Sunday, August 7, 2011

Say My Name, Say My Name: Writers on Naming

It started with Kate DiCamillo's The Magician's Elephant. I was reading the novel on a plane and kept wanting to turn to my fellow passengers (none of whom I unfortunately knew) and read the beautiful words aloud. These were words meant to be spoken, sung, shouted, I thought. But, for fear of being hauled off by the TSA, all I could do was keep them to myself, rolling them around and around in my mouth, feeling their heft and weight and beauty.

As I read, I kept thinking about the wonderful community of my new literary agency (The Erin Murphy Literary Agency, EMLA), and how meaningful it was to me to have so many differing communities of support around me, some who knew me well, and some -- like EMLA -- where many just knew my name. But even in that "just name knowing" - there was something so vital and beautiful being built - one more net beneath my various, precarious high-wire acts.

I was almost completely undone by one passage where DiCamillo reminds us what powerful magic names are:

Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved. --- Kate DiCamillo

As a writer whose 'day job' in medical humanities is steeped in examinations of intersubjectivity, what Martin Buber called the "I-thou" relationship, I suppose it's no surprise that I am particularly moved by writing regarding names and naming. As DiCamillo shows us, a name connects us to those who know and love us, those who, in the Levinasian sense, recognize our very face. 

In fact, one of my favorite writing exercises in any group I teach begins with the prompt: "Tell me the story of your name." It's a relatively low-risk exercise - certainly every person in the workshop or class has a name, and certainly every name has a story. Yet, it's an intensely personal exercise as well - calling forth stories of family, ancestry, history, identity, immigration, community, pain, loss, aspiration, and dream. Inevitably, there are tears and there is laughter when each member of the group reads aloud their own unique tale of their own unique name. And in the process, we recognize and honor the presence of each and every individual. From strangers, we become a community.

But it doesn't explain why every novel I seem to read lately has the most beautiful passages about names and naming. This week, it was Rita Williams Garcia's georgeous and powerful One Crazy Summer:

A name is important...Your name is how people know you. The very mention of your name makes a picture spring to mind, whether it's a picture of clashing fists or a mighty mountain that can't be knocked down. -- Rita Williams Garcia

In the book, a name given and refused leads to the loss of a mother. A mother who herself has given birth to a new self, a new avatar, a new name.

Last night, I gobbled up DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie, in which Opal, the young protagonist, adopts and is adopted by a dog on the loose in a Winn-Dixie grocery store:

"Here boy," I said again. And then I figured that the dog was probably like everybody else in the world, that he would want to get called by a name, only I didn't know what his name was, so I just said the first thing that came into my head. I said, "Here, Winn-Dixie."

And that dog came trotting over to me just like he had been doing it his whole life. -- Kate DiCamillo

Tonight, I'm reading Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, in which the Indian American physician protagonist (hm... why does that sound familiar?) is searching for answers in the death of her colleague Anders. She has traveled to the Amazon, where she meets a young deaf boy named Easter who was the last to see Anders alive.

Marina could see him sitting on a log, a pad of paper out across his knees, Easter pressed in close beside him. Of course he could teach a boy how to make his letters. He'd done it three times before. It wouldn't make any difference to him that Easter couldn't hear. This is who you are, Anders tells him, pointing to Easter's name. Then he points to his own, This is who I am. 

Marina and her companion, Dr. Swenson, wonder at Anders teaching the boy to write both his own name, and Anders' as well. Finally, Swenson concludes,

Maybe he felt it was a way to be remembered. -- Ann Patchett

What are your favorite quotes about names?


  1. Reminds me of Jack, the protogonist of Emma Donaghue's, Room, which is an insightful story about the five-year-old boy, who after being confined to a one-room-home with his Ma all his life, is suddenly thrust into the outside world. At his first contact with human kind, Jack gets disoriented and refuses to accept that he shares his name with many others in the world-

    "Which other Jacks? Like in the magic stories?"
    "No, real boys," says Ma. "There are millions of people out there, and there aren't any names for everyone, they have to share."
    My tummy hurts. I don't want to share my name.

    - Interesting, isn't it, the bit about how fiercely possessive he is about his own name and the identity that it carries.

  2. That's a beautiful quote - haven't read Room yet - but heard about it. His anger about his having to share his name is really poignant in light of what else he has to endure - and how his mother (I've heard) makes it all bearable by making sure he's NOT anonymous, that he knows his name and the names of all the other things in his small world...

  3. I love that feeling when you wish to share beautifully written passages, thankfully today we have blogs and tweets, so at least we can do so more easily.

    I remember doing this with passages from one of my favourite books, Martin Booth's 'Industry of Souls', especially a paragraph about a bee becoming trapped in a spider web and the spider being intelligent enough to snip that part of its web free.