Rowenna Miller’s Torn is a Very American Examination of Identity


Photo by Vignesh Moorthy on Unsplash

Rowenna Miller’s Torn takes place in a world with just a touch of magic—Sophie’s magic, an ability to create charms that she weaves and stitches into the clothes and accessories she makes in her shop. She’s built a far more comfortable life for herself than many of the other Pellian diasporic people who live and labor in Galitha City, people Sophie describes as bumpkins from a backwater nation.

The “backwater nation” that Sophie’s ancestors called home.

Much of Torn concerns itself with the rising tensions between Galitha City’s working class, made up of Galatines and diasporic groups alike, and the elite Galatine nobility, which makes up the market for Sophie’s elegant dress shop. Her brother, Kristos, is a labor leader and in many ways an instigator for some of the tensions; Sophie is torn between supporting her brother and protecting their livelihood.

The book is reminiscent of France right before the French Revolution, or any nation on the brink of a class-based civil war. Miller highlights tensions within the labor group, as well, and using Sophie as a lens gives them perspective and focus: she can see clearly the needs and concerns of the female laborers as well as the male laborers’ dismissal and disregard of those needs and concerns.

But in equal measure, the novel examines Sophie’s relationship with her ancestry. While Sophie uses traditional Pellian crafts to carve out a niche in the market to make her living, she denies that heritage to secure her safety and acceptance in the community as well as she can. Torn may feel familiar on its skin as a fantasy French Revolution, but its bones are the same as my own, and the same as the bones of many Americans: the balance between identity and assimilation.

My identity contains a tale of two Americas. On my mother’s side, my ancestors have been in the United States for over a hundred years, most recently my grandfather’s parents arriving at Ellis Island from Italy near the turn of the twentieth century. My mother comes from a big Catholic family, and we were extremely close with our grandparents, Felix and Loretta Rizzo. They were deeply in love; Grandma affectionately called my grandfather Fritz.

It wasn’t until he died in 2009 that all of us, Grandma included, learned that his name wasn’t Felix. It was Felice. My grandfather’s legal name was deemed “too Italian” as he got older, and like his brothers Domenico and Giovanni, he was given an Anglicized name. Likewise, Sophie has a more well-assimilated name than Kristos, another possible reason she’s able to assimilate better into Galatine society than her brother.

This very American story is one of successful assimilation, which is what Sophie aspires to in the novel. She associates the Galatine identity with safety, comfort, and an ability to rise past the struggles of the labor class; while she remains part of the labor class as a dressmaker, her status is closer to middle-class because of her services and clientele, a lifestyle that no other members of the Pellian diaspora are shown to have in the novel.

This is possible in part because of the steps Sophie’s mother took to ensure she grew up distanced from the Pellian immigrant community. While she made certain to teach Sophie about charms, she also taught Sophie to behave as much like a Galatine as possible: the siblings were raised apart from the Pellian immigrant community in Galitha City, and Sophie’s dress and manner is as Galatine as she can be.

And Sophie, in many ways, makes a very minimal attempt to balance identity and assimilation. She thinks of herself as Galatine; she feels no connection to the “backwater” her parents came from.

My father left the Philippines when he was twenty when he began working on a cargo ship that cycled through ports in the Pacific. Unlike Sophie, my siblings and I were raised to take pride in our heritage and in our identity as Filipino-Americans.

But Dad never wanted to teach us to speak his native language – Filipino, the official language of the Philippines that we usually call Tagalog at home, or the dialect spoken in his region, which I suspect to be Rinconada Bikol. For years, my mom asked my father to teach us more words in his native language, and aside from a few words for family, food, and swearing, he largely declined. “They don’t need to know that,” he told my mom once when she asked him to teach us the names of holidays in Tagalog.

As an adult, I learned about the tendency among immigrants in America to teach their children to speak only English to make them as “American” as possible, and the same story plays again in Torn. Just as my grandfather barely spoke a lick of Italian, just as I barely speak a lick of Tagalog, Sophie barely speaks a lick of the Pellian language. Because speaking the language would be slightly more exotic than would be acceptable.

Torn explores the acceptably exotic in the form of Sophie’s dress shop. Wealthy Galatines are fascinated by her take on traditional Pellian charms, which the Pellians put into clay; Sophie ties the magic into the threads of her stitching in upscale couture pieces she sells in her shop. The Galatine nobility can gain the perceived benefits of Pellian charms without actually having to interact with Pellian immigrants.

Miller makes it clear that the Pellian community in Galitha City face prejudice and laws designed to keep them in the poor laborer class. Several comments are made to Sophie’s face in regard to this fact, including the “but you’re not like one of those people” type of comment familiar to a lot of us. Prejudice against immigrants isn’t uncommon, especially against immigrants who form their own close-knit communities. It’s a narrative that’s played itself out over and over throughout American history whenever a new wave of immigration hit our shores.

The prejudice against Pellians in Torn leads to a sort of double-edged sense of responsibility Sophie feels towards other members of the diaspora, and it’s one that I recognize from my own upbringing. I mentioned that my siblings and I were raised to take pride in being Filipino in a way that Sophie wasn’t raised to take pride in being Pellian. But just like our parents taught us to do our best to uplift those within our community, Sophie does try to uplift young Pellian women who have skills with charms. When Emmi, one of her charm-casting acquaintances, asks for a job, Sophie does what she can with the budget she has for hiring new workers.

She then teaches Emmi to dress and behave in a “less Pellian” manner. Part of this is from her own internalized racism against Pellians. But a bigger part of it is Sophie’s deep instinct for survival. Sophie’s livelihood depends on her ability to behave in a way that Galatines find acceptable. And she knows that’s probably Emmi’s only way to build a better life for herself, too.

The issues of identity in Torn are an undercurrent in the novel’s mainly political framework, with more of it focused on class than race. But as Miller indicates many times throughout the book, race can affect class – and class mobility – in small ways that the ethnic majority may not consider.

Torn is a book about a political powder keg about to explode, a war between an elite ruling class and an exhausted and infuriated working class ready to erupt – and a novel exploring the painful reality of how diasporic culture and tradition dissolves from generation to generation. And for a fantasy novel so clearly based on the French Revolution, its undercurrent is distinctly American.