The “Othering” of individuals from ethnic or social minorities could be defined as the setting-apart of a group that appears strange to us. If there’s more than one way to be human, the theory suggests, ours is the best, the Other’s way of living inferior.
In Catana Tully’s evocative memoir, Split at the Root, there are many kinds of Othering. Born in 1940 to a black woman, Catana is raised by white Germans who have decided to spare her natural mother from the stigma of nurturing a product of illegitimacy in less enlightened times. “Mutti” (Mommy) and “Vati” (Daddy) take Catana from Rosa – not least because the baby is female – and bring her up among the white colonial class rather than in the dirt-poor village atmosphere where she would otherwise have been raised.
“Vati” is Othered by the Second World War, when compelled due to his German identity to go to an internment camp run by the US government. The sentence has serious health ramifications for this already-quite-elderly, avowedly anti-Nazi man, and when he returns, he is infirm.
Rosa, Catana’s natural mother, is herself sidelined by Catana’s white parents. As a precocious child, Catana inadvertently rejects Rosa too, expressing displeasure at her birth-mother’s visits – perhaps subconsciously feeling that her mother abandoned her to be raised among the Germans. Catana herself – known as Möhrle (or Little Moor) to her German family – is Othered in a variety of ways. Her birth name of Adriana is taken from her. Years before launching a career as a model and actress, Mutti tells Catana that she won’t succeed in the entertainment field because the only parts available to her will be housemaids and staff. Even later in life, Catana is compelled to check the Other box when filling out forms to denote racial identity, only specifying her heritage herself in the finer print.
Given a private education and a cosseted upbringing, these may seem like minor issues to contend with when millions face starker choices in life, suffering the effects of more pronounced racism or ethnic bias. Yet, as Catana explores her past, her own irrational fears and propensity for Othering are addressed. The profundity of her insights brings about a catharsis and resolution that will keep you reading this memoir to the closing pages.
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