Friday, 6 October 2017

‘You call me what?’ A trialogue

This month’s post is a collaboration between Mathelinda Nabugodi, Liz Harvey-Kattou and Christiane Luck. It was inspired by the title of Denise Riley’s work ‘“Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History’ and is a conversation between female writers reflecting on Riley’s question. It explores how our different backgrounds shape this trialogue on identity.

Each contributor was asked to respond to the question ‘Am I that name?’ individually and the pieces were then merged into a whole. The intention was to give the illusion of unity whilst immediately splintering this illusion through the diversity of our responses. This aims to both challenge the concept of a ‘singular’ author as well as a singular ‘female’ point of view.

‘What does it mean?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Haha, that’s funny.’
‘It’s from my father, but he never taught me his language. I’m not sure it is supposed to mean anything.’
‘But African names always have such beautiful meanings.’
‘I thought it was rather Arabic.’
‘It’s Arabic?’
‘No, Arabic names that have beautiful meanings. Honey, and flowers, things like that. Almonds. Actually, I think only the prefix is the family part, each son has his own ending, being his own branch of the family.’

My great-great-grandmother came from Poland. The Masurian Lake District. I carry her cheekbones as a memory. What is Poland? Was she Poland? Am I Poland? She wasn’t Polish. It wasn’t Poland then. It’s Poland now. Is there a difference? In the land? The lakes? In her? Would she be different? Would I be different?


Are you that name?

I’m German, despite the cheekbones. Or because of them? A German. No, not Ger-man. A woman. So, Gerwoman? My Word processor marks it red, there’s no such thing. Suggests Gagwoman, Gunwoman, German. Not Ger-woman. But what does a Word processor know about ‘woman’. It’s man-made, after all.

‘So it means that knowledge is evil?’
‘No, not knowledge per se, only the knowledge of good and evil.’
‘Is evil?’
‘Well, it got us kicked out of Paradise. If you consider that a bad thing.’
‘But that is to say that also knowing the good is evil.’
‘Knowing to distinguish between good and evil is... not so good, no. But it need not be evil, just that it doesn’t belong in Paradise. But as women, I think we are better off outside of it anyway.’
‘Because God only made man in his image?’
‘It’s a bit of a slip, really. He says “let us make man in our image” and “let them have dominion” over the earth. But how could ‘them’ refer to this singular man, for at this point there really is only one of each sex in existence.’
‘But he does say our image, in plural.’
‘Of course he does, it’s God. And it’s not our images, is it?’
‘Maybe it is just a bad translation?’
‘Naturally, it always is.’

Your chromosomes read XX. When you are born, the doctors proclaim ‘it’s a girl’. And that is that. The genderisation has begun, and you will never again be able to experience life outside this social construct. The list of dos and don’ts looks dauntingly long. It is full of caveats and exclusions. You can:

- wear dresses, or trousers (as long as they’re fitted)
- grow your hair long, or cut it short (as long as it remains fashionable)
- play Mums and Dads (as long as you are the Mum)
- play doctors and nurses (as long as you are the nurse)
- be passive and subordinate (at all times)
- pursue the dream of stability (find a husband, alone no more, the M.A.N. who will complete you, be your other half - certainly how could you be W.O.M.A.N. without M.A.N.?)...

W.O.M.A.N. If this is what it entails then you must ask yourself, ‘am I that name?’
I struggle to answer this question, for once the chromosomal results are in, I no longer hold a neutral standpoint.

Your DNA may scream ‘F.E.M.A.L.E.’, but you hasten to reject this loaded denomination. Its connotations are too rigid, they deny you the space to be an individual without boundaries.
Instead, she will allow herself to identify with all the ‘feminine’ tropes of her choosing. She will also allow her identity to encompass all the ‘masculine’ stereotypes applicable. She will not shy away from adversity in the name of equality, and will stand for neither misogyny nor misandry. This does not make her a contradiction. It merely confirms her personhood.

Woman comes from wifman. Wif-man, wife-man. It used to be just wif. Weib. A universal. In connotation at least; today, it’s universally bad. It didn’t use to be, however. But what is wif, Weib? What was it? What did it use to mean? I carry the word as a memory. What is the difference between me as wif then, as Weib now?

W.O.M.A.N. has a history. But she does not need to live in the past or remain essentialised because of it. Identity is a liminal space, a fluid space that is constantly changing. Identity is a space where you exist, where I exist, where he, she, and we exist. Together, but different. With certain commonalities, of course, with certain oppositionalities, definitely.

The notion of W.O.M.A.N. as coming out of M.A.N., as intrinsically needing these three letters to exist, is at once a man-made construction which must be confined to the past, and the history that has manufactured and shaped our gender. Our bodies are encoded with certain physical characteristics, but a female identity no more defines our entire being than any other that we hold on to: ethnicity, culture, tradition, sexuality, hobby. We are multiple, adaptable, and capable of change.

‘What can you tell me about your family tree?’
‘Well, you must know something. Where is your father from?’
‘I think my father has branched off, somewhat. From the family tree, I mean. So nothing much to say. And my mother, too, definitely the scapegoat.’
‘That’s not really to the point. Tell me what you know about your grandparents, on your father’s side?’
‘Not to the point? But I’m in every way closer to my mother’s side. For instance, my maternal grandmother virtually raised me. And the other one I’ve never even met.’
‘Okay, but a family tree generally follows the male line.’
‘Only the male?’
‘Well, yes, certainly. Since women take their husband’s name and become part or that family’s tree, I suppose. You are a good example. Didn’t you say you carry your father’s mother’s given name?’
‘Yes, but...’
‘But, but, but. It’s these silly feminist ideas, I can tell. But historically we have devised a very handy way of classifying family trees and giving everyone their place. And to come and stir it up, this talk of the mother’s line, it is no good.’
‘But the mother’s line is also always there! Perhaps running across several male trees, branching out, or maybe even more like the roots, rhizomatic and so on.’
‘“Rhizomatic and so on”! That is nonsense. Rhizomes don’t even operate the way those postmodern theorists claim. They should study some biology, I’m telling you.’
‘But biology can’t distinguish, can it?’
‘Distinguish what?’
‘Between the male and the female line. Is it not all inherited genes?’
‘That is a good question, but it doesn’t belong in a family tree. Strictly speaking it is not about genes, but names.’
‘How come?’
‘Well, no one is going to go digging for old ancestral bones to study their genes. It is about knowing where you come from. That is, the names of your ancestors.’
‘But what do those names have to do with me?’
‘Everything! They show who you are by showing where you come from. Hence the importance of a family tree. And besides, it happens you know... People are unfaithful, indiscreet. Men as well as women. So there’s really no way of knowing who has which father’s genes. But a name, well that is certainly for sure!’
‘As are the mother’s genes.’
‘Ah, so what’s the use of a female family tree, then?’
‘So fatherhood is essentially about giving a child your name.’
‘Of course not, it is about love and nurture and the rest of it. But all this fades with memory. What remains is the name.’

My great-great-grandmother was a woman. But I don’t carry her name. I carry my father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name. My great-great-grandmother is on my mother’s side. She is nameless. Just like my great-grandmother, just like my grandmother, just like my mother. Just like me.

We have no land, we have no name, we are wo-men.


So I ask myself again: Am I that name? Yes, but its meaning is of my choosing, and it will remain one among many.

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