New Year’s Day
What’s in a name?
Only the winners write the history of their conquests, only the winners. Am I a winner, then? Of course I am. I’m writing this aren’t I? Therefore, ipso facto, I am a winner. This means that although they trashed and thrashed me, they never broke me nor was I a loser. I survived. And in that world in which I lived, surviving without surrendering was a victory in itself. But this is no tale of a hero, of bloody deeds, of a great victory. It is a survivor’s tale. So, if I won, then they lost, and who knows now how the losers felt, history’s non-winners, their slates wiped clean now, their names anonymous, erased from my story, not carved in stone nor impressed into steel.
What’s in a name? The Red Wings, the Black Hawks, the Braves, the Algonquins? Whose heart lies broken and buried at Wounded Knee? Why does the Wolastoq rise in the Notre Dame mountains and flow down through unceded land to the City of Fredericton that noble daughter of the woods, and on to the city of Saint John on Fundy Bay? Why Wolastoq, Notre Dame, Fredericton, Saint John?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, yet names will never hurt me.” But what if I am called Nemo and have no other name? No-name man, no-name woman, no-name child, no language to call my own, no culture, no history, except the one that others wrote and forced me to believe or the innocent who causes me to rebel
“Grandpa,” she says, climbing on my knee. “Tell me a story. Please.”
“Once upon a time,” I begin. “There was this little girl …” She wriggles and giggles.
“What was her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Was it me? Am I that little girl?”
“You can be if you want.”
“I want. How does my story end?”
“I don’t know. You’ve only just started it.”
So, write your poems, write your stories, write your childhood, write your memories, write what you know, invent what you don’t know. You can’t remember your name? Give yourself a new one. You have forgotten your myths? Create new ones. You have forgotten your language? Seek and you will find, and when you have found, learn your language again, a word at a time, phrase by phrase, word-picture by word-picture, until you have renewed your world and your place in it. Let your ancestors stride through your veins again and again to stand in the spotlight that you shine upon them.
Restriction, extinction, suppression of the weakest and poorest, survival of the fittest … You, you who are reading this, you who have survived, you can count yourself among the strongest and the bravest. Now name yourself for who and what you are.
Pick up your pen and write. Lazarus I name you: step out from your living tomb, step out from your kennel-cave. Pick up your bed and walk and talk, and write your own story. And remember the words of Oscar Wilde, “Tell your own tale, and be yourself, my friend, because everyone else is taken.”
Comment: This is the penultimate chapter from On Being Welsh. I will put the last chapter up tomorrow.