Of Names and Conquests -Dara Omotoso

On one of those nights when I woke up to perform the rituals of reflection, but somehow the gatekeepers denied me access, I chose to scan through an article about the lien between melancholy and music. The first few lines already had the markers of an academic writing which felt too overcharging for the moment. Stuck between curiosity and mild depression from my inability to access the transcendental spaces, boring into my consciousness usually afforded m, I decided to savor a bit of Ocean Vuong’s genius. Me-Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion- Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Jacob Banks’ Slow Up softly playing in the background.

For some strange reason, I didn’t skip the pages about his Biography—Although I didn’t read them either— the last line read ‘He is openly gay’ and just as I was beginning to build up enough rage as to why his sexuality was up for discussion, the preceding lines interested me; it was a story about how Vuong’s mother, had renamed him Ocean chiefly due to her own challenge with language. An immigrant manicurist in the United States at the time, she had pronounced beach as bitch, and a client had suggested she used the word Ocean in place of Beach she would later make sense of Ocean as what connects the US and Vietnam. Entrapped in the experiences of his mother’s immigrant experiences, Vuong would be the lasting insignia of her nostalgia.

Illustration by Chris Riddell

A few days before, I had read Emma Iduma’s introspective photo-essay The Colonizer’s Archive is a crooked finger which was a brilliant potpourri of meditations on the uncharted lives of pictures from colonial times, the conceited nature of history and whatnot. However, one of the things I couldn’t stop poring over after the essay happened to me was his revision of (mis)naming. He had observed that:

“There is, below every name, the underbelly of a life. If it were possible, I would ask for people and things to go nameless until the dusk of their lives: humans at the outset of their last breath, plants crumpled by errant feet just before they fail to rise again, a beast in the final wince and gasp. That way, names can achieve their real intent: to summarize and give character to a life’’

Emma Iduma- The Colonizer’s Archive is a Crooked Finger.

I must say those words gave a voice to my enduring preoccupation about how as humans we are trapped within the images of the past; how we inherit the desires and chaos of the people before us— probably not only in terms of overwhelming burdens like the accident of nationhood— but even with subtler rituals like naming. If as Iduma says, a name is a descriptive summary of a life, then to name is to preempt and to confer; it is to extrapolate from one’s experiences and place the named in the context of these prisms; it is to make of another an appendage of one’s aspirations.

Ocean Vuong writes in Threshold:

In the body, where everything has a price,
  I was a beggar on my knees

Threshold, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

What does it mean to be a beggar in the context of exchanges that take place within and with one’s body? It is to be just an object of the exchange, a means to an end, the end being those for whom the body serves a purpose, fulfills a desire, makes up for some nostalgia. To be named then is to be tied to this exchange, to be constantly trapped within this preemptive perceptions. Vuong speaks further about the violence of this exchange, where even the symbolic markers of this exchange like the name can even become a victim of this excessive usage.

Even my name
knelt down inside me, asking to be spared.

Threshold by Ocean Vuong

For Vuong, who is the son of a first-generation migrant family that hopes to find some respite in America, (a country that was responsible for the degradation of the human condition in their own home of Vietnam but at once promises better conditions on its own shores, as if to say that the negation of one was a necessary precondition of its own humanity), I imagine what it means to be at once the carrier of these multiplicities of contradictions; of despair and hope, of violence and conquest of uncertainty and promised stability. To be named as an agent in a future bearing possibilities of surplus bliss enough to overwrite the distress of the past.

As a young Yoruba man in a postcolonial nation that is notorious more for its religious polarizations than for socio-ethnic affiliations (and this is definitely polemic). What would a name like ‘Oluwadarasimi’ (god is good to me) portend, it is to be reduced to a memento of the benevolence of a god. It is to carry the hopes of the endurance of this benevolence in the face of another’s struggles. The Yoruba culture has an aphorism that hopes to explain what influences the process of naming within the context of its worldview. This aphorism ties the named inevitably to his ancestral history, he therefore inherits and partakes in the rituals and struggles of this history and is expected to be inadvertently shaped within the contexts of the latter. Despite the incursion and proliferation of Abrahamic religions into the cultural landscape, naming remains largely a process of subtle transference of one’s whims, desires and sometimes strictly banal idiosyncrasies.

While writing this essay, I happened on a trend on Twitter about how Trans people should be able to choose their own names with respect to their fledgling identities and how it remains chaotic to be caught up in that divide of Who-I-am and What-you-think-I­­-should-be and I’m thinking that if as Vuong says that the body is an enduring object of exchange it has no control over, maybe self- sabotage might be a worthy coping mechanism.

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