I have to admit to a certain amount of confusion of late. I was asked recently by a friend ‘what’ I considered myself. I live in Scotland and here, with the independence referendum only just cooling down, we’ve spent months trying to figure out if we’re more Scottish than British or vice versa. Not everyone has come to the same conclusion.
My identity has always been confused. Born in Edinburgh of a Scottish/Russian/Jewish mother and an English/Irish/Catholic father there is no form of guilt to which I was not subjected in my childhood. Members of my immediate family live all over the world – a diaspora of cousins, aunts, uncles and more in a dizzying mix. My family spans many world religions, ethnicities and nationalities. The truth is that I don’t have one identity. I’m Scottish, British, European, Humanist, Atheist and in part at least, culturally Jewish. It all holds together – I’m not sure how.
As a natural swot, I’m always curious (not least about myself) so when the opportunity arose last year, I decided to take part in a project called Scotland’s DNA. This worthwhile endeavor takes your spit and within 6-8 weeks promises to tell you not only where your genes come from but also how your ancestors might have come to Scotland.
I spat. I posted. I waited.
After 3 months when I chased my sample I was told that I was ‘unusual’ and that geneticists and historians were working on my case. They might be some time. I didn’t fret. Of course I was unusual. I’m unique – a cosmopolitan mix. My husband teased that I was probably a hobbit or a mermaid. My brothers laughed that Scotland’s DNA had lost my sample and were holding me off with excuses.
Almost 11 months after I posted the tube however, my results came back and it turned out that I’m ‘vanishingly rare’. So rare, in fact, that so far they’ve only found 3 other people who share my mitochondrial DNA in the whole country. I spring from a female line called N9a that developed 17000 years ago in the area around Japan’s most northerly island and on the mainland just opposite. The stuff I’m made of is Oriental, Siberian and Mongolian. ‘But I’m Jewish,’ I said to the geneticist. ‘All the female members of my family as far back as it goes have been Jewish.’ They were gentle with me but still, it turns out that my DNA has not been to Jerusalem or anywhere near it.
Swot to the core, I googled furiously for images. I found drawings and early photographs of beautiful, tattooed tribeswomen and maps that showed the slave routes they had been driven along. One particular tribe was famed for physical features that endure in my family today – very thick hair and wide cheek bones. Somewhere along the slave route that runs along the southern border of Russia one of my female ancestors (likely a slave) whose mother and grandmother and great-grandmother might well have been raped and abused by men on the route (of many genetic persuasions) must have met a Jewish bloke. Interestingly the largest influx of N9a to Europe was with Genghis Khan and at the same time, during the 13th century the first Jews arrived in Eastern Europe. The odds are that my relation arrived in Europe then but the history may not be that distant. Russia abolished slavery in 1723 but serfdom continued until the 1860s, the decade incidentally when my own great-grandmother was born.
This revelation set my mind whirring. I always thought that bagels and lox was my soul food but it turns out it’s sushi. I had envisaged ancestors who had survived slavery in Egypt, not on the Steppes. It’s made me realize how insubstantial are many of the stories we create about ourselves. It turns out that I not only write fiction but I am fiction too. My identity is more complex than I’d imagined. I have added an adjective to it in this endeavor and cheerfully now tell people that I’m part-Japanese.
In making those decisions about ‘what’ I am, I’m realizing what’s important are the things I can truly identify without adding any ‘glamour’, in the old Scots sense of the word, which is ‘magic’. And given that, all I can say for sure is that I’m a woman born and living in Scotland and that sometime some hundreds or even thousands of years ago my great great great great great grandmother (who may even have more greats before her name) travelled west from a Siberian/Mongolian village, carving a path for her great great great great great granddaughter towards Edinburgh. The experience has made me realize the massive impact a decision that she took so long ago has had on my life (and the lives of all my female relations). We literally wouldn’t be here without her.
It’s also left me with a sense of huge responsibility on the one hand, and then, on the other a sense of tremendous freedom. I am, after all a lot freer than she was and the ball is at my feet – where my identity goes from here, is up to me.