Biography 26.3 (2003) 492-493
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In the last ten years, there has been an explosion of interest in passing, most of it focused on racial passing, or passing for white. Academic and popular presses have published novels, memoirs, scholarly monographs, and anthologies of criticism. Featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, Shirlee Haizlip's The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White (1994) is probably the most famous of the life writings, but other biographies and autobiographies have followed, like James M. O'Toole's Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 (see the following review). Literary scholars and cultural theorists of passing, whether addressing the specifics of life writings or not, provide insight into the epistemology of identity, and "passing," as a term with a certain cultural capital, has now joined "performativity," "borderlands," and "queerness" as an important tool for working through the problematics of identity. The arrival, therefore, of a new volume on passing deserves our attention.
Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, edited by Maria Carla Sanchez and Linda Schlossberg, collects ten essays from literary scholars, historians, and anthropologists. With class, gender, and nationality sometimes a secondary and even a central focus of various essays, the book's subtitle does not fully reveal the range of identities addressed in the anthology. When read next to Elaine K. Ginsberg's Passing and the Fictions [End Page 492] of Identity (1996), which collects ten essays that focus consistently on race, Sanchez and Schlossberg's volume clearly seems to cast its net wider to include a range of subjectivities, and to extend the definition of passing. This is both a strength and a weakness of the anthology.
To read Judith Halberstam's essay about the politics of transgender biography, and the tendency of biographers to "[force] the transgender subject to make sense" (20), against Peter Hitchcock's categories of slumming encourages us to consider the complexity of identity and the motives for "fixing" it. To read Michael Bronski's consideration of the competing concerns of homophobia and homophilia in the physical culture movement (135-159) against Maria Carla Sanchez's exploration of "how personae register within the body politic" (78) moves us to investigate the relationship between individual and group in defining identity. Does this anthology, therefore, equal more than the sum of its parts?
The implicit argument of Sanchez and Schlossberg's anthology is that these various forms of passing, although not structurally equal, may offer some insights into one another. Linda Schlossberg's introduction, although brief, highlights the way that "[t]heories and practices of identity and subject formation in Western culture are largely structured around a logic of visibility" (1), and more specifically, declares that "[t]his volume will ask how passing lends itself to the performance of various identities, and will explore the ways in which the passing subject's strategies of signification differ across various historical and national contexts" (2).
For the scholar of life writing, some of these forays into "passing" specifically address memoir, biography, and autobiography. Judith Halberstam's "Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography" addresses the ethics of life writing, making it an important study beyond its compelling focus on the transgender subject. But Daniel Itzkovitz's "Passing Like Me," although it spends little time with Waldo Frank's memoir, and considerably more time with its survey of novels that feature the "chameleonic" Jew, will surely be of great interest to scholars of life writing interested in Jewish identity formation and the modern era.
With other essays that address a range of subjects, such as passing for Protestant or participation in Newark's ballroom scene, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion will undoubtedly provide fascinating reading for scholars searching for work on specific categories of identity. It is, however, the anthology's range of "passing" topics...