Archive for April 11th, 2009

April 11, 2009

Anita, Natasha

Scott Eric Kaufman’s response to the ridiculous (and racist) Betty Brown thing got me thinking about names and the cultures they exist in and so forth.

I’m used to non-Indian people not being able to pronounce my name – Indian people fail at it too, frequently, even with a Famous Actress to help them. And I’ve thought (usually after pronouncing my name very slowly a few times and then being too embarrassed to keep doing it once they’ve reached a mispronunciation I feel like I can live with) it would be so much easier, if one lived in another culture, to jettison the lovely, multisyllabled names you wanted to use and stick to names that could ‘pass’ as belonging to either culture.

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And there’s Deepa D’s incredible post from a few months ago (and if you didn’t read it then you must now) where she talks, among other things, about growing up speaking Marathi and Hindi but reading in English.

I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.

This.

It was hard, as a child, to conceive of brown names as the sort of names to which things actually happened, for any sort of interesting storyline to not be rendered ridiculous by the inclusion of a character with a name like mine. It still is, in some ways. I remember the day a friend brought up the topic of the new Indian Mills and Boon books that would feature Indian characters. We (there were three or four of us) all burst out laughing at the thought of an Indian romantic hero – it seemed ludicrous.

But then, beyond the age of ten or eleven you could hardly continue to write about the Julians and the Peggys of the world, not unless you wanted to restrict your characters to one religious group. So we found ways around it; long, “authentically” Indian names (see? we’d proved we weren’t colonised) that could be shortened to reasonably European-sounding monosyllables or names that could pass for either culture – a series of Anitas and Ninas and Ritas and Natashas and Taras and the occasional Pia.