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'Identity for Beginners' - my contribution to 'Gender Across Borders'

This is a piece I've recently written for 'This And That: Global Identities and Intersectionality', hosted by Gender Across Borders (www. genderacrossborders.com) - reposting it here with their permission, but it is absolutely worth it to have a look at the entire series at http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2011/04/28/welcome-to-this-and-that-g...

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Beginnings are difficult when you are in between. To start somewhere in the middle does not seem right as far as familiar stories go. But then again, this is a stranger story.
There is no point in tracing origins, though I am tempted. I come from Holland, Indonesia, Germany, England, but I was made in Africa. I could begin like that. It has a certain ring to it, perhaps better than somewhere-in-the-middle, somewhere in the messy middle of Apartheid South Africa, when ‘coloureds’ were born. That is another story– and after all, it is history, although it does not encompass our history. The history of the messy-middle people, the ones that were mixed and then mixed-up: that story is a blur. So, where do I begin? Where do I begin to tell the story of who I am? And which story to tell – when you are in between, mixed, messy, neither this nor that (the succinct definition of a “coloured” person according to Apartheid legislation: “someone who is not a White person or a Bantu”), there are many threads to pick up, a lot to unravel. At the same time, much is (being) erased. Already I have discarded these lines.

This is a story of stops and starts. Too fitful for middle-ground, a place that sounds so complacent and compromising…an illusion, for this is a non-place– if it sounds smooth, it’s only because of the writhing back and forth, the crossing of borders on one’s belly. Have I begun yet? The problem is this: I am trying to say who I am without saying who I am. Perhaps I could do this by saying who I am not: I am not a coloured woman, I am not half of anything. Or I could say it quickly, to get it out of the way: Iamawomanofcolour. I am struggling to introduce myself and this is just the beginning!

Lets start again.

I am a migrant woman of colour. There, I said it. An added a twist. This is a shape-shifting story. Six years ago, I moved from South Africa, where I had lived the first three decades of my life, to Portugal. I moved from a known unknown to a new unknown/ un-own. Before, there, I had come to terms with being in between: I shifted from ‘coloured’ to ‘of colour’, I could (dis)play my hybridity, I refused to know my place. (That is a long story.) Now-here, I constantly have to place myself. Just when I thought it was safe to be out-of-place… I need to be from somewhere; I have to explain why I am here and not there; I have to give an account of my belongings. I can not just say: this is my suitcase. I live here. I am also there. I am permanently residing.

A simpler story is required. And so, in Europe, I am African, a big, fat category to stuff many stories in, a huge black bag that hides the mess but also the colour. No-one asks questions of a black bag – it’s better not to… Sometimes, I offer an unqualified, unparticular “South African”, just to reassure. Lighter still would be ‘estrangeira’, a foreign woman. A floating, fleeting naming – harmless and neutral as… middle-ground. And I find myself back where I (supposedly) began: somewhere in the middle (yet never quite at the centre). But this a different kind of ‘middle’, a misleading state of déjà vu: I have been here before, but not here. In this presumably colourless limbo, I can not rely on the fixed politics of my identity. I have nowhere to start./ I have to start nowhere.

Who am I?
I am a woman making colour. I am faking shape. I am taking place.

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Originally posted at http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2011/04/28/identity-for-beginners/

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