You may know of Thandie Newton from one of her many acting roles spanning her 30-year long career, including that of Olanna in the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, Half of a Yellow Sun. But she’s no longer going by the name she’s worn all this time. Instead, she’s reclaiming the original spelling of her name: Thandiwe.
The half Zimbabwean and half English actress stated in a recent interview with Vogue that the ‘w’ in the original spelling of her name got dropped at some point. It was due to the supposed difficulties of an ‘unusual’ name that stuck out in the small English countryside town that she grew up in, a town where Black people were a rare sight. But that’s sometimes one of the frustrations growing up in the West where our ‘foreign’ names can be disrespected. I’ll tell you how.
I was named Aisha after my grandmother. My grandmother was named Aisha as that was her own mother’s name. And she too also named a daughter Aisha after my great-grandmother. So the name holds a great deal of meaning in my family, and I’m sure somewhere along the next generation, there will be a couple more Aishas. I wear the name with pride, knowing that I’m named after one of the strongest women I know. So, it is frustrating when my name is pronounced or spelt incorrectly.
I have seen my name written as Isha, Aesha, Eijsa, Asia and Ayesha (I know this is another way of spelling the name, but it’s not mine) and I can’t even begin to phonetically spell out the different versions I’ve heard. For such a simple name, people seem to struggle with it. I’m much luckier than my family members, Maryam and Ruqaiyah, whose names are butchered daily in the UK but spoken with such eloquence here. So why is it, even after we’ve sounded our names to people and told them how to spell it, they still have difficulty in getting it right?
British names have their own variations and unusual spellings. I know the difference between Catherine, Katherine and Kathryn. I remember to spell Siobhan and Niamh correctly, even though they sound very different to their spellings. But the same effort is not always translated onto foreign-sounding names.
When I was younger, I thought perhaps Nigerian and Arabic names were just a little more difficult to get your head around. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a blatant disregard in the West to foreign-sounding names, whether it’s African, Asian or Middle Eastern. Some people will shorten their names when introducing themselves, but they shouldn’t feel obliged to. We shouldn’t make our names more easily pronounceable, and it’s sad when I hear Westerners ask for this too. Our names are not an inconvenience or embarrassment. They are a mixture of letters that hold such significance as to who we are. Like the Nigerian-American actress Uzo Aduba once said about her own name, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Simple, right?
The disregard of our names can also have a lasting impact. Having your name continuously marked out as different can make you feel as though you don’t belong. For some it causes embarrassment, and for most of us, you just want to fit in. Our names say so much about us. They can symbolise our heritage, our identity, and other complexities that make us who we are. Are we a twin? Are we the firstborn twin? Are we the child that was born after twins? Our cultures are so colourful that we can say all this in the form of a name. Sometimes I think about the future and my own children and what I will name them. I want to give them Arabic names of course, but do I go for the more simplistic, potentially more anglicised names to make their lives easier?
I think the problem often is the British avoidance to offend. But in that avoidance, they don’t realise that they’re in fact doing so. It’s OK to stumble when you first read a name you’re unfamiliar with. It’s OK to spell it incorrectly the first time. It’s even OK to ask how to spell or pronounce my name for clarification. I won’t be offended, in fact, I would prefer this. But once it’s all been clarified for you, there’s really no excuse for mispronunciation. Of course, allowances can be made as not all languages share the same sounds, but as long as the effort is being made, that will be fine.
Let’s keep being proud of our names and start holding people accountable when our names have not been given the respect they deserve.