About a year ago, a woman named Marianne Cantwell gave a TEDx talk in Norwich, UK about “fitting in.” Show me a person who has no worries about this, and I will show you my canary yellow Doc Marten boots. **
Cantwell says this about fitting in: “It’s like from the outside you look like you fit, but secretly, a little piece of you never feels that you 100% fit into any of [your worlds].” She then discusses the word ‘liminal,’ “a state of in-between-ness, like you’re not quite one thing, but not quite another. You’re on the borderlands.”
Great books are often about (and by?) people who struggle with fitting in. From Holden Caulfield to ever-precious Anne-with-an-E, characters who peer at the world from a different dimension communicate thoughts and themes that allow readers to ponder where they fit in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t earth-shattering, it’s 8th grade English class.
But where do those characters leave us? Are they – and we – meant to just stay suspended in “liminality”? Can “liminality” be exchanged for “finality”? Are we meant to just accept that we’re neither here nor there?
Donal Ryan writes this in his 2018 novel From a Low and Quiet Sea (named to the Man Booker Long List just last week): “…maybe every possible version of a person can be glimpsed at once, maybe every man’s true self is like a particle unobserved, assuming all possible shapes in any given moment, only fastening into one when it’s called upon to be, to do.”
Ryan writes this from the viewpoint of Farouk, a Syrian who is negotiating an escape from his homeland with his wife and daughter. In some momentary, roundabout way, Farouk marvels at the system that has cast a shadow over his country: “Don’t you envy those militants in a way? The ease they’ve granted themselves with their certitudes, their pristine rubrics, their perfect clarity?” But of course, he gives himself the equivalent of a rubber-band-on-the-wrist flick and whisks himself away from this simplistic (and dangerous) train of thought.
Certitudes, pristine rubrics, and perfect clarity seem oh-so-appealing when one has nothing to pin an identity to, when one’s viewpoints are even just a little bit out of step with the surrounding community – and there doesn’t seem to be in sight a community that “gets it.”
Ryan continues his novel by introducing Lampy, a young man who still lives at home with his mother and his grandfather; his father is unknown to him, and he knows that (unfortunately) one of his surefire identities is “bastard.” He does adore his mother and grandfather: “He knew the rhythms of the house and the two people below him, the syncopated beats of them, the tides that flowed and ebbed with no regularity but with a strange and comforting predictability…” They are known to Lampy – at least on some superficial level – but he feels utterly unknown to them. “How could he tell his grandfather that he wanted to find a place where the measure of a man was different? Not linked to money or to sport or a road in a town. Or was it the same everywhere? He wanted to have no past, no address, to just be from Ireland. Not this town, or the Villas, or the house at the end of the terrace with the broken gatepost.” (This is fascinating to me because as an outsider, I always reveled in my perception of Ireland’s lack of “boxes” – I know, call me naïve – but this demonstrates that no matter where you go, a country/city/town will hem you in however it sees fit.)
We also meet John, who is at the end of his life and coming to terms with the hurt that he has flung at others. Always steadfast and cocksure of who he is, John still confronts little wobbles to his self-confidence. An abusive older sister may have tried to cut him down as a child, “But I was well able for her. I enjoyed the good-room speeches. That pierced her. She could say what she wanted to me because I knew the truth of who I was and what I felt.” So he does, and John would probably be the type of person who we all admire as someone who knows exactly how he fits – and how he demands others to fit. Yet when Farouk, Lampy, and John all meet at the end of the novel (and please know that the ending is powerful and suspenseful and quiet all at once, as only Donal Ryan can execute), everyone moves forward in their liminality.
They don’t come close to finding their “tribe” with one another, but an interconnectedness validates the idea that for better or for worse, we look to others to help us define ourselves.
Simultaneous to reading From a Low and Quiet Sea, I read a fascinating memoir by Apricot Irving called The Gospel of Trees. Irving recounts her childhood, predominantly spent in Haiti as the child of missionaries. Not surprisingly, her initial reflections include:
“The staggering inequity between their lives and ours demanded an explanation”;
“What caught us off guard was the sharp divide between those who had so little and those whose luxuries far outstripped our own”;
“Never before had we lived in a world so adept at throwing us off balance.”
However, her story starts veering toward questions of how she fits in and not just that she doesn’t. After all, for a large chunk of her childhood, Haiti is home despite the fact that she is often greeted with blan, ie “white” or “foreigner.”
When Irving and her family eventually move on to the missionary compound and become better acquainted with other youth in a similar situation (but never the same one, as some had tighter or different ties to Haiti than she did), she recalls, “I had never felt so close to finding my tribe. For the first time in as long as I could remember, something buried in me began to unfurl, like a seed, long dormant, turned toward the light. For one night, at least, we were home to one another.”
Some of the most poignant words from The Gospel of Trees – “I wanted to belong to this great, wide, reckless world, not just sit back in judgment of it…” – are also, I believe, a truism for how we should proceed as friends, family members, community members, and citizens.
So how does that work when your life experience belies tidy categorization? Marianne Cantwell of the TEDx talk is clear: Finding your right “continent” (figuratively and in many cases, literally) is “a losing game if you’re liminal.” Her suggestion? “Create your own island…You don’t find your place as a liminal person, you create it.”
Despite not wanting to operate in black and white (because that’s kind of the opposite of what we should be going for), I’m nonetheless going to posit that liminal people are “right” (foot stomp) and those who revel in “certitudes, pristine rubrics, and perfect clarity” are…maybe not “wrong,” but how about shortsighted?
Migration, globalization, and the mind-blowing world of digital media beg us to create new islands, unlike ones we’ve seen before. I mean, how unusual would it have been 50 years ago for an American to watch a talk about “fitting in” given by a woman who was raised in Australia by a British father and a mother from Mauritius? Simply put, I don’t believe there’s any other way. Raise a glass to liminality!