Recently I’ve once again been meeting a lot of new people. In many ways this is wonderful, and definitely better than being bedridden. But there’s one thing that’s beginning to grate enough that I’ve decided to write a blog about it: the reactions I keep getting to my name.
My name is Hel. You know that, because we’ve just met, and that’s what I’ve introduced myself as, so that should make it reasonably obvious that it’s the name by which I wish to be addressed. Yes, I know, it sounds like “hell” – and believe me, I have heard almost every conceivable variation on the jokes you could tell.
I’m sure that people with more obviously “foreign”-sounding names get a worse time of it – for example, I know far too many people with Eastern European names who have been pressured to change them to something more “English”, to blend in. I am very much aware that in the grand scheme of things, I am not bearing a great weight of oppression when it comes to unusual names. I have white privilege, a passably middle class accent, and a name that – while it’s hardly “Sam Jones” – isn’t too obviously connected to a specific ethnicity, and still conforms to Anglophone ideas about pronunciation. So, I know it could be a lot worse for me, and I hope I’m not minimising the struggles of others by discussing my own. But yes – when you ask me if it’s my “real name” or if it’s “short for something” – I really, really don’t understand why. My name is the name I tell you it is.
I’m not sure why it matters where my name comes from: whether my Old Norse-speaking dad named me after a formidable goddess as a nod to his Viking heritage; whether it’s a name formed from the letters of my initials; whether it’s short for Helga or Helena or Heloise or even Ethel; or whether it’s just a phoneme with no particular meaning or history that has still come to signify the person who is standing here talking to you. (I’ve also said ‘yes’ to most of the above explanations in discussion with curious strangers at some point – mostly because I feel like it’s easier to give an answer, any answer, than to say “why do you need to know?”)
I’m aware that it sounds like a curse-word. I’m aware that it’s rather uncommon even in Scandinavian countries. I’m aware that I could just use a different name. I have gone by other names in the past, and was considering using something else for the world of writing,* but honestly – Hel is the name I keep coming back to, because (to rather labour the point here) it’s my name. Every other name I’ve used has turned uncomfortable and ill-fitting, or felt like a temporary pseudonym. Not that I’m against naming oneself afresh – I think it can be incredibly valuable, and someone’s chosen name should always be respected. But I don’t feel like I can just pick one and know it will stick in the same way ‘Hel’ does. Perhaps because the movie version of The Hobbit is still reasonably fresh in my memory, this quote sums up how I feel: “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means… me!” It’s the same here – Hel is the name I answer to, the name I think of myself as, the name which ‘means me’. It’s weird and awkward and unusual and I don’t even really like it that much, but there we go. It’s my name, because it’s my name, because it’s my name. Please stop asking me if it’s my “real” one.
Rose Lemberg, co-editor of Stone Telling, writes on the persistent erasure of her co-editor Shweta Narayan by people who write only to “Rose Lemberg”, whose name reads as Anglo-Western. Even though both are immigrants (see Rose’s article), an Anglo-Western name affords privilege: an Indian name does not. [This text edited 21/03/12 to reflect further discussion with Rose about the history of her own name.]
Galatea at Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, on the racism and anglocentrism in the treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis.
CN Lester on “real” names, in the context of being trans.
A collection of different perspectives on naming and trans identity, submitted by various people to The Self Made Men.
Flyover Feminism has just begun a roundtable discussion of names: the first one, by Nikki at ‘Are Women Human?’, discusses her experience with names from the perspective of being transracially adopted; the second, by Soulamami, discusses having an ‘ethnic’ name, and the complexities around naming her daughter.
*I’ll probably end up using a mix of “Hel Gurney” and “H. L. Gurney”, depending on the context, but to me that’s essentially the same name anyway.