Full title: Give me characters with ‘difficult’ names – I’ll give them the love they need
I want to talk about names today.
Names, or specifically my name, was something I struggled with during my childhood and well into my teen years. Today, I want to talk about this struggle, but more importantly, how my name was – and is – so important to my identity. And then, I want to talk about names in fiction, particularly non-English names for characters of colour.
As a disclaimer, my discussion post today will address how names are construed and perceived in Western societies, as that is specific to my experience.
(Note: I do not condone names that are offensive or overly bizarre, e.g. ‘Lord’ or ‘V8’ – I wish I was kidding.)
Some personal (and cultural?) context
I go by CW in the blogosphere and Twittersphere, and I prefer to be known and called this way for privacy reasons. [See-double-you] isn’t actually my name though – CW is an acronym for my actual name.
I want to preface this by saying that I love my name. My name and my struggle isn’t a tragedy or something that is sad. I love that my name is different, I love that it is mine, and I love that it is part of who I am, who I have become, my identity, and also my family’s history. Without going into the specifics, naming traditions in my culture are really important. A great deal of thought goes into choosing a name for a newborn, and not just the I can’t decide which name! The meaning of the name and how it sounds is important, and sometimes can reflect a parent’s hopes for their child’s future.
All through my childhood and well into my years at university, I struggled with my name. My name has a sound that does not exist in the English language, so a lot of my friends don’t (or can’t) pronounce my name right, even to this day. I will concede that it is difficult for most people to pronounce, and that’s fine. I don’t fault anyone who pronounces my name wrong the first time – it’s what happens after I correct them that matters.
Part of my experiences growing up with my name: friends pronouncing it incorrectly (and not being corrected because you wanted to be liked and have friends), teachers hesitating before your name (and you know it’s your name because you always sit in alphabetical order on the first day), or having to repeat your name over and over as people stand awkwardly in front of you as they try and pronounce your name right (but hey, it’s the effort that counts). The less pleasant experiences involved questions like, ‘why don’t you just get an English name?’ or ‘well, that’s a very unusual name’.
But, enough about me. With my personal experience in mind, I want to talk about characters with names like mine.
On unique or ‘difficult’ names…
For reasons above — I like unique or ‘difficult’ names. Or, perhaps more accurate: I appreciate them and I like them unconditionally.
And I know. I know when we talk about ‘difficult’ or ‘silly’ names, people are talking about high-fantasy names. However, I implore you to consider how similar the fantasy name arguments are similar to names of characters of colour. To help you out: “difficult to remember”, “difficult to pronounce”, “weird spelling” (especially since English is the point of comparison), or “cannot be bothered to remember”. (Likewise, also consider why people love fantasy names and how that relates to names of characters of colour: “so exotic”, and cultural fetishism.)
Characters are not real people. But, people, especially children who are starting to socialize with others, relate with names that are similar to their own – especially children of colour. Any child who has ever had a unique name or one that is difficult for others to pronounce will learn very, very early in their youth that their name is different to other, more English-sounding names.
Therefore, when people make judgments of an individual’s character, personality, likability, etc. based on their name, I side-eye; I side-eye a lot. When people say they don’t bother to learn the name, it disappoints me. (Because hey! I have met people who have not wanted to befriend me because of my name! It sucks.) When people say that a name gets in the way of a reader liking a character, it makes me a little sad.
Consider these real life implications of how we interact, judge, or the assumptions made about characters/people with non-English names:
1. In New Zealand, having a Western name affords someone with privilege and allows them more and better opportunities, insofar that having a non-English names can affect your chances of employment . I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened outside New Zealand too. (Personally speaking? Having, keeping, and using a non-European name is brave — and something that should be celebrated.)
2. Consider, when, you devalue a book for its character’s name (because it is not an English name, you can’t pronounce it, or it is ‘too difficult’ to remember), you are perpetuating:
a. the idea that people who speak English are more valuable than people who don’t speak English (especially if they have a non-English names), and thus are more deserving of attention, recognition, or acknowledgement of their humanness;
b. English/Western supremacy and linguistic imperalism (note: this is why a lot of non-English speakers change their first names to English names);
c. the idea that people that do not have an English name have not ‘fully assimilated’;
d. Othering people that do not have a non-English name.
Readers should endeavour to look beyond the name. Some names, especially if it belongs to characters of colour, have beauty and history in them, and it is important to their identity. As good readers, we should endeavour to find and appreciate that beauty and meaning. As good people, we should make an effort to pronounce names correctly and properly. (Are you struggling to pronounce a name? Try googling ‘how to pronounce [name]’ or just simply ask.) You may not pronounce it right the first time, but genuine effort will not go unnoticed.
Name diversity, and what I’d love to see
I’m tired of seeing youths, or anyone, change their names purely because they don’t want to be bullied for their names. I have seen youths regard their given names as a point of shame, and that is so heartbreaking to me. Your name is nothing to be ashamed about. There’s nothing wrong with adopting a Western name, especially if that’s their own choice, but if it’s because they don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons, they don’t want to be bullied, they want to be liked by people who do not respect their personhood enough to learn their name, they think it will help them get employed — then something is wrong and something needs to change. And it’s not on us with the non-English names.
We need to recognize that names are more than decorations of a character, but that names are meaningful facets of a character’s identity and, sometimes, heritage. I would love to see these names being celebrated (and not exoticized), and given the same chance as characters with Western names.
As someone with a non-English name and made a conscious decision to not change my name, seeing these names mean a lot to me and gives me hope that, one day, an individual’s name will no longer be an ‘indicator’ of a person’s character, ability, or degree of belonging.
I want to see characters in books, especially young adult literature, with names like Vân Uoc and Agnieszka and Li Jing and Reshma and Kamala. We need to create spaces that are accepting of name diversity. Name diversity is vital in books, especially in YA.
Let’s talk about it
Again, I’d like to emphasize that this discussion post comes from a specific perspective – specifically from someone who lives in a Western country and is the child of first-generation immigrants. Nonetheless, I welcome any thoughts that you may have, regardless of your background.
- What do you think about ‘difficult’ names? Is this something you have given thought to?
- What do you do when you come across a character with a name that you cannot/don’t know how to pronounce?
- Do names matter to you?