Names hold culture and history. They defend or surrender their bearer to the prejudices of the world. So what does it mean when your name doesn’t mean anything?
Scanned image of Nigerian Naira courtesy Ian Barbour
Right now, one Naira is equal to approximately .0064 dollars. That could easily change.
I’m not from Nigeria, but I tell my students that at least there, I’m worth something. I tell them this when they haven’t done the assigned reading and the closest bar is hours away.
Years ago, in my seventh grade World History class, I did a project on the country. Once I discovered that Naira was the name of its currency, I used every opportunity in the essay to make little jokes about it. I got an A.
When I asked my mother just what I had to do with Nigeria, she laughed, and said: “Is that what they’re teaching you in school? That you’re all Africans?” She told me that Naira is the female variation of Nairi, the name for the ancient kingdom of Armenia. But she admitted that I wasn’t actually named after it. My mother is not so much a nationalist as she is a deeply nostalgic woman. She misses her hometown of Kirovakan, now Vanadzor. She misses who she was there: fearless. When she was only eighteen, she turned a choking toddler upside down and shook him by the ankles until a marble popped out.
My mother has an aristocrat’s nose, upturned and small, the most resilient hands. Her name is Tagui. In our language, this means Queen. She is the classiest woman I know. She brushes her hair sitting down.
One site promised that Naira meant glittering or shining. Another site said Naira meant “Big Eyes,” from the Aymara. My eyes are definitely huge.
In fact, no one in my family remembers exactly where my name comes from, or who gave it to me or why. There’s talk of a cousin, eleven, twelve at the time, who offered the name of a girl he liked in school. Then there’s my father, who jokes that it’s the name of one of his old girlfriends. When he says this, and he says this often, nudging my mother with his shoulder, she laughs, short and sharp.
Offered no memorable reason for my name, I turned to Google. One site promised that Naira meant glittering or shining, but declared that its origins were Australian. Australians speak English, a funny English, but I imagine not strange enough to incorporate Naira in their daily vocabulary. I looked elsewhere. Another site said Naira meant “Big Eyes,” from the Aymara. The Aymara were an ethnic group from the Andes, who became the subjects of the Incas, and later the Spanish. Apparently around three million survive today and claim parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru as their home. My eyes are definitely huge.
Here is something that doesn’t need much analysis: In a Harvard study, fictitious white names receive fifty percent more calls for interviews than fictitious African-American names.
But most of the websites that popped up in response to my search directed me to URLs that began with “Nairaland.” This clearly referred to Nigeria, but for brief moments, I imagined a country filled with a million me’s. We’d be tall girls, thick around the waist. We’d have big eyes, certainly. We’d be the majority.
In school, and in college, everything seemed to revolve around race. Then race become complicated by class. Race became dangerous to talk about by itself. I started seeing myself as not just Other, but as non-White. Off-white. Unfashionably so. Caucasian without the privilege. What was the use in that? I grew angry.
Sometimes, when asked about my race, I write my ethnicity with all capital letters. I like this option. I can pretend that I am an active and willing participant in this game.
Here is something that doesn’t need much analysis: In the Harvard study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, Marianne Bertrand, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT, created fictitious resumes, listing the same qualifications, and randomly assigned those resumes to fictitious people with African-American or White sounding names. They mailed the resumes in response to classified ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers; white names receive fifty percent more calls for interviews.
I have met a Nigerian only once. He reached into his pocket and took out a twenty Naira note. I taped it to my refrigerator.
My last name, Kuzmich, is not an Armenian one. Most Armenian surnames end in –yan or –ian. Kuzmich is Slavic–my paternal great-grandfather was Russian. I can do the math: this means I am one-eighth Russian. This means I am not really Russian. My last name says otherwise. On paper, my Armenianness is concealed, and at times, I am grateful for my ambiguous name. Other times, I vigorously fill the bubble for “Other” when asked about my race, and I write in my ethnicity with all capital letters. I like having this option. I can pretend that I am an active and willing participant in this game.
But I must always put Naira Kuzmich on top of a Word document, on the corner of an envelope, in the “from” section of an email. I do, and I wonder: who do people imagine when they see my name?
I have met a Nigerian only once. My first job out of college, I worked in General Relief, helping single men and women apply for welfare. We had a month-long training with a slew of guest speakers—folks from HR, from the union, folks who led the two-hour “What is Sexual Harassment?” workshop. For three days, we were led by a man, a trainer, whom everyone loved. Funny, charming, dark-skinned. He had a voice that sprang from his belly, loud and pulsing. He had an accent. The first time he saw me, when he connected my face to the name on his roster, he reached into his pocket and took out a twenty Naira note. I have it taped to my refrigerator. Every time I open the door to get something to eat or drink, I recall his face, but not his name. He was not a recent immigrant. He had a good job at the department and had to have been here years to hold that kind of position. I think about that bill tucked away in his wallet, all of that time.
After several months at General Relief, I went on to get my MFA. There, I met Vedran Husic. The program had emailed us a list of classmates before orientation, and I’d Googled him, the only foreign-sounding student of the bunch.
Vedran was tall, thin, blonde, and blue-eyed, and just as white as everybody else in the room. Longer hair and jaw than the others, but still, white. When he spoke, however, I discovered that his accent was much more prominent than mine. I’d find, too, later, that he was colder than all of them. More reticent, reserved. He didn’t dance with the rest of us our first night together, as we went from bar to bar. When I asked him for a favorite singer, he pronounced the “Leonard” in Leonard Cohen with three syllables. I laughed at him, charmed. He’s the man I am going to marry.
Vedran is Bosnian. He was a refugee at one point, but now he’s just another immigrant. I call him Sunshine, though he says it’s more like Sun Rays Through the Clouds. To me, Vedran means that I will have someone with whom to share my life.
Vedran enjoys baiting me into an argument about race where I have to justify why I see myself (and him, too) as a person of color. He does this when I’m trying to go to bed, and he’s waiting for Jon Stewart to come on TV. I tell Vedran that white is not a color but a state we will never live in. We can be white if we never speak. If we never write our names. If we never voice the things that confuse and hurt us. When we open our fists, the whites of our palms reveal nothing but this: we were not handed privilege.
When I call roll the first day of the semester in my creative writing and composition classes, I’m filled with many questions. Why, YiYun, do you call yourself Lauren? Why, Jesus, should I just call you Jessie? Myung says his last teacher called him Jay.
I once knew a girl named Anar. We went to college together; she was an international student from Kazakhstan. Anar’s name means Pomegranate in Persian. It’s also technically a variation of Nar, the Turkish word for the fruit. Nur is the Armenian. Like so many Middle Eastern and central Eurasian countries, Armenia appreciates the pomegranate. It is one of our formal symbols. I have always loved it. The hard shell, the bloody berries, how, when you cut it open just right, it resembles a starfish. Even the English word, pomegranate, seems so pretty on the page. I can write it over and over again. I really liked Anar.
Vedran was born in a country that no longer exists. Commie kids, we have this in common. Something else, too, something far more significant: Vedran and I are from places that are defined by the Ottoman Empire, places where names separate who is who–Armenians from Turks, Bosniaks from Serbs and Croats, places where, when appearances couldn’t distinguish victim from persecutor, names did.
The Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks was the first ethnic massacre of the twentieth century. This is our claim to fame, before Kim Kardashian, before Cher. Bosnians have the Siege of Sarajevo, and the Srebrenica massacre where eight thousand Muslim Slavs, men and boys, were killed by the Serbs, our Orthodox brothers, in the early ‘90s. I have seen the tapes. I was dating Vedran when Ratko Mladic was captured. I Googled that name, too, for days.
When I told my parents I was dating a Bosnian, the first question they asked was if he was Muslim. For Armenians, Muslims and Turks are one and the same. Our word for Muslim is, colloquially, Turk.
He wasn’t, I assured them. My answer–that he was the agnostic son of atheist parents, his father from a Muslim family, and his mother a Catholic one–did not help. The second thing they asked was his name. They liked Vedran, the soft V, the hard R. Just as strange and pretty as our names for boys, Dikran, Andranik, Vardan. They said it a few times, letting it get familiar on their tongues. But Husic sounded so Turkish to their ears. The Hus, from Hussein, Arabic, Hussyin, the Turkish. I remember the silence, like both had their eyes closed, phone held far from their ears, and then my father chuckled. Kuzmich Husic, he said. If you marry him, you’ll be Naira Kuzmich Husic. Ich, ich.
The one-eighth Slavic in me being completed.
In bed, Vedran and I imagine the children we’ll have one day. We imagine what they’ll look like, if they’ll be artists, if they will play soccer or the violin. We imagine what their names would be. Aria, like in music, stress on the first A. Sofia, like the melancholy capital of Bulgaria, stress on the O. But we’re not as brave as we’d like to be. Some names we know are off limits, too hard to justify, even to ourselves, too unpronounceable. Still, we’re proud people. We love to travel. We want our children to be citizens of the world, with names that can fit in anywhere, but still somehow stand out, still have some meaning behind them, some magnificence. If I wanted to name my daughter after a strong woman, I would name her Tagui, after my mother.
When Vedran and I talk about my chubby cheeks, we use the Armenian—toosheek. When we talk about getting a dog, we use the Bosnian—chuko. When I ask for a glass of soda, I say sok, in the Russian. When I hog the quilt, he demands equal share of the jorgan, in the Turkish. We have filled our home with pomegranates.
Naira Kuzmich was born in Yerevan, Armenia, and raised in a Los Angeles neighborhood designated Little Armenia. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Blackbird, South Dakota Review, CutBank, cream city review, and the Heyday anthology, New California Writing 2011. She currently lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she is at work on a short story collection and novel.