At the last minute, I changed the names of one of the characters in The Silver Girl. Dana’s best friend used to be named Brucetta. I imagined that it would be pronounced, Bru-setta. The idea was that she was named after her dad, Bruce. One of the themes I am playing with in this book is the southern tradition of Jr.-ing sons. And when you don’t get a son, you make-do with a girl. So, for this, the name was perfect.
I noticed some readers were pronouncing it Bru-scetta. Like the tasty dish that involves Italian bread. I corrected the first couple people, but then I decided to change the name all together. It was a hard call because I liked Brucetta as a name. To me it really captured the awkwardness that happens when folks try to give a girl a boy’s name and with that awkwardness it was emblematic of the way it feels to be a girl born to a family who “never had a son…” (cue the violins.) But ultimately, I realized that I had to come up with something new.
The main reason is that I didn’t want to seem to be poking fun at my characters.
Black folks’ names are constantly mocked in the media and in literature. have you heard the one about the substitute teacher working in a low income school who sees on her roll the name “Shithead.” Turns out, you should pronounce it “Shi-theed.” (This was told me as though it were true. The guy swore that it happened to his sister when she subbed in the Bronx.) There are a million of these stories and the butt of the joke are always people– usuallly working class– who are “too stupid” to “properly” name their child. Hilarious.
This strikes really close to home because my own name sometimes strikes people as stupid, particularly when I was a young person growing up in Atlanta. I once had a (black) teacher say to me, “You should change the way you spell your name. Because the way you spell it now, just shows that some black people can’t understand phonetics.” When I explained that actually my name is from Kenya and that my parents’ dear friend discovered it while she was travelling on a Fullbright fellowship… well, things got different. In other words, I whipped out a can of privilege and she shut the hell up. (But her words stayed with me for years and for a while I experimented with new spellings, paranoid that people thought my parents were ignorant.)
Dolen and I talk a lot about writing from a place of love, particularly love of your own community, your family. This is not to say that we can’t be critical—that’s the writers job, but we try to write with open and full hearts. About a five years ago, Dorothy Allison gave a keynote address at the Southern Women Writers Conference. In this talk she cautioned us against writing books full of wacky, ignorant characters. “Don’t make a punch line out of your family,” she said.
So, I ended up changing Brucetta’s name to Ronalda. Her daddy had to get his name changed, too. (He’s Ronald.) In my heart, she’s Brucetta, and I keep thinking of her by her original name. But I am sure I’ll get used to it. And I am sure that I made the right call.