In the past, I have written about education in Tim Gautreaux’s “Welding With Children” and “Misuse of Light.” Today, I want to briefly write about the way he explores ideas of identity in relation to the academy in “Dancing with the One-Armed Gal,” the concluding story of Gautreaux’s short story collection Welding With Children (1999). In the story, Iry Boudreaux gets laid off from his job and decides to take a vacation out west. On his way, he picks up a one-armed woman named Claudine Glover, a professor of women’s studies who just lost her position at a college in New Orleans.
From the very beginning of their relationship, Claudine struggles to create, and maintain, her identity as an individual. In her past, she worked to construct an identity that would benefit her in her academic career, pulling from different areas to make a conglormate image of herself that did not reflect her true idenity. To justify this amalgamation, she tells Iry, “You don’t know how it is in academics. My Ph.D. Is not from the best institution. You’ve got to find your little niche and hold on, because if you don’t get tenure, you’re pretty much done for” (191). Claudine’s niche does not involve her scholarship or her teaching. Instead, it revolves around the false images she creates for herself.
This identity manifests itself form the moment Iry picks Claudine up. When she enters the car, one of the first things she tells him is that she is a lesbian. At first, this admition appears to be used as a way to detract from any possible advances that Iry may be pondering; however, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Claudine devised this image to maintain her position at the college in New Orleans and to succeed. Initially, as Claudine explains to Iry, she got her position because of her gender. After a year on the job, though, the department sought to hire a “black man” to replace her. At that, Claudine announced her “one-sixteenth African-American blood,” and the college let her stay on (192). When the department started to bring in other specialists, she “stopped wearing [her] prosthesis, to emphasize the fact that [she] was not only black and a woman but disabled as well” (192). Again, the college maintained her in the position. Finally, in the fourth year, “a gay black female double amputee from Ghana” applied for a position, and the to counter, Claudine “played [her] last card and came out as a lesbian” (192-193). This time, though, the college let her go.
Cluaidne, according to her, published and was a good teacher. We do not get a clear indication as to the reasons why the department wanted Claudine gone. Her continuing struggles to define herself, in any way that will make her more marketable, shows that instead of relying on her own accomplishments she presents herself as someone who the college would want because of a “diversity quota.” Iry points out that she should highlight her teaching strengths, especially when she meets with the new college in El Paso, TX. Instead, when Claudine speaks with the department head, she tells him “all of the reasons why his English Department needed [her]” (207). This does not work, and she does not get a position.
Rather than being honest and straightforward, promoting herself as an accomplished scholar and teacher, Claudine continues to focus her efforts on showing the void she can fill with her identity. In essence, she invents herself out of thin air. This invention becomes evident when Iry comments on academia saying, “You invent yourself a job out of thin air” by focusing on niche subjects (197-198). Claudine’s invention falls apart throughout the story as Iry discovers she is not a lesbian and her mother looks Italian; the only truth that appears in Claudine’s story is that she lost her arm in a horse accident and she is a woman. The discussion of identity and the construction of it exists in regards to the academy in this story, but Iry mentions instances when he has been passed over for positions as well. He does not express the same vehemence in these instances as Claudine does though.
When the story ends, the concepts of identity and reality take center stage. At a booth on the side of the road, Iry buys a necklace. Before purchasing the necklace, he asks the vendor “if the items were really made by Indians” (208). The girls nods but doesn’t smile. Iry buys the necklace, but in the car he sees a label on it that reads, “Made in India.” Here, the ideas discussed in this post take on a semiotic nature because Iry only asked if Indians constructed the items. In reality, they did. Likewise, Claudine’s claims about her own identity appear valid on a semiotic level. However, she only deploys those parts when she needs them to benefit herself.
Authenticity and reality come into question in Gautreaux’s story, as they do in his other stories as well, and I think that a broader discussion of this topic in Welding With Children needs to be had. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Gautreaux, Tim. Welding With Children. New York: Picador, 1999.