A review of Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, translated from the German by Alta L. Price
‘Nowadays nobody’s a serious intellectual until they’ve sat in the eye of a shitstorm.’ So says Nivedita, a German-Polish-Indian student and influential blogger who writes about race, identity and post-colonial studies under the name of Identitti in Mithu Sanyal’s novel of the same title. The quote is given during a radio interview in which Nivedita is asked about the social media debate around her beloved professor Saraswati’s second book on post-colonialism, but, as is the way of our Twitterised society, twenty-four hours later it is being taken out of context. Abruptly, Nivedita’s somewhat fragile world comes crashing down, leaving her unable to do anything but watch the shitstorm envelop both her and her professor. The reason? Bold and brilliant Saraswati, who has always claimed to be Indian, turns out instead to be incontrovertibly white.
Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti, which was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2021 and appears now in a fresh, spirited translation by Alta L. Price, is as bold and brilliant as Saraswati and the many other sparkling figures who populate its pages. The novel, essentially about ‘reverse passing’, is not without precedent – as Sanyal explains in her author’s note, cases such as those of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica A. Krug were influential in her decision to write this genre-expanding book – yet the exact circumstances and characters are largely fictionalised. While Nivedita, her cousin, Priti, and hopeless boyfriend, Simon, not to mention Saraswati herself, are the products of Sanyal’s inventive imagination, the novel also leans heavily on real life – particularly its virtual elements – in the form of directly quoted or paraphrased tweets and Facebook posts, blog entries, song lyrics, and numerous works of theory and fiction. The result is a vibrant, polyphonic and textually rich novel that grapples with complex, urgent questions while steadfastly refusing to provide any answers.
Following its dramatic opening – the revelation about Saraswati’s true identity that triggers a shitstorm of epic proportions – plot takes something of a back seat in Identitti, as the core cast of characters gathers in a sun-drenched penthouse to spend a couple of hundred pages ‘debating race and wrong’. The question at the heart of the novel is, of course, whether Saraswati was wrong to do what she did: to assume the identity of a person of colour and, from this position, write books on decolonisation, accept an endowed professorship and teach a vehement course in post-colonial studies that included moves such as ejecting all white students from her first-term seminars. The answer seems completely obvious. Yet when Nivedita, furiously hurt and bewildered, responds to Saraswati’s summons to her apartment, she finds herself once again under her professor’s spell, unable to tune out her wordy justifications, and separated from her fellow students who protest on the street below for their once-admired professor’s immediate ‘cancellation’.
What seems a straightforward case becomes, under Sanyal’s expert guidance, a murky situation in which moral boundaries fail to hold and characters find themselves ‘waging war over distinctions within the same level of meaning’. While many scenes are clearly staged – vehicles, merely, for the ideas Sanyal wishes to convey – we are given the rare opportunity to examine a debate from every angle, through countless voices being allowed to have their say. And, ultimately, the author refuses to wade in: we as readers are challenged to judge the situation for ourselves.
To say this is provocative is an understatement, but Sanyal’s bold approach does a wonderful job of highlighting what she goes on to emphasise in her author’s note: ‘It’s the system that’s wrong.’ Identity as a construct and ‘the phantom of race’ become here the multifaceted, anything-but-clear-cut concepts that they are in real life, used and viewed differently by individuals and society, ‘a chaotic mess of nested cocoons’. Nivedita, who struggles with her own identity and feels unmoored in many aspects of life, is a nuanced, eminently likeable, if sometimes frustrating character whose uncertainties seem to increase rather than diminish over the course of the novel. At the same time, however, she undergoes a process of growth and generally remains a staunch advocate of tolerance – a softer-than-expected note for a novel in which words are so often used to lacerate, and whose own tone is cutting in its fierce intelligence.
Beyond its brave take on complex issues, Identitti enjoys experimenting with form and language – challenges for which Alta L. Price has found ingenious solutions in her translation. Alongside the countless tweets and blog posts, Nivedita is in almost constant internal communication with the Hindu goddess Kali, a figure who crosses the boundary of real life and fiction with surprisingly credible ease. Inspired in part by Kali, sex is another important theme of the novel – and, in fact, behind the original revelations about Saraswati. Friendship and sibling relationships loom large, too, and, though not without painful twists, also provide plenty of material for moments of comic relief. The overall lightness of tone is sustained by Sanyal’s tongue-in-cheek observations that play up to the more overwrought scenes (‘It was a good day for raised eyebrows and knowing glances’), her mockery of hype-loving social media even as she acknowledges its formidable power, and a theatrical style of writing that at times mimics stage directions; while her characters are well rounded and vivid, they are always on show, sometimes rather flamboyantly. This is, after all, a novel of ideas and issues, not detailed plot development.
The kind of book that would definitely bear a second reading, Identitti is intellectual and irreverent, provocative and playful, an urgent and very welcome addition to the contemporary German canon. For English-speaking readers, it offers important insights into twenty-first-century Germany, adopting a critical stance that helps V&Q Books fulfil its mandate to deliver ‘remarkable writing’ which offers an honest portrait of the country. But, to expand on Nivedita’s realisation that the events are ‘something larger than all their personal differences, larger than the seminar circle’, this novel is far larger than its context, far more universal than German. Identitti is a unique and fascinating read that challenges us to think from a fresh perspective: surely one of the most important lessons that good literature can teach.
Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, translated from the German by Alta L. Price, is published in the UK by V&Q Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.