Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I run at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, with support from the City of Sydney. This week – artist Julie Low.
This is a story about names. There are many names one goes by throughout their entire life. We have birth names, given names, middle names, surnames, nicknames, pet names, usernames, and deadnames. These are how I define them. Personal: To show intimacy, affection, labels as a sign of trust and comfort. Accompanying these are rueful glances, sheepish grins, and playful tongues.
Familial: Names forged in blood or water, ones only a select few use, be they in a native tongue or gained in the most private of our earliest moments. Embarrassment, sometimes guilt, usually disgruntled feelings we’re accustomed to follow these names.
Survival: When we don a persona, online or off, in spaces where we feel the least safe. These always come with an attitude that isn’t new but is always different to the one we project daily.
My names, in particular, fill a mental and emotional rolodex, one I’m willing to share tonight. At least, a glimpse. Let’s start with the online username I’ve gone by most. During high school I developed a fondness for The Great Gatsby. Specifically, I was drawn like the titular Gatsby to the metaphor of the green light in the story: An unattainable ever-present goal, one never to be chased because of fear and inaction. It helps that I’ve always had an obsession with green, while my friends and family worrying about any implications it may have. It’s just a nice colour.
So I decided to don the name Gatsby myself with my later forays into the online world. I’m still known by it on the forum I’ve spent nearly a decade on, it’s still part of my Twitter handle. On some level, I’ll always be Gatsby, however, I strive to better, to have the courage to chase that green light in front of me.
Moving onto my nicknames and pet names. The former are almost too numerous to tell tonight, a rogues’ gallery that my found family of online friends have placed upon me. A nearly full list would be Web Sleuth, Styles, Toku Boy Enthusiast, Sealed Can, Het Now. I’m bi, thank you very much.
And, Disney Princess. I really can’t explain all of these. A choice few, however: Web Sleuth, derived from me being able to recall and find old tweets and posts in less than a minute, usually to fact pull receipts. Toku Boy enthusiast, because of my endless love of the Japanese special effects genre Tokusatsu, and the incredibly handsome men in it. Disney Princess due to the fact that I’ve helped a snail cross a sidewalk, held conversations with magpies up close, helped an injured beetle down some stairs, had a skink nearly hitch a ride in my backpack that made me late for work; I could not explain that to my manager. And, I’ve run into the middle of the road to save a baby flying fox.
My pet names, meanwhile, are something I keep private, only telling my closest friends, sometimes so we can share and revel in what our partners call us, however, I’ve been given permission from my partner, who is here tonight all the way from Detroit, Michigan.
*Audience whoops and claps*
Please refrain from asking him about Eminem and cars. He knows nothing about either. And I hope he and I use these names for a very, very long time. To me, they’re one of the purest ways we express our love.
After we first started dating, he called me a gift. A surprise he never expected to have in his shut-in homebody life. Then he called me his light; warm, soothing, something that guides him. Later, he started calling me Princess, and now Queen. In return, he was my Knight, and now my King. And, last week he called me his Sunshine because I was no longer his Little Light, but his Little Star, something that he orbits around. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes me glow as much as when he calls me that with a smile and a kiss on the forehead.
With my family, our nicknames are an odd bunch. We have developed a tradition of lovingly mangling our Chinese. In Cantonese, my uncle, my mum’s younger brother, is called Kauh fu, however, my sister, as a kid, could only refer to him as Cuffs. My aunt, my mum’s older sister, is Yih yih, so of course, as a toddler, I called her EE. We still use these names for them.
For me, my mum called me Jai. Son. But, even before any inklings of gender has cemented in my head, I never saw it that way. To me, it was just simply J, which became Js due to my middle name also having that initial. Again, we still use that even now.
My Chinese name itself is incredibly different. In Cantonese, it’s Haumen (pronunciation: how-men). You can see how uneasily that sits on my tongue, especially the last syllable. For the longest time, I knew its characters to mean, “gentle and respectful son.” Last Mother’s Day, I raised this point to my mum of whether or not I’d still keep this name with me, now out and free as myself. She thought about it, and after writing it down again for me, she came to the conclusion that the second half that reads “gentle and respectful” turns the character for “boy” into “child.” I nearly cried when she told me that. She then revealed the Mandarin version, Xiaowen (pronunciation: shee-ow-wen). I adore that pronunciation.
Now, we come to my birth name, one that I will not mention, nor my deadname, the only difference between them being the surname or, in this case, Sir Name. However, I will tell you the reasons why my mother chose them. My given name comes from her wanting an artistic child, believing their name will lead them down the right path without her meddling, and she was inspired by my older brother’s friend at the time who drew.
To this day, I feel most comfortable when putting pen and brush to paper. My middle name was settled by a bet: Who would win an election?
A lot of emotional resonance there, as you can see. These names aren’t mentioned because I hate them, in fact, I love what my mother gave me. Not everyone should love their given names, but I do, and I mourn their loss. I mourn the fact that I’ve had to shed them because they carry such masculine weight in our society. So, because I mourn them, they are dead to me, and what is dead should remain buried, which is why I kept the initials for my current name. My first is something I’ve always liked the sound of. It rolls off the tongue and feels good to say.
My first middle name is an ode to its older brother who passed on. My second middle name – yes, I have a second middle name, I chose one, I’m really quite greedy…
..is what my mum would have called me under different circumstances. She didn’t really think she’d end up in a country where that name has a whole other meaning attached to it. I don’t hold that against her, it’s the name of a capital city. So, in the end, with all of these names, all of these different components and scraps of history that make up me, what does it mean? Youthful, gift of God, nobility: That’s my name. I looked it up. That’s what it means. I think I ended up picking a pretty good one. Thank you.