Naming and cultural citizenship in Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver
The significance of cultural acts like naming and the violence of losing one’s name (the impact on personal identity, etc.) are constant themes in the novel. Furthermore, by interrogating the power of naming, the political struggles of both women and Chinese are united in this novel. This is significant when we consider that these political histories are usually kept separate in New Zealand (since the one is a badge of social leadership and the other a mark of shame).
Examples from the text:
Taking exception to being addressed by her husband’s name on an envelope, Mrs Newman asks: “What is my name, Edie? Is it Alexander? What does this say about the standing – or not – of the married woman? Do I belong to my husband like his Ford, for instance? Something to be cranked up to do his bidding?” (172)
“But no one knew the names of the Chinese. Occasionally someone might say Mr – Mr Wong or Mr Choy. But usually it was the Chinaman next door to Paterson’s or the John on the corner of Tory and Webb. They were all called John, the Chinese. And even if anyone bothered to find out, who could remember? Their names were like birds that never came in to land.
Katherine was afraid to ask. Afraid he would speak his name and it would hover close to her ear, her cheek, her tongue, then fly away from her. How could she ask him? Again and again. As if his name was unimportant.” (132)
“She thought about how his surname came first, how his family had the ultimate priority. Katherine came first for her. Not McKechnie, which was only her husband’s name; not even Lachlan, her father’s name. Only Katherine. Whatever she could count on for herself.” (133)
Wong also describes the early Chinese experience of naming when immigrating to New Zealand in her author’s note p.271. The loss of names is something that has been discussed elsewhere (Manying Ip, for example).
Robbie is another character for whom naming is problematised. For example, Katherine refrains from telling the war office that Robbie is too young to enlist, because she “knew that if she tried to stop him he could just as easily run away. He could join up under a false name. and all she would have left would be absence. Silence. A tomb she might search and search for and never find because it bore another boy’s name.” (203)
This connection between war and naming is extended later. The trauma of the war separates Robbie from his name, whether from shell shock or genetic tendencies, and he is simultaneously changed… “Edie spoke his name, but he did not turn his head. ‘Robbie,’ she said, her voice an echo. She pulled up a chair and sat down beside him, searched his face, looked into the opaque blue of his eyes. / Even after Dr Fisher’s descriptive lecture, it was a shock.” (250-251)
Wong’s reflections on naming in this novel interest me from the point of view of citizenship. Certainly, many people with non-Anglo names have difficulties in NZ (we’ve all heard the stories from friends and acquaintances). Both Maori and Chinese lost names or had them changed through the process of acquiring citizenship in early New Zealand… and it seems that names have accrued a fair amount of political significance.
The notion of ‘cultural citizenship’ is relevant here, too. Wenche Ommundsen describes cultural citizenship and makes interesting use of it in his study. Importantly, he does distinguish between compulsory and optional attributes of cultural citizenship. For example, according to Wenche Ommundsen, language is both a commonly named signifier of and a compulsory one.) The way naming is depicted in As the Earth Turns Silver merits scrutiny with this lens. (Ref: Wenche Ommundsen (2003): Tough ghosts: modes of cultural belonging in diaspora. Asian Studies Review, 27(2): 181-204)