Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Say my name, say my name

J...named for a Sicilian bandit and an imperial Roman
I must say I felt a sense of dismay when J, our offspring, came to me and said that she wanted to legally shorten her name ... it is a mouthful certainly. Her full name - consisting of the first, middle and surname - has twelve syllables. A big name for a little gal a friend once said when J was a baby.

I chose her first and middle name very carefully; I love traditional or historical Italian names. J's first name hearkens back to Giuliano, a Sicilian bandit/revolutionary from the 1950s who serves as a sort of secular saint to this day for Sicilians - emblematic of a romantic and impossible goal: the secession of Sicily from the Italian mainland that he perceived was oppressing and tyrannizing Sicily. I've written about him here and here. He obsesses me still.

J's middle name is the same as my mother's first name - Antonia - as well as being rooted in imperial Roman history. Antonia Augusta was the daughter of Mark Anthony, mother of Claudius (yes that Claudius, the emperor, the scribe, the inspiration for the book).

I think now, subconsciously, they reveal my twin obsessions: bandits and, um ... imperial Rome. I am not one to have mystical experiences with geography or landscapes but I have had two and they were both in Italy, in Rome and Taormina respectively, in 2010. This is what I wrote about Rome that day:
The Tiber at dawn (photo courtesy of photographer Debi Lander)
There was one especially magical moment as we passed the Tiber River to get to Vatican city at about 7.30a ... the air was misty and silvery and I thought of all the great Romans who had passed over this river: the emperors and empresses, the slaves and warriors, the great leaders of the Roman empire, the ambassadors from other states. When J did not want to do one of the tours I had to give her a pep talk. I said, this is the history of your people. You should know what great things the Romans accomplished, the art they produced, the inventions, the lands they conquered ... oh yeah, and remember, that they had to enslave half the world to do it. 
When we ventured south to Taormina, Sicily a few days later, I had as similar epiphany gazing into my ancestors' homeland - easily the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I could picture bandits and outlaws hiding in the mountainous terrain of the island that had foiled many a carabinieri. I felt I belonged there in a way I had never felt before.
Despite my pretty little speech to J in Rome, I feel that the Romans are not truly my people, not my true ancestors … my people came from land like this: rugged, wild, dangerous, difficult to navigate, full of secrets like the hidden crags in the mountains.

The names mean a great deal to me. But I understand the need for simplicity for the young, for having a sense of agency about your name and choosing your own name. Who has the right to control it, if not you? She has that right.

At approximately the same age as J, I decided to go by the much simpler name Michelle before entering high school after enduring a number of excruciating years having people mispronounce, butcher or mock my birth name - Michela. The name rhymed with something disagreeable and I was taunted with it. No, I will not reveal what that was as I wish to banish that memory forever.

Another not so funny story about my name ... when I was ten years old I had a particularly obstreperous grade school teacher of Scottish descent (don't get me wrong, I love the Scottish, some of my favourite relatives and best friends are of Scottish descent). She kept insisting that I was mispronouncing my own name. Let us not speak her name, let us call her Miss M ...

I was informed that I should have pronounced it Mi-CAY-la not MEE-ke-la. I was also informed that I was spelling it incorrectly. It should have been spelled Michaela. My goodness, she must have been thinking, her dumb immigrant parents! ... not even knowing how to spell their child's own name!

Could you imagine the furor today in the TDSB if a teacher dared to do that to a ten year old?

Well, I was never a fan of my first name (although I retain it on all legal documentation to this day and flirt with the idea of restoring it) but I knew that it had a special significance in the family. It was my paternal grandmother's name - a woman widowed at 34 who had raised five children on her own after her husband's death. The first or second daughters in the family of  her five offspring held that name.Yes, there are at least five Michela Alfanos who share the same blood running around on this planet, you lucky people. 

My reaction was swift and tearful when Miss Crankypants tried to change it that day. It provoked a firestorm of tears and resistance that day. I never complied with her thoughtful suggestion. I may not have particularly liked it but it was mine to keep or discard ...

My parents didn't blink an eye when I started to go by Michelle at 14 but then, they never called me Michela either, they called me another pet name that was reserved for family members. 

So, say my name, say my name ... say it the way I want it said. It's my right. And it's J's right too.


Cheryl said...

Your posts always make me wistful and leave me wishing for Italian ancestry. My only ethnicity is a Finnish grandmother - and if you know anything about Finns at all, you know that the first rule is stoic self control! Loved this post. And I am pretty sure I had the same teacher!

A Lit Chick said...

Hey don't knock the Finns Cheryl ... check this young man out. :)

Bylandersea said...

I enjoyed being a small part of your lovely story by contributing the photo of Rome. I,too, changed the spelling of my name because my Mom spelled it 'Debbie' and my grandmother 'Debby'. Who was right? I decided I would choose- thus Debi was born.

A Lit Chick said...

Thanks for letting me use the lovely photo Debi! <3