Arts

This book is for anyone who knows what it's like to have a 'difficult' name

That's Not My Name!, written and illustrated by Anoosha Syed, takes a tender look at a familiar experience for children of colour growing up in the West.

Anoosha Syed's That's Not My Name! takes a tender look at a familiar experience for children of colour

"That's Not My Name!" written and illustrated by Anoosha Syed. (Penguin Random House)

On my first day of school in Canada, someone asked me my name in front of the whole class. As 20 other eight-year-old faces turned to look at me, I realized that I didn't look like anybody else in the room. Wanting to fit in, I panicked and answered "Shelly," a name I first read back in India in a Barbie book. 

Your name is the first thing people learn about you. It's a core part of many people's identities. But when it is continuously mispronounced, it's hard not to feel belittled. And when that compounds over time with the many other big or small ways that people of colour in Canada face bigotry, it can negatively impact your self-esteem.

These feelings are depicted vividly by Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and author Anoosha Syed in her new, Blue Spruce Award-nominated children's book That's Not My Name!

An illustrator with over 20 picture books under her belt, including a collaboration with Karamo Brown of Queer Eye, Syed always knew she wanted to write one day. Inspired by her husband Daniyal, who goes by Daniel, as well as her own experiences and those of so many others, Syed wrote and illustrated this bright and moving picture book about a young brown girl who learns to love her name. 

Partway through the book, the main character Mirha cringes and surrenders to the mispronunciation of her name by a teacher. Mirha's name is botched at cafés and bungled by her classmates, sometimes purposely. Continuously being called by the wrong name makes her feel like an outcast.

Anoosha Syed's "That's Not My Name!" pg. 7. (Penguin Random House)

In That's Not My Name!, Syed points out the inequality in how so-called complicated names are treated based on what cultures they come from. Mirha is reminded that as long as people can learn names like Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo, they can learn her name too.

"You're expected to know how to pronounce fictional characters' names, like Daenerys Targaryen, but not give your coworker the same amount of respect," says Syed.

Syed also brings up how many people of colour in Western media shorten or change their names, like actor Riz Ahmed, whose first name is Rizwan. "I understand why you have to do that, but it doesn't help the individual's perspective," she says. "When you don't have that sort of representation, you feel left out; you feel like there's not really a place for you in society." 

For years, I was Shelly to everyone outside of my family, and it created a sense of separation for me between my Indian and my "Canadian" identity. I was never quite myself in any spaces; like Mirha, I felt like an outsider. In high school, "Shelly" became "SHAY-lee" — closer, but not quite right. I tried to correct people's pronunciation where I could, but most of the time, it felt uncomfortable to even try. (The closest phonetic spelling of my actual name that I can think of would be "SHUHY-lee," but it's difficult to break down in written English.)

Syed captures these awkward experiences gracefully, and at times, the book feels like a salve for those tender spots where I still hold discomfort around my name. When I spoke with other people of colour living in Canada about their names, I learned just how common these experiences are for them, too. 

Anvita, who works in health equity in Toronto, says that some of her closest friends don't know how to pronounce her name. This resonates — I've been "SHAY-lee" for so long that calling myself Shailee feels strange sometimes. Misnomers are so pervasive that they can become normalized, even for yourself. 

Depending on the situation, some people also use nicknames drastically different from their given names. Hui, a student in Vancouver, uses the name "Jason" at cafés, bars, and other places where his name will only be a temporary artifact.

Though Hui makes it clear that his self-perception isn't dependent on the way others say his name, he also acknowledges the embarrassing feeling of hearing your name mispronounced. Sometimes, it feels easier to choose to avoid that embarrassment and anglicize your name yourself instead.

Last names are also a part of the equation. Linh S. Nguyen, a writer based in Toronto, says the common mispronunciation of her last name is "grating" to hear.

In fact, while speaking about growing up with an incorrect version of our names, Linh and I realized we share a very specific experience: both of us used our anglicized names on our voicemail greetings until our mothers told us to change them.

Anoosha Syed's "That's Not My Name!" pg. 15. (Penguin Random House)

In That's Not My Name!, Mirha tells her mother that she wants to use a new name at school. But her family gently explains the meaning behind her name and encourages her to be proud.

"Mirha means 'happiness' in Arabic," says her mother. "The first time I heard you laugh, I knew that it fit you perfectly."

Emboldened, Mirha goes back to school the next day and corrects people who mispronounce her name. This interaction stirs up a twinge of remorse as I think about the shame I used to associate with a name that my parents lovingly chose for me. 

This kind of uneasiness also came up in my conversation with Syed, who looks back on going by "Annie" in her college years with regret.

"I distanced myself so much from my Pakistani culture that I kind of lost the language a little bit. I lost the connection," she says. "I'm trying to get back to it now, but I wish I didn't do that." 

Anoosha Syed's "That's Not My Name!" pg. 20. (Penguin Random House)

By reading That's Not My Name! and speaking with others who share my experiences, I feel a new sense of gratitude for my name — my real name — and what it represents. Anvita refers to her "inner child" when I asked what it might have meant to a younger version of herself to read That's Not My Name!

"So much of the literature I read [as a kid] informed how I carried myself. Bringing this discussion into a classroom when you're at that age is really valuable." 

Indeed, it's hard not to wish you had this book when you were a kid. Syed hopes That's Not My Name! will encourage younger readers to be proud of their names, and by extension, themselves. She says that teachers have already used the book in their classrooms to lead a discussion on the importance of respecting, and taking the time to learn, your peers' names. 

"I think that if I had this kind of representation as a kid, I would have definitely had a different relationship with [my name]," says Syed.

I think of little Shailee looking out at a sea of unfamiliar faces, and I agree.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shailee Koranne is a Toronto-based writer who wants to change the way people feel about Geminis. She writes about media, pop culture, and politics, and her work has appeared in VICE, Bitch Magazine, Canadaland, and elsewhere. Find her on Instagram @shailee.jpg and Twitter @shaileekoranne.

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