The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
Salman Rushdie, in his latest novel The Golden House (2017), narrates the saga of a mysterious Indian family living in New York. One of the characters, Orlando Wolf, is the curator of MoI, the Museum of Identity, who
was after identity itself, the mighty new force in the world, already as powerful as any theology or ideology, cultural identity and religious identity and nation and tribe and sex and family, it was a rapidly growing multidisciplinary field, and at the heart of the Identity Museum was the question of the identity of the self, starting with the biological self and moving far beyond that. “God is dead and identity fills the vacuum,” she said to him at the doorway to the gender zone, her eyes filled with the bright zeal of the true believer. (Chapter 8, Part 1)
Rushdie’s provocative imagery highlights that identity seems to be filling the void left by the death of God. As a single and continuous identifiable individual, under the light of an increasingly globalised, massified and volatile world, the Self cannot be but ruptured. Once there was no longer a centripetal force to keep our selfhood contained, a whole range of possibilities started to unfold and a “mighty new force” emerged: identity.
I was reading this novel just a few months before starting my PhD. I already had my draft project in hand when I fully realised that if I wanted to work on coming of age stories in contemporary literature, I had to connect the theme of growth to a reflection on the process of identity formation in both its social dimension and literary representation.
I soon discovered that identities are formed within the interplay of a series of forces and tensions; they depend on complex social processes that are shaped by our being in a precise social, historical and cultural milieu. Also, identities live within a complex and shifting dynamic between the different selves that we all inhabit; especially when dealing with teenage characters, the dynamics of identity call into question the boundaries between ‘permanence’ and ‘change’, and literature becomes a powerful lens to understand the scales at which this boundary operates, on both the individual and collective levels.
At that moment, I thought that I was embarking on a 4 year-long journey into coming of age stories and identity theories. Instead, what I unconsciously signed up for was also a long process of investigation into my own self and the world around me. The beauty of our consciousness rests in its porosity, and if you spend such a long time focusing on a project that you are deeply passionate about, the readings – whether they be novels, essays or peer-reviewed articles – initiate a semiotic relation with the world and start transcending boundaries.
In my personal struggle for identity, this PhD blurred the boundaries between personal, private, academic and professional. Firstly, my being Italian materialised as a trait of difference within the Irish community, positioning me within an ecosystem of different nationalities that is the academic community and, by expansion, Dublin today. Secondly, my private life – my hobbies, my leisure time – got almost entirely absorbed by my study time, even more when my familial space has been invaded by remote lecturing and piles of books. Thirdly, in my second year I ended up working in an innovation hub as a researcher, bringing the value of the arts and humanities into business consulting. This PhD has made me so much more than my research project – and in my own story all these composite, complicated and different aspects of my life appear less as a sign of identity fragmentation and more as a form of resistance to any predictable and predetermined being.
The result is that I am an Italian living in Ireland; I am proudly European; I am a PhD student; I am occasionally a teacher and a part-time creative problem solver; and there are even more things that I can and will become. I am not just one of these things, nor do I want to be reduced to one of them only.
If this PhD has taught me something unexpected, it is that at a time when we are having important conversations about identity recognition, representation and equality, it is important to assume an open, plural and critical perspective, necessary to navigate both normal times and times of crises. In these days, I am increasingly asking myself how the understanding that we have of identity can be turned into actions in order to ensure that any attempt to eradicate those factors which are already causing inequality and discrimination are concretely addressed. I am asking myself these questions because this PhD is so much more than a research project: it is a fragment of my own commitment to the world.
Martina Mendola is a third year PhD candidate in the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies, researching the process of identity formation in coming of age stories in contemporary Italian literature. She graduated from the University of Palermo (Italy) holds a Masters’ degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Turin (Italy) and has just completed a Postgrad Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Trinity’s Tangent. Martina has also worked as research assistant for the IRC funded project “Examining European Cultural Identity through Interdisciplinary Methods” in 2019 and she is currently a researcher in the Human’s Insights Lab, a multidisciplinary research team in Accenture’s Global Innovation Centre ‘The Dock’.
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