An Alternative History of Identity

A rich social and cultural history of (un)belonging.

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.


“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-Born, The Temple-Goers, and Stranger to History

“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 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