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  • Writer's pictureastrid v.j.

We Are Shaped By Our Histories

In Elisabeth and Edvard - The Siblings’ Tale I take a look at how we are shaped by our history. In Aspiring, Elisabeth’s behaviour and thoughts about herself reflect on her beliefs about herself—beliefs she realises were shaped by what others said and did around her when she was little. Elisabeth only comes to terms with these beliefs later in her life. In Becoming, for example, she remembers a conversation between her mother and Queen Catherine which informed Elisabeth’s own ideas about her mixed-class background and not belonging in her society.

Sporting my Dirndl, traditional Bavarian dress.

We are all shaped by our background and experiences. They form how we see the world and inform our own identity construction. In my own case, I was very much influenced by my German-Italian South African heritage. As a German South African, I did not feel part of the greater white South African community. I was different because I attended a German school and didn’t really have any Afrikaans-speaking friends. However, at school, I didn’t really fit in either because I was not part of the German-South African community, since my father moved to South Africa from Germany. I was also not a first generation German attending the school because of parents in the diplomatic service or working for BMW. Again, I felt myself hanging between worlds.

Since I didn’t fit in, I began to work on an identity of standing out. At the German school, I honed my South Africanness, to distance myself from that which is German. What with compulsory history classes throughout middle school, I was inundated with tales of the Holocaust and what “Germans had done”. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that, so I honed my English, chose only to complete my South African Matric and not to do an extra final year to complete my German Abitur. I chose to reject my German heritage because of what I was lead to believe that meant. Germanness was orderliness and a bad conscience—in the eyes of my teenage self.

As a South African, I also had a difficult past to come to terms with. Apartheid was a very strong presence throughout my childhood, precisely because it officially ended the year I started school. I was acutely aware of my status as a privileged, white South African, and so distanced myself from the group I considered the “real perpetrators” of that system. I rejected Afrikanerdom and tried to get away with speaking as little Afrikaans as possible. I emphasised my mother’s Italian heritage, great-grandparents who left their struggling country to find a better life in “the colonies”. But I knew I wasn’t Italian either, since we didn’t speak the language and, apart from receiving two recipes passed down through my maternal grandmother, I couldn’t even cook Italian.

With experience, my perceptions changed somewhat. I know now I cannot be held responsible for what people in my grandparents or great/grandparents’ generations decided to do. German and South African policy may have benefited people in my family, but some of them also got the brunt of the situation. After finishing my schooling I had the opportunity to spend some time with my German grandmother and although she didn’t say much, I learned enough about what World War II meant to her, and since then, I have also learned some of what it did to her. She was nine years old when the war ended and suffered in the post-war era of scarcity and hunger. Learning about her experiences helped me come to terms with my Germanness.

I realised, I wasn’t German as such. I had little in common with the majority of people from that country. What my heritage from my father’s family offered me was an understanding of Alpine culture, and this is what I embraced in my identity construction. It was this part of my history I was willing to incorporate into who I am. I am South African, with Bavarian heritage. That worked for me, while it still emphasised my difference.

I have had many other experiences that informed my choices on who I am today, but this small example offers my thoughts on the matter. For although we are shaped by our history and what we experience, we don’t have to allow these things to define us. I learned that I have a choice. We all have the power to choose what aspects of our history we are willing to include in our considerations of who we are. We can choose how circumstances affect us and what parts of our history will inform our reactions to the outside world.

Of course, I know the choice is often not a simple one. Sometimes our history and experiences become so much a part of ourselves we cannot easily see where the dividing line goes. It can be hard to see what is actually external and that which isn’t. As a teenager I believed I could never be German because none of the attributes I associated with Germans and Germany resonated with me. After spending time with my grandmother, I realised how wrong I was and that I was allowing public relations and propaganda to define my perception of Germanness. Instead, I came to realise that as someone who loves to be different and stand out, Bavarian culture really suited me because that is what Bavarians are. We are the “different” Germans and we love to point it out, by emphasising our catholic belief, among other things.

In later years I spent quite a bit of time studying identity and identity construction and I began to synthesise what I had struggled with as a teenager, and what others face in their daily lives. For we are constantly being trapped by our circumstances and surroundings, believing we cannot escape the lives we were born into or the groups we ended up in. Often we feel that our families define us, whether they are good for us or not. We can become stuck in a job because we believe there is nothing else out there for us. Very often our beliefs, reactions and the very identity we construct for ourselves seem carved in stone—unchangeable.

I wrote Elisabeth and Edvard - The Siblings’ Tale precisely to showcase this is not the case. We have the power to make choices and with our choices we can change who we are and what others perceive us to be. I use the following formula (if you will) when presenting Elisabeth’s situation and her beliefs about herself.

I am... because of ... but I can also be... because of my choices. I choose to be...

Elisabeth is not eligible to marry because she is neither aristocrat nor tradesman’s daughter. But, she can be queen, if she chooses to accept Richard’s love. What does she choose? She may choose to accept the definition of her heritage and face the world alone, or she can choose to embrace the love she and Richard share for each other, she can create a new place for herself because she can choose to disregard what her history and social upbringing dictate for her and instead can choose to be what she wants and find happiness through it. I hope Elisabeth’s journey will support you, my reader, in your own muddled and difficult path to self-realisation. Identity construction in the modern era is a tricky activity because of the very fluid nature of our societies and the ever-increasing changes the technological era brings with it.

We are shaped by our history... but we don’t have to allow it to define us.

How do you define yourself? What parts of your history do you allow to define you and what aspects have you chosen to leave behind?

Please share your insights and contribute to the discussion. I would love to know your thoughts and learn from your experiences. Feel free to comment or send me an email. Thank you for reading. Sign up here so you don’t miss my next blog post and more on the social issues I like to consider and have woven into my writing.

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