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Creating identity

Edward Said’s memoir provides more exposition than insight

By Leigh E. Rich

Out of Place: A Memoir
By Edward W. Said
Alfred A. Knopf

Edward Said has leukemia.

In Out of Place, his memoir about struggling with personal identity, Said doesn’t mention his illness until more than one hundred pages have passed, and he handles the information clumsily, dropping it like a maladroit waiter onto his puzzled readers.

But the information is necessary to understand the full circle of Said’s life as a marginal being—a person out of place within his family, his schoolmates, even his own culture—despite his notoriety as a writer on politics, imperialism and culture.

Said’s cancer likewise provides a theme to Out of Place; without it the collection is a confusing assemblage of childhood stories.

Perhaps by not focusing on the disease, Said attempts to avoid the stigma of being the established writer and Columbia University professor who fell victim to the “Big C.” Or, as Out of Place suggests, perhaps leukemia has not been Said’s greatest challenge.

But knowledge of the cancer is essential to finding stability in the wandering childhood stories about “Ed,” an American-Arab boy growing up in Jerusalem, Cairo and the U.S., who grapples with his multi-cultural background, and often distant and overbearing parents. It’s no wonder Said has never found a place to quite fit in.

His memoir is a story of not belonging—perhaps the true sentiment behind the popular smoke and mirrors catch phrase of “cultural diversity,” a topic about which Said has often written.

Instead of examining the multi-cultural impact and implications of his childhood, his pedigree as a Princeton/Harvard graduate and his status as an acclaimed writer (particularly Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism and The Politics of Dispossession), Said’s Out of Place presents a personal commentary of identity formation through the eyes of a young boy.

Part American, part Arab, Said began his life—the oldest and only son among five children—in Palestine wondering whether his native tongue was English or Arabic, and believing that it could not be both.

Most of the book, however, is set in Cairo, where he attended British and American schools, and depicts a childhood under the charge of a detached and highly critical father and a loving but erratic mother. Not fully accepted as an Arab or an American, and most certainly not a Brit, Said tells of an intelligent, obedient son’s fall from grace to become a lazy troublemaker, punished in school and at home.

Displaced even from himself (he often refers to a strange boy he remembers as “Edward” or “Ed”), Said, viewing himself from his father’s perspective, felt immoral and slack—expelled from school, forced into endless errands to keep him out of trouble, naughty in his sexual curiosity, and ill-equipped in his body, posture and ability in sports. Despite his rank as the only son, he was never even considered a successor to his father’s successful office supply business.

Rather than reflecting upon the confusing Middle East of the 1940s and ’50s with the retrospective insight afforded an adult writer torn and shaped by the experience, Said views it from the sidelines as a confused boy. Only his pain resonates, never his revelation.

And so he bounces us back and forth—in fashion with his cherished game of tennis—from story to story without form or conclusion. His tales hit and miss, causing the reader to skip ahead in search of a point, or at least another engaging anecdote.

His schooldays in Cairo and New England provide consistent good reading, as do his passions for music and theater. Writing about Alice in Wonderland, the first play he ever attended, and his captivation with the actress playing Alice, Said describes a young boy wistfully dreaming that he, too, shared the power to gracefully slip from stage to reality.

The most touching tale, however, is of Said and his mother discovering Hamlet together, reading the play before attending a John Gielgud performance. Said remembers, “Reading Hamlet as an affirmation of my status in her eyes, not as someone devaluated, which I had become in mine, was one of the great moments in my childhood.”

However, the rest of the book is a rambling re-examination of every instance of liminality in his early life. This stream-of-consciousness style of writing is either a testament to Said’s writing ability or an aberration from it. Haunted by this precarious and often hated sense of self, Out of Place is more for Said than his readers, a way to solidify his identity through his words and illness: “To write is to get from word to word, to suffer illness is to go through the infinitesimal steps that take you through from one state to another.”

In his battle to resolve the seemingly endless disparities of being “Edward,” Said never quite makes his point: that at times we all are, in spite of our hopes for multi-cultural cooperation and healthy home lives, out of place within our national and political boundaries, our families and our bodies.

Rich, L. E. (1999). Creating identity: Edward Said’s memoir provides more exposition than insight. [Review of the book Out of Place: A Memoir by Edward W. Said.] Tucson Weekly, October 28.

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