I didn’t expect to be a thirty-year-old divorcee. Of course I didn’t. That’s a little bit like saying Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis didn’t expect to be a roach. Some days we wake up and we are the things we are, regardless of how grotesque the prospect seems. My transformation came in an envelope. Staring down at a series of lines and signatures, I wondered what or more importantly who I would become next.
At times, as a female writer, the patronym hangs heavy like a smog – it reminds me that no matter how deep I drill into my creative endeavours, my name will always lead to a masculine source. Recently, I considered that I had already published pieces under two names. With a third name looming, my identity as a writer felt tenuous and disjointed. I envied men whose names are constant as mountains, no matter what storms they weather. Writers pass their names on to their work like offspring, and I was suddenly very conscious and critical of the label I signed alongside my words.
Jacques Lacan wrote at length about the patronym and the way in which, via the ‘name-of-the-Father’, individuals position themselves in society and culture. He went so far as to say that, in some senses, ‘woman does not exist’. When I got married, I happily cast off my father’s name because I never felt any attachment to it. In a Lacanian sense, I already didn’t exist; I grasped for a new name like an exotic bouquet. Then, a few years later, nursing an envelope of withered flowers, I recognised a unique opportunity to participate in the act of naming, and to take ownership over my textual identity moving forward.
My laptop screen is filled edge to edge with a pixelated image – the memorial stone for a man I never knew. The photograph is from 1974; the headstone belongs to my grandfather and is in a cemetery in Woronora, not so far from where I live in Sydney, a thousand kilometres from my old life, but closer than ever to my mother’s roots.
Later that afternoon, on the phone to my mother I ask what she remembers about him; he died when she was eight years old. ‘He was a good man,’ she says, ‘just really, really good.’ She draws out the double vowel sound for effect, as though the word can’t quite encapsulate what she wants to say about him. I piece together her tidbits of memory: standing in his Air Force uniform, cooking in a fluorescently lit kitchen, a cigarette hanging from his lips, a bouncing knee at the dining table, a wry grin.
It seems strange to me, the prospect of donning the name of a man I never met. Though, I guess, not any stranger than any other name. I could just as easily pluck one from the air, but it seems to mean something to her, this decision of mine.
The act of self-naming is not a new phenomenon. Feminist movements largely abolished the requirement for women to take their husband’s name upon marriage, and many women now keep their maiden names, while others choose to hyphenate and, on rare occasions, some adopt new family names altogether with their spouses. However, this only peels back the first layer of the patronymical onion. Beneath, is the layer of the father’s name, and then his father’s name before that, and so on. When I start to think about how far back I would have to peel until I find a woman’s name, my head hurts from the fumes.
I think about the notable women who have chosen a mononym instead (Cher, Madonna, the French author Colette), but I decide unless I want to join the millennial poets of Instagram and Tumblr, the mononym isn’t the right move for me as a writer. Even then, I learn that Colette’s mononym was inspired by her father’s surname.
I start to wonder if I am reading too much into the whole thing, then decide that I am not seeking a name that is devoid of gender, just one that feels like mine.
A week later, I drive out to Woronora Cemetery. The day transitioned from unbreakable blue to thunderous downpour to a chiaroscuro of black and white clouds. The cliché is not lost on me, as I pace the rows, under a sprinkling of rain, to find his headstone.
The man who has accompanied me on the trip asks me why I don’t like my father’s name and I explain that it isn’t a matter of like, rather one of ownership. He says he knows the feeling of rootlessness: his father is buried in the same cemetery just a few lawns away, having died when he was two years old. I realise then that our names are linked to our identity at a place that precedes gender and that the question of who we are is just easier to answer for some than others. He says he understands me wanting to choose a name, not have one handed to me.
I look down at the simple slab of stone, level with the manicured grass. I note the way the water has puddled across half of the plaque so that it is divided into light and dark. I turn to him and explain that this is the most familial thing that I have ever done. That I have always wanted to feel like the fat oak trees with their deep roots and concentric circles winding all the way back across time, but instead I have always felt like a sapling that could be pulled up at any minute.
I point to the ‘Arturos’ and the ‘McBrides’ and the ‘Carusos’, with their Roman Catholic vaults on the next lot over, all the family members laid side by side by side, and I say that it feels a little bit like that – when I put my words down as a writer, I want to create something that’s more than just myself. I want my name to matter.
‘Well, it has to start somewhere,’ he says.
Suddenly, the process has changed, like a story that heads in a predetermined direction then twists with a flick of intuition, leading somewhere previously unimagined. We walk back towards the car and I know that it isn’t just a matter of shedding anymore, but also one of donning. Crossing the damp grass I take off the coat of my husband and fold it ready to lay beside that of my father.
Women writers often have little choice but to participate in the act of patronymical naming, but we can choose to own our names, either those we are given, or those we select for ourselves.
I inspect this new coat, let the syllables roll off my tongue and put it on slowly. I will take better care with this one, I decide. I won’t discard it so easily, like a cheap cardigan left on a bus.
I will make it matter. I will make it my own.
Image: ‘Marriage’ / Mike Maguire