If someone asked you, "Who are you?" what would your answer be? Would you refer to your gender, age, race, religion, education, job, income, politics, family roles, life experiences? Even if you went into detail about all of those things, would they even begin to get at who you really are?

Even in a society enamored of narcissism, it's rare for Americans to ponder who, at core, they really are. Try it, as a mental exercise -- not the adjectives you'd use on Facebook or eHarmony, but the answers you'd privately give yourself. It may startle you to observe the responses that bubble up first.

The linked essays in Joy Castro's "Island of Bones" explore the mystery of identity by showing how tricky it is for Castro to define herself. She's the daughter of Cuban-American parents -- but her forebears came to Key West (Cayo Huesa, the "isle of bones") long before the most-celebrated wave of Cubans. She's Latina -- but adopted, and finds at 26 that her birth mother isn't Latina at all. She's a professor -- but uneasy sometimes in the assured and affluent academic world, given her tangled roots in poverty and struggle.

Castro's adoptive parents divorced when she was young, and her mother, a Jehovah's Witness, married a man who twisted that faith's tenets to abuse her and her children. Castro's father, who rescued Joy and gave her a safe home, later inexplicably committed suicide. She's an agnostic who recites Hail Marys, a feminist who loved teaching in a conservative boys' school.

Castro employs her contradiction-laced, oddball story to demonstrate that who we are is a tricky mix of youthful experience, bad and good, and what we embrace as adults.

"For me," she writes, "all the myths have come undone. ... I don't fit, and that's OK, and that's where I write from: that jagged, smashed place of edges and fragments and grief, ... of perilous freedom."

Most of all, her book is an ode to the transformative power of writing. "Writing provides a way to make sense, in language, of the puzzling, wild, beautiful moments our lives keep delivering to us. ... Offering us psychic space, privacy, and slowness in a rushed and noisy world, writing gives us a chance to tell our secrets, voice our own perceptions."

Shaping "this wild thing that's surged into your notebook" into something of value beyond one's own mental health is what Castro seeks to accomplish with her students. It is of urgent importance to her that young Americans of all walks, especially those with pinched, poor backgrounds such as her own, have access to education -- "everyone must be invited to think," she stresses.

Her book invites us to think not just about who we are, but also about how our deepest aspirations can be more powerful than the boundaries and definitions we impose upon ourselves and others.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.