Justin Torres’s, We the Animals (2011) chronicles the process of an unnamed narrator
on understanding his own identity; an identity conflicted with sex, coming of
age, love, hunger, poverty, vulnerability but also, maybe, hope. These conflicts
were evidenced on the structure of Torres’s connected vignettes detailing the
upbringing of three-brothers in a mixed-race family.
The narrator’s identity seems to be in
conflict ever since he was a child. At first,
the novel will emphasize “we” instead of “I”. In early stages of life, identity
holds a very thin line with that of people around. For nearly the first half of
the novel the narrator will always refer to himself and his brothers for every
situation. “We knew there was something on the
other side of pain…” (Torres 2). The narrator had hope and vision on life with
his brothers, he felt there was hope for everyone. “…He was leading us
somewhere beyond burning and ripping, and you couldn’t get there in a hurry” (Torres
2). In the beginning, the struggle
with identity was not only difficult to him but for the three brothers as well,
nevertheless this is the age where there is hunger and eager for life. The coming of age for the narrator made him
become dislodged from the family and struggle to have an identity of his own.
The father being a Puerto-Rican holds
a strong and male chauvinist character. Within several passages of the novel
the narrator was segregated from his brothers onto uncomfortable situations.
For example, in the chapter called Dawn, the father will send the boys to
shovel the snow, while the narrator was bathed by his dad, naked and physically
vulnerable. The father also called the narrator pretty. “I was thinking how pretty
you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about
his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and
twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got
me a pretty one” (Torres 10). The father was coming face-to-face to his son
deviating from the acceptable and traditional cultural expectations of masculinity.
On the other hand, the mother was just absent
in many aspects. She was nearly as susceptible as the three children to the
father. When the father left them, she had no clue on how to become the
responsible of the family. The children, specifically the narrator, observed
the parents’ volatile relationship not as figures a child will look up to. Their ethnicity setting them apart from the white
working-class children around them, and the disorder of their home life
encourage them to burrow on their own lives and sometimes forced adulthood.
character began to differentiate himself from the mentality of the family, he
knew there was something more than what his living conditions were blocking him
from. It is then he attends school and shows intellect his brothers won’t show.
Thereafter, he felt so different from the rest that he revealed his
homosexuality, essentially shaped by his life. Even though it is not revealed
until later, the theme of sexuality is there throughout the novel. A notable transition
began when the boys unexpectedly watch the gay porn in their neighbor’s
basement. The narrator’s older brothers began to suspect their brother’s
difference; it was then that the “we” became just “I”. He did not feel comfortable in his own skin and
found a sense of freedom in revealing. His life events only foreshadowed the
character’s sexuality and the final stage of his formation.
father’s death Alison
reconstructed in her memoir Fun Home: A
Family Tragicomic (2006) the three areas of her life that have seemed to be
the most significant to develop her identity. She goes back to her father’s
life as a father and husband, his unresolved manner of death to finally her
acceptance of own sexuality. Also, these life events shaped the way she reacted
to conflict, specifically, the way she reacts towards death.
As a child, Alison’s
father Bruce plays the role
of society’s enforcer, attempting to make his daughter act and dress with the stereotypes
of a typical girl. But what the memoir makes clear to the reader is that her
father’s strong desire for his daughter to act like a girl is driven not just
by “conservative” principles or obsessions but also by the fact that, like his
daughter, Bruce’s own gender identity is not parallel to his sexual nature. He has a need to express his own femininity
Many of the images in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic stressed the divided
view of Bruce as a feminine image and Alison as a masculine image; often surfacing
tension between their father and daughter relationship. Further, for
Alison to exist, Bruce had to have
repressed his sexual identity by marrying and procreating with her mom. Her
life depended on his internal suffering.
In addition, Alison’s
father death in the novel is a process of mourning, but also a self-discovery
in the process. Alison and Bruce Bechdel
face the difficulty of a culture that disallows their desires. His death is being
judged as a possible suicide, however this is supported once the reader through
Alison’s narratives understands that Bruce conflicted with melancholy of not
being able to move to face his sexual identity directly. Alison in a process,
learns to accept who she truly is and immerses herself in her new-found
reality. “My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a
manner consistent with my bookish upbringing” (Bechdel 74). Therefore,
Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, became a more developed
understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each
other. They both had many things in common, even though their relationship
had mixed feelings; both have a love for reading and for art, and they both
wish that they were born the opposite sex.
Finally, Alison’s characterization of being
indifferent towards death and even that of her own father is consequence of her
being always exposed to it. Alison and her
siblings play around in and even sleep over at the family business which was a funeral
home, causing them to have a far more casual and cavalier attitude toward death
than most children. When death occurred close to her, it is even more difficult
to process than usual because she is so used to treating death casually that
she represses her initial feelings of grief and only lets them out after a long
time has passed.
You would also think that a childhood spent in such
close proximity to the workaday incidentals of death would be good preparation.
That when someone you knew actually died, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or
two of the grieving process… But in fact, all the years spent visiting
gravediggers, joking with burial-vault salesmen, and teasing my brothers with
crushed vials of smelling salts only made my own father’s death more
incomprehensible (Bechdel 50).
Literature is, in one way or another, an immigrant experience. Protagonists
often break dramatically past lives to settle in a big country full of promise.
In the process, identity is challenged
and trapped in an unknown environment. Such is the case of Cleofilas in the
short story “Women Hollering Creek (1991)” written by Sandra Cisneros, her
Mexican identity was shadowed by a dreamed love from a telenovela and clashed with the American standards.
identifies with the traditional Mexican gender role of machismo,
the patriarchal society in which women take on very subservient, submissive
roles while men dominate all. This is the reality Cleófilas knows about. In addition, Cleofilas married an abusive
American husband who lives his life based on machismo, with its
expectations of a faithful wife while the same expectations are dare not be
applied to him. Cleófilas is to adhere to the moral conduct as prescribed by
the version of a Mexican women which absorbs a set of values that puts a
priority on purity, submissiveness, and service to the family. However, this
was not the life she was portrayed in the tele.
Cisneros intentionally creates the analogy on Cleofilas’ new neighbors’ names,
Dolores and Soledad, which mean pain and solitude respectively, referring to
the feelings that invaded Cleofilas reality.
On the other hand, Cleófilas is very
much concerned with her image and the image put forth by her family. “She would
get to wear outfits like the women in the tele,
like Lucia Mendez. And have a lovely house and wouldn’t Chela be jealous” (Cisneros
122). She is afraid that by leaving his husband she will be dishonoring her
family and disappointing her friends, for she was not considered pure anymore.
These events shaped and triggered Cleófilas
mousy identity, and it was after she met Felice that she realized that she was capable
of much more. Cleofilas is shocked by Felice, the strong woman in a
pick-up truck, who is not married and symbolized everything Cleofilas isn’t; free,
independent, empowered and tough. Felice is also American born with
nontraditional, modern values, and very sure of herself. Cleofilas was forced to develop a gender identity through contrasting cultural views of
gender in the framework of her cultural background and that of the United
This short story
depicts what women identity often struggle with. For American and immigrant
women the challenge of navigating through pivotal stages of their lives as a
product of two cultures has been difficult, also, fueled by the contradicting
norms of beauty, identity and womanhood defined by American standards which often
clashes with the way in which these standards are defined in their homes.