Names do not just carry intimacy, they determine the extent of it; names create boundaries. There are names I am only called by my immediate family, and others I’ve left along the way.
I used to go by Vicki. My parents spelt it with a ‘y’; at some point I replaced that with an ‘i’. After my undergrad, I dropped Vicki altogether. I had a chance encounter a few years prior with an alumna from my university. She was with someone else and I introduced myself as Victoria. ‘Oh,’ she said, with an inflection in her voice. ‘Is this your author name now?’
Victoria was not my ‘author name’. But it served the same function. I stopped using Vicki when I finished my undergrad, more than half a decade ago. Victoria is more formal, and in jest I say it’s less friendly. In truth, it is just less familiar and it feels disturbingly intimate now to have strangers call me Vicki. This former university peer was in my College, in my academic year, doing the same subject, and we lived on the same corridor. We had also known each other prior to attending, though we were not friends, but actually the Victoria I offered was for the colleague she was with when we met. Nevertheless, an elaboration seemed likely to do more harm than good. I cannot recall how I closed that discussion, but the disquiet I felt, then, lingered.
Naming, I realised, as an interactive experience, is neither neutral nor finite. Beyond the introductory exchange, names resurface, they recur, in organic conversations. How we name each other echoes how we see each other, and can convey recognition or respect. Intimacy is delicate by design, the bonds that determine it can be fragile. Naming, an embodiment of the two, can be fraught.
Discussions around naming remain at the forefront of my mind. When Thandiwe Newton popped into my post box one Thursday, resplendent on the May 2021 edition of British Vogue, I did a double take at the spelling of her name. Cross-legged and serene, on a crimson-red cover, her expression seemed to affirm that we were entering her orbit: ‘Thandiwe Newton: Rebirth of an Icon’.
The realisation that it was Thandiwe and not Thandie, as she had always been credited professionally, was like the click of a puzzle piece slotting into place. I had long mused on the name ‘Thandie’, which I could not reconcile with either her African or European heritage. In an interview with the magazine, she spoke of how her name had been rewritten when her first acting credit ‘carelessly missed out’ the ‘w’. The interviewer described Newton’s childhood as one ‘where the W of her name drifted inward, out of sight and earshot, in a futile hope to make her feel less different’.
In her story, I heard the faint echo of an experience I knew too well. A lifetime of listening to the public spheres where mouths that mastered names like Aguilera mangled African and Asian ones, and told me in secret coded ways, that there were two kinds of uncommon names. Those that could be pronounced as intended and those that were simply ‘corrected’. The criteria seemed obvious but were not, in fact, always clear.
Byung-Chul Han tells us in The Disappearance of Rituals, that ‘symbolic perception, as recognition, is the perception of the permanent’. In a world that often seems to be determined by change, by transient experiences, names are an anomaly. They are stubborn things, pushing back against the relentless march of time. Ages change, job titles, citizenship, but names we carry with us. In defiance of a life in constant motion. When we name newborns, we are trying to locate them in the world by carving out their distinction from others, as absolute immutable entities. Some part of that distinction will follow them through the trajectory of their life. Names endure, names remain.
Yet our names function, first, as words spoken back to us. Our existence is shaped in part by the recognition of others, making the experience of naming a collaborative project. In some West African families, like my own, one can be named for another relative, in recognition of their unique heritage. As a baby, I have been told I resisted all possible nicknames, and the sound of my own actual name. Nothing elicited a response. My own first word was the pet name of an ancestor. My mother repeated it back to me, and asked if this was what I wished to be called. I am told I responded with a smile. I am 30 years old, but I still smile, involuntarily, when called this name.
Renaming is not always benign. What does it then mean to rename someone publicly, without their consent or even foreknowledge? For Thandiwe to become Thandie, and for it to be easier to simply acquiesce? When refashioned by others, through lazy fumbling or comfortable ignorance, one is remade by the unthinking tongues of strangers, and perhaps this is where the crime of it all lies.
For many, the recognition of a name is symbolic. It carries an expectation, and often an intimacy.
Not in that moment, but in one’s history. One’s name is fundamentally also a memory, a reflection of an intimate historical moment, at which an individual was given a symbol through which to be at home within the world – naming as recognition.
For a stranger, be it a school nun, in Thandiwe Newton’s case, or the head teacher giving out prizes where she simply omitted the surname, of a student, she couldn’t pronounce, to replace a name is to reset a power relation, shift the balance against the person with the name and state quite literally, to them but also anyone listening, that you are not, you are never who you believe yourself to be, if I think otherwise. In a world where everything can be debated, names are contingent on whether the speaker decides they wish to honour your authority over your body, or not.
Born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali renounced his given name as a ‘slave name’. ‘I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it’. Ali didn’t just reject the name Clay, he rejected what it represented: the enslavement of his ancestors and its legacy. His chosen name means ‘beloved of God’. And in naming himself thus, he lets his faith grant his name history, memory and intimacy. In the absence of a name descending from his black ancestors, he took on a name that carries what theirs might have bestowed.
I could not help but think back to Thandiwe Newton, whose act of self-naming was more of a revision, a return to the name reflective of her ancestry. Though their lives couldn’t be more different, their names, and thus their identities, had to be wrested back from an indifferent but assertive Anglophone sphere, where names were imposed upon them, as a practice of erasure, not an act of recognition. When a name is imposed on us, the name is a constant reminder of our lack of agency. To have your name, constantly rewritten by others, or, chosen to reflect the legacy of enslavement, is to have an unwanted presence centred within it. Your name becomes a constant reflection of something or someone else. How telling then, that Thandiwe like Muhammad means ‘beloved’. Few words embody so effectively the properties of love and recognition. ‘Beloved’ implies the view from others, who see you as, and love you for, yourself.
I find of late I’m subjecting myself to new scrutiny, at the close of my parents’ divorce. In a very literal way I have begun pondering my own identity and wondering what to do about my last name. It’s printed on the cover of my first novel; it is officially my professional name. You will see it at the top of this piece. It is the surname of my father, a person I cannot envision seeing again, except to make confirmations at a mortuary. But the name carries its own weight, beyond the premature end to our connection.
The name Princewill has its own history, but only recently did I discover anything of its depth. The Princewills are the descendents of the Amachree dynasty, the founders of the Káláḇàrì kingdom, stretching back centuries. Once a wealthy traditional state in West Africa, it was absorbed into Nigeria and currently has between 250,000 and 500,000 native speakers left, of which I am not one, though both my parents are. The language is rare, the history little known. Much like I did with In the Palace of Flowers, I’ve been learning about the history to write it into broader recognition. I have also been learning the language. What’s in a name?
My debut novel, In the Palace of Flowers, is about the largely undocumented history of East African slaves in the Qajar royal court of nineteenth century Iran. Part of Iran’s forgotten history, photography by Nasir al-Din Shah reveals opulently dressed, young men, Abyssinians with haunted faces, holding the children of their Qajar masters. Seeing the photographs, I knew I wanted to tell the story of these Abyssinians. To offer an elegy for those images, to meet their mournful silence with more than a vulturous gaze. In the Palace of Flowers is a work of historical fiction, but the novel did not feel possible until I found Jamīla Habashī. Jamīla was a real-life woman who lived and had written a short first-person account about herself. It was the only first-person piece readily available by an enslaved Abyssinian in Iran. It said little, but it held her name, where her ancestors came from and where she had since been. In the idea of her, I found a story. Jamīla, became the main character, in In the Palace of Flowers. Named for the real life Jamīla Habashī but also named so as to record her memory, to flesh it out with character, to imbue scant history with humanity.
But ‘Jamīla Habashī’ like Cassius Clay was almost certainly her slave name. And the extent to which I was honouring the woman who lived, or validating the enslavement, was an issue that returned to me repeatedly, in the other characters too. Abimelech – Jamīla’s friend and a eunuch at court, advisor to the royal son that Jamīla serves as a concubine – highlights as a virtue being allowed to retain his birth name. Abimelech is a Judeo-Christian name and Iran was Islamic in 1895 when the story is set. In practice a slave would have been given not simply a new name, but a Muslim or Iranian one. It struck me as a particularly humanising experience, which nonetheless did not serve to ameliorate the insidious and overt ways in which agency was subverted in the Qajar court or the Trans-Saharan slave trade, more broadly. But I wanted to reiterate that naming mattered and keeping a name given from a place of love instead of replacing it with a symbol of servitude carried incalculable value.
Discovering the history of the Abyssinians was the impetus for me to explore my own history, my own family name. The things we can credibly say we own, are often the things we’re slow to understand and for the first three decades of my existence, I paid little attention to the origins of my surname or the extended family it included. Siloed off from them on another continent, alienated from the depth of knowledge by my deficit of language, I felt hesitant and illegitimate as my investigations began.
The name Princewill was first associated, in English academic texts at least, with the fourth of the Amachree rulers, the son of King Karibo Amachree III. Unlike the prior reigns, especially that of his father, the reign of King Abbi Amachree IV was known for its instability. Despite the death of his father in April 1863, he was not the automatic successor. Heightened political tensions led a rival House to propose a successor and both houses mobilised forces to challenge the Okarki forces in what became the Okarki war of 1863. I read about how the people fought in war canoes; my mother used to tease us about how the Princewills were fishermen. It was Amachree III who inherited a single water canoe house and in fifteen years expanded into the wealthiest canoe house family. But his son, the first documented Princewill, founded Buguma, the home town of both my parents in 1884. So, I hail from river people on both sides. My love of water is in my bloodline.
Perhaps this is what the knowledge of one’s ancestors gives you. Much as Muhammad Ali gave Cassius Clay a home by way of history, the purpose of ancestry, the utility of a lineage one can trace, is possibly just the way to create that permanence, inject a sense of immutability into the reality of who you are. It can take on an unexpected urgency, even in the absence of explicit renaming. There are unexpected ways in which a name can place or dislocate you and if naming is the closest one gets to a consistent external self across time, then in the face of presumed, projected narratives, the knowledge of one’s ancestry might be the roots that ground you.
I felt momentarily rootless, a few weeks ago, after someone contacted me having just read In the Palace of Flowers. They confessed to feeling initial discomfort at this white person writing about Africans in the Middle East. What a relief, they then said, to discover from social media that in spite of my apparently English-sounding name, I was not white at all. The welcome jolt of surprise for them was the start of a profound discussion that stretched far beyond our names. But the characterisation lingered. I had not previously given it much thought. Growing up in the UK, racism was the truth that dared not speak its name; simultaneously, difference was the soil from which ostracisation could sprout. In the private schools I attended, where my peers were mostly white, and those who weren’t found collective power in recognition born from their shared Gujarati heritage, I sought safety in the bland familiarity that sanded down the differences in my design. That which seemed quotidian and unexciting fell into being forgettable, determining the extent to which one’s body was left alone. Like my name, my slender physiological frame, or long black hair, be it in braids, in a weave or straightened, I settled within the unobtrusive identity markers deemed uninteresting, or quotidian, and proceeded along. Now as the era of authenticity politics strives to liberate black women’s bodies from Eurocentric standards of perfection, if not heteronormative expectations of desirability – or the consensus that our selves must adhere to the rules of an externally imposed decree, our names remain free. Free to remain yoked to whatever prior orthodoxy may have influenced their design. My observations did not leave me settled. My writing is centred around diasporic experiences, so the notion that my name may hide my heritage is hard to sustain. But it did, and despite my face on the book jacket, it could again, for any reader who purchased it online, as the person in question did. The overwhelming sense of irony is impossible to shake. Princewill, the very surname that sounds anglicised or even Anglo-Saxon to the unsuspecting ear, is also the strongest indicator of my African heritage.
To have a name that both invokes and obscures my ancestry, which erases my African history while being the name of African dynasty, is to carry within it both the issue and the answer. It is, inadvertently, symbolic of the bicultural experience, familiar to my African and Asian peers, which, like my surname, is to be hidden in plain sight. Less passing than Passover, in late twentieth and twenty-first century England, to be hidden in plain sight was to be seen entirely as one thing, or entirely another, by parties (parents, the public) who would deem themselves authorities on the topic. The cultural conflict is, at heart, akin to the narratives around naming. Most of the time, the person in question can only passively engage.
Our names, and selves, function, first, in social spaces, as reflections echoed back to us.
Born and bred, as I was, in the UK, my surname, stripped of its historical resonance, always seemed a little misshapen, suffering as it did, from a lifetime of odd little reincarnations. Princewill, almost always becomes Princewell, although occasionally I get something more adventurous. Prinkaville is the bizarre mis-framing that continues to linger. But compared to my bicultural peers, whose parents hailed from beyond the UK and gave them first names in recognition of their history, my experience of being misnamed, until my local council did it and I could not access any local services, was a relatively benign, if irritating, experience. There is something disconcerting about being addressed formally and yet incorrectly. Simultaneously impersonal and not, it hovers somewhere between being ignored and being replaced. My first name is Victoria, my second, is also English, and like my sibling’s, shares its first letter with our father’s. My third is a Káláḇàrì name, another middle name, which only my mother calls me. I rarely tell people what it is and it’s a practice I intend to keep.
I empathise with Thandiwe Newton and the dismissive rendering of such a meaningful name. In keeping my third name private, it escapes that fate. Only known by those who speak Káláḇàrì, my third name, far more than my first, when spoken, locates me in a site of home. Where is that home? Well, within my mother’s voice.
Since reading Thandiwe Newton’s interview, I find something in my own manner changed. In group conversations, digitally, among strangers, common polite practice meant you pre-emptively apologised before you addressed someone with an unfamiliar name. It was a form of recognition, calling out your own limitations and something I had assumed was the very least I ought to do. Since then, I’ve found I approach it differently. When saying someone’s name, I pause and invite them to correct me. It isn’t always a smooth process, in a clunky technical age. In a world where the dizzying pace of change seems to come from every direction, the pause to listen, to bear witness, is something I could do with more of. And maybe there is no better introduction to someone else’s name, than hearing it, as we did Thandiwe Newton’s, in a person’s own words, in their own voice, by their own design.
Last week I received word, via an Instagram photo, that my novel had reached a dear friend of mine, living in their home country in Singapore. When we had met as first years at Oxford, she had told me to call her ‘Zee’. ‘Nobody can ever say my name correctly,’ she said, breezily, and at the time, I thought little else of it.
Today I think of Thandiwe; I wince.
Four years ago, I visited my friend for the first time, in Singapore. I walked into a restaurant and gave my name for the reservation.
‘Ah yes,’ the waiter said. ‘You’re at the table for Zhi. Go on over, she’s seated and waiting.’ I stood for a moment. I nodded. I couldn’t speak.
When I finally walked towards her, my friend, who I had not seen in almost five years, I wondered how to tell her, tell Zhi – that not only was I seeing her for the first time in forever, I had just heard, for the first time ever, the actual pronunciation of her name.
Image © Kellie Hastings