Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Besides, adulthood is never something girls grow into. It is something they have thrust upon them, menstruation being only the first of many two-edged swords subsumed under the rubric “becoming a woman,” all of them occasions to stay home from school and weep.
Zink's Peggy goes off to a women's college thinking she has finally found a place where her gender identity and sexuality will be allowed to blossom. Instead of finding love in the thriving lesbian community, she ends up pregnant by one of the few male professors, Lee, a gay poet, and her life takes an unexpected turn. After a decade of living as her approximation of a housewife, Peggy leaves with their baby daughter, Mireille, and starts a new life from scratch, complete with stolen identities and abject poverty.

Mislaid deals with the entire mess of identity in one relatively short package; gender, sexuality, race, class--no identity stone is left unturned, and therefore no one aspect is dealt with in much detail. Peggy's own gender identity and sexuality are revisited throughout, but the life that she chooses for her and Mireille is that of a poor Black woman and her daughter. She assumes the paired mantles of Blackness and poverty almost on a whim; stealing the identity of a dead African American girl for Mireille and assuming the role of her light-skinned black mother. The mother and daughter exist on the outskirts of society at first, but they inch closer and closer, with the daughter eventually earning an affirmative action spot at UVA. Blackness is more of a plot device than anything else, and Peggy and Mireille (or Meg and Karen Brown) remain largely oblivious to the cultural implications of "passing" as Black. It's unclear how purposeful this oblivion is (and unclear whether Zink shares in it), but trying to tackle all of these dimensions at once seems overly ambitious at best and tone deaf at worse.

As a family drama, Mislaid is an enjoyable and unpredictable read. Perhaps because Peggy is largely inscrutable, I had a lot of trouble figuring out where she was coming from or what she would do next, but that kept me engaged and on my toes. Overall, this was an interesting read that left me wanting more depth.

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