[My recent computer problems -- fried laptop -- led me to pull out some archive CDs. On one I came across an essay I wrote in November that I thought I'd lost. Since I doubt that many magazines will still be interested in it, I thought I would put it on the blog today.]
A Novel of Names for a Community Without a Name
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake
(Originally written in November, 2003)
I was captivated by this novel in large part because of the uncanny sense of identification I felt with Lahiri’s protagonist, Gogol Ganguli. I also think it raises a number of interesting issues regarding names: misnaming, renaming, and the epistemological problem of namelessness.
The Nameless: ABCD, South Asian American... This is a novel that represents – perhaps definitively – the experiences of a very specific community. But which community? Unfortunately, the community to which I refer has no name that is not clunkily sociological or somehow pejorative. Sociologically, they are second-generation South Asian immigrants, or South Asian Americans. By people within, and recently from, South Asia, they are called, pejoratively, ABCD’s (American Born Confused Desis). And while in recent years “ABCD” has lost its edge of mockery, and gained a measure of academic respect, it is still inadequately descriptive – something of a joke even if conference papers and a series of low-budget films have disseminated the title.
Against “ABCD,” critics like Vijay Prashad have attempted to simplify and unify categories by legitimizing the flexible name Desi. Many diasporic South Asians use this word as a community marker, irrespective of when they immigrated or if they even are immigrants. So a person on an H-1 visa is as much a desi as a person whose parents came to the US in the 1960s, and who speaks no South Asian language effectively. In parts of New Jersey and California these communities are blended, but elsewhere (especially on college campuses) there are sharp divides between different kinds of desis. Amongst the various communities that recognize the term, desi may work, but it remains a name like a Punjabi or Bengali pet-name, a name used around the house rather than recognized by a broader public. In this case, there is a chance that the term will reach a critical mass, but it is not yet broadly available. I find it hard to imagine the word rolling off the tongue of someone like Charlie Rose (who recently interviewed Lahiri at length on PBS).
Overdetermination: the Osama Diaspora. On the streets of America’s cities and towns, the problem is not the lack of a name, but rather, especially in the wake of 9/11, too many names –- and nearly all of them insulting. Before 9/11, the standard pejorative for an Indian man was merely “Apu,” a name that now seems completely benign in relation to what has followed. On the streets of south Philadelphia and Brooklyn, it is routine for people on the street (often minorities themselves) to colloquially throw out Muslim names (always Muslim names) as a kind of casual insult – “watch where you’re going, Abdul.” Sometimes politically conscious African Americans (the same folks who routinely greet me with ‘A salaam a laikum’) will use other names –- I was recently sort of pleased to be addressed by a street bookseller as “Habib” (Arabic: beloved, friend). Though there will be exceptions, it begins to seem likely that “Abdul” and “Mohammed” will come to fill the same slot as the old white ethnic slurs – “Mick” for an Irishman, or “Guido” for an Italian. For Sikh men of course, the misnaming is much more aggressive: “Osama” and “Bin Laden” are the most common mis-names one hears. One South Philly man (a caucasian), in a moment of inspired racist efficiency, recently referred to me simply as “Bin,” thus saving himself the expenditure of five syllables he no doubt did not have to spare.
A History of Naming Conundrums: Peoples of color. In the sense that there is no ‘good’ name, but rather a thousand pejoratives and ingroup pet-names, the experience of Desis/ABCDs/South Asian Americans/Osamas does echo that of African Americans, who have used and discarded a series of public names: “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” “African American,” the too-diluted-to-be-useful “people of color,” and the hybrid derogatory/pet-name “nigger/nigga.” The points of comparison are interesting and potentially very compelling, but beyond the scope of this particular review. To the extent that the experience of African American naming and self-naming has been difficult, however, it seems to me that the struggle to name the diasporic community, and of naming within the community, will be a long and difficult road.
“Gogol.” The great conceit of Lahiri’s novel is that her Gogol, the ambassador of a community without a name, is himself misnamed. His parents legally give him as a first name the last name of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in the Massachusetts hospital where he is born. It is chosen with the understanding that it is merely a formality, and will in time become just a pet-name, because at the moment the grandmother’s letter, with the ritually-selected Hindu name on it, was lost somewhere in the mail from Calcutta. “Gogol,” the name of his father’s favorite writer, goes on the birth certificate, and it stays with him in his early school years. His parents give him a proper name, Nikhil, but it doesn’t really stick. As he goes to college, Gogol wants to redefine himself on terms that he feels are his own rather than those that come from his parents’ Bengali immigrant culture. In an amazing act of self-definition, which loses nothing by the fact that it is in fact a common event, he abandons the name Gogol, and tries to become someone else. In this review I won’t say anything further about what happens with Gogol’s attempt to rename (or find, identify) himself.
“Jhumpa,” according to Deep. Lahiri’s own experience as a writer echoes Gogol’s. In her recent Charlie Rose interview, Lahiri revealed (no surprise to anyone who knows Bengali names), that “Jhumpa” is her pet name rather than her good name. Growing up in America, however, she has chosen it as her official, public name. The gesture annoys some members of Lahiri’s family, who must find the public use of a private, family name to be inappropriate. But it is a gesture that allows Lahiri to continue to claim the version of herself she knows best, and that she wants others to know. Asserting the name “Jhumpa” is at once a misnaming and a refusal to be misnamed –- it is a powerful hybridizing speech act addressed to both her familial-ethnic community and to her American (actually global) readership. [And “Jhumpa” is a gesture, I must confess, that has got me thinking: I know my family would be horrified if I ever decided to identify myself in print as “Deep” (pet name) rather than as “Amardeep” (proper name)?]
Eponymous Nikolai. A word about the other Gogol. If a namesake is the person who is named after someone else, who is the person named? Answer: the eponym. As I mentioned earlier, the eponym of Lahiri’s protagonist is one of the many beloved madmen of Russian literature, Nikolai Gogol. Lahiri uses the nominal link between her protagonist and the writer Gogol seriously, but without allowing the Russian philosophical mood to weigh down her story. There are a number of interesting and provocative parallels to Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in The Namesake – especially regarding the odd status of names and naming in Gogol’s story. Gogol’s protagonist has a surreal name himself – Akaky Akakyevich (the latter means, son of Akaky), which suggests a kind of parthenogenetic birth, without history or family. Gogol refuses to name the office where Akaky works (“In the department of … but it is better not to name the department.”). In that the story toys with anonymity, with the prospect of namelessness, it is a perfect reference point for Lahiri’s story about the strangeness of the Indian immigrant experience in the United States.
Really, the child of immigrants begins in a kind of nowhere place. She is firmly of America, but is not quite an American, in part because she is not recognized as such by others. The child may have privileges -- access to education, significant mobility – but she still has to first discover and then adapt to American values and life-concepts, which are firmly resisted at home. She can buy herself the appropriate overcoat, but it will not be cheap, and it can always be stolen. Overcoats can be purchased, but it is difficult to change the fact that the city remains cold.
Catachresis. The critic Gayatri Spivak has revived the Greek term “catechresis,” in a number of recent essays (see The Critique of Postcolonial Reason). It is actually a rather simple and straightforward concept: when you misname something because there is no name for it, that is catachresis. “American Indian” is an example of catechresis – there was no singular ethnicity to describe all the different civilizations of the western hemisphere before European discovery and conquest. Lahiri’s The Namesake is a novel of catachresis, at once an American immigrant story and an intriguing contribution to a growing postcolonial canon. As my example of “American Indian” shows, misnaming is global, and it doesn’t start with American school teachers who find it difficult to pronounce difficult Indian names like “Siddharada” (who inevitably gets renamed “Sid”) or “Jaswinder” (who inevitably becomes “Jesse”).
Though it was quite a different thing, misnaming and renaming is a process that began much earlier -- at the moment of the colonial encounter. Remember that it is Anglicization that originally creates Gogol’s last name – Gangopadhyay became Ganguli. It goes further: “India” (like Calcutta and Delhi) is itself is an Anglicization of “al-Hind,” the Persian name for the area around the Indus River. (And Lahiri, in her novel, plays with the fact that the Ganguli family lives on Amherst Street in Calcutta – while the American Ganguli’s live in a college town in Massachusetts.) What was India before it was misnamed? The confusion of the community-without-a-name is merely the latest extension of a permanent historical crisis in naming.