Finding a voice to fit your identity is never easy. However, artist, designer and animator Safwat Saleem, had a particularly difficult time, struggling with anxiety about his childhood stutter. In this thought-provoking, heartfelt and adorably animated talk from TED 2016, Saleem describes how he overcame his struggle to incorporate his voice into his artwork, not only through childhood, but in the face of rude YouTube commenters who ridiculed his Pakistani accent as an adult. Instead of letting ill-mannered commenters keep him from using his own voice in his work, Saleem rather unpacks the reasons behind those comments: differing definitions of “normality” that lead to preconceived notions. Saleem resolves to use his art to challenge those preconceived notions, which is about as admirable as it is delightful in the form of Saleem’s inventive art and occasionally plushy animations.
So, in the spirit of challenging preconceived notions and finding identity with unique voices, here’s a reading list to help you do just that:
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (Black Bay Books, 2001)
This collection of short stories might seem obvious when paired with Saleem’s talk: the very first story follows Sedaris’ experiences with an elementary school speech therapist. However, this grouping of stories is shockingly honest, just like the rest of Sedaris’ work, and gets at the crux of defining identity through pathos and humor, in addition to unpacking the ways language itself leads us down the paths we end up following.
Homegoing: A Novel, Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, June 7, 2016)
This incredibly ambitious debut novel from the 25-year-old Yaa Gyasi follows almost 300 years of family history. Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, have drastically different lives in eighteenth-century Ghana, and Gyasi traces their descendants through aristocracy, slavery, colonialism, civil war and discord right through to the modern day. The result is a startlingly honest and personal appraisal of the way tectonic historical forces dictate identity, opinion and status. If you’re looking for any modicum of perspective on where you fit into the world, Homegoing is the book to give you some serious thinking to do.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 2015)
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel tackles identity issues head-on. It tells the story of a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain struggling with the cognitive dissonance of being a communist double agent in the USA. In a tragicomic style, author Viet Thanh Nguyen explores not only the disconnect between Western and Eastern perspectives, but what it means to literally build an identity from disparate parts of yourself. Part serious novel, part satire, this book will challenge you and at the same time it will make you chuckle nervously.
Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut (Dial Trade Press, 1999)
This classic novel (one of my personal favorites) follows a few different character threads to come to greater conclusions about life, identity and the ways we view ourselves. Vonnegut vacillates between a mentally unhinged car dealership owner, a traumatized former prison inmate searching for a job and others, but the most visible character is Kilgore Trout, a character who has been featured in plenty of other Vonnegut’s better-known novels. Trout takes it upon himself “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe,” who incidentally shows up in the book (Vonnegut writes himself into his own novel). There are so many different ideas about identity that it’s hard not to look at yourself and wonder while reading this book.
Main image courtesy of TED