Carol A. Hand
Recently, I read a featured post on one of the newer blogs I follow, K. A. Libby: A Novel Enterprise, and made a surprising discovery. The main character in a novel she had just published, Beware the Sleeping Dog, bears the same name as the one I had just chosen for the main character in a novel I’ve just begun, Mavis. After this discovery, I didn’t feel comfortable using the same name although my choice was purely coincidental. Initially I thought all I needed was K.A.’s approval. I included a question about this dilemma in my response to her comments on one of my posts.
“Thank you so much for such lovely and poetic comments, K.A.! I just realized when I was reading your blog this morning that I’ve just picked the same name (Mavis) for the central character in a book I’ve just begun. It seemed the perfect name because I’ve only ever met one person by that name in my lifetime, a former student. I wonder if that’s ok with you. An unassuming researcher, the Mavis I envision is a different kind of hero who helps people discover their power to transform their lives as individuals and members of communities by listening and recording their stories. The final decision of whether to use what they learn about themselves is up to them… It’s not to [sic] late for me to change her name – I’ve only just begun.”
I still felt uneasy even after posting this comment. The discovery of the same name in another novel made me think about the importance of taking more time to choose a name that has a deeper meaning for me. My initial choice, Mavis, was just because it wasn’t a common name. Out of the thousands of people and students I had known and worked with during my life and career, I had only encountered one person with that name. There would be little chance that the former student who bore that name would think that the story was about her.
I had thought about using my grandmother’s name, Agnes, but I wasn’t sure I could bear it. There were too many unpleasant memories associated with her that would be reawakened. I wondered if I would have to confront them each time I had to type her name.
Photo: My Grandmother, Agnes (on the right), with Her Sisters, Sarah and Margaret
“I did leave all of my dear friends behind as I have been doing since I made my first pivotal move at the age of 12. While my parents and brother settled into their new home, I spent the summer of transition with my grandmother on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. My summer experiences and the shock of entering my new home just as school began influenced my lifetime far more profoundly than I realized at the time. I learned that for some people, like my grandmother, growing up in adversity doesn’t necessarily make one kinder or wiser. Sometimes, people are too wounded to care about themselves or others.”
Still, the strong ethic I have to honor the sanctity of other people’s work forced me to consider other possibilities. Maybe I could call my character Minerva. Like Mavis, I had only encountered one person who had that name. I still thought about my friend from long ago but I hadn’t heard from her in decades. Before I chose another name, I decided to do some research to find out the symbolism that name carried. I’m glad I checked.
I learned that Minerva, a Roman goddess, symbolizes wisdom, arts, trade, and strategy. “She is often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl … which symbolizes that she is connected to wisdom.” (Wikipedia)
An owl. That would be a fitting name for a researcher and scholar, but not one of Ojibwe ancestry.
“In most Native American tribes, owls are a symbol of death. Hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen, and they are the subject of numerous ‘bogeyman’ stories told to warn children to stay inside at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away. In some tribes, owls are associated with ghosts, and the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are said to be made up of the fingernails of ghosts. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos.” (Native Languages)
I don’t feel comfortable choosing a name that symbolizes “bad omens” and death for a character I envision personifying hope and resistance against colonial and structural oppression. True, speaking truth to power often results in serious consequences, so perhaps the name would be fitting for a worthy ally or adversary.
Finally, I reconsidered using my grandmother’s name, Agnes, and explored the associated symbolism. The woman’s name Agnes “derives from the Greek name Ἁγνὴ hagnē, meaning “pure” or “holy”.” (Wikipedia)
Would using my grandmother’s name help me heal the deep wounds from the past that we both carried? I wonder who my grandmother could have become if her life had been unaffected by childhood sexual exploitation and the shame she internalized because of her ancestry, due in part to the years she spent in an Indian boarding school as a child. Would she have become someone like the character in my to-be-written novel who, despite deep insecurities, cares deeply enough about others to listen to their stories and discover their strengths and, in the process, discovers some of her own strengths as well? I will change the name of my main character to Agnes and continue working on my book with this thought in my heart.
Wherever you are, Grandmother, may my words honor you
and help you heal from the suffering you endured while you walked the earth.
My you discover and unlock the promise of your sacred name.
I would like to thank K.A. Libby for inspiring this post today. Someday, I plan to read her novel, Beware the Sleeping Dog, but it will have to wait until mine is finished. I hope she understands the reason for my delay. In the meantime, I encourage others to visit her blog and read the enticing excerpt she’s posted.
The theme I chose for this blog (Runo Lite) doesn’t display links very well, something I realized when I took blogging 101. Since then, I have been coloring the link text to increase visibility, but it also can be distracting.
Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.