Saturday, 9 March 2013

Our names are who we are

For some reason, two articles on a similar topic were circulated on Facebook today: this and this. It is a very interesting subject with many dimenions, far from all covered in the articles. I surely recognise the situation described by Jill Filipovic:

"My last name is "Filipovic." People can't spell it or pronounce it, which is a liability when your job includes writing articles under your difficult-to-spell last name, and occasionally doing television or radio hits where the host cannot figure out what to all you. It's weird, and it's "ethnic," and it makes me way too easily Google-able. But Jill Filipovic is my name and my identity".

My first name is simple and international. You wouldn't expect anyone to have problems. Still, people insist on spelling it “Marija” or “Mariya”, I presume because they believe it must be exotic, and pronouncing it “meRAya”, for reasons that escape me. It doesn't help when I tell people to call me Masha, because they pronounce it MASH, MUSH or MARSH, and spell it Mascha or Marsha, unless they are Swedish and spell it Masja. That is, if they understand at all how Masha can be a derivative of Maria, which in my humble opinion is more understandable than how Polly can be a derivative of Maria. Yet, Masha is who I am, while Maria is my professional avatar, alien and uncomfortable. I am afraid it is too late to start calling myself Masha on book covers.

When it comes to my last name, since it was originally written in Cyrillic it was up to me to decide how I wanted to spell it in Latin, and I chose to spell it in the most logical way for my country of residence, Sweden. If my first country had been English-speaking, I would have spelled it Nikolayeva, Nicolayeva or Nicholayeva; in German, it would be Nikolajewa, in French, Nikolaeva or, if my ancestors had emigrated in early twentieth century, Nikolaeff. And some people, who want to show off their profound knowledge of Russian, spell it Nikolajevna. Which is a correct Russian patronymic, but not mine.

Well, I have chosen to spell my last name the Swedish way, but even in Sweden they pronounce it in all possible ways. Some may be confused by Polish, and put the stress on the penultima, but I have seldom heard my name pronounced correctly even by people who are supposed to know Russian. Again, I think they just assume it must be pronounced different from the simplest way. In the English-speaking countries, people of course pronounce the “j” as in John, in French, as in Jean, in Spanish, as in Juan, and Germans don't even try. Filipovic is child's play in comparison. The funniest episodes are when somebody asks me how to pronounce my last name, and a good friend or colleague, whom I have never bothered to correct, answers, pronouncing it wrong. I have given up. But see, how much easier life would have been if I had taken my husband's last name. Everybody would know how to pronounce it, even though they would always spell it wrong.

I changed my name in my first marriage for the reasons mentioned in Jill Filipovic's article: social pressure, submissiveness, practicalities. My fiance, who had been married before and whose first wife had not changed her name, told me that his mother had said: “I hope this one takes your name”. I wanted to show that this one meant the marriage to last. Both names are painfully common in Russia, so it wasn't a big deal, like changing Brown for Smith. As you see, changing names doesn't guarantee a lasting marriage. I started to be published under my married name, and I have my university diploma in my married name, which means that each time I applied for a job I had to provide a copy of my divorce certificate. I hadn't received a huge professional reputation under my married name, but some of my early academic publications and translations are under my married name.

Staffan did not want me to take his name when we were married, claiming that intellectual, liberated Swedish women tended to keep their own names. I had to believe him, and I later discovered that some Swedish women did and some didn't. There are certain advantages to have the same last name as your children, for one thing.

After three decades, Staffan now admits that he was wrong. My life in Sweden would have been easier if I had a Swedish last name. Sweden only has a very recent tradition of immigrants, and a foreign name – unless it is English, French or German – is suspicious. When we lived in California, nobody cared about my exotic name: everybidy had exotic names, everybody had come from somewhere else. When they asked where I came from and I said Sweden, there were no raised eyebrows.

But in Sweden I was and will always be an alien as long as I have an exotic name. I can speak Swedish impeccably, I can be a professor of Swedish literature, I can publish books in Swedish, but my name will always be against me. When I wrote picturebooks together with a fabulous Russian-born illustrator, the publisher made me use a pseudonym because they didn't want two Russian names on the cover. It would look as if the books were translated. It suddenly strikes me now that they didn't ask my male illustrator to use a pseudonym. Do you see a parallel with married women?

My oldest son's wife wanted to take his name, but he dissuaded her. She wanted their children to have his name, and he said, over my dead body. Not because he is a liberated Swedish man, but because it is hugely impractical to have an exotic name in Sweden, a lesson he learned at a price, just as I did.

Here in the UK and particularly in Cambridge exotic names are legio. Even the University Vice-Chancellor has an exotic name, and I hope nobody asks him where he comes from. When people here ask me where I come from and I say Sweden, they comment: “But isn't your name Russian/Polish/Bulgarian/Hungarian (yes, Hungarian!)”. I reply, yes it is, but I still come from Sweden. If they insist, I tell them one of my family histories, and then they relate to other colleagues that I am Greek, Finnish, German or Jewish, depending on which version they were exposed to. 

In fact, my family history is so complicated that I genuinely don't know, and there is nobody alive whom I can ask. The only thing I know for sure is that I am not Russian. 

If, as Jill Filipovic rightly states, our last names are an indispensable part of our identities, then my name should be Tietz. It is not my father's name, but it is the family name with which I feel strongest affinity. I am afraid it's too late to change it now.


Anonymous said...

I hear you on the advantages of having a name that matches the country. Oddly, however, in this part of Sweden, my last name is still proving very professionally useful Lydia Kokkola

Zahra said...

I recall my first day in a new primary school (where I had joined mid-way through the academic year) and had to introduce myself to my new class. When my teacher remarked on my name, I proudly told her it was from the Arabic for 'radiant'.....EPIC ERROR! I was evermore called 'radiator' by my classmates! Later on in life, having to partake in one of those awful ice-breaking activities, I told people my name was 'like the car'.....EPIC ERROR NO 2, I was mistakenly referred to as 'Citroen' by the organiser and unsurprisingly that stuck too!
Although people often try to pronounce the 'H' which is ensconced in the middle of my name (often with a strong Arabic accent, why?) and spell it in an atrocious variety of ways (with additional 'Hs', why?)....I love my name and wear it with pride.