BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
I never felt like I had the right name. But then, I never felt like my name wasn’t right either. It was what I was used to being called, choosing to be published under, to be known by. What is being known, anyway, as creatures that are ever-changing?
We are always evolving, changing, despite our “social media brands” or what we publish and what we claim in essays or art or conversations. Those expire, sometimes. We move beyond ourselves to become other selves. Perhaps part of this desire is the fact that I identify as nonbinary and I long-wanted to re-name myself to reflect how I feel about my own body and sense of being.
My parents named me after Kool and the Gang’s “Joanna,” an ‘80s love song. My sister, Stephanie, wasn’t exactly named for the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie,” but it was a song that became her anthem, a way for her to identify with the word that identifies her in an instant.
There are all sorts of naming rituals in various cultures, like Jewish naming traditions and Greek naming traditions, where you name your children after relatives in your family. I was vaguely named after my grandmother with my middle name, Christina (which is not typical Greek tradition, since as parents usually choose to name their children after their parents with the first name). Even more ironically, Christina wasn’t her given name, as she changed her name to be more “American.” Her birth name is Chrisoula, a Greek name meaning “golden.”
Being named after my grandmother, who ran away from home to join the women’s army during World War II in the U.S. has definitely affected who I am and how I identify. Am I as strong as her? Do I stand up for my beliefs without fear? Do I advocate for myself, even when no one else can or will?
Why do people call us what they do? What do we allow because we have to versus what we want?
People rename themselves all the time, whether to reflect their gender identity or a marriage or religious identity or to protect themselves from an abuser or simply because they want a new name. There are many reasons someone might want a new name.
I had the option of changing my name, once, when I got married. It didn’t feel right at the time. Then, I got divorced. I was happy as I signed my divorce papers that I never changed my name. I was happy I didn’t have to re-identify myself.
After I had gotten married, sometimes people addressed me with my ex’s last name anyway, without asking my preference. I didn’t care for the most part. Part of me was amused by the assumption (and the assumption that I was also a Mrs., or wanted to be). Part of me was sad I didn’t identify with that to begin with. A symptom of something else, I knew. I knew it in the parts of myself I keep only for myself. As honest and open as any person can be, how can we admit when something feels wrong to ourselves, to the world, when it’s supposed to be happy? When that thing is supposed to make up your home, your family, yourself?
I didn’t want a new name. But I wanted something else.
I’ve struggled with wanting a new name, sometimes, as a nonbinary person. Part of me doesn’t care, but part of me does. My femme appearance has many implications; my name is “femme.” Sometimes I wondered if I had a more neutral name, would it shift something, would it be more aligned, would it shift the perception of me?
I don’t have an answer. I don’t know how much I want this. I don’t know how much I care. Sometimes I ask myself, does it matter?
Ioanna is my Greek name. It is still a female name, the Greek version of my English name. And yet, it feels closer to me. Sometimes I want people to call me this. Sometimes I still don’t know.
I enjoy when people call me something only they call me. Calling me by the name they chose. Why does a name someone else chose to call me feel more real than what I’ve been given - and chosen to continue using?
Maybe in their vision of me, I see myself clearer. Maybe in their love, I see what they see that I don’t always.
In my late twenties, I had the High Priestess and the Empress Tarot cards tattooed on my right arm. These cards, while not names, are ways I remind myself to be the person I want to be, to emulate the person I was named for. They remind me to take charge of my spiritual, sexual, emotional, and intellectual journey. They are not names, they are more important than names.
Within these cards, I realize language can be meaningless, a mere symbol, just as much as it changes us and defines us, creates whole worlds. These images, symbols of something greater beyond us (whatever that is, even if it’s just the thought of something bigger than ourselves), get at the very thing I’ve been searching for, trying to define, for so long.
We are nameless. We don’t need names. But we also need names. I don’t believe in dualities, but I believe in contradictions - and in these contradictions, we can find ourselves. We can be free of names, shapeless, beautiful creatures that morph and change until we become something else.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente