prejudices we can no longer understand anything. We catch those near us off guard and in return they hate us viscerally. Basically I had unmasked him in the same way that I had unmasked the critics that had awarded me the prizes based on my assumed identity, instead of on the quality of my book. This is not emotionally bearable for anyone. It is useless to be scientific and modern and to say that prejudices can be constructed artificially. They say that the mind is like a parachute: it only works if it’s open. But even a parachute doesn’t work as it should if it is too open.
I started to believe people were entitled to hang on to their prejudices because it is only then that they could eke out some kind of reasoning. I felt incapable of judgment, of even realizing how surrounded by it I was. The reality of my country was the fruit of such ethno-cultural prejudices, of these new allegiances to tribes that had their roots in a recent or remote past, in faraway and no longer existing countries, in situations that had been overcome. They were fantasies, like Ms. Laue’s Bavaria. But they carried out their function. Multiculturalism has become a language which cannot be ignored. It is only in this context that you can expect to be understood. You might as well accept it.
But I who had not understood it in time, found myself condemned to pretend to those to whom I had initially lied about my origins. They wouldn’t have understood the spirit that gave me life. Living for several years in this lie of mine, I came to a deep understanding of the many aspects of ethnical and cultural prejudice.
That was how I decided to write my book. That was how I fell out of the frying pan and into the fire. I thought I could justify my lie by saying that its purpose was to help me write my book, to experience people’s reactions to someone who belongs to an ethnic minority, that it had all been in the name of research and so on. I thought that once the book had been published in the name of Helen Demidenko, my real identity would come out, but that I would be able to justify myself by saying that the falsification of my name had been for my research. If this had also happened to help me with my internal search and finding my place in society, that could remain a personal fact. I would be praised for my courage in withstanding difficult positions and I could once and for all step out of the lie that I had foolishly constructed.
Things didn’t exactly go to plan and here I am in this courtroom to answer to these serious charges. It has hurt me deeply to be abandoned by all my friends and by my teachers. Even by Ms. Laue, who had essentially not behaved that much differently from me, except that her lies were more credible and harmless than mine. First of all she had no one who could remind anyone – least of all remind her – of what was really true. No one knows and no one cares. And Laura never became famous for having written a provocative book that goes against the grain as I did.
My chatty Italian friend who wrote this story didn’t fail to point out that my novel is a crazy superficiality, that the whole issue of diversity and freedom seems to be reduced to the possibility of speaking different languages and expressing a superficial diversity. He also says that it is terribly banal in pigeonholing, as I do, each character depending on their geographic origin, skimming over the description of their specific personal human qualities. But he hasn’t understood a thing; that is clear. In fact, all of my descriptions of people based on their language is symbolic, and is interpreted as a message. I understand it, even if he doesn’t understand me. He takes refuge in the denial of a substantial difference between the so-called different cultures. He mocks those who do. Thus he avoids engaging himself in the search for our distinctions and differences and focuses instead on the search for similarities. This makes him feel less different. Even this would be a possible solution. But everything conspires so that such a conviction is set aside and that multiculturalism can become a source or creation and real diversity. The price could be the lack of freedom against which I have rebelled and which has led me to this courtroom.
“The defendant Helen Darville, also known as Demidenko, rise to hear the verdict!” Yes, I stand up, but I don’t abandon my defiant attitude. I don’t like losing and I’m about to suffer a great humiliation; that of misunderstanding, of defeat. There is no greater humiliation for a writer than to have their work interpreted as the opposite of what they were trying to express. And here, apart from the lack of consideration given to my skills as a writer, I am risking severe punishment. I console myself with the fact that even Galileo was forced to retract his theory.
The huge window of the courtroom which overlooks the park is closed. Before hearing the sentence, I open it without anyone noticing. I go out onto the balcony and I see the dog from before, the one with the calm eyes. Our eyes meet again. He seems to say to me “Come on, join me in the park…” I’ll do just that shortly and forget about all this. I’ll start a new life with my name which I could no longer care less about. I won’t need to invent stories, let alone write them like my chatty Italian friend who retells my story with the sole purpose of explaining what is useless for most to understand.
 This story is based very loosely on a true story. In 1994, Helen Darville, under the assumed name of Helen Demidenko published the novel That Hand That Signed the Paper, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonard NSW, Australia. The author, then twenty-two, was awarded two prestigious Australian literary awards, the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Australian Vogel Literary Award. When the author’s real name was discovered, it came out that the judgment of the work had been based on the fact that the author belonged to the Ukrainian minority. Helen Darville was, in fact, an Australian of pure English origin.
This story has another peculiarity: I initially wrote it in essay form and published in a sociology journal, with the usual set of notes and impersonal language. At a certain point I realized my motivation for writing the essay was much more emotional than scientific, and was inspired by my sensitivity and imagination. I believed I could better express what I thought and felt in a story…
A version of the story has been published in Italian in a collection of my short stories titled “Moriendi Virtus”, Byblos, Cittadella, Italy, 2000.