Nobody gave a damn about how to pronounce my name for 26 years, until I moved here. I’d let kids I knew for years skate by on calling me Suzanne, Susan. Misspelling Susanna and Suzana and Suzannah in emails when the reply-to box clearly contains only one n, no z, no h. My bud since grade 9, Tyson, by grade 12 math class still couldn’t be bothered to tack on the extra ‘a’ at the end. I just let it slide. My last name, with it’s grammar-defying letter sequence and abundance of RRRs gave people enough confusion (Ferarra? Ferrari?), and if I stopped to correct people every time they messed up my name, I’d have wasted a lot of my life. Anyway, it could be worse. The kids with first and last names a mile long, with too many letters to fit on a place card or too many syllables to wrap around a white tongue, usually just got short nicknames, like “Jed”. But my name is close enough to a typical anglo name that people walk into it feeling like they know what they’re doing, no surprises, and with no reason to pause mid-way to wonder why the letters be so off. I stopped correcting people (“Susan?”) when I was a kid (“Yeah, sure”), and was probably more than a little grateful for the ability to slip under the radar. I idolized the names Megan and Heather especially, for their normalcy, for all they represented. There was one of each—a Megan and a Heather—in my elementary school for about a month in kindergarten. I think their parents pulled them out as soon as they’d realized their mistake. That busted-ass school, with its unwashed, raggedy masses of immigrant children, was no place for their little girls.
I grew up in west-end Toronto in the 1980s, a time and place where difference was the norm. We didn’t know words like “diversity” or “multiculturalism” back then—everything just was as it was. My first best friend, Angelina, was from Sri Lanka. The Guzman family across the street, six kids and three adults squeezed into a tiny apartment, were from Venezuela. I went on bike rides and started a summertime detective agency with my two next-door neighbors, Jean-Pierre, French Canadian, and Terry, Guyanese. We never solved any cases, we just mostly got in trouble and ran our mouths. Most of the kids in my grade school were from different places too; many of us still learning English because our parents didn’t know the language either—except for Giovanni, whose parents grew up in Canada and even went to high school in Toronto. He talked to his parents in English, and all of us thought that was so cool. We called him Johnny. Everybody called me Suzy. I lost touch with Johnny and the others after grade eight. Angelina, the Guzmans and JP eventually moved away. Terry’s parents still live down the block from mine, but he and I haven’t exchanged friendly words since high school, when he started running with some of the dealers in the neighbourhood. He’s probably still in jail right now.
Then there’s me.
Ten months ago I walked into my first Ivy League classroom, and didn’t know what to think when my professor strained to Latinacize my name. All soft, hissing esses and rolling arrrs. I was amused, but not surprised. Spanish-speaking folks had been calling me Sssusssana for years, taking their cue from my spelling. I wouldn’t have bothered to correct my prof if he hadn’t gone out of his way to be extra-super-ethnically-authentic. Is that how you pronounce it, he asked?
Oh. How do I pronounce it? I, uh…
The quick answer was, “I don’t.” I let other people pronounce it however they want. However it makes them feel most comfortable. The way my mother says my name will always be the closest thing to true, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters to me. I know who I am, and I’ve got bigger battles to fight than the subtleties of my name. My name isn’t yours, anyway. It’s mine.
I told him it didn’t matter. He pressed on. To him, it did. It felt weird, but I obliged and pronounced my first and last name in front of the class: none of the sharp edges or brashness of English, but all softened tones, rounded hills, and elongated vowels. He repeated after me. Soozaahnuh. And he called me that, Soozaahnuh, every week for the next few months. I was amused. My classmates started doing it too, calling me up “Hey Soozaahnuh, are you coming out for a drink?” And I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t tell if they were tiptoeing around something, trying not to offend me by being culturally sensitive, or if they just genuinely wanted to make an effort to say my name right. The sound was strange in my ears for the first few weeks, coming out of their mouths.
It gave me pause. Have I gone about this all wrong for the last 26 years or so? If, as a kid, I had corrected the lazy, the xenophobic, and the inattentive as they mangled my name, would that have meant something? Would I have grown up feeling less disconnected and alienated, or more?