When your name becomes a Matryoshka doll

When your name becomes a Matryoshka doll

Beeld Jan Broekhuizen

Many years ago, a writer said to me that I should write about a subject I know best. Me, I am the subject I know best. That is why most of the things I write are thoughts or analyses about myself. I write because I want to make sense of my life and things that happen around me.

One of the things that goes around my head lately is the way others call me. It changes depending on who is talking to me. Of the people around me –trans people that is– some are known and called by the same name by almost everybody. Two people, or names, come to mind: my friends Natsumi and Kaye. Everywhere they go, people know them by those names and call them by those names as well.

But with me, something strange occurs: either people call me the way they understand my name, or they call me the way they want. I will give you some examples.

The name my parents gave me when I was little is Oscar Alejandro. For years, people called me Oscar, but when I was around 19 and already living in Dallas, Texas, I switched to Alejandro. Now Alejandro is a very common name in Spanish, but for non-Spanish speakers, it is a difficult name to pronounce (A-le-han-dro). That’s why I shortened it for American audiences, and people began calling me Alex. After my transition I decided to call myself Alexandra, yet my colleagues started calling me Alexa. Meanwhile, others continued deadnaming me; some were work colleagues, some friends, and some were my own relatives. To them I was still Alejandro or Alex (heck, some even called me Oscar despite my complaints).

In 2009 I met a man who became my mentor. For the purpose of this article we will call him Misha (Bear in Polish). Till this day he calls me Miss A. Not Alexandra but Miss A, and sometimes Alexa.

When I moved back to Mexico in 2010, I decided to pick a name that would be close to me as well as very traditional, so as not to raise eyebrows. That name is Alejandra Maria (Alejandra, from Hera Alexandros; protector of mankind. And Maria, the quintessentially traditional –and very Catholic– female name). While living in Guadalajara, it was easy for people to call me Alejandra (A-le-han-dra). Some also started calling me Ale, and there was someone who called me Alex. I don’t like it when people call me Alex, it adds to my gender dysphoria. There was a guy from Colombia who used to call me Aleja (A-le-ha), which is a term of endearment in Colombia, but which I also don’t like, because it feels as if it is incomplete. Back then I was trying to live life passing as a cis woman, so I never complained to them, because I didn’t want to raise suspicion.

When I came to the Netherlands in 2015, another array of names was added to the ways people called me. For most, Alejandra was impossible to pronounce and most settled on Alexandra. A queer friend from Ukraine used to call me Aleksandrushka, while my first lover in this land (an Albanian who spoke Italian), used to call me Alessandra, and a second lover used to call me Khandra (Han-drah) and Khandora (Han-doh-rah), which he said meant something like “my precious” in Arabic and rhymed with my actual name.

Now that I am writing my memoirs, one of the things I’ve stumbled upon while revisiting old memories is how characters from my past referred to me. To people in my village and even some family members, I am still Oscar, while to others I am either Alexa or Alejandra. Misha still calls me Miss A. To my former USA work colleagues I am Alexa, while to those who knew me in Guadalajara I am either Alejandra, Ale, Aleja or Alex. And in the Netherlands, depending on who you talk to, I am Alejandra, Aleyandra, Alexandra, Alessandra, Aleksandrushka or Khandora. Seriously, what a mess.

I feel like my name is a matryoshka doll. You know, the wooden Russian dolls that each have smaller dolls inside. I feel like my name or names are like that, a series of dolls that have another one inside, as if my name and identity carry other names and identities. But funnily enough, I like all those names (even Oscar, Alex and Aleja), and I hope once the book is out the publisher decides to keep them. Because all those names reflect identities of mine. Not of different persons, but one person: me. A set of colorful matryoshka dolls, a rainbow.

To the reader, what’s your relationship with your name(s)? Are there names that are taboo in your life and you’d rather forget? Or have you made peace with them?

Food for thought…