Naming Rights

Perhaps, in retrospect, not a good idea… (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)

It’s always interesting to think about where the names of fictional characters come from. 

For me, first names are markers of both personality and era. The fact that Robert calls himself Robert, and not Bob or Bobby or Rob, is an indicator of the propriety that he’s grown up with, and of the fact of his birth in the 1910s and adulthood in our story’s setting in 1956. Colin, on the other hand, was born in 1980, during that age when boys’ names ending in “n” dominated the middle-class American nomoscape. I almost never consciously choose characters’ given names; they just feel like the names that those characters are, in concert or in contrast with their surroundings.

The family names are a little more of an artifice, more fully related to the setting of the story than to the character. Tim grew up in a factory family in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and part of the story is his discomfort as a second-class citizen in the Dutch Reformed landscape of Grand Rapids, Michigan: it wasn’t hard for him to become Tim Wolenski, with ancestry in the great Polish immigrant wave of the late 19th and early 20th Century so prevalent around the Great Lakes. Robert grew up in a banking family in rural Indiana, and entered the Abbey of St. Meinrad after high school; it’s not surprising that he has Swiss history, and that’s how Robert Yoder came to be.

This mode of thought has brought about Katie Harrington and Charles Collignon and Bess Kordecki, Gene Lubrano and Luther Strazanac and Camille Wallner, Victor Santos and Doreen Wilkins and Samuel Greene. Names with both individual and cultural significance.

But what does it mean for me to name a character Min-Seo Park, or Liu Liang, or Pham Thi Thanh? What does it mean for me to care deeply about a person whose very name I don’t understand? I don’t have enough access to Asian cultural study to know whether a family name like Liu has ethnic or class or regional connotations in China, whether the Vietnamese family name Pham would be an upper-class or a lower-class name or entirely neutral… and if there ARE class and culture differences, whether those would be known or acknowledged after a couple of generations in the US. I don’t know whether In-Suk is just as different from Min-Seo as Mildred is from Chloe. Names have implications and connotations, not just literal meanings, and those implications and connotations are invisible to me in some languages.

I had lots of Asian American students when I was teaching at Duke, and I learned how situational their uses of their own names were. Howard Chen was also Po-Hao Chen was also Chen Po-Hao, and I’ve seen lots of first-hand accounts that tell me that there’s no fixed decision about which name to deploy in which circumstance. Andy and Gwen only used their American names, Yaolin only her Chinese name. Scarcely any used the traditional surname-given name order in their formal documents or when turning in papers, but maybe that was just exhaustion from trying to explain, yet again.

White people have a whole story in mind when they hear a name like Megan Carmichael, and can expand that story when we see her name spelled as Megan or Meghan or Meaghan or Maygan; white readers have a much thinner image when we hear or read about Sun Xiaoyi, right down even to the basics of age and gender. Megan Carmichael is female, WASPy, and under 40; Claude Haynes is male, over 60, and rural or working class. And I made both of those names up. I also made up Sun Xiaoyi, but white readers would need me to tell them that she’s female and about 20 years old.

I could avoid all this as too distant from my lived experience, and lots of writing commentary would tell me that I should. But I’m writing about the world of contemporary American table tennis, and that world remains largely Asian American. A quick look at the current top 25 under-18 boys in the US shows only three names that don’t have clearly Asian origins—and those three all play out of home clubs far distant from the dual centers of American table tennis culture, New York/New Jersey or the San Francisco Bay Area. I mentioned a couple of days ago that there were 80 named characters in the story, and that 45 were Asian or Asian American; that’s just the fact of the landscape that David Coogan would inhabit (David Coogan himself having an Irish-Chicagoan father and a Japanese American mother, so even the names themselves aren’t fully reliable ethnic indicators).

So I have a lot of work ahead of me to gather a respectful understanding of people whom I’ve come to love and respect from my distance. Min-Seo Park is just a funny, smart, interesting person. I hope I can do her justice.

More to come.