Aw-nay-shuh: the jaw hinging open, letting loose the tongue that flicks across the top of the palate, before retreating behind the teeth to nestle into its postalveolar hush. Aw. Nay. Shuh. Or, rather, Onnesha, in its proper spelling. It wasn’t until I was thirty that I thought to give restaurants a simpler name to hold a reservation. I still pause and feel guilty every time I say, “Anna.” Like somehow I’m trying to pass. I expect this person who doesn’t give a shit to look at me, say, “There’s no way your name is Anna.”
During a brief phase when I was six or seven, I requested that my family refer to me as Elizabeth. My mother asked me didn’t I like my own name, which was much more unique and beautiful? It was a solid parenting gesture, though confusing as it was coming from a woman named Pamela with long, straight, blondish brown locks and blue eyes. There was power in a name, and I figured if mine were Elizabeth, maybe the blue eyes and blonde hair would follow. I would look more like her. My mother. She has stories of walking around—me in her arms, my brother in a stroller—and people asking what country we were adopted from. My mother is too polite to say things like, The country of my vagina.
In elementary school, on the first day of class or whenever there was a substitute, I knew when to raise my hand and say “here.” It was that pause. A person wondering if they had the necessary gear to scale the heap of consonants and vowels that compose my name. Here. It was a kind of preemptive strike—to be in on the joke before it could be made. Like: I already know what you’re thinking. I get it. My name is ridiculous.
“Onnesha” is a name that means, in its more positive connotations, “playful” or “joyful and spritely.” Its dark side, its shadow-self, is something wilier: think “trickster” or “bastard.” Go ahead. Think it.
I was in grad school before I realized maybe I had more of an issue with names. Every writer has it a little bit: Should this character be named Susan or Margaret? But I would just sit there, not able to write a word on the page because, well, if she’s named “Ananda,” will people assume she’s 100 percent Indian? In which case, what is a 100 percent Indian like? Or, maybe she’s named Ananda, but she’s like me and she’s only half Indian, but then the story feels like it has to be about that when I just want to follow this character wherever she wants to take me—to bars and on hikes in the woods and sobbing into her ramen. I could name the character Mary, but then will people assume she’s a white American? Or maybe she’s named Mary, but she’s a quarter black and also Italian . . .
In my graduate thesis advisor’s office, I tried to articulate the name hang-up. Just pick a name, N. said. You can always change it later. I explained the treacherous stakes. The way the name could change the course of what might happen, of what’s possible. But she just got that look on her face that conveyed a sentiment I know all too well now that I have my own students: Please stop making me go inside your head. It is exhausting enough to be in my own head and they do not pay me nearly enough money for this.
Of course I looked to other writers. To figure out where I fit in. In high school, I discovered Salman Rushdie, Chitra Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri. I studied them, not only because I loved the way they told stories, but because I thought I’d be able to understand who I was. Maybe what animated them was what animated me. After Lahiri’s novel Unaccustomed Earth came out, a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Would Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction still work if the Rahuls and Chitras were Roberts and Charlottes? If the mango-lime pickle on the refrigerator shelf were Best Foods mayonnaise?”
The reviewer goes on to encourage us to “strip away the exotic trappings” so that we can see that “her urban professionals could be any anxious, overachieving Americans adrift from their cultural moorings.”
Wash off the brown and these characters could totally be Americans, by which I mean white! This seemed like a deeply offensive way to read her fiction until I noticed that one of Lahiri’s own stories features a white American narrator who fixates on his roommate’s “dark red-hot lime pickle” which “lived next to his peanut butter in the door of the refrigerator.”
And now that I was thinking about it: Lahiri’s narratives were full of Indian characters that date or marry “Americans,” which always seems to operate as a code word for “white.” Amit is married to a successful “American” doctor. When he looks at his children, Maya and Monika, he notices they “inherited Megan’s coloring, without a trace of [his] deeply tan skin and black eyes, so that apart from their vaguely Indian names they appeared fully American.” American like his wife who is tall, attractive, and has lighter skin. It is a world in which there are only two kinds of people: Indians and white people.
In the small town in Connecticut where I grew up, there was a church and all the Christians who went there were white. Well, that’s not true. What I mean is that almost all of the people in the town were white. And I would sometimes go to church with my mother because I liked the smell of the dusty sanctum, how after the sermon, normally taciturn folks asked after each other’s families and offered to bring over casseroles. It was like a scene out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, and I’d return home wanting to call my father “Pa” instead of “Baba.” I imagined that this is what baptism might be—to be washed clean. White. They had been returned to some neutral state that allowed them to think of other things—whatever they wanted. Mary. Bob. You could be anyone.
As a kid, I didn’t really understand that “alien” had more than one definition. I knew my father—Chandrasekhar—was an alien, but he was an alien in both senses of the word. The way Alf was. Alf came from another planet and ate cats, but the show was really about a family that has a secret. A secret that must remain so, presumably because no one else would understand Alf’s alien ways. They had to protect him because they had to protect themselves: they were harboring an alien. My dad enjoyed this kind of entertainment—“Alf,” “Perfect Strangers,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Herbie the Love Bug.” Shows where the world was skewed, where being an outsider leads to hijinks and laugh tracks.
I can’t watch shows that have laugh tracks anymore. I spent my childhood being given cues for when to laugh—and I obeyed. Now I’m like a well-trained dog that recognizes a command but only wants to bite.
I am an English man, and naked I stand here,
Musyng in my mynde what raiment I shal were;
For now I wull were thys, and now I wyl were that;
In 1542, a book was published in what is now called Britain. The kind of book that would today be called a coffee table book. This was a long time ago and there were different names or no names at all for certain things. The book was Boorde’s illustrated guide to people, featuring a photo of a white male in the nude, armed with a pair of scissors. These, the author notes, were for the Englishman to make clothing from the fabrics of the world:
Now I wyl were I cannot tel what.
All new fashyons be plesaunt to me;
I wul haue them, whether I thryue or thee.
. . .
I do feare no man; all men feryth me;
I ouercome my aduersaries by land and by see.
The gist was that as a white male subject of the British Empire, you could “try on” the different ethnicities of the world—a swarthy Moor with a lascivious smile and dark skin, or a Chinaman with long, sinister nails. You could try on something else because you were a blank canvas.
My Uncle B. on my mom’s side of the family (by marriage, not by blood) doesn’t believe in “mixed marriage.” That’s how it was explained to me when I was seven. Mixed sounded vaguely delicious to my kid-ears. My main association was with the consumable variety: mixed nuts. Mixed assorted candies. But here, it just manifested itself in deliberate not-seeing. My brother and I in Florida over summer vacation, seated at our grandparents’ table. B., the uncle, never acknowledging our existence. He remained as alien to me as perhaps I was to him. As I got older, it became a kind of game—a demented child pressing a finger to a bruise. I’d ask him to pass the carrots and some other less bigoted relative would fall over themselves to grab the dish for me before he could not-ignore my request.
B. has never mispronounced my name because he has never said it.
I acquired the nickname “Nesh” between the ages of seven and eight. Maybe because my friend R. thought my name sounded like the Hindu god Ganesh. Maybe not. I can’t remember the origins, but it stuck. Though no one in my family ever called me “Nesh.” They have their own variations of my name: My father, with his Indian accent, says it something like O-nesh-uh. My brother a little more nasal-y, like, Uh-nash-uh. And my mom like she’s reading it straight out of a textbook, like she’s instructing me how to say it every time: Aw-nay-shuh. How do you say your name? people ask, and I want to tell them: I don’t really know. But this seems even more ridiculous than my name.
When I moved from Connecticut to North Carolina where I knew no one, I could have started over. But then I was marched in front of Mrs. Kelly’s fifth grade class, already the odd one because I was starting halfway through the year. S. served as the emissary for the class when she stood up and said, “Hi. Do you speak English?” So it seemed better to be Nesh.
At any point after that, I could have insisted that I go by “Onnesha,” but somehow it felt like asking people to call me by my real name was pretentious. I thought people would be like, Ohhhh. Look at me. My name’s Aw-NAY-shuh. But I also didn’t want to lie, so I had this little narrative that stuck with me until I was nineteen. When people asked me my name, I’d say, MynameisOnneshabuteveryonecallsmeNeshbecause OnneshaiskindofdifficultsoyoucancallmeNesh. I’d say it about that fast. People would just sort of shrug and be like, OK. Hi, Nesh. This is how it went until a professor asked me my name and I did my usual monologue. She just looked vaguely disgusted, like I had insulted her intelligence, and responded with, “Onnesha isn’t that hard.”
“Onnesha” can also mean “illusion”—hinting at some truth behind a veil. It’s a placeholder, a word you use to name a thing that you can only refer to by what it is obscured by.
When I think of it now, I started going by Onnesha about six months after my closest friend died, when we were both nineteen. The sound of her voice on my answering machine enunciating my full name, a hint of mischief in her voice. I can picture the way her lip curls just the slightest bit. On-nay-shuh. This is your friend Jew-lee-uh. Call me back. That thing where, when the right person says your name, you blush because it is suddenly the most secret, magical word in the universe. So maybe I just wanted to hear someone say my name the way she did. Or maybe after you lose someone you really care about, it’s like, fuck it. I don’t care if you think I’m pretentious: Say my name.
When I dated E., we had this joke where he would call me Oshuhshashuhnaynay Rawchachacha in imitation of someone trying to pronounce my name and failing. His last name is Derkacz and is pronounced Dare-koch. Which rhymes with bear-crotch. I used to sometimes point this out, and he had a terribly fantastic sense of humor that stopped precisely here. The first time I said it, he just shook his head no. As though I had made some monstrous hybrid Holocaust/rape joke. I thought maybe he just didn’t get it. I don’t mean bare crotch, like a naked crotch, I clarified. I mean bear crotch. Like the crotch of a bear. The distinction seemed important to me, as though one phrase was totally stupid and tasteless, and the other was hilarious. Because who ever thinks of a bear’s crotch? He had his own demons, having grown up with the bastardized Ellis Island version of his name—Dicker—before he legally changed it. But it always drove me nuts that I couldn’t joke about his name. Like, what right do you have to be weird about your name?
When I was twenty-two, I did a radio interview. I was talking about an article I had written on the use of torture in Guantanamo. Before I went on air, the producer asked me how to pronounce my name and I told him. The radio host introduced me: Forgive me because the name is downright tough, but please welcome to the show Onnesha Roy-chowdery. Is that correct? Close enough, I say. I remember sitting at my kitchen table in San Francisco, my hands so shaky and sweaty I could barely pick up the mug of coffee in front of me. But when I listen to the audio now, I don’t sound nervous. Close enough, I say. The tone dismissive, though whether it’s of his ability to get my name right, or of the name itself, I’m not entirely sure. At the end of the interview, when I was off the air, the three hosts debate whether they got the name right, and what kind of name it is. For three minutes, they discuss:
—I saw the name and it’s got to be Indian or South Asian right?
—I know immigrants. There’s no way that’s not an Indian name. And I love that Ben even gave it a slight Indian accent.
—JR, what did it sound like she said on the phone?
—Come on, it was a little Indian, wasn’t it? Although Onnesha sounds like an African American name.
—You gotta do the first name like it’s a strong black name, O-nay-shuh. And then you gotta do the last name like it’s a good Indian name, Roy-choud-huri.
During her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2009, Judge Sotomayor came under fire for having publicly stated that being a woman and Latina may influence her perspective.
“I think the system is strengthened when judges don’t assume they’re impartial,” she says. “But [rather] when judges test themselves to identify when their emotions or experiences are driving their results.” Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama agitatedly adjusts his glasses and responds, “Aren’t you saying . . . that you expect your background and heritage to influence your decision-making . . . ? [Y]ou accept that there may be sympathies, prejudices and opinions that legitimately can influence a judge’s decision?” Sessions concludes: “I reject such a view, and Americans reject such a view.”
That slippery slope between “I” and “Americans.”
Oh, to travel that distance in a breath.
A few years ago I wrote a short story that follows a first-person narrator. “I” standing in for any particular name. Though over the course of the story, we learn that the narrator—a writer—is at least partially Indian. At one point, she receives an email from her agent. Here is that scene as I wrote it:
“Nobody biting yet,” the agent writes, suggesting that I start something new—something that “takes advantage of your heritage. . . . How about a novel with an Indian-in-America theme? Sort of Jhumpa Lahiri-ish?” The room spins. I barely make it to the bathroom in time before I throw up the bourbon and remnants of spanakopita I ate at the bar. Staring in the mirror after I rinse my mouth with water, I take the lipstick on the counter and dab a reddish spot in the middle of my forehead. Then I bobble my head back and forth like my grandmother used to do when she was happily recounting a story. The red splotch looks like a target, a comic-book bullet wound.
With some encouragement, I (the real “I,” or at least, the “I” writing this essay) shared this story and some others with an actual agent. After she read them, she sent me an email: “It’s clear that you are a very talented writer with a bright future. That said, it’s tough to sell story collections and the few that make it over the wall tend to have some overarching emotional arc or theme that connects all the stories. For instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories have something larger to say about first generation Indian-Americans—about marriage, family dynamics, adjusting to a new country, etc., and I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here. . . . I’d like to see more of your background woven into the stories.”
I’m trying to tell you that “I” can be an exhausting thing to write. Because it’s always already a conversation, even before we say “hello.”
What I’m trying to say is that I do not tell you who I am without addressing what I assume you see. What I assume you assume about me. You probably don’t even want me to do that. OK. I’ll stop.
I can’t stop. And as a writer, what happens when you cannot take “I” for granted? When a certain level of awareness is not just present on the page, but on the way to the page. The weight of a name. What it could mean. The things it might obscure. And the sense that the act of choosing a single name, a singular narrative among the many possibilities, is a lie in itself.
Below my last name—which would never fit into the bubble sheets for standardized tests, was another section. I was eleven before I realized my error, having bubbled in the wrong label. Thinking “American Indian” describes me because I am a) American, while at the same time b) Indian.
I do not make the same mistake again in conversation:
“What are you?”
“What’s the other half?”
OK, I lied. Onnesha means “in search of knowledge.” It is a good Bengali name, which is to say that, if you’re not careful, you can be crushed beneath it. It is a name that suggests both the ailment and the cure, though it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two.
In Italo Calvino’s story, “The Distance of the Moon,” the narrator’s name is mentioned only once. A palindromic quintuple of consonants on the page that mock any attempt at assumptions, let alone pronunciation, the reader might make.
How well I know!—old Qfwfq cried,—the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon.
Qfwfq tells of a time when the moon moves from a distant “O” in the sky to a glowing orb close enough to lean a ladder against. A far-off celestial sphere suddenly made tangible.
O. It’s an unintentional nickname I’ve acquired in adulthood. A shorthand. “O,” a friend will say—a round-mouthed pronouncement, bent by tone into astonishment or comprehension. The start of something. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what comes next.