An Alternative History of Identity

January 2021 9781787383814 416pp,
8pp colour illus
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


A slave woman in 1840s America dresses as a white, disabled man to escape to freedom, while a twenty-first-century black rights activist is ‘cancelled’ for denying her whiteness. A Victorian explorer disguises himself as a Muslim in Arabia’s forbidden holy city. A trans man claiming to have been assigned male at birth is exposed and murdered by bigots in 1993. Today, Japanese untouchables leave home and change their name.

All of them have ‘passed’, performing or claiming an identity that society hasn’t assigned or recognised as theirs. For as long as we’ve drawn lines describing ourselves and each other, people have naturally fallen or deliberately stepped between them. What do their stories—in life and in art—tell us about the changing meanings of identity? About our need for labels, despite their obvious limitations?

Lipika Pelham reflects on tales of fluidity and transformation, including her own. From Pope Joan to Parasite, Brazil to Bangladesh, London to Liberia, Passing is a fascinating, timely history of the self.


‘Pelham, a writer with a flair for capturing complex sensitivities, has produced a provocative, engaging history that doesn’t balk at considering the fierce contemporary debate surrounding gender identity, or what happens when passing becomes trespassing, AKA cultural appropriation.’ — The Observer

‘A fascinating and engrossing exploration of racial passing and fluid racial identity from an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist.’ — Cosmopolitan UK

‘This remarkable book merges perceptive understanding of sociopolitical identity problems facing many who are disempowered and marginalised owing to skin-colour, sexuality, gender, caste, class or religion.’ — Morning Star

‘[Offers] long histories, with much to say about the present.’ — BBC History Magazine

‘Expertly navigating themes of identity, boundaries and belonging, Pelham combines moving storytelling with patient writing to create a truly transformative experience.’ — David Lammy MP, author of Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society

‘Thoroughly elevates the complex reality of day-to-day identity dynamics, tracing their rich historical origins and posing pertinent questions for the future.’ — Koa Beck, author of White Feminism

A profound and heartfelt meditation on the cost of self-effacement and the need to forge a new sense of self from the debris of our atavisms.’ — Aatish Taseer, author of The Twice-BornThe Temple-Goers; and Stranger to History

‘A gripping account of how a person can be liberated by taking on another identity, or indeed how their own existence exposes the artificial boundaries of otherness. With compassion, honesty, and a storyteller’s eye for beauty in meaning, Pelham destigmatises and viscerally recreates these crossings to another shore.’ — Medina Tenour Whiteman, author of The Invisible Muslim


Lipika Pelham is a historian, journalist, documentary filmmaker and the author of Passing: An Alternative History of IdentityJerusalem on the Amstel: The Quest for Zion in the Dutch RepublicConversations Across Place, and The Unlikely Settler. She has recently completed a PhD commentary on Sephardi Jewish converts in Early Modern Amsterdam: The Quest for Zion In The Dutch Republic, at Westminster University, London. Lipika currently works on the news desk at BBC News Online, and BBC World Service, covering primarily Mideast news. She is also a globe-trotting Special Reporter for London-based Perspective magazine.

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