Silverblatt on Identity

Escaping the Cage: Identity, Multiculturalism and Writing

In 1969, when Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she could only have guessed how wide those cage doors would open. Freed from the cage, some of the birds are singing songs about a new cultural openness. But many writers feel they have flown from one cage to another.

"Escaping the Cage: Identity, Multiculturalism and Writing," a ten-part Bookworm series, really began one afternoon while I was interviewing Sandra Cisneros and another Latina writer, Nina Marie Martinez. Nina suddenly said, "I know I should be talking about ethnic women of color, but the real influences on my work right now are Thomas Pynchon and Louis Althusser." Sandra Cisneros revealed that Marguerite Duras is her favorite writer.

We began to explore the hidden complexities of ethnic stereotyping, and I encountered a whole new dilemma affecting writing in America. There is a new freedom, yes, but how many writers have felt confused or limited by an obligation to explore identity? Have publishers, finding a new marketing tool, created a new cage?

I began to ask writers who had come to the studios for a typical Bookworm interview to take some extra time to talk about identity. I tried to keep the frame of the questions very wide -- we talked about what identity means in science, in psychology, in cultural politics. We talked about a writer's sense of place and home, about sexual identity, about aesthetics.

The resulting conversations were incredibly varied. One writer chafed at being called an Asian writer, wanting only to be thought of as a writer, and someday to be thought of as a great writer. Some writers wanted the freedom to explore many different cultures and identities. Even the description "great American writer" seemed to be limiting -- many writers' aspirations are global.

"Escaping the Cage: Identity, Multiculturalism and Writing" is a huge polyphonic collage. It culminates a year-long exploration to get at the heart of one of the most significant areas of change in our perception of literature.

Michael Silverblatt