(Un)naming

name

Fagin. First of all, I’m not even sure it’s an accurate last name. I don’t know who my biological grandfather is. (Not going to go looking, either.) My biological grandmother, Annie Ruth, gave birth to six children.  Five of them, including my biological father, were raised by her older sister, Dorothy Lorena Davis, who I came to know as my grandma. I never met Annie Ruth until I was in my early 20’s. Since all of Annie Ruth’s kids had different fathers, they decided to give the children the same last name, Fagin. So there’s a one in six chance that my last name should actually be Fagin.

My biological father decided not to raise me and my older brother after he and my mother divorced. We’d see him—on average— about once a year. But the thing that always remained was his last name,  my last name, Fagin. When my mother remarried when I was two, her new husband became my dad and cared for me as his own. My dad was a dark-skinned man and my mother was brown-skinned. Whenever we’d go places people would look at me, a little yellow girl, and ask my dad if I was his. “Yes, she is,” he’d say, without explanation, steadily looking into their eyes. My dad’s last name was Ravenell. When I was ten, he asked me and my older brother, Nijon, if we’d like to change our last name to his. Nijon said yes, but I said no. Maybe my parents were too busy or focused on more pressing matters, but we never got around to changing our names.

My biological father appeared like Santa Claus— once a year, complete with gifts and expensive trips to the mall. I think these brief appearances were enough for me to sympathize with him. He’d explain that he wanted to see us more often, but with running a small business and the distance—us in South Carolina and him in Alabama, it was impossible. Part of me felt sorry for him, then I’d half-forget about him the rest of the year. I did have my dad, who was there every day. Either way, I think this is what made me feel hesitant to say yes about changing my name. And I was used to it. Ravenell had three syllables. Kwoya (Ra-vuh-nell) didn’t sound right. Fagin was my name.

In 6th grade I found my name in the dictionary. There it was, Fagin, and next to it was the definition: thief.  This was a reference of course, to Charles Dickens’ novel. Fagin is the name of a thieving character from Oliver Twist.  This bothered me. I believed in names. My dad believed in the power of a given name, even coming up with a meaningful name for our dog, Ishmael. I found a way to swallow this disappointing discovery by telling myself I wasn’t a thief but I did steal and break hearts.  (I’m laughing at myself here, too.)

I had a lot of reasons for deciding to attend the University of Alabama for college when I was seventeen. One was that I would be closer to my grandma. It was also the only school I applied to. I think some people believe I moved to Alabama to be closer to my biological father. This wasn’t true. My senior year of high school, Halbert Fagin sent me a letter. In it he firmly stated that he would not give me money for college, and that he would not help me at all during the process. He explicitly let me know this because he didn’t want to leave room for confusion. I knew before I left Charleston he wouldn’t be in my life. True to his word, I still only saw him once a year, though he lived about twenty minutes away from my dorm.

When I became a writer, I thought Kwoya Fagin was a really great writing name. It seemed so many of us had unique names, and I felt glad that my name was unique, too. Under the name Kwoya Fagin, I completed an MFA, joined Cave Canem and wrote the first drafts of a poetry collection.  When I published a chapbook of poetry in 2010, I was already married, but I wanted to be true to who I was when I’d written it, so I published under Kwoya Fagin, though my new last name was Maples. Kwoya Maples didn’t sound right either. Finally I settled on Kwoya Fagin Maples, setting all my social media accounts and writing profiles to reflect this name.

I’ve never felt pride attached to being a Fagin or the name itself. Though I love my aunts who are Fagins, my grandma’s last name was Davis. I have no reason to be connected to it other than the fact that at one time it was mine. It was what people called me. I find myself now—a 35 year old mother— wishing I could cast if off, wishing I was known as just Kwoya Maples.  Fagin feels like fluff, a placeholder with no real significance. I’m not certain when I started to feel this way so strongly. Perhaps it’s because I’m publishing a book with this name on it and I don’t know why anymore. Perhaps it’s because three years ago my grandma passed.

The Maples can recount their family history for six generations. They live off Maples Rd. They have land that has been in their family for just as long. My daughters are Maples. My husband asks, “Who runs the world?” at the top of his lungs and they all yell in unison, “MAPLES GIRLS!” My name has been legally changed to Kwoya Maples for the last nine years. Nowadays, going by Fagin feels like carrying around a dead thing. Maybe it’s time to finally let it go.

One thought on “(Un)naming

  1. It sounds like you have struggled with the issue of names, and I really believe that most women do, although they seldom complain about it. Women often suffer identity issues relating to their family name, which may be changed more than once in a lifetime. It makes it hard for women to feel a continuous identity.
    I did an essay on names several years back, which was eventually published in an online magazine. Here’s the link, FYI. http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/spring-2015/whats-in-a-name/

    Like

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