Split Self: Essun’s Identities (And My Own Procrastination)

Brain freeze.  That’s possibly the best way to describe my stress response.  Metaphorically, my brain stumbles, frizzy-haired and wild-eyed, into a classroom, late to a midterm she didn’t realize was happening, and the world — whom I imagine to be a disappointed, McGonagall-esque sort of presence — slides her a multiple choice exam sheet and an exam with only one question: “You must handle [insert stressor here], what is your best response?

A) Fight

B) Flight

C) Freeze

D) None of the above, handle this situation in a way you know you are capable of doing”

And my brain, in all of her primitive and evolutionary wisdom, lights up, because she knows the answer (everyone knows this one, it’s so easy)!  Iiiiiiiiit’s… freeze (because the answer is always C)!

Thus, I freeze.  I freeze like a possum playing dead, like a stone eater aboveground, like a corpse in rigor mortis (not playing dead). I freeze like cream-that-will-soon-be-ice-cream in liquid nitrogen.  At least, I freeze until the burning flames of perfectionism encroach, and usually, panic-stricken and vaguely odorous, I arise like a haggard phoenix to turn in an B+/A- worthy assignment when I could have easily pulled an A out of my ass (am I allowed to say that?) if I hadn’t pulled an Essun and frozen myself (there is a very good TED talk on this, please watch, it’s the only reason my family understands me; more importantly, it discusses the deeper implications of procrastination, especially in terms of situations wherein deadlines don’t rein you in). 

So other than serving as a round-about, therapy-session-like, vaguely apologetic post about why and how I’m behind in this class (despite Dr. McCoy’s best efforts), what does this have to do with anything we’re talking about? Et alors?

I’ve found that my procrastination partially takes root in this tendency (one I think many of us have), to think of myself in terms of a split self: Past Abby, Present Abby, and Future Abby.  Past Abby is the most contentious of these identities; she exists in a state of constant accumulation, growing taller (okay, maybe not taller, but 5’2″ is still taller than I was at 5) and more myopic as all of my past identities pile onto past-self like that chair where you put all of your dirty laundry.  She is both a puddle of childhood innocence and a pit of every meager regret I’ve had, both romanticized and villainized on the whims of a Present Abby who hedonistically bounces from moment to moment.  Present Abby knows little of regret and thinks nothing of the future until the future stretches an expectant hand toward her. Future Abby flickers into solidity only momentarily, existing only in conception; she could be anywhere (though fairly often I find her well-off, having solved climate change, and living as a hermit tending to the grapevines surrounding her German tower), anytime.  Future-self is both me in the next ten seconds moving to another paragraph and me being dragged to yet another Turkey Trot by my father next Thursday; she is me getting into grad school and she is me leaving it all behind to live with my brother in his minivan that he drives across the country.  Future Abby is more responsible, more ideal, more capable and more willing to get that one thing that Present Abby isn’t getting done right now done

You can see a problem here, no?  Past self accumulates any blame, any responsibility, present self is, well, present, and future self holds any potential responsibility.  The thought process is an act of compartmentalization — in separating myself, I protect myself, I freeze myself into different selves.  But in the end this also results in a failed view of my own temporality; I’ve failed to recognize that Present Abby isn’t just this moment, she is every moment, she is an accumulation of every self, a potential of every future. In a procrastinating, freeze-framed state of mind, there is no continuity in my sense of self

Again, et alors?

Perhaps you are seeing where I am going — in considering all of this within the context of Jemisin’s work, I found it reminiscent of Essun’s (Syenite’s, Damaya’s, your’s) past identities.  Though they may not entirely line up with a Christmas-Carol-like conception of Past, Present and Future selves, her identities do line up with a split conception of self.  Our ever-conflicted protagonist is obviously split into three distinct identities in the narrative of The Fifth Season, a Damaya, a Syenite, an Essun, united only by threads woven throughout the narrative.  Although these threads are eventually woven into a full tapestry of Essun’s entire self, this transformation is slow, inching and drawing together in small mentions throughout the narrative of the trilogy in comments such as:  “You just react, like Damaya in the crucibles, like Syenite on the beach,” and “Only, sneers Syenite.  Only? thinks Damaya, in wonder.  Yes, only, you snap at both, to shut them up” (Obeslisk Gate 252; Stone Sky 279).  These past selves are further reinforced through the reappearance of characters from each of Essun’s past lives, from Alabaster to Tonkee (Binof) to Maxixe.

Essun’s split selves, her interrupted temporality, function primarily as a defense mechanism — change her identity, mold to the present circumstances, never become truly herself, only become what is needed in the moment.  Necessity, survival, dictates that Essun forget Syenite, that Syenite separate herself from Damaya, there is no point in the narrative, no opportunity within the restraints of society (except perhaps in Meov, but even then, Syenite is not Syenite and Damaya, she is Syenite — on guard, at war, reconciling her identity, Fulcrum-built and Fulcrum-beat, with her reality) for Essun-Syenite-Damaya to accumulate herself, no point at which she can even find whom she even truly could be.  She is only present-self.

Splitting self through necessity may be about where the similarities between the motivations for Essun’s (a name through which I mean to entail all of her identities — though I actually often find myself typing Syenite as her name, and I’m unsure of the reason why, whether it is the syllabic flow of the name or due to some aspect of Jemisin’s rather forceful world-building) and my own split senses of self may end, given that the reasons for Essun’s split are deeply rooted in issues of systemic oppression and trauma.

In fact, to a certain extent, Jemisin’s splitting of Essun into three temporally-distinct selves seems related (and I’m unsure how purposefully) to W.E.B DuBois’ concept of a double-consciousness.  African-Americans, in being

W.E.B. DuBois

forced to view themselves through the lens of the dominant (white) society, experiences a “two-ness”, a split of self wherein they are, distinctly, separately “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” (The Souls of Black Folk).  In a similar manner, orogenes are forced to view themselves through the lens of the Sanzed hegemony as both orogenic and human — to view these identities as not only separate, but conflicting.  Houwha relates the very beginnings of this imposed human-orogenic dichotomy when discussing Kelenli, stating, “She thinks of herself as one of us, which she is.  She thinks of herself as a person, too, though.  Those two concepts are incompatible” (Stone Sky 207).

You may notice, in the midst of all of this duality, that Essun is not simply twice divided, but thrice.  This may, in reference to my last post, be a literal translation of not only the idea of double-consciousness, but the further idea of triple consciousness: an extension of double-consciousness wherein African-American women must reconcile not only their Black self and their American self, but also acknowledge their womanhood as a further separating and conflicting self.  As Deborah Gray White puts it, “African American women are confronted with an impossible task. If she is rescued from the myth of the negro, the myth of the woman traps her. If she escapes the myth of the women, the myth of the negro still ensnares her.”

In this context, it’s perhaps important to acknowledge the situations in which Essun’s transformations of self occurred.  The first, the transformation from Damaya to Syenite, is a Fulcrum-mandated “unselfing,” a cut-off from any identity retaining typical aspects of what is deigned to be “human” so as to make those in the Fulcrum exist entirely within the framework of “orogene.” Thus, this split of self was imposed by an outside force in order to impose dual identity (or I suppose it was meant to impose a singular identity, that of orogene, but in doing so it forces ).  The change from Syenite to Essun, however, is not mandated, not directly imposed, but necessary for survival in the sense that Syenite must be dead if she the nameless entirety of the-woman-who-will-become-Essun is to survive the assault of the Fulcrum’s fury.  Yet, even in the first un-selfing, Damaya becomes Syenite as a matter of survival, no matter how typical the transformation may be for Fulcrum-trained orogenes.

It is only in beginning to draw all of her selves together, in bringing the awareness attained and the discoveries made by each self together, that Essun comes to stand a chance (of course, Essun is only able to do this once the constraints of a society that represses her fullness of self have been removed so as to allow her to reconcile her orogeny/magic with her humanity).  And, to draw back to the concept inspiring this post, in drawing together my own self, in feeling the continuity of my actions and being able to live fully within the extent of my temporal self that I will be able to remove myself from a mentality of constantly freezing in the face of stress.  As Essun (Hoa? The separation between protagonist and narrator I will leave to another blog post, whether it be my own or someone else’s ) relates, “You can reject these dregs of your old self and pretend that nothing and no one else matters… or you can embrace them.  Reclaim them for what they’re worth, and grow stronger as a whole” (Stone Sky 128).

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