I find it super neat when I request ‘Rebka Fisseha’, or some combination thereof, for my username when opening a new online account and get the message that the username is unavailable. No way! Waaay! Awesome. Now that’s belonging. I used to be smug about having a ‘secret weapon’ name but I’ve found that I like this other feeling better.
I’ve touched on the naming thing in a past post, from which the excerpt below is taken, titled Call Me..? About the brief period where I toyed with legally changing my name to it’s “original” Amharic version – Rebka – even though there’s nothing “illegitimate” about Rebecca; I use both simultaneously. But I’ve learned that not everyone agrees that you’re allowed more than one name…
…I wondered what they would do with “Luladei”, my original original name. The one that got axed a few short months after it was bestowed on me, in the interests of saving me from a life of having to constantly repeat and re-spell my name to all I encountered. And yet here I am, contemplating signing up for exactly that same fate by throwing out a perfectly elegant and universal name for a sorry-say-that-again?
From time to time (and I understand this applies across cultures) I come across young habesha people in the diaspora who are starting a new family and desire to give their child an authentic Ethiopian name but also want a name that is user-friendly to the Western ear and tongue, a sort of all-cultures name but one that is distinctly Ethiopian; bit of an eat your dabo and have it too situation.
There are also young habesha people who go to the other extreme and give their 21st century babies totally DOWN HOME names like…Yemisirach*…or…Aberra…Gorfu…or…Senayit…or Maritu…or…Berhane, etc. Now I understand that, in a way, even capital ‘c’ country names like those above can have their roots appeal, but that’s only for when the kid grows up and goes through a “finding myself” phase, but if you’re the parent giving your brand new kid that kind of back-to-the-motherland name…come on!
These new children shouldn’t have to ‘accept’ the awkwardness that comes with constantly repeating their names, because from birth they are totally comfortably situated in their time and place, so they deserve a name just as seamless. Hence why I’m in the first camp of young habesha parents. If the kids grow up and want to change their name to Kiddist or Tariku because suddenly that’s special or authentic now (never mind that these are the ‘Jane’/’John’ of habesha names), then they’ve got no one but themselves to blame, I say.
In my case, I’m going to go right ahead and keep on using both ‘versions’ of my name, but I have been in the process of naming a “child” for a few years now, that’s why the on and on about names; a child who mercifully exists only in the world of fiction, and actually came into being as a full-grown adult to whom I needed to attach a name. I found myself faced with the same concern: when this child goes out into the world, in the pages of a published book (the hope and dream of every writer parent), will Western readers have difficulty saying her name? Will they say it all wrong? Will they trip over it every time they meet her? Will she be always having to explain it and pronounce it for them? – Ah, that’s the thing, she can’t correct them because she exists only in ink and imagination. So I feel like my job is to come up with, you guessed it, something Ethiopian but something that would be said right. Something perfectly midway. I wonder if this is an issue all diaspora writers of fiction face. The ones that care to reach a readership beyond their own community, that is.
To solve the problem, I’ve been fooling around with the spelling. Is it Aida, or Ida, or Ayda, or Ayeedah, or Idah that will be the least likely to get by the reader who will have no guidance, no one to correct it for them? Now, the perk of doing this with a fictional character is that I can change names as many times as I want, and spellings too, without having to go to court and produce a police record for my character-child every time. True, there are people who make an annual tradition of changing their names, but I’m sure at some point they’ll send up red flags in the system. But no such hindrance for me.
In the end, I guess one simply has to trust the reader and not make the whole meaning of a work hang on the proper pronunciation of a single character’s name. I’m sure if someone like Chimamanda Adichie heard how my inner voice has been saying her characters’ names in my head, she would have physically snatched the book out of my hands!
* In case I offend any of my nearest and dearest (or farthest) who have one of those “sticky” habesha names, let it be known that my middle name is Yikirta!