Hafidha Acuay is a mother, poet and perpetual student. She blogs at Never Say Never to Your Traveling Self about unschooling, poetry, and rowing crew. Though born and bred in New York, she embraces the Pacific Northwest with all her heart, and happily resides in Seattle with her husband and daughter.
None of his colleagues noticed who had arrived, they responded to his greeting as they always did, Good morning, Senhor José, they said and they did not know to whom they were speaking.
-from All the Names by Jose Saramago
When I was a young child, my parents converted to a different religion and changed their first names – and mine. After some years spent as Hafisa and Hafiza, they finally settled on Hafidha as the most accurate transliteration of حفىظة, and that has been the name I’ve gone by ever since (mostly).
By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, most of my grandparents had gotten the hang of calling me Hafidha. Great-somethings and distant cousins who rarely came around called me by my old name. That name was the same as my mother’s birth name, which made the experience doubly curious. I never corrected them, but even as a child it felt peculiar to be called by and expected to answer to the name of the toddler I no longer was, nor remembered being.
I was still “Little Heidi” in their eyes. Still the fat and happy baby whose cheeks they had pinched; maybe they had even done me the kindness of feeding me or changing my diaper. I let them call me “Heidi”; after all, what did it matter? They may have been family but they were still strangers to me, and the likelihood of seeing them again was remote. I read their attempts at affection and familiarity as clutches at the past, a common behavior of adults. They weren’t interested in who I was now, so my old name served them well enough.
Those early experiences very likely shaped my current, most basic views on names, which can be summed up in three statements:
- A “good” name is a name with a good or neutral meaning.
- Every person is entitled to a name that reflects who they think they are, and if they need to change it as their identity changes, may it be so.
- It can be useful to have a surplus of names.
In the first place, I have always been concerned with having a name that means something good, or at least doesn’t mean something horrible. It’s a word one hears often enough that on a subconscious level it shouldn’t be telling you – or other people – that you are wretched or doomed. Now a name can be great, in my opinion, if bearing it inspires you to live up to some higher ideal, but a name needn’t be great to be perfectly fine.
The second point feels obvious to me, but I’ve found that a lot of other people don’t believe it. “You can’t just change who you are,” complained one such person who obviously didn’t know my background. To this I say, “Actually, you can.” Or as often happens, the name you were given was never a good fit for you to begin with, in which case, it’s the name that’s changing, not you. Either way, it’s all perfectly legitimate.
The last point – that having spare names can be useful – is one that I take advantage of regularly. As a child, when I allowed relatives to call me “Heidi,” I was using that old name in a kind of autotomous fashion. Autotomy is the act of an animal shedding some part of its body to escape a threat. The predator is left holding just a small part of what it wanted, meanwhile the part that is shed regenerates on the animal that was in danger. “Heidi” was useful in that it was a part of me I could do without, and I let these people I barely knew have it; they might have thought they’d got a hold of me, but in reality I was no longer connected.
Over the years I’ve acquired a few more names: two middle names, and my husband’s family name (which I often use socially, in registering our daughter in classes, or when ordering catalogs). I selected my second middle name when I was five years old, but abandoned it years ago when it no longer suited me. It exists only on legal documents and I’d be surprised if my husband even knows what it is.
But my third middle name, Sofía, chosen in my 20s, has been very handy. Not only do I love it, it’s a wonderful autotomous name: familiar enough to most people’s ears, even internationally, that I can toss it out to anyone I suspect (or hope) I’ll never see again. I refer to it sometimes as my “Starbucks name,” – the one I give to baristas or anyone who is taking an order and just needs a name, any name that I’ll answer to.
I first began using Sofía in this way over a decade ago when I had a job working with the public. After years of having the same conversation about my first name – “No, it’s not Scandinavian … no, it’s not Latin …. it’s spelled H-A-F – yes, F – …. The ‘dh’ makes a hard ‘th’ sound, as in father or this and that,” – I became sensitive to hearing and seeing my real name, the name I’ve always remembered having, rendered unrecognizable by people who, for whatever reason, were having a hard time with it. I also became weary of having to respond to the positive or negative judgment of the “fascinated” person who had given me the third degree about it. Believe it or not, I had other things to do besides talk about my name with people I did not know.
Nowadays, I use HSofía online for this same reason – it’s got a bit of the primary me in it, but I don’t have to cringe at seeing “Hafidha” mistyped as “Hafidah” or something far, far worse (Microsoft Word used to suggest “Hagfish”). When people call me Sofie or Sophia instead of Sofía, it’s not bothersome to me. Autotomy is very protective in that sense.
The thing about names – including nicknames, legal names and surnames – is that they all belong to you, yet they interact with the world. Using different names depending on the context feels about as natural to me as changing clothes when it’s time to play a sport, attend a wedding, or paint a house. The name I use in a given situation is not usually representative of all of me – but it’s almost always about who I want to be in that moment.
Let’s Talk About Names: Soulamami is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk About Names: Patricia is the next post in the series.