Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's in a name, Romeo? More than you thought, maybe...

I've noticed  a trend in my writing: I think I might be slightly obsessed with names.

For instance, my princess story has a main character who loses her name--and has to find another; my witch story centers around a girl who's stuck with probably the worst name on earth; and my current work-in-progress has a main character who's a slave boy with no real name at all.

One of the things my princess, slave boy, and witch each discover, I think, is that a name is often not some floating thing you toss or take up like a bit of seaweed, even if you manage to change it (which I'd do in a heartbeat if my last name were Bloodvessel, for instance, like a particularly-nasty character in one of Joan Aiken's books); it's often attached to something else--to family and origin, history and genetic traits, even culture, place, and heritage; it defines, at least a little bit, our sense of who we are.

Unfortunately, in Romeo's case. And Juliet's.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Romeo tries to convince Juliet (just hours after being hopelessly in love with another girl, but we'll leave that alone). Somehow everyone ends up dead in that story. Maybe because the main characters decided to pretend names didn't matter. They did matter--a lot, actually.

Your name isn't you. We hope. But it has some effect on you. And who are you, really, aside from your name? Do you know? Do I? I wonder.

I'm going to psychoanalyze myself here. Which should be interesting, since I've no actual psychology background.

I think I'm obsessed with names because mine is weird. It was, and continues to be, a little bit of an issue for me.

Here's a story: I grew up in a mid-sized town settled mostly by Scandanavian and English immigrants (top five most common surnames in my city: Anderson, Jensen, Christensen, Larsen, and Smith). Girls in my elementary school were named Sara, Amy, Mary or Becky.

Nobody was named Elena.

Nobody knew what to do with that.
They couldn't say it or spell it.
It was just weird.

Even I wasn't quite sure how I should pronounce it. The crossing guard said it the Spanish way (he sang Marie-Elena to me every day); my dad was a Russian professor and said it the Russian way, with a nice, fat Russian accent--more like Eliena than the Spanish "Alaina" version, and the rest of my family called me a Finnish nickname (my dad spent three years in Finland). Well, I figured I was just a weird, multi-cultural conglomeration of something. I always thought of myself as different from everybody else. And I always was. I was nerd-girl. Even my last name (Jarvis) was kind of a prissy-sounding English name (sorry, Jarvii). It evoked butlers somehow, or happy little wizards on cereal boxes. It got me teased, too.

So then I married one of maybe 8 Jubes in the entire U.S. I don't even hope for correct pronunciation of my names at this point, though people are getting better at the Spanish version of Elena these days. I answer to anything that sounds like an attempt: Elna, Alona, Alana, Alaina, Ee-lain-a, Elenna, Ellen-a, Jubb, Juke, Jule, Judd, Joobee, Hoobay, Jhoubay, whatever, and it's all ok. It's one piece of who I feel I am, however you say it.

Each time someone creatively pronounces me, I think, hmm, what if my last name really were said the French way and I were actually French? Or French-Canadian? What if my first name was pronounced the Manx way and I grew up on the Isle of Mann instead of in the Wasatch Mountains ? What then?

So, I write about names. Because I think it's fascinating how a name can define you--or not. I hope I'm more than just a weird name. And I wonder what I'd be like if I'd grown up named something else entirely.

Maybe I'd be exactly the same. I kind of like to think so.

Honestly, I doubt it.

And I wonder what would happen if a person suddenly discovered they weren't the person they thought they were all along.

What if Romeo discovered he wasn't a Montague after meeting Juliet? What if he were the illegitimate son of Juliet's nurse? Or Paris's long-lost brother? What then?

An entirely different story, at least...


  1. I always hated my name growing up as well. EVERYONE mispronounced it and I wished that my name were something easy like "Diana" or even "Sabrina," which was once a consideration by my parents. Now that I am older and wiser (NOT true), I find that my name no longer bothers me. It could be the fact that Utahns seem to do a MUCH better job with pronouncing it, OR I may finally just appreciate its uniqueness. Curious. WHAT was your family's Finnish nickname for you?

  2. Rena: that letter E in the middle of both our names likes to cause problems. I like your name, personally:) And I've come to terms with mine, too.

    My Finnish nickname wasn't all that different, but it threw even more confusion over the pronunciation: it was what you guys called me, too, actually--Lena, pronounced "Laina" (as you know) which really isn't like the Russian pronunciation at all. My Russian-speaking friends usually call me Liena.

  3. Oh, you just gave away the ending to Romeo and Juliet! You should have given a spolier warning! I've been meaning to read that book, and now there is no need.


  4. Rats, I forgot! I'm sure my sum-up captures the play entirely, though, so you probably shouldn't worry (ha, ha).


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