community, education, technology

Identity and Anonymity


At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family and I, just like everyone else, were trying to stay in our respective homes across three different countries and a dozen timezones. Hungering for connection, trying to fight back the boredom, and striving to make the most of dad’s premium zoom subscription, we decided we would start a short story club that met once a week. Every week someone selected a reading that the group would then discuss on Saturday afternoons (or Saturday nights depending on where you were). When it was my turn to pick the literature, I knew I wanted a work by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am always able to locate myself in her writing – perhaps because she discusses the Indian immigrant experience quite a bit. I also wanted something I hadn’t read before and material that was free and easy to access online. All of this led me to The Boundary by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in the New Yorker in 2018.

Tragically, our little club followed the fate of many other groups as much of the early COVID connection enthusiasm gave way to zoom fatigue. We are now on an indefinite hiatus. RIP. However, The Boundary and one particular idea in it stuck with me, which I will endeavor to elaborate on. Now might be a good time to pause and go read the story, but that shouldn’t be necessary to engage with this post.

The Boundary tells of a family that cares for a vacation rental in the countryside and a family from the city that is vacationing in that house for a week. The story is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of the youngest member of the family that cares for the house. And as with our personal narratives, it feels like a highlight reel of the big and small things the narrator thinks are worth keeping a record of. The events in it feel like they are happening at the pace of life and like a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, it has a bit of a melancholy tone.

In the story, the author touches on themes of family, immigration, privilege, and much more. While all these ideas weave in and out of the narrative, they all seem to be in service of the central theme of identity. Lahiri however, is an artist and she isn’t going to be so callous as to come right out and say it. Instead, she leverages anonymity – an unlikely tool that is arguably the antithesis of identity – to at once comfort and confront the reader. Wielding anonymity, she is able to deftly highlight her narrator’s struggle with identity and the reader’s as well.

Lahiri’s broadest use of anonymity covers the entire arc of the story. As we read on we start to realize that she has chosen not to provide us with any information about where the characters are or where they are from. Location is generally an important descriptor in the writer’s tool belt. It helps establish the culture the story operates within. Creating a world for the reader to immerse themselves in using their preconceived notions about places and the people in them. Lahiri does not rely on that crutch here. She instead paints a vivid picture of a tranquil, idyllic, humid vacation town on the beach that could be anywhere in the world.

The author takes great care to obfuscate cultural detail. There is a point early on in the story, for example, where the narrator says of the two little girls in the visiting family “I learn their names” and leaves it at that. There is no release. The names are not provided to the reader. This is one of the most explicit instances of her thrusting us into the world of anonymity she is trying to create. We are left to be the detective trying to figure out where they are from and who they are because we hunger to know the backgrounds and identity of those we meet. We want to put a face to the people. A place to their surroundings. We look for clues, try to follow the breadcrumbs of the “July rain” and “archeological sites, ruins”, and “tomatoes and lettuce” growing in the garden. But we come up empty because Lahiri has carefully constructed a world that is generic in its familiarity. What she instead wants us to find, is that we can place several different dominant and subject culture/subculture relationships into the lives and location of the families of her story. She is exposing the commonality of culture and human nature in a kind of homogenized post-colonial world. We are left to question ourselves. Who do we picture as the caretakers and who do we picture as the vacationers? Where do we see ourselves in the story? And crucially, why do we have this urge to assign a local identity to the characters?

Recently, on a re-read through The Boundary as I was writing this post, I realized that on my first couple of readings, I was identifying the narrator as a girl, even though that is another piece of information that is obscured for us. To me, this experience further demonstrates the power of anonymity in art as a mechanism for bringing the observer to face their biases. It appears something about the tone or experiences of the narrator caused me to assign them feminine identity. Perhaps it was because the author of the story identifies as a woman. Regardless, the assumption was unfounded and the story created the space for me to analyze and reflect on my instincts with respect to designating an identity to an individual.

While there is discomfort in being confronted with our biases and in the lack of information, the anonymity turns into a gift as Lahiri uses it to create space in the canvas so we can see ourselves in the story. The fact that this town and the people in it could be from Sicily, Parati, or Goa means that readers can easily place themselves and people that look like them in the story’s context. We often see anonymity used in art in this way. It is a routine tool in song lyrics and poetry. The ‘I’s and ‘You’s and ‘We’s and all other pronouns represent anonymous placeholders poets leave in their work for us to insert ourselves into. Nina Simone’s “Let me fly away with you” or The Beatles’ “I wanna hold your hand” leave clear well-defined spaces for any listener to insert themselves and others into the narrative. Instrumental pieces and abstract art take this a step further, leaving a completely open terrain for the consumer to locate not just themselves, but thoughts/emotions/ideas/spaces/anything into the landscape of the art.

A societal scale use of this form of anonymity can be seen in Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits. The book, which covers a time swath of a hundred years in its arc, is set in an unnamed Latin American society with a land-owning entrenched conservative polity and a liberal class-conscious opposition. It talks of corruption and suppression of political activity for people belonging to lower classes. It talks of young firebrands and old poets with their songs that unite a nation. It talks of idealistic young people fighting for a brighter future. It talks of conservative obstructionism and military dictatorships and genocidal megalomaniacs. It talks about acts of resistance – big and small – that set the wheels of revolutionary struggle in motion. In this way, Allende uses anonymity to convey the almost identical nature of revolution and people across space in modern society as well as the loss or destruction of national identity needed to initiate radical reform. It also serves the purpose of refocusing the story away from the place and onto the characters. Shining a light on the identities of the people that make up society rather than society itself.

​​Lahiri’s use of anonymity also reveals to the reader the narrator’s perception of themselves. We get information about everyone in the story except the narrator – like a non-existent observer. This provides insight into the narrator’s own struggle with identity. As is often the case, this struggle leads to a diminishing of the self, a hiding in the shadows. An obfuscation born from self-preservation that renders oneself anonymous. The narrator’s reveries like “The owner lives abroad, but he’s not a foreigner like us.” and “I don’t look like anyone else” indicate the out-of-placeness they feel in their current environment. That coupled with their experience beyond the confines of the vacation rental and their father’s abuse by the locals reveals that the narrator is perhaps concealing identity because they are uncomfortable with it or consider it to be a liability. Coupled with the struggle of fitting in as an immigrant in a foreign society is the narrator’s struggle with fitting into their own family. They romanticize the locals who come to vacation on the property as they describe their own absent mother and verbally impaired father “After I was born, when he saw me for the first time, he couldn’t say a word”. The narrator is often vulnerable with us, owning up to their fantasies, and telling us intensely personal stories. Leveraging their position as the sole perspective offered to us, the narrator uses the “I” as a shield to talk about everything around them while revealing very little about themselves.

Throughout the story, there is tension about who the characters are, what we are told, and what we want to know. Right at the end there is an implication of another “I”, another identity. We are reminded of other perspectives to the events of the week when the narrator finds the journal entries left behind by the mother of the vacationing family. Do these notes tell us things the narrator did not? How does the mother see herself? Which parts of her self does she choose to express or conceal? As you would expect, there is no reveal. Lahiri leaves us with this final arousal of our curiosity as she reinforces the questions about information, anonymity, and identity that she wants us to consider.