What’s in a name?
My name on paper is Emily Gillespie, but my real name is Ava, Ava Star. Now this may be a bit confusing, but it’s my truth, so I’ll stop apologizing for it.
The name Emily was chosen for me by my mother long before I existed. After I was born, it was put on my birth certificate. I became this being, defined by arbitrary facts of existence– name Emily Gillespie: born: February 2nd, 1990. It was the name, and the identity chosen for me. My birth name is about paperwork between the state and my parents, and really had little to do with me.
While the tradition of passing the father’s last name along has long been criticized by feminists, I think the process of giving a baby a first name is also problematic. In a way, it’s one of the first steps in taking a child’s agency away—this is the name I, your parent have chosen for you, before I really know you as a person, rather than as a possession or an extension of myself. Perhaps it’s one of the first steps in a series of expectations about what kind of person the child should be and become. After all, if you look in baby books names have meanings beside them. I digress, I don’t intend to talk about naming practices in general, rather my particular experience.
Now is a good time to mention that I like the name Emily, it just doesn’t feel like my name. This all started about a year ago. I needed an alias for an event and nothing came to mind. What name do I want? What name feels like me? Still nothing. I was half-asleep coming home from work on the subway, flipping through a cheap paper and the name Ava appeared. I said the name out loud on the subway, too bad about needing an alias; I knew in a second that Ava was my new name.
It was June 2016, and I was on my way to spend the week in the woods with a bunch of hippies and partiers. Solstice was the first festival I’d ever attended; it was a week of camping, workshops, community building, campfires, swimming in the pond and basking in the sun. The week was followed by a weekend of people running around in fun costumes, dancing at 3 different decorated stages in the forest.
This was the perfect environment to try out my new name, and see how it felt falling from my lips. The few people I knew at the festival didn’t really question me when I introduced myself as Ava. The others, with their colorful outfits and names like Rainbow Princess, and River, weren’t too concerned about whether the name I spoke around a campfire matched my birth certificate.
As I took my tent down at the end of the week, a friend asked me if I was to be addressed as Ava, when I returned to the city. I said yes.
None of the journeys that I’ve taken in my life feel linear and neither is the process of self- naming. In a lot of ways it would have been easier to bury the name Emily after coming back from the festival. I could tell everyone at work I go by Ava—and aside from declaring my name at country borders, I would never utter the name Emily.
Yet, I decided that the name Emily is sometimes useful for me. Just as I have clothes I wear to work and more comfortable clothes for my home, I have a name for work, that isn’t the core of my identity. I’ve done lots of reflecting on the expectations of professionalism and capitalist work spaces, and having one constant name and label, just seems like another cost of capitalism to endure. Emily is a birth certificate, a sin number, a stable product of capitalism, a file in a doctor’s office—but not me. The name Emily is a layer I can pull back and shed when I’m in company I trust. I like that I’ve given friends and lovers different language to address me than colleagues and family. I think it’s beautiful that my real name—Ava isn’t associated with any numbers. There is no health card, bank account, sin number, credit card, health card, employee number, student number… beside the name Ava which makes sense, because I’m poetry, not a number.
The hardest thing I’ve addressed since becoming Ava was deciding that my first book would be published with the name Emily. I struggled with this choice, but I didn’t want Ava to be ruined by becoming a means of production, I didn’t want an ISBN (book identification) number beside my name. Most parts of my identify are fluid, from my gender, to my interests, so I didn’t want to build my writing career based on ensuring that I always relate to the name Ava. I picture myself someday sitting in front of a bookshelf looking at a row of my books, and I don’t know what name I’ll relate to in my 40s and 50s, nor can I pretend to.
New fiends I’ve made over the last year are accepting of the name Ava. As I promote my first novel, folks sometimes ask about the name “Emily” on the spine, sometimes I joke that it’s my pen name—but in a sense it is. Other times I try to explain some of this.
It’s people who I’ve known the longest who are most resistant. They knew me as Emily, therefore my name is Emily, and they have trouble letting go of this. This resistance in a way suggests that they or my parents (prior to my birth) knew me better than I presently know myself. I understand though that it’s confusing that I was something (Emily) and then I wasn’t anymore, or only am now Emily in a pen name sense to them.
Like I said, for others it may have been easier to say I was Emily, I am now Ava, and will remain Ava for the rest of my life in all that I do. Yet my life has never had some clear singular and linear plot narrative, and I will continue to use the name(s) that serve me for as long as they fit. I could keep writing, but I’ll leave you with a final thought. Names become clumsy attempts to define people, often people we really don’t know. Listen to what I say my name is & call me by my name.