Saturday, June 25, 2011

For Elizaveta Voronyanskaya: Agency,Reclamation, and Surnames

About a month and a half ago I started the process of changing my last name. Like many children of single-parent families, I was given my mother’s last name at birth. Later I was given my father’s last name which has been my legal surname since.

But, as Shakespeare’s Juliet wisely—and rhetorically—asked, what is a name? Better yet, what is a name change? Well, it’s a hell of a lot, actually.

Long story short, my relationship with my father has always been troubled when we’ve had one; we no longer do. His loathing for me—for my existence, really—was always readily apparent to me, even as a small child. As you can well imagine, these experiences affected me deeply. Were it not for my dotting mother and loving maternal family (my grandfather in particular) I don’t think I would still be alive today, let alone be the relatively happy and well adjusted lady I am today. Thank goodness for Mommy!

For the past several years I have felt as though my legal surname was an albatross hanging around my neck. Even saying it became difficult for me, my tongue caught in my jaw, unable to work itself around the first syllable. In May, after much deliberation, I filed court papers to have my birth-name restored; in two weeks it will be official.

Going into the name change process, I had thought that the hardest part of the procedure would be the court filings, that the process was just about reclaiming what was once mine and honoring the person who raised me—my lovely mother. In retrospect, I realize that I was na├»ve. Changing my name has been just as much about processing my past as it has been an act of reclamation. Especially within the last month I have had to sort out a lot of unsettling memories and emotional baggage that I either hadn’t wanted to remember or had purposely forgotten. Though it has been difficult for me, I finally feel as though I can tell me own story, as though I finally have agency over my own narrative—even the unpleasant parts—which is truly liberating. My sleep has suffered, but unsurprisingly my soul has never felt lighter.

Last names, this experience has taught me, can’t be claimed, reclaimed, or abandoned easily; rather, our names are deeply entrenched in personal meaning that doesn’t cease being just because a judge says so. The court can only make a name legal, it cannot remove or attribute meaning.