What is the connection between creative expression and identity in the lives of women?

A digital research project created by Maggie Shive.
For American Women’s Writing at Messiah College,

taught by Dr. Kerry Hasler-Brooks.
May 13, 2019

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Introduction

The female creator has been a deviant… the endless problem, the one who would not stay in her place… and if she tries again to have a direct relation to knowledge, to creation – well – we all know what evils will follow.

(Jouve 2)

As Nicole Ward Jouve writes in her introductory essay “Male and Female Made (S)he Them,” female creators have been the subject of scorn in various traditions throughout history (2). Fortunately, this level of disdain is less prevalent today, and female creativity is more widely accepted. For many women who were previously limited in the ways they could express themselves, creative activities such as writing, drawing, painting, or playing music offered new avenues for understanding themselves and their place in the world.  

I have chosen to focus on three specific books that illustrate this idea of creation and identity. In terms of similarities, these books all feature a first-person narrator, they are all written by women of color, and they were all published roughly in the same time period (mid-late 20th century). Beyond this, however, each book explores a particular aspect of the narrator’s identity. Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir Citizen 13660 explores the idea of American identity, specifically in terms of citizenship. In Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple, Celie grows to understand her value as a black woman. Finally, in Sandra Cisneros’s book The House on Mango Street, Esperanza goes through a coming of age experience, both as a woman and as a writer.

In analyzing these three books’ exploration of identity and its connection to creation, my hope is to illustrate overall how vital creative expression is to understanding ourselves, especially for women. For Okubo, Celie, and Esperanza, the act of creating gives them the means to attempt to understand themselves, and they (and the readers) are better off for it.

The Books

Title: Citizen 13660
Author: Miné Okubo
Year Published: 1946
Setting: Japanese internment camps during WWII
Genre: Graphic memoir

Title: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
Year Published: 1982
Setting: Mid-late 20th century American South
Genre: Epistolary novel

Title: The House on Mango Street
Author: Sandra Cisneros
Year Published: 1984
Setting: 1960s Chicago neighborhood
Genre: Novel in vignettes

Citizen 13660

What does it mean to be an American citizen?

Art grants Miné Okubo the power to explore her American identity where she would otherwise be limited due to her gender.

The Color Purple

Who or what gives me my value as a human being?

Celie uses letter-writing as a means of exploring her identity as a black woman, and doing so eventually allows her to understand where her value as a person comes from.

The House On Mango Street

How does where we grow up affect who we become?

Because of the women in the Mango Street community, Esperanza is able to come of age and find her identity in being a female writer.

Conclusion

Miné Okubo, Celie, and Esperanza all come from different times and places in American history, but there is one constant between their stories: each of them use a creative act to explore a particular aspect of their identity, since other avenues of self-discovery are closed off to them due to their gender. Okubo lacked the power to speak out about citizenship and Japanese internment because of her femaleness, so she used her artwork and writing to claim that power in a different way. Celie is silenced by her abusers, but she is able to use letter-writing as a means to gain a sense of self-worth. Finally, Esperanza is influenced by the women in her community to become a writer, which in turn allows her to understand her place on Mango Street.

In contrast to historical traditions, the female creator is not a deviant or a problem; she is a woman looking to understand herself and her place in the world in the only way she can – through her creativity. This is the case for Okubo, Celie, Esperanza, and many other women throughout history and across the world. These creative acts should not be seen as “lesser” because they are from women. Instead, we should be inspired by their courage to express themselves creatively, no matter what obstacles stand in their way.