Sunday, November 30, 2008

A quartet of names

There’s usually a gasp when I give my name over the phone. The ruder people say, “What?”; those with more manners say, “Sorry, what was that?”

So, over the years I have learned to drop my second name when introducing myself, trying to enunciate Arja clearly. So far, so good, unless the caller wants to spell it. They can’t reconcile the “J” with the pronunciation of my name, which is pronounced “u-ri-yuh”. Arja is a Finnish name, and the “J” is pronounced as in “yoghurt” the Finnish way, not as in the English “jug” or “January”.

I feel for them, these people I give my name to, or those who phone and try gamely to say this name they have never heard before. I try to tell them it rhymes with Maria, which is my second name, but then some folks start calling me Maria. And that grates. I’m no Maria. Maria seems to be a good Catholic name, I see some convent girl dutifully attending Mass and confessing her sins. This is not me. Plus Maria is the only one of my four names I have never used.

Four names?

Here we go. I was born in Spain where they give children two surnames, so I was named Arja Maria Salafranca Migdale, the Salafranca being my father’s Spanish surname, Migdale is my mother’s, changed in the 1930s from the Polish Migdalowitz. When my Jewish grandfather assimilated into South African society, he simplified his name. It must have been easier, less different and less obviously Jewish. He came from starvation and pogroms in Pinsk. Biography informs ever nuance of my names, and there’s a story to each aspect. I have conversations with strangers about all my names. I pay for groceries with my debit card and cashiers ask, “Are these all your surnames?” Some days I wearily reply yes, and leave it at that; other days I go into my spiel of being born in Spain and you get both the mother’s and father’s surnames, and that’s why I have such a long-looking surname on all my official documents like bank statements and debit cards and my ID book. Collecting my chequebook is hell. No one knows where to file it, under M or S. Because my names are not hyphenated, which would make life easier. Sometimes it’s filed under A for Arja, a simple neat solution.

The name Arja comes from an ex-Finnish girlfriend of my father’s. Again, people gasp when they hear this. “Your mother didn’t mind?” they ask in surprise. Well ... obviously not, or I wouldn’t carry this name. If it had been solely up to her I would have been Maya, not a bad name and far easier to spell and pronounce, but when my father suggested the name Arja, she switched allegiance, she liked the open sounds of it immediately. My fate was sealed.

Because your name is your fate – a Sue or Jennifer lives her life differently from an Arja or a Quintana, or so they say. I read a study recently that suggested those with unusual first names go on to have unusual lives and achieve things. I am a bit sceptical. There are plenty of Janes and Michaels who have achieved things, so I’m not sure an unusual name is the path to achievement. On the other hand, there are a lot of us running around with names like Moonshine or Tarquin whom nobody has ever heard of.

Still, name is fate. You always feel a bit singled out when you carry an unusual surname. Unless I go live in Finland, where Arjas proliferate and abound, I will always have to help others spell my name or pronounce it. And unless I go live in Spain, I will always have to spell Salafranca to others. I have become so used to it, it’s like a mantra now.

“What’s your surname?”

“Salafranca,” I say, adding quickly, “let me spell that for you. S for sugar, A for apple ...” and so I go on. “S” can so easily come out like “F” and my name becomes something else.

Sometimes I wouldn’t mind being a plain Sue Smith. There’d be no need to spell the name, no gasp of breath from the other end of the phone line, no laborious spelling of the name. Last year I had a taste of this when I phoned the Spanish embassy to renew my passport. Salafranca, I said and wondered whether I should start my mantra. It wasn’t necessary; the woman knew exactly how to pronounce my name and seemed almost insulted when I asked if I should spell it. What joy and wonder. For a time living in Spain seemed an attractive proposition, if only for the fact that people would know how to spell my name.

And yet, until I was 13 I didn’t use the surname Salafranca at all. My mother left my father when I was five, resumed using her maiden name, Migdale, and I was enrolled at school as Arja Migdale. It was easy, it meant we shared the same name, and after all, officially I carried that name as well. Salafranca then was as shadowy a part of me as Maria. I didn’t even know how to spell my father’s name when I learned to write. Yet at age 10, when we played a game at school in which you advanced by using letters called out, and if your name had many of those letters, you advanced quickly, I used Salafranca. Using all my names meant I had nine “A”s in my name. I won the games.

So I was Arja Migdale all through primary school. These were the years when I imagined I was going to grow up to be a famous movie star and I’d practice my Oscar-winning speech, after hearing that Arja Migdale had won the big prize. When I wrote short stories and articles I proudly banged out my name on an old manual typewriter and imagined being published.

At thirteen something changed. Perhaps it was just adolescence, who knows. My mother and I had had no contact with my father, the man who had given me that surname and represented the world of Salafranca to me. I remember writing a letter to him at this time – a letter that was never posted. I don’t think we had his address, though that’s easy enough to find out, I discovered years later. I must have been curious about him to pen that letter. I must have thought also, as I grew into teenage hood, that I could become someone else if I started using Salafranca instead of Migdale as my surname. At school I started using both surnames, confusing my teachers and classmates.

Seemingly overnight I morphed from Migdale to Salafranca – Migdale was the safe me, the good girl; Salafranca was someone else, who wasn’t the safe good little girl, someone who could have an exciting future, or so I thought. I wonder now if there’s that much difference between the child I was and the adult I have become. I am not a rebel, qualities I thought assuming Salafranca would bestow on me. I am not someone exotic, who speaks with a husky Spanish accent; and I am not, I don’t think, unfathomable.

But I stayed with Salafranca, even as I didn’t morph into glamour, ride sports cars or meet famous people. Instead I worked my way through the standards at school, doing what I had to, living out my South African teenage years. I liked the sound of Arja Salafranca so much better anyway, this was an interesting name. I didn’t realise it was also the more difficult name. Still, something nagged at me, there was guilt at using this name, the name of the father who had hurt my mother so much, the man whom she could not forget or stop hating. Every time I used Salafranca I flung him in her face, unintentionally, and with no malice intended.

At seventeen I decided I’d change my surname. My mother got me the forms, and I decided I would use Centauri as my surname. The name of a star or planet, I loved the way it sounded, soft, sinuous and easily pronounceable. I sent my forms away, but they were returned to me. The post office hadn’t found the address of the Department of Home Affairs! I sat on the forms, wondering if this was meant to be, that I wasn’t meant to change my name after all, and then I discarded them.

When I started writing seriously in my late teens and publishing at age 20, I had to decide finally on a name to use. The guilt still snagged at my conscience, but I just wasn’t Migdale any more. It had been too many years now of using Salafranca and having grown into that name. Could I use two surnames, as some married women, who had kept birth names and tacked on husband’s names did? Well I could, theoretically. But I already had one difficult first name and surname and the whole mixture was more confusing than anything else. So, I decided I’d publish under Salafranca. I’d be known as Salafranca and would use that always in my dealings with people. Unless I was filling in forms, or booking an airline ticket where I’d have to use all my official names, I plumped for my Spanish surname.

In time I met my Spanish family in Malaga, spoke to my father on the phone, and having met the other Salafrancas I stopped thinking of the name as only mine and an absent father’s. It belonged to a family, and when the internet came along I found out that although Salafranca wasn’t as common as Smith in the English-speaking world, Spain was littered with Salafrancas, and Finland was littered with Arjas.

Still, I live here, on the southern tip of Africa, where I know of no other Salafrancas or Arjas or Migdales besides my mother. The Migdales also do not live here: my uncles, my mother’s brothers, and my cousins, who all carry that name, also live overseas, in the US and New Zealand. The names, here, are still unique, still difficult for others to pronounce, still distinctive. They mark me out, as something else, and having two surnames confounds most people. They just don’t get it. Having grown up with two, however, I just don’t get giving a child only one surname. To make life easier? Undoubtedly, and what bliss that must be, to have someone ask what your surname is and you give just the one word, without having to say, well, it’s Salafranca but I also have another one, is this for an official document?

But I can’t choose between the two names, although I use the one for ease of use. Some respond to my explanations with, “Well at least when you marry you can have just one surname,” and I respond to that with, “Were I to marry, I wouldn’t change my name.” Or in this case, names. They are me, they are my identity now, and besides all that I really don’t understand that practice of women giving up their names after marriage. Don’t they feel as if they have lost something? Don’t they feel like they are giving something away by changing that name, seemingly arbitrarily, because the man they love, carries it? Well, I must be a minority in this, there are enough Mrs titles around to prove that most women don’t feel that way.

I further confound the issue by stating that were I to have children, they’d get both my surnames as well as the father’s. Would I really? Putting aside that I don’t want children, would I really saddle a kid with three surnames? At this I do draw the line. It seems as though you’re setting up a child for difficulty if you do this, much as naming a child Apple marks it out for playground taunting. It’s all in the realm of the academic, but I think I’d probably plump for Salafranca. It is the name by which most people know me.

Yet though I like its exotic ring, some part of me will forever wonder if I shouldn’t have remained Migdale, that strong, pragmatic name. Migdale is like my mother tongue, that is the best way I can describe it; Salafranca the second language acquired later on, not foreign, but not as cosy and maternal as the first language you ever speak. Still I accept this inevitable tug of war now, this pull between one part of me, and what I perceive as the other more grown-up part. We all have this tug, I know I am not alone in this, but most of us don’t have those two names that indicate the schism between childhood and burgeoning adulthood in such a neat, precise way.

(Published in Green Dragon 4)

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