The Importance of Claiming our Names

Yesterday evening I did a podcast interview over the phone, as part of the promotions St. Martins Press has set up for me for THE ORCHID THRONE. This was a gal I hadn’t interacted with before. In fact, a LOT of early readers and reviewers picking up this book – or winning it from a Goodreads giveaway – are totally new to my books, which is super cool. This gal hadn’t read fantasy romance before and she was all excited by the combination, which was really wonderful to hear. Amazing to me that so many people are discovering this sweet spot between epic fantasy and female-driven, swoon-worthy Romance. Also, pretty kickass to know the subgenre is still on the rise.

Anyway, one of the first questions she asked me – before she started recording – was how to pronounce my name. This came as no surprise as it’s usually the first question anyone new asks me. For the record, it’s Jeff-ee, or Jeffy, whichever makes more sense in your head. (But not Jiffy like the peanut butter and not jefe, which is pronounced heff-AY and is Spanish for boss. Yes, I have a lot of these conversations.) It’s short for Jennifer, and is a nickname my dad made up when I was a baby. No, he didn’t want a boy and he liked the name Jennifer. He also died when I was three, so my nickname is a gift from him that I’ve carried all my life.

As you can see, I have a lot of conversations about my name – and I try to remind myself that though I’ve heard all these questions and jokes a hundred times, for the person I’m talking to, it’s brand new to them. Also, talking about my name is a good ice-breaker, so for the most part I don’t mind.

Still, it’s amazing to me how many people feel it’s fine to advise me about my name or make jokes about it. I avoid telling people it’s short for Jennifer, not because it’s a secret (obviously I’m talking publicly about it here), but because some people will insist on calling me Jennifer once they find out. Even after I tell them only the IRS and telemarketers call me that and if you yell it across a bar, I’ll assume you mean one of the ten-thousand OTHER Jennifers and I won’t respond. Some people have very seriously told me that I shouldn’t use a “made up” name. I remember my graduate adviser refusing to call me Jeffe, because he thought it sounded too much like Buffy and I needed to be more serious than that.

It occurred to me much later what a red flag that was of so many, many things.

What’s key here is, I identify with the name “Jeffe.” It’s been my byline all along (with the exception of those very serious scientific papers) and it’s what I respond to. I realize there’s a bit of a bump in people assimilating the unfamiliar, but I’m willing to work with people on that. I’ve come to realize that it’s not unreasonable to ask people to put that effort in also.

The other night we were having drinks with my folks and the topic of pronouns came up. They’re from an older generation, so they’re understandably taken aback by the “new” pronouns. “When did this become a thing?” they asked. I explained that I knew it seemed weird to them, but that I’d had to learn too. I wear a She/Her/Hers button on my conference lanyards to help normalize that pronouns shouldn’t be assumed. I’m fortunate to present as female and that the assumed pronouns match my appearance. But this isn’t true for everyone and it makes it harder for people who are exceptions if only they designate pronouns.

It comes down to that we all have this basic right of human dignity, which includes being called by the names and pronouns we choose for ourselves. Having these many conversations over the course of my life about my unusual nickname – and the occasional obstinate responses – is a minor irritation. But it makes me aware of how much more difficult it must be for someone with a greater stake in the issue, and perhaps less privilege and confidence.

I recall when Quvenzhané Wallis was up for an Academy Award, the press did not handle it well. From this terrific article on the topic:

They might have addressed her with a respectful ‘Miss. Wallis.’ Or politely asked how to pronounce her first name. Or best of all, they might have done the research ahead of time to learn how she preferred to be addressed. Instead she was called ‘Q,’ ‘little Q,’ ‘Miss Q.’ An AP reporter even decided “I’m just going to call you Annie,” to which Wallis replied “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhane.”

I’m struck by this observation in the article:

Names given to some black children are mocked as being ‘made up’ or not ‘real’ names. White folks will substitute them for names that are more familiar to our own culture.

I understand this very well, having the “not real” accusation hurled at me about my name, along with the stubborn refusal to use it and the fall back to something more culturally familiar. And that’s being a white girl in a culture predominantly peopled by folks like me.

Then there’s this great talk by Uzo Aduba on wanting to change her name as a child because no one could pronounce Uzoamaka. (Shout out to and Chelsea Mueller for knowing exactly what I was trying to recall there!) Her mother told her if people could learn to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky, they could learn to pronounce Uzoamaka.

Her talk is especially stirring because she finishes with the advice, “So, do not ever erase those identifiers that are held in you… It is yours, and it was given to you at birth, and it is yours to own.”

I wish now that I’d insisted my graduate adviser use the name *I* wanted, not the one he approved of.

 

 

One In a Dozen, Maybe?

Facebook has all these silly quizzes. Some sillier than others. All great for wasting time in amusing ways. Terrific displacement activity.

So, this morning, while I was “deciding what to blog about,” which translates as sucking on Starbucks and screwing around on the ‘net, I took a quiz on how common my name is.

There are approximately 171,636 people with the last name Kennedy. This Surname ranks the 130 most common in the United States. There are an estimated 87,363 Females with the last name “Kennedy”. However, the first name Jeffe was not found in our database meaning that you are pretty unique. It is estimated that there are less than 5 people with your exact name in the United States.

Heh. “Pretty unique.” As opposed to “very unique” or “more or less unique.” The thing is, my friend Marin Untiedt got a definitive three women with her name.

No, I didn’t try plugging in Jennifer Kennedy. I don’t want to know. Which is part of the reason I never use Jennifer.

It feels like a constant battle though, trying to use “Jeffe.” People get confused, which they don’t like. I used to introduce myself as Jennifer first and then convert people to Jeffe, but many refuse the converstion and then I don’t know who they’re talking to. So I’ve gone to just introducing myself as Jeffe and forging through the first difficult exchange, which consists of repeating my name back and forth.

[Me] – Hi, I’m Jeffe
[Them] – Confused look
[Me] – Jeffe Kennedy
[Them] – Jeff?
[Me] – Jeff-E. Like Jeff, with an eeee on the end
[Them] – variety of responses at this point:
Like on Family Circus?
Like the peanut butter?
Isn’t that a man’s name?
Jackie Kennedy?
Jessie?
Is that short for something else?

Inevitably if I ‘fess up to that last question that Jeffe is short for Jennifer, they’ll gratefully run for the familiar and use Jennifer. It’s almost pathological. Interestingly, people not from the US are much more flexible about it and will assimilate “Jeffe” without a blink. So I know it’s not that hard.

The other thing I’ve learned is to give people a reason for it. If I explain that my dad made up the nickname and that he died when I was three, that I feel like this is a piece of him that I can carry around with me, they soften and agree. If I say there are ten million Jennifers out there, they act like I’m uppity, trying for a different call signal.

When I was in high school, this group of girls who didn’t like me decided to call one of their own Jennifers by my nickname. I’m not sure how long it lasted and I don’t think that Jennifer liked it very much. Or maybe she was just mortified by the strange and competitive maneuver. But I remember my shock when these girls, who never spoke to me, called out “Jeffe!” and turned out to be calling to this other girl. The cluster of them turned to see my reaction, avidly watching for my humiliation? Horror? Tears, perhaps? Instead I learned that they thought I had some power in my name. They wanted to show me they could take it away.

I suppose we all want our names, like ourselves, to be “pretty unique.” We’re willing to concede that absolutely unique may be asking for too much, but we all want to be that individual, beautiful snowflake.

But really, that kind of thing comes from inside. Which no one can take away.