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Perspectives on Identity in Octaiva Butler's Novels

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Perspectives on Identity

Identity. How exactly can a person define his or her identity? Is identity the way a person looks? Does the physical make-up of a person constitute his or her identity? If so, any person could potentially steal the identity of another by wearing similar clothes, changing variable factors such as eye, hair, and lip colors. Variation in colors and styles do not constitute a new identity so the notion that identity is only physical cannot be true. Based on that fact, would an incorrect assumption be that identity is encased in the mind, its thoughts, memories and rationale? These things are unique to the individual and cannot be entirely stolen by another. Or can they? Octavia Butler uses characters with shape shifting abilities and telepathy as devices to force her readers to question identity--what comprises it, is identity the way that others perceive an individual? Her novels Patternmaster and Wildseed suggest that identity is something all individuals--human or not--have, however subjective and ambiguous that identity may be.

Identity is ambiguous. Wildseed questions the reader's familiarity with the concept of identity with shape shifters. Doro is distinguishable in any body by anyone who knows him. His identity is simply encased in a new body. Here, it can be noted that identity cannot possibly be physical when Doro's physique has nothing to do with his being recognized, his essence is what is distinguishable. If this is true and the identity is not the body but the spirit and/or essence then what is one's essence? Essence will be defined as intrinsic properties that characterize. However this definition leads only to more questions. What are intrinsic properties and where do these properties come from? Memories, thoughts and ideas can be considered intrinsic properties. If so, then one could possibly assume the identity of another by retaining all that is in the mind of the other. In Patternmaster, Teray was able to learn from the mute, Jackman, by forcibly appropriating everything within the capacity of his mind. Accompanying the desired information were all of the mutes memories. By arguing, "You've got no right!" Jackman adamantly objected to Teray's prying and theft and recognizes the degree to which he has been violated (Butler 52). Realizing that rights to ones memories, or access even, makes the person vulnerable and robs that person of something that is inherently his or hers. Jackman knew, as did Teray, the violation of stealing one's memories and for Jackman, he suffered an indirect loss of identity. What had been unique to him had now been shared. Jackman, as well as Teray realized that Jackman's identity was no longer his own. For that reason "he [Teray] had a foolish urge to apologize," signifying a wrongdoing and recognizing the severity of his actions; by acquiring Jackman's mind contents, Teray could assume the identity of the mute (52).

If one were able to possess the mind (here, meaning memories, thoughts and rationale) of another, would that really constitute the acquisition of his or her identity? Included in identity is rational decision making. By assuming totally one's identity, all decisions of the individual assuming the identity would need to be identical to the decisions that would have been made by the original. For clarification, the assumer, Individual A, would then have to make decisions identical to those made and too be made by the original individual, Individual B. If individual A faced a situation in which a choice had to be made while assuming the identity of Individual B, would the resolution be a decision made by Individual A based on what he or she thinks Individual B would make according to past experiences or would Individual A's decision be Individual



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