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Nomenclature and power

May 4, 2011

Margaret Mahy often plays around with naming in her books;

the names Bernard Beckett chose for the characters of Genesis are notably meaningful (and contribute much to the way in which the text is read);

equally, Mandy Hager’s The Crossing places an emphasis on the importance of naming.

In The Crossing, the young girls who are taken from their families on Onewere at a young age are renamed by ‘the Apostles’.  In their new homes with the Sisters, these young girls lose their birth names (which have a Pacific flavour to their phonetics; ‘Tekeaa’, ‘Umatu’, ‘Natau’, ‘Lasuna’, etc. (NB. Hager explains the linguistics in the back of the book)). The girls then take on Biblical names, like Sarah, Deborah, or Ruth… these girls are called the ‘Blessed’ and as they develop into young women, they adopt the added title of ‘Sister’ (within this naming system, there are also the ‘Brothers’, ‘Mothers’ and ‘Fathers’).

Of course, things are not all as they seem and the young protagonist of the novel, Maryam (Nanona), discovers her real purpose in being separated out from her birth family is in the harvesting of her blood for transfusions into the sick bodies of the ruling Apostles.  Maryam’s discovery is accompanied by the revelation of previously unspoken epithets for the girls (‘bleeder’ and ‘breeder’) – names which are notably more physical in nature than the spiritual sounding ‘Blessed of the Lamb’ they had previously been offered and willingly adopted.  The novel takes a notably dystopian twist at this point, as the relationships and communal structure in which Maryam had placed her faith start unraveling around her…

Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to consider what Isiah Lavender writes on nomenclature and its political connection to ethnicity: “Names and name-calling… are absolutely crucial in terms of ethnicity.  A name is a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or groups.  Therefore, names are one well-established mechanism for creating ethnic distinctions and differences between people.  In terms of consent, accepting a particular name identifies a person with a certain group and places this same person within the specific group.  Likewise, names are important in regard to descent. Names create relationships between people, which can be traced back through time to a founding member.  Thus names symbolize particular lineage, hereditary relationships, and descent….”  (my emphasis, p445)

Name-calling, Lavender says, is a “vital component in ethnic boundary formation…. Name-calling, often an abusive descriptive epithet, reveals that people on the outside of a particular group are at the very least different and should not be trusted or admitted to the group without proving themselves.  Name-calling often signifies exclusion from a group and inflames already existing tensions between people, playing an important role in the sequence of misunderstanding, prejudice, discrimination, racism, and ultimately violence.” (my emphasis, p446)

It seems clear that the removal of one’s birth name is an act of power, but it is interesting to consider how this also acts to remove the girl from her genealogy (which, at a glance, seems to be as much a part of this novel’s island culture as it is throughout the Pacific more generally)

Ref: Isiah Lavender III ‘Technicity: AI and Cyborg Ethnicity in The MatrixExtrapolation; Winter 2004; 45, 4; pp437-458

NOTE: I feel I should point out that Onewëre has a macron over the second ‘e’, but my mac won’t let me include it!

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