Braiding Identity and “A Short Essay on Being”

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the braided essay is “broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one ‘thread’ to another.”

I find this definition limiting, especially due to the fact that our primary reading from Stephen Church, and a new piece I’ve read, “A Short Essay on Being” by Jenny Boully, do not fit into this form. Both of these essays do not attempt to spatially remove themselves from other parts of the narrative on the page: rather, this happens in the prose. In Boully’s essay especially, the braiding happens not only in different paragraphs but also throughout sentences, due to the almost stream-of-consciousness pacing of the piece.

Like the narrator’s identity, this braided work is a hodge-podge of confusions and contemplations on identity, and is as complex as the abstract concept itself. This “Short Essay on Being” seems to tell us that being is not as simple as it sounds, especially when you are a minority in the United States where prying people try not only to coax you to reveal where you’re “from,” but also try to tell you about your identity after they’ve heard the answer they wanted.

The essay moves in between narratives of the own narrator’s understanding of her Thai identity, which is frequently compared to her knowledge of pot Thai. The piece starts off with the etymology of the English word, “pad,” and Boully spells out for us that: “A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start.” Her grad school friend corrects her pronunciation of “pot Thai” to “pad Thai,” and the Thai-raised narrator “thanked her for correcting me,” as is the Thai way.

We don’t learn until later in the essay that the reason the narrator pronounces pot Thai in this way is because for her, “The quick and sharp way that you say ‘fried’ in Thai is more like ‘pot’ when spoken quickly in English than ‘pad.’” Yet, as seen through various threads in the essay, friends and strangers are constantly trying to explain to her the right way the right way to be Thai, and the right way to pronounce her own culture’s food.

This piece is braided because it works with the complex and messy trappings of the narrator’s identity: one that is constantly fluctuating between what she knows about her identity and what others are telling her, juxtaposed between insider and outsider narratives, like the comparison of a Chicagoan Thai shop owner to the grad school friends that speak of Thai tourist traps as if they understand the culture. The essay moves between the foods and the flavors of her and her mother’s home cooking, to the syrupy, artificially-crafted food narratives of “Thai” restaurants in Brooklyn and the oft-feigned dietary needs of grad school friends. Like the narrator, the essay lives in many different worlds, but coexists formally in one experience.

“A Short Essay on Being” shows us how form can, truly, be an extension of content. The way that this experience is formalized in one piece, with multiple threads running into each other with varying levels of pacing, sentence structure, and mood, shows how we ought to not limit the ways that we envision a braided narrative. Like our lives, a multifaceted narrative on identity shouldn’t constrict itself to the limitations of “sections” and purposeful “white space.” In Boully’s essay, the squashing together of a dozen narratives about a narrator’s life, some of them her own and some of them from others, shows an identity crafted from the inside and outside. It gives us insight on the sublime nature of our complex and human identities, and just how blurry an “identity” can be.

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