12.01.2009

Ozma of Oz

I wrote about Ozma online first in an entry on Facebook (rather rare for me), on a meme about the books that have affected me most:

The Marvelous Land of Oz - I must admit that, to start, this is kind of a cheated entry. I read many of the Oz books as a child. I think I read pretty much all of the Baum ones. I know I read this one, but my mind conflates it hopelessly with the movie 'Return to Oz', which was one of those movies that I thought I didn't like, but that returned to me over and over, through the years. Several of the characters from these books came to mean a great deal to me - Glinda, the Patchwork Girl, Jack Pumpkinhead, some others, but none so much as Ozma herself. I dreamt about Tip/Ozma for years - still do occasionally - and then the scene from that Movie, with Dorothy looking in the mirror and seeing Ozma inside of it, child, but grave-faced... something in it spoke to me very closely. Childhood is such a strange time, you're so happy but you're so aware of your sadness at the same time - that's what Ozma meant to me - when you read the Marvelous Land of Oz, it's funny, whimsical, written like a story told by a dopy uncle who wants to be remembered for the stories he told. But, when you remember it... it's so much different.
This is and is not what Ozma means to me. It is less and more than that. To explain, let me recount (briefly) the story that introduces you to Ozma in the books. For anyone whose read The Marvelous Land of Oz - I haven't, in years. So feel free to correct me.

The Tale of Ozma, Princess of Oz

In the Land of Oz there was an evil witch named Mombi, and little boy named Tip. Tip has lived with Mombi for as long as he can remember, and she is not a nice woman to live with. Through a long series of adventures, Mombi is trapped and brought before Glinda the Good Witch, where she confesses that the Wizard had brought the Princess of Oz to Mombi as an infant, and that Mombi had transformed the Princess into a boy to keep her from her rightful place as ruler of Oz. Glinda coerces Mombi into casting her last spell, which is to transform Tip back into his proper form, and he becomes Ozma, the Princess of Oz. Ozma becomes a major character, and is featured in each one of the remaining Baum Oz books.

Over the other books, this story changes, subtly. Sometimes she is a mortal girl, sometimes a fairy. She is described as the daughter of Lurline, the fairy-queen and creator figure of Oz. She is described as the daughter of an evil dictator. Her appearance changes substantially at times. In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of Ozma - that things about her just seem to change from book to book. As a grownup, I imagine this had to do with the fact that Baum simply introduced a lot of different inconsistencies. As a child, this was part of Ozma's beautiful, though awful, magic. Because, while everything about her changes, Ozma remains more or less the same: she is young, she loves her friends, she is devoted to her companion and co-ruler, Dorothy, she is a wise ruler, she loves Oz, she is largely calm, she goes on adventures, and the ineffable 'self' of her is the same.

This is how it is to be Ozma - sometimes you are different, but you are always the same. Sometimes you are what you are not, but you can always be what you are.

The Tale of Mike Penner

I've recently read two stories about the real world. The first is about a sportscaster named Mike Penner. When he was a child, he remembers telling his cousins that when he grew up, he wanted to be a girl. Of course, growing older, he learned that it's not that simple in the world, and spent many, many years of his life being, in his paraphrased words, the best Mike he could be. Finally, after almost 40 years, he decided he couldn't live like that anymore. He took a vacation and when he came back, wrote a column telling his readership that he wasn't a man anymore, that from then on his name would be Christine, and telling the story of how all this had come to be. He started a blog (since removed) where he wrote about his experiences, continued to write for the Times under his new name, and seemed, generally, very upbeat and positive.

A few months ago, with no explanation, her stories started carrying his old name, again. Last week, she died, an apparent suicide.

The Tale of Marie Baptiste

The second story is about a woman in Houston. Marie Baptiste moved to America from Haiti when she was 9 years old. She grew up, leading a fairly normal life, until she applied for college, and found out that her scholarship application was denied because she was not a legal citizen of the United States. She went to college anyway (the University of Houston), and began the slow, frustrating battle to legalize her status. She graduated, she got married to a police officer, had children. She became a schoolteacher in Houston.

The night before an immigration court hearing, her daughter came down with fever and vomiting. She took her child to the emergency room. After waiting a long time to see the doctor, rushing home with her daughter, she rushed out to go to her court hearing. She hit traffic in Houston, and arrived at her hearing 5 to 10 minutes late. This was too late: the judge had ordered her deported, in absentia.

Fast forward to November 6, when she found she was being followed by a number of government cars. Grown paranoid of being deported - despite her continued efforts to appeal through the legitimate channels - she pulled over her car, and had some sort of anxiety attack, slumping to the ground unconscious. She was not, this time, arrested for deportation after waking up, but continues to live as a fugitive.

What Ozma Means to Me

Both of these stories, to me, are Ozma-esque stories: stories of people who are a thing they cannot be (a woman, a US citizen). But, in both stories, they are in the real world, a world where teh externals of identity are closely watched, and where changing those externals is not a private or incidental matter, but a public one, de facto. In essence, Mike and Christine were the same person. The externalities of his/her genitalia and dress did not change, at center, who he was. But, in the end, it was too essential to him - as it is to many transgendered people, who have an extremely high suicide rate. Marie is the same way, really. She is a Us citizen in every meaningful sense: she works hard, she contributes to sciety, she follows the law to the best of her ability. There is an externality that she is missing, a piece of paper and a birth certificate, that make this self impossible.

Anytime the self and the identity are at odds, a person will live in conflict. In one sense of the Ozma tale, I see it as a fable for Things That Are Wrong, which I've already discussed. We as humans need to love each other enough to help and accept that people's identities do not always match up easily with our sense of their selves. But, I put the image on the page in a different way - in the other side of that way, I suppose.

After the experience of my short and admittedly not terribly wise about-30 years, I've become suspicious, that everyone on earth is an Ozma. No human being (or at least terribly few) is who they are permitted to be, not entirely. In a sense, this is inescapable. Society is formed around people being able to self each other into a discrete number of shorthand identities, and there will always be a human tendency to be frustrated when these shorthands fail. And no human is a shorthand.

But, in another sense, this is the essence of what it is to be human, and as with all curses, is also a blessing. Being an Ozma myself in my own ways (having told my share of stories in this post, I won't bore you with more), the challenge of my life has been to embrace the contradictions of this, and to understand how important this estrangement of self and identity is to being human. If I cannot be a thing I am, I can at least learn what it is to not be that thing - and to love and understand others who may suffer the same dislocation in reverse.

Human love in it's most transcendent form is the art of knowing what we see of a soul, but loving what we cannot see, on the pure, vulnerable trust that underneath the pseudo human exterior, there is a human heart beating it's own broken syncopations. And therein is the secret to human happiness (though it's easier to understand it, than it is to attain it): we each of us cannot be what we are within ourselves. But we can have others live honestly within our own breasts - and trust that they will let us live honestly in theirs.

6 comments:

Jeanne said...

Oh, well said. Bravo.

I read all the Oz books at one time, some of them out loud to my daughter, but didn't think of Ozma this way until you led me to this perspective.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Jeanne - Thanks. The Oz books really DO read like they should be read aloud, and they're so much fun, it's a shame they're kind of being forgotten. Now that they're all out of copyright it's even easier - though not having those lovely old books with the big illustrations is admittedly a sad loss! I don't imagine Baum MEANT Ozma this way, necessarily, but I guess, to me, that's why the Oz books are practically a fairy tale - because they are the sort of books that you make your own, instead of just experiencing the writer, you know?

Karenlibrarian said...

I read the entire Oz series when I was about 12 (okay, I skipped the first one since I'd seen the movie -- a mistake). Ozma is by far my favorite, though I never thought about it in the way you describe. I love the quirkiness of it -- the lunch pails growing on trees, the royal family turned into ornaments, etc. My favorite bit is when Princess Langwidere decides she'll trade heads with Dorothy. "Well, I b'lieve you won't!" Dorothy retorts. You go, girl!

I have a very nice full-color edition of Ozma from Books of Wonder, still in print, if you are so interested.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Karen - Dorothy in the books has SO much more chutzpah than she does in the movie! It's fun to realize so many other people actually read these. Growing up, we had the a row of the old paste-board cover Oz books at one of the libraries - Kansas, I think (ironically, now that I think about it!). They looked like a little row of lost things, all bright and old fashioned in the middle of everything else, and I remember, almost as clearly, that they had this wonderful SMELL, of old acid-paper, and the way all the glorious illustrations were yellowed and brittle. I would feel bad taking away your Ozma!

Memory said...

Awesome post. You've made me want to reread the Oz books now. THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ has always been one of my favourite gender identity books, but I'd like to take another look at it from a simple identity, no qualifier, perspective.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Memory - I'd love to reread all the Baum Oz books, sometime, there are lots of things like that in it, that mean more to me as I get older...