To say naming this column was a challenge would be an understatement.
Over the course of two days, I drafted a list of 40 title options, painstakingly narrowed it down to 15 mediocre ones and sent it over to my lovely editor. After much deliberation, we decided on “American Pie?”
It felt odd, kind of awkward but also charming. I liked it exactly for that reason.
The title held potential; the question mark wondered aloud. Initially it asked, “How American am I?” The obvious question. But as I’ve written, borrowing from my title’s potential, mulling over the words and stretching ideas like Play-Doh, I now understand the question is not so simple.
Amid an ongoing identity crisis with a gently existentialist aftertaste, I attempted to locate the coordinates of myself on the multicultural X-Y plane of everything I am supposed to be. Though I come from a background of many cultures, I must confess that I ultimately represent none of them.
At first, to assume the position of authority on a subject that I myself had no exact answer to and to share those ponderings with others was daunting. I wanted all my takes to be unique and authentic, yet something stopped me from drawing concrete conclusions or offering clean-cut answers. The truth is I didn’t know — and still don’t know— the answers to the questions I raised.
This column (I hope) isn’t a pompous dishing out of my amateur expertise — it’s rumination from my warmly lit living room or a bench in my slowly dimming backyard. It’s opening a door, allowing strangers to come along with me into all the inexact places my mind willed me to venture that week.
Yet I often wonder how interesting or novel my ideas are, and whether they are even worth publishing at all. Occasionally, I’ll have a burst of inspiration one column too late or think of a better take on something that already went out. I wondered if the week-to-week changes in my perspective meant I was incapable, or if they signalled to my lack of experience.
If I don’t know who I am, what I want, where I’m going, how do I create meaningful writing that can touch others? If I’m not original or grounded in a unique identity, how can I leave my mark on the world?
The desire to have stability, a certain reliable vantage point from which to offer my creative hot takes, came from the same part of me that desired authenticity.
Most artists (writers especially) yearn to be authentic, to be radical and revolutionary in their work. We want to be remembered, to fight the selectively inevitable irrelevance that so many have fallen victim to. It’s not easy to admit, this twinge of egoism that tails artistic inclinations. Even now as I write, the pressures of finality, the idea that all things must grandly culminate, the fear that maybe at some point I wasn’t right, eat away at me.
But after 12 weeks, I have a feeling that perhaps my crises and turmoil and even my desire for uniqueness are what contribute to my misshapen, off-brand originality.
And maybe, just maybe, I don’t feel original because I’m always changing.
We are never certain, static beings, so it’s impossible for any two of us to be the same at any point. We are always subject to change, always reimagining ourselves. The You of yesterday was another person. Maybe the quality of originality is ambiguous, too.
But why do we struggle to be original and fear being average? Why do we run from ambiguity and instead settle for a clean-cut version of ourselves and reality, even if that’s not really who we are or how life looks?
Not everything can be cleanly resolved. There will always be residual questions or answers that prompt more tangential questions. No matter how we try to structure or restructure our lives or blindly believe in the clean and logical progression of events, our lives are consistently, inherently uncertain.
Now, I find myself returning to the uncertainty in my columns, wondering what “American Pie?” could mean. Perhaps the answer to the question is not so much a satisfying, one-time revelation, but another question altogether.
“American Pie?” is my amateur attempt at asking and answering what I want to be; rather than exploring how much pie I can have, I ask how much I will eat.
How will I choose to craft my own original masterpieces? How much will I choose to let myself borrow from others? With all the multicultural pearls of wisdom that I have collected, who will I become? And maybe the most intimidating question of all: How will I change?
So as I sit outside writing in my backyard between dawn and dusk, I relish in the beauty of the day’s uncertain transition. As each paragraph writes itself, I feel larger. Circling from the first to the last paragraph, I am halfway living on the page and halfway in the summer night by the time the sun disappears. Finishing the last sentence, I look at my fingers, different from those fingers that wrote the first paragraph.
Somehow, in that evening light, they look stronger.
Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]