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A Victory For Those With Unpronounceable Names

09/05/2016 12:28 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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A Gold Logie for Waleed, Dimitri and Mustafa...

Last night Waleed Aly dedicated his Gold Logie to those of us with unpronounceable names.

We are the people who sat in class with bated breath at the start of each school year as teachers ran through the roll for the first time. You always knew if you were going to be one of the names they inevitably mangled.

My name is pretty simple ('Mar-i-am') but through the years I have been called variations of 'Mary-ann', 'Mary-ann-um', 'Mariana' and 'Marie'. Each year teachers would settle on a pronunciation that seemed logical to them and, if prompted to correct them, I would meekly respond "You can call me whatever you want".

One of my classmates, though, was not as acquiescent. Her name was Mukundwa and, each year, she would spend an inordinate amount of time going back and forth with the teacher trying to get them to pronounce her name correctly.

The rest of the class would often get frustrated and someone would always suggest that she let the teacher call her by an 'easier' nickname. She always refused. I asked her once why she was so insistent that her name be pronounced correctly and, although not significant at the time, her answer has stayed with me through my adult life. She said words to the effect of, "It's my name. It's my identity. How dare someone tell me it is too 'hard' to learn when I have taken the time to learn how to pronounce their name?"

When I moved to a new school in North Queensland and introduced myself for the first time, some of my classmates decided that my name was too complex to pronounce. They dubbed me 'Myrtle' and, for two years, I embraced the moniker. I got to university and it was time for another rebranding, this time with 100 percent Aussie iteration of 'Mazza'.

If I am honest, I have never protested against any of the substitute names I have been dubbed, even though I have never been wholly comfortable with them. It seemed to me as though I would be making too big a deal if I went around correcting my friends and colleagues.

In fact, it has gone so far that I reflexively now introduce myself with the more Anglicised 'Marry-um', as opposed to the name I was actually given. As a result, many of my closest friends today actually cannot pronounce my name and the fault is almost entirely mine.

I say 'almost' because partially I think it is also reflective of the prevailing power structure in our community. It is very difficult to say no when, for example, someone who is more senior than you suggests an alternative name for yourself.

I know of a friend called Muhammed who introduced himself to a supervisor only to be told, "I think I will call you Mo...if it that's okay." Well it wasn't okay but, given the imbalance of power, it was not possible to object.

I am sure that the supervisor's intentions were not malicious but, notwithstanding, it is the height of audacity to 're-name' someone for your own convenience once they have very clearly indicated the name they wish to be called by.

Your name is an important part of your identity. If your name is unusual or unique, there is probably a reason why, be it a reflection of your cultural background or otherwise. We should not, in an effort to assimilate or 'make things easier' for those around us, compromise that portion of our identity. Australia in 2016 is a diverse nation that should celebrate, and not hide or try to disguise, difference.

This year Australian audiences sent a clear message that they were willing to embrace Waleed Aly despite his 'strange' name. He did not need to simplify his name to 'Wally' or 'Wazza' to be included in the mainstream of Australian media. Hopefully this is indicative of a wider shift and a recognition that we, as viewers and citizens, are beginning to consider difficult questions and say difficult names.

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