Names are stories

black woman walking in field

Names are stories

There she goes; woman of the sky.

My name, Ashling, is of Irish origin (Aisling is the original Gaelic spelling). The name means ‘a vision’ or ‘a dream’. It wasn’t until I learnt of my name’s meaning, that I came to love it. As a child, I’d have appreciated a ‘normal’ South African name, like those of my friends, instead of an unheard of oddity of a name. Now I know that my name represents, if not, shaped, who I am as a person.

More recently, I learnt that it was also the name given to a poetic genre in the 17-18th century in Ireland. In this form of poetry, Ireland is personified as a woman who laments her woes. During the 18th century, the ‘ashling’ became political, as Ireland sought liberation from its English oppressors. The woman in the poem is called a ‘spéirbhean’ (pronounced spare-van), which means “sky woman,” or “woman of the heavens.”

Names carry power and potential. So, when people call me Ashley, Ashlyn, Ashwin, or any other variation of my name, I get (passive-aggressively) annoyed (particularly in an email, when the spelling is clear in my email address, footer, and name of my company).

The names are very hard to pronounce.

When I wrote Down at Jika Jika Tavern, I knew that non-South African (and some South African) readers would struggle with Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and Ndbele) names. However, it wasn’t something I was willing to change. In my author notes at the end of the novel, I specifically make mention of how valuable it was to me to see my own name in print, and why the main character was named after my niece, Nonhle Seshange.

“I began writing with the intention that Nonhle, when old enough, would read a book in which the main character carried her name. A character who was strong, and clever, and conscious. Growing up I had a terrible relationship with reading. But the day I was given a book, with my very un-South African name in it, that relationship changed. No longer would I have to console myself with the only book in the library bearing my name – a book on trees. I had finally been upgraded from an Ash tree to an adventurous girl.”

When planning Down at Jika Jika Tavern, the majority of characters were given names that I felt would best represent their personalities and life choices. Only in a few instances did I give characters names that I’ve always liked, rather than based on their meaning. When I looked back at those specific characters, it was surprising to see how the name seemed to weave itself around each character, without me even realising it.

#MyNameIsNot that difficult

Aside from the fact that names carry potential and power, there was a more important reason to intentionally use names relevant to the context in which my story was set. South Africa has a long history (and indeed, continuing habit) of devaluing African names. During apartheid, white South Africans would often give black South Africans English or ‘white’ names, because they were easier to pronounce. Names might have been randomly picked or were based on the meaning of the name. A woman called Amahle might end up with a name like Beauty. Or a man called Ngcebo might find himself named Jacob.

In today’s context, when Nonkululeko introduces herself, she might hear the words: “Gosh, that’s a hard one. Can I call you Nonks instead?”

Story-teller and social activist, Simamkele Dlakavu, shares her experiences and views on this topic in her 2015 article, #MyNameIsNot that difficult.

In light of the fact that a few readers have expressed that they did find the unfamiliar names challenging (not only to say, but to keep track of), I thought I’d provide a selection from Down at Jika Jika Tavern, sharing their meaning and pronunciation (double checked by Sizah Mtshali). In the next book in the series, I’ll be sure to include a list of names, right at the beginning.

Names are stories.

Nonhle: Beauty / Mother of beauty

Pronunciation: Not pronounced Non-hill. Rather, imagine you’ve just thrown a jug of water over hot coals, which hiss with relief as they cool. That’s what the ­hle part of Nonhle sounds like. Press your tongue flat against your back molars, and breathe out the sides of your mouth to make the h sound, whilst adding a long sounding le at the end. Nonhle.

Mthunzi: Shadow

Pronunciation: Mm-toon-zi. (Not tun as in bun).

What more perfect name for a man who lived in two worlds: the here and now, and the supernatural. Mthunzi moved in and out of the shadows, and lived with his shades (ancestors), as he struggled to remain true to his calling.

Ma Noxolo: Peace / Mother of peace

Pronunciation: No-xo-lo. That wasn’t at all helpful, was it! The various click sounds (x, c, q) are tricky to the uninitiated tongue. To make the xo sound, imagine you are going to click at a horse to make it come to you. Instead of pulling your lips back to make the sound at the side of your mouth, push your lips forward as if pursing, and click your tongue off of your back teeth.

Ma Noxolo was Mthunzi’s ‘primary’ ancestor who constantly sought to bring peace to his conflicted soul by reminding him of who he really was.

Thuli (short for Thulisile): She who made things quiet

Pronunciation: Too-lee (the Th makes a hard T sound)

Thuli is one of my favourite names. The sound of it makes me think of grace and mercy, and a slender woman walking alone through long grass. This is an example of a name I loved, and gave to a character without much thought. It was only when I looked up the meaning, that I realised it described exactly how I imagined Thuli to be in this world.

Sizah (short for Sizakele): Be helped

Pronunciation: Si-zaah

I chose this name for Nonhle’s friend at the lodge, simply because I am friends with a wonderful woman called Sizah. Many people will tell you that there shouldn’t be an ‘h’ at the end of Siza, but Sizah Mtshali, will tell you to ignore them.

A sign of respect.

If Confucius truly said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name, then perhaps the beginning of respect is addressing people by their given names.