What can a DNA test really tell you about who you are?


Once, I saw an alien—is something I wish I could say. For me, the possibility of extraterrestrials has always held a certain brilliance. Child-me at times wondered whether I was really from space, if only because the idea of being human seemed absurd.1If you’ve never doubted your humanity, you didn’t have much to begin with. But in truth, my feelings and features are as earthling as anyone else’s, which is to say, as complicated, unrelated, alien. They don’t always make sense, and they’re not always mine. Not consciously. But my feelings and features are inescapable. They are where I’m headed.


Estoy escribiendo esto para mi.

In Spanish, “para” is used to reference the destination of a journey.
I only know this because of my hours of Spanish-language study.
It’s not something I grew up knowing. It’s something I grew up

My last name is Manuel, meaning Of G-d,2In Judaism, some people omit the o, thus acknowledging the name as sacred. To others, this sacredness only applies to G-d’s name when written in Hebrew, not English. and my first is Marisa, the sea
and the sun.3At least, that’s what my Spanish teacher taught me. More literally, Manuel means “G-d is with us,” and Marisa only means “of the sea.” My grandpa claimed we were Panamanian. 

I had no reason to doubt him.

I assumed we were from Panama, indigenously,

So, I took Spanish classes.4Spanish, of course, is not native/indigenous to Panama. I researched
Panama, bought 23andMe to uncover
the remaining pieces of my history.

The test results showed Spain. Less than a 5% match. Not a drop
of Panama
in sight. 


Once, I saw a news story about someone who wanted to be an alien. They were searching for an operation that would remove their sex organs. But that wasn’t the beginning and end of their plan: They were going to get plastic surgery to distort their face, to make them look not just unmale and unfemale, but otherworldly.5To them, alien was positive. Removing genitals—physical markers of sexuality—was part of their journey to become alien. 

If someone came up to me on the street and offered to remove my sex organs—well, I’d run away, because any stranger offering to cut you to pieces is a little less-than-human. But if a doctor called and said they could change me, we’re broaching a different story. I might say yes. I might say no. But I’d certainly pause and think. 

I often think about genitals, because I wish I didn’t have any. When you don’t want sex and probably can’t have bio-kids—when you can’t figure out why people would want to put anything up anything else—it’s easy to land at, “What’s the point?” But the switch from “it’s annoying” to “get it out of me, seal it up” isn’t one all cis women make, which might cause you to wonder whether you are really a cis woman at all, and what it means to be something not-trans, not-cis.

I have never been sexually attracted to anyone. Thus I identify as asexual. But even that is hard to say, definitively, because it’s an identity based on something I don’t experience. Not a lack of something, but something not there—a something others expect to be there. 

I find gender terms even more disorienting: agender, nonbinary, trans. Am I without gender, or am I outside the gender binary of male and female? Do I have a different gender identity than the one I was assigned at birth, or do I have an altogether different connection to gender conceptually? 

I have words to choose from, but they tend to overlap. They lack precision. I begin to doubt them, doubt myself. Always, the words don’t quite fit.

I don’t want a penis, or a vagina, or boobs. I don’t want facial hair or a deeper voice. I don’t want to be called “she” more than “he” or “e” or anything else. My longing is faceless, but fully present: to be free of the discomfort and incompleteness each label, each experience, brings. To experience a kind of gender—or genderless—euphoria.  

As for the sexless alien, the news mocks them, and I get it. They are already stereotyped as alien in their wants. But I also understand the impulse to change your physicality, how it can make you feel more you to look less “you.” The process of taking away something can be additive.

What’s so wrong with wanting nothing?


A question of parapsychology: the nuances of who you are.

In English, “para” can mean that our understanding doesn’t match
our reality. That our reality
goes another way.

Clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy—things I don’t really
believe in but sometimes
wish I did.

Yet parapsychology doesn’t concern itself with aliens
or creatures from other worlds. It validates one
type of uncertainty, not all of them. 

What does it mean, anyway, to believe?

What’s so different about a DNA test saying Spanish instead of
Panamanian? What is the difference between being < 5%
and > 25%?

It’s the difference between para and its fraternal twin
por, meaning through
between a destination and a body
in motion.

The difference between knowing
and not knowing. Seeing one way
and being introduced to a second.

Is there a word for the longing
to lack an absence? To get back an identity
a test rescinded?

Illustration by Anna Hall



Sorry, I shouldn’t have said I want nothing. I should have said: What I want goes far beyond the absence of a body part.

I first hear about BDD, body dysmorphic disorder, from a therapist in childhood. I am never officially diagnosed, just presented with the term and forced to wonder whether it fits. For a while, I adopt it, telling my brother that my eyes aren’t where they’re supposed to be, that my nose doesn’t look like a real person’s. Years later, he teases me for saying something so bizarre, not realizing that I meant it, fully.  

Not all trans/nonbinary/agender people experience dysmorphia, nor do they all experience dysphoria, which is not the same thing. Dysmorphia is a disorder characterized by faulty perception. In gender dysphoria, once called gender identity disorder, one’s assigned gender and one’s gender expression—and/or innate feelings of gender—don’t align. But gender dysphoria isn’t a function of perception. It is a function of connection—a disconnect between who you are, truly, and how you look, feel, or are perceived. 

Dysmorphia distorts reality. Dysphoria questions reality. The two may be linked, the way race and ethnicity may be linked, but are not the same.6Adding to that complication: in the 1930 US census, Mexican was listed as a race. In 2000, when filling out an updated census, over a third of Latino respondents checked “Some other race.” In current discussions about MENA and Hispanic/Latino identities, many consider the former an ethnicity, the latter a race. Sex and gender are not the same either. Yet people use the terms interchangeably. 

In the United States, the first person to ever have his sex (not gender) designation legally changed to nonbinary obtained an updated birth certificate. On it, the box for “sex” was marked with an x, for “unknown.” Later, he returned to identifying as male, saying that his documented change to nonbinary was “legal fiction.” Ever since, he has spoken out against the LGBTQIA community, claiming that he was born male and is male, simply. His perception of himself is the only reality. All other realities and perceptions be damned. 

Sometimes, when I look at my face, my nose still seems bulbous, my eyes appear misaligned, and my jaw looks crooked enough to have been permanently knocked out of place. I often feel, too, that my female body parts aren’t my body parts, that there isn’t supposed to be anything there. Usually, I don’t want to be seen as a woman and don’t feel like a woman, even if I don’t fully understand what those feelings mean. I am somewhere on a spectrum of dysphoric merged with dysmorphic, but I can’t pinpoint my exact location. 

I can’t express my full experience.   

I could pin my feelings on over-imagination.
Feelings leaking
into appearance. Identity cast
by the snaps in my brain, neither DNA
nor reality. In the end, imagination is informed by both genetics
and circumstance. Which in turn
inform feelings, too.


Reality through paralinguistics: not just what we say,
but how we say it.

Our inflection, our tone
affects meaning,
alters reception.7“Jewish converts aren’t really Jewish.” I can hear my old self saying this, leaning on the “really.” Of course, converts are Jewish, if I have a say. And yet, others have said the same to me—because I’m not religious, because I’m only “half-Jewish.” To them, I’m not really Jewish.

As when I quietly say oy vey
in disbelief, or gracias, trying for
and falling short of a native accent.

Then there are the words themselves—who speaks them,8I only know a few words in Yiddish, even fewer in Hebrew, and I can’t read or write in either. Moreover, I don’t speak or read Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language.
of whom they are spoken—
which affect meaning just as much.

When I say oy vey
around my Ashkenazi cousins or Sephardic friends
it is different from when I say it unconsciously
in a too-public place.

Or take Paralympics, parallel9Different Jews—Sephardic, Mizrahi, etc.—developed their culture and traditions in parallel to one another. Though geographically scattered, they shared the same origin, thus leading to overlapping—though not identical—customs. But in some Jewish spheres, Ashkenazi concerns and desires are uppermost. It is a form of supremacy, of inequality.
to the Olympics. Coverage of the latter
is always higher—although at the 2020 Tokyo games
US Paralympic and Olympic medalists
are getting, for the first time, equal pay.  

Our words hold meaning, but not
one meaning,
not in a vacuum. 

History. Connotation.

 True and false are connected opposites. But not
bookends, not so clearly.10Take aliens: are they real? Not real?
UFO sightings, Pentagon reports.
Reality, unreality,
side by side.

In the paradox
of fiction as fact,

when we don’t have an answer,
we create one.


The Many-Worlds Interpretation proposes that we are all part of a greater reality. There isn’t one world, but parallel universes, each running its course as the story of our own universe plays out. Many-Worlds is considered a cure for the paradoxes of quantum physics. But the more questions it answers, the more questions Many-Worlds reveals. The more you unlock, the more stays hidden.

Is it possible that, in an otherworld, I was born in a different body? That I have a different gender, race, or understanding of both? Ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, identity, all so tied to earthly human experience—would a different universe have devised such concepts? Would they be so complicated?

It could be what I am is the result of what I have read. If I didn’t have the terms nonbinary and Panamanian, would I stop and question them? 

What if my identity is only what others believe of me, set alongside what I believe? I believe in generous impossibilities.

As a writer, I rarely share the truth when someone asks me about my process. I would rather stay in my head with my characters, whom I know as well and as vaguely as I know myself, than pinpoint where they came from, describe them in blueprint form, or reduce them by oversimplifying. I don’t want to say, “This character was inspired by x person,” because they are their own person, a separate being, although related to me. Besides, in my character’s world—the multiworld—maybe x person was inspired by them

Imagination can be exactly the thing you need to make sense of the world, or it can make you question every facet of what is, or seems to be, real.


For realities beyond understanding: a question of parascience.

“Para” is a tricky fellow. It can imply an apartness. As in, para-you and
para-you. These aren’t (real) examples, but you can feel your paras
when versions or parts of you
are at odds.

Some things are alien to us without our realizing. Our own bodies—
which don’t always feel right, don’t always look right—even
as “right” is in question, and shifting.
Our beliefs, our DNA. The makeup of
who we are. We each.
We, a country.
We, a world,
part of multiworlds.

My middle name, Lindsay, is simple in meaning
—of Lindsay, an English place name.

England shows up on the DNA report as 20.8%.

Just as I had expected, had no reasonto doubt—
I’ve always been grateful
to have a name
that simply matches
where I’m from.11Great Britain has its own disturbing history, to say the least. But it’s much easier—even easing—to see England on the DNA report. Is it because I expected to see it? Because I know my family’s history within that history? Or, unsettling thought, because it doesn’t strip me of something I believed was mine?


I worry these thoughts don’t make sense, that I’m overcomplicating my narrative, that others won’t believe or understand me. I know I’m not the only one with these ideas. But lots of people having the same idea doesn’t make it sensible. Spanish learners mix up por and para, not understanding the nuances, the potential overlap.

Just thinking you are something doesn’t make it true. Even proof won’t always render truth believable. Even given proof, others will forcefully shape your being: I am Jewish because Ashkenazi DNA; because culture; because my hair, my nose (is this the root of my maybe-BDD?) mark me as Jewish. 

23andMe is named for the twenty-three human chromosomal pairs. Two of these chromosomes influenced my gender assignment at birth. I am not sure which genes on which chromosome influence my hair texture, or which prompt people to ask if I am Latina, when they are not asking if I’m Jewish. None of my chromosomes influences my barely Hispanicness, because ethnicity is not chromosomal. Judaism is a culture, a religion, and an ethnicity. And yet, on the test, it shows up remarkably clear, with its own name.

DNA results are constantly changing. Companies are adding new information all the time, as the sample size of test-takers on Earth grows. One day, 23andMe updates, and the report says I am part South African. The next day that percentage is gone. I never announce that I am part African, because I’m not. Even with that percentage point, I didn’t feel a connection. Just as I wouldn’t feel connected to China, Hungary, Italy, or any place I have never understood to be connected with my ancestors and heritage. 

But Panama is a harder absence. Its presence was already in me, already strong. Its disappearance was intimate. As if I’d woken up to learn that my “Lindsay” is spelled with an “e.”


Parasol: to shield from sol, sun. As in Marisol,
my name in Spanish class. As in
María de la Soledad, the Virgin
Mary. Overlapping Marisas, but
not identical.
A shield that obscures, shadows.

“Para” can suggest something that protects
or wards off. That is what lying is,
at its most honest. And fiction, at its best. We partition
off a part of reality and say: It’s sacred, I understand it.

But even then, we oversimplify.
Black and white, male and female,

I love books, I love their
expanse. I don’t appreciate
when an ending


Forms rarely ask, “Are you Latina?” If they did, I would hesitate before checking “No.” My hesitation would owe to the “a” at the end of Latina, and to 23andMe, which says I am not-Latina. My ancestors might have spent time in Panama, but I can’t know when, why,12Adding to the complication: That “why” seems very important. Especially given Spain’s history. Invading a culture, forcing their own. And if Spain had shown up in the results alongside Panama, or Indigenous America—would I have been less surprised? Less confused and uncomfortable, or more? Because Spain had to have influenced me, in some sense—my last name Manuel, Panama’s Hispanic ties. What version of the report would have been easier to accept? One with a different, completely unconnected location? Given ancestral movement, cultural annihilation and merging, is there even really such a place? or where they landed from. Having ancestors that maybe lived in Panama doesn’t feel the same as being from Panama, indigenously13Adding to the complication: Not all Indigenous Americans in Panama identify as Hispanic or Latino, though all three terms once resonated with me. Even more complicated: No one has ever assumed I was Native American, and I have never identified with a specific tribe. Is this why I never called myself Native American, just indigenously Panamanian? Even though the words, their meanings, are so obviously linked? Or is it because colonization has so altered our perception of the land and its people that the mainstream picture of Panama is incomplete?—even though we are all in motion, and we all started in the same place, Africa, millennia ago. 23andMe’s report says “Spain,” but as a nationality, as a feeling, I am neither Spanish nor from Spain.

I checked “Hispanic” as a child, when I had reason to believe I was Hispanic. Years later, after learning I am only kind-of Hispanic, my box-checking changed. In one file at my doctor’s office, I am Hispanic. In another, I am white. On the census, I don’t even remember what I put. I don’t remember what I believed that day. 

On medical and school forms, I always choose “female,” but I pause first. When asked my preferred pronouns, I say she and her, but they’re a circle in a UFO-shaped hole. They are not the full story.

Even if I wanted them to be, I am not the only one deciding.

Others decide for me in college, when I don’t get into a sorority. The only people who don’t get a bid, I learn, are Diaz, Hernandez, Flores, Manuel.14Adding to the complication: Manuel is a Spanish version of the Hebrew name Emmanuel. Others decide for me when I do get into a fraternity. Someone will ask, “Oh, so does that mean . . .” before learning that the fraternity is coed.

When I get invited to a Latinx15A fairly US-centric word. Many people living in Latin America use “o” or “a.” The “x” doesn’t really translate. society and my white friends don’t, when I start receiving Spanish-language magazines I didn’t subscribe to, when I find out I have PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and am likely infertile due to an excess of male-coded hormones, forces outside me are shaping my story. 

From grad school in Tennessee, I try to submit an absentee ballot—twice—to red, majority-white Georgia, and I am told it has gone missing. “Sorry Ms. Manuel,” the office says when I lodge a complaint. They pronounce my name “manwell.” Not “manual,” as I say it. Never mind the forces at work in “Ms.”

A coworker: “I figured you’re light-skinned Hispanic.”

Another coworker: “Thank goodness you didn’t cut your hair. You’d look like a boy.”

A third: “Not to be rude, but, what are you?”

Me to myself: What are you?


Parataxis, an answer for aliens.

Aliens represent the unknown(. And sometimes, the unknown
is), the easiest thing to understand.

Aliens represent possibility(. Of life beyond),
the lives we know.

The need
for a wider vocabulary(. A way of believing),
our shared


Sometimes, I imagine I’m in a body that doesn’t have a literal black hole between my legs, a hole I feel is about to fall out of me. I don’t mean a man’s body. I mean something beyond the borders of our world of gender and sexual assignment. Other times, I imagine that race isn’t a thing—biologically, it’s not, but culturally, it remains tragically relevant. Designating different sexes, different races, isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But it isn’t a set thing—not so simply. 

The official government position on UFOs has always been that they are of this world, just unidentified. But recently, the Pentagon floated the possibility that UFOs are real. Not of this world. Water has been found on the moon. The case for aliens—on Venus, Mars, or elsewhere in space—seems to be getting stronger. The unknown, the search to know, is everywhere. 

The line between real and not-real is nebulous. The line between I am and I am not is clunky. Poor phrasing is what we have.

Aliens are real. And look, how unreal, too. 


Paraphrasing the paranormal: normalize questions, create your answers. 

“Para” can mean
abnormal. A body-snatching you
within a you,
a parasite living off
and on you.

How to understand
who we are,
who we aren’t,
who else we are.

Convergence is possible, two
identities merging into a new one:

a kind of subtraction.

Multiple identities
in conversation. 
A black hole glows in space,
absorbing space
as it becomes.

-sympathetic16This “para” was alien to me, something I had never heard of. Searching for the truth, the words, understanding.

In fiction, maybe in reality, some aliens talk through wavelengths: a kind of telepathy. They read one another’s minds to know each other. They can sympathize, or maybe empathize. I’ve always had trouble understanding the difference. 

It’s funny, isn’t it, that the parasympathetic nervous system makes our hearts beat slower. You see the word “sympathetic,” and it makes your heart ache, says, “I’m here for you.” But once you add “para,” the alignment falters. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba—-bump. 

The parasympathetic system handles rest and digestion. Its cousin, the sympathetic system, manages our fight-or-flight response. We need both systems in order to defend ourselves: to run away from danger, to calm ourselves, to fight when that’s the only option.

But I never fight. I never flee. Instead, I freeze. 

In grad school, I write a story about a boy who is really a girl. This boy who is really a girl owns a doll who is really a sentient human. The boy who is really a girl likes wearing dresses, wearing makeup, and doing her hair. She starts using a more “girlish” name for herself. And as she becomes more her, the doll changes, too. 

First, the doll notices arteries in its neck. Next, it sits up, is able to move. Finally, lo and behold, the doll has a vagina. As it inspects this new orifice, it doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s not even sure it wants it. 

I share this story with my class. One woman twitches, shakes her head. “That’s not the way it works,” she says. “My fiancée is trans, and it’s about so much more than acting like a girl.” 

I nod my head. I want to explain that I’m not writing about someone trans. But discussion continues, and I don’t say a word. Later, I delete the story.


Se-para-tion: Neither a beginning nor an ending. A potential connection—a link.

We continue dissecting,
poking and prodding,
pulling out guts and brains and feelings.

Still, we don’t understand.
We try to explain.
We try to find words.
Sympathy, empathy.

Really, it comes down to:

what do aliens want,
what do aliens need,
if not to be treated humanely?


One of my students wrote about a family friend who was picked up, arrested, and taken to the border. An “illegal alien”—old language, a phrase that can be alienating, but it’s what that student wrote. He doesn’t know what happened to the friend or where they went. Of one thing, he is certain: They aren’t coming back.

I’ve never had this happen to me. I don’t think it would. But when I was younger, I worried it might, because the stories I heard—about the Holocaust, about deportation—told me so. 

Me, with my skin-so-pale-you-can-count-every-vein. Me, who still flinches when my name is called over an intercom in Alabama or Mississippi, worried about who might hear. Me, who knows there is more to identity than DNA. Me, who is me, who I am.


In high school, my locker was vandalized over a few weeks. Each time it happened, the principal said she had put up cameras; each time, the cameras weren’t working. So, for a month, I had to stare at the swastikas, wondering why they were there and who painted them. The first time I saw them, I dropped my books. Felt stabbed. By the third time, it still hurt. But I’d grown to expect it. 

Few people knew I was Jewish. Was it one of my friends? Or had someone else guessed “Jewish” instead of “Hispanic”? I’m not sure to this day. But after it happened, I told a friend, and she said she was sorry; she couldn’t believe someone would do something like that to me. A few weeks later, she left me a note in that same vandalized locker:

“I’m worried for your soul.”

That vandalism, that note, revealed so much more than any DNA test.


The truths are in me. But until the models make more sense, until all the terms are available and clear, I am speaking an alien language. 

Not trans, not cis, not Hispanic, not white, not Jewish, not not-Jewish. And yet, all of these.

An unidentified identity. Floating in space. Wanting desperately to find words that ground me. To clear the phrasing, broaden the reach.

Human beings are real. And look, how unreal, too.


Buscando para encontrar las respuestas—las realidades alienígenas.
Estoy escribiendo esto para entender.

My telescope scans the horizon
for alien life.

I am searching for someone
For a few pieces of what
she lost.
He lost.
Whoever lost.

I can’t identify
those pieces. I don’t
have the words.
In reaching, I get closer, closer—

but the space
never ends.
My feelings

My telescope finds a black hole. It bursts.
And then, a star.
Another, another—

Side by side, twinkling, on then off.
These multi-identities,
my constellation.


Perdón si mi Español es malo. It has been a while since I studied. Pienso que Español en Panama es diferente de Español en España. So, that makes it even harder to not fuck up. En unos lugares, lo (la? se?) llaman Spanglish. The fusion of two ways of communicating, of understanding.

Por que quiero usar este lengua? Do I even have a right?

Mi telescopio lingüístico ve un (una?) alien. My telescope searches for the truth. La verdad esta en algún lugar, pero donde, and who is it for.

Reality, ___________________________________________________________________realidad:
Esto es para
all of us. And also, __________________________________________para all of us.

About the Author

​​Marisa L. Manuel

​​Marisa L. Manuel (any pronouns) is a PhD student in fiction at Georgia State University. She received her MFA from the University of Memphis, where she served as managing editor of The Pinch.

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