Design by Meghana Tummala

Many people think representation and identity go hand-in-hand. I also used to think so. But while I still do believe that there is a connection between representation and identity, I no longer believe that they are inextricably linked.

I am in love with media — consuming films, video games, books and more — but I’ve always found it difficult to see myself in what I consume. I tried to find characters or authors who shared similar identities to me in hopes of finding representation. Through this search, I did manage to find a lot of diverse characters that I really enjoyed; however, I still never felt represented as a person. I felt discouraged, and I stopped consuming media with the intention of trying to find myself within it. In doing that, I found a piece of media where I felt the most seen. 

“No Longer Human” by Osamu Dazai is a story that takes the form of notebooks left by Oba Yozo, a troubled man incapable of being his true self in front of others. Yozo creates and maintains a facade of hollow “clownery.” The three notebooks chronicle the life of Yozo from his early childhood to his late 20s. Yozo and I share no identities with each other, so I never expected to resonate with his character so deeply. 

The book begins with an anonymous person examining old photos of Yozo as a child. They are particularly creeped out by a photograph of him smiling since the smile is obviously fake, as can be seen through Yozo’s clenched fists. This was the first instance I found myself reflected in the text. As a child, I was very isolated and kept to myself, and I liked it that way. I also never really smiled. My family is full of loud and fun people, so the expectation was for me to be just like them. I felt as though I had to create a façade. My desire to blend in was so deep that I trained myself, as a child, to learn how to smile. Smiling simply felt foreign to me; oftentimes, when I see photos of myself smiling, it’s always clear how uncomfortable and frustrated I truly am. I have tried to talk to people about this, but they always seem to look at me like I’m crazy. In “No Longer Human,” the anonymous narrator picks up on this. 

Yozo is a person characterized by shame. Although I pretend to be someone who is confident and unabashedly themselves, that is not really true. I have always been ashamed of who I really am. I created a whole persona to interact with others because I believed my true self would never be enough.

I even relate to the small details of Yozo’s childhood horrors around mealtimes. This too was a reality for me: As a child, I never saw food as anything other than an inconvenience. Being forced to sit down and eat a meal with family felt like torture. I have never known why I felt this way, and I still don’t. My relationship with food has always been complicated; some days eating feels normal, and others it feels like it is something I have to force myself to do. However, the more I try to contextualize these feelings or my feelings in general, the less I understand.

One of the biggest points I resonated with, however, was Yozo’s façade of “clownery.” I have always felt the pressure to conform, so I created my own façade of a fun and bubbly person. Relating to and understanding the way other people do things has always been a frustration and curiosity of mine. I feel like I don’t know how to be a person, so I just act like an imitation of a human being. I reflect on the things I see other people do, the way they react to situations. It’s as though I am a mirror; I simply reflect the emotions and reactions of the people around me. 

When I try to communicate this, it is hard for me because people make me feel as though I’m crazy. To them, it may seem crazy, but this is my reality, and I don’t know how to change that. I have never really had someone fully understand me, though some people do try, and I am endlessly grateful for that. However, when reading this book, I felt like someone finally heard me. Though I might not agree with everything Yozo thinks, it is definitely the closest representation of my own feelings that I have found. I do love this book, though the process of reading it is quite an experience. It covers a lot of taboo and uncomfortable topics in a very personal way. At times, the novel reaches deeply upsetting and occasionally hopeful moments, but it is an experience that I would never change.

Daily Arts Writer K. Rodriguez-Garcia can be reached at karodrig@umich.edu.