My Innumerable Identities
A moving, hard-hitting and often humorous memoir that became an immediate bestseller upon publication
When asked to give a speech on ‘breaking through boundaries’ at his old secondary school, cultural anthropologist Sinan Çankaya finds himself forced to describe his quest for his identity. ‘But what do they want me to say?’ he asks himself repeatedly. He can’t help but think of the problems he faced due to others constantly pigeonholing and defining him, and the discrimination he experienced at that very school.
Çankaya, the son of hardworking Turkish migrant parents, shares with the reader the doubts and memories the invitation arouses in him. As a pupil at the school, he had been notably taught by a history teacher who was a prominent member of an extreme right political party. This man’s contempt for the only Turkish-Dutch boy in the class was formative, as was his assertion that the boy would never amount to much.
As Çankaya describes his own life journey from emigrant child to lecturer at an Amsterdam university, he demands the freedom to decide himself who he is. Constantly resisting the reduction of his individuality to just one label, he tells painfully witty anecdotes about his drive for elasticity, and the many micro-revolutions he initiated. Writing with irony about his own masculinity and pride, he investigates the prejudice that hides within language and its registers. His work on structural racism in the Dutch police force as an anthropological researcher provides a perfect illustration of why the Black Lives Matter movement has gained such urgency.
Combining his own experiences with his viewpoint as an anthropologist, the writer reflects on how identities are created. He concludes that it is a transaction with another, ‘I am, through you.’ Çankaya proposes that each person has multiple, fluid, shifting identities. ‘A person is not just a man, heterosexual and white, not just a woman, black or homosexual. Our bodies are always entwined with other identities, history and the course of one’s life.’
This is a universal story about a boy wrestling himself from his environment, becoming socially mobile and fighting back. It is a personal story written in a literary style, acerbic and reminiscent of the French writer, Eddy Bellegeule, but more reflective, layered, and more political. One might describe the writer as a Dutch Ta Nehesi Coates, sharing common ground with Kwame Appiah.