I suspect that many people reading these words are toying with the idea of writing a memoir. When it comes to putting it all together, where do you start?
If there is something intriguing about your name, that could be a good opening. Names can have much history, even tragedy. Names can lie, hide the truth, hide history, honour the past, give shelter, give hope. A birth name, as you will see, can represent freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom of speech.
Olga Szaranski recorded her story with me a few years ago, and published several copies of it for her family. Eighty-six at the time, she addressed her story to her children and grandchildren, telling them this about her name:
Some of the flavour and temperament of your ancestors shows up in the name my parents gave me at birth. My full and formal name is Wolja Grigorovna Trofimova. Wolja (pronounced Vola) means Freedom in Ukrainian. This was not a name that anyone gave their children, so it is an indication of the free-spirited thinking and fun-loving tendencies in my parents’ personalities. Because it was so different, I always had to spell it, and people often didn’t understand it. Then at 18 when I told the German Nazi official my name, she thought I said Ola, which is short for Olga. That was how I became an Olga. But people who know me from the old days still call me Wolja. A number of people at the time, my parents among them, were glad the Russian aristocracy was gone and some, like my father, were Ukrainian patriots. As my son Alek, who has a quick sense of humour, said one day, “Your parents were hippies!”
Olga is now 90, and her only sister (no brothers) still lives in Ukraine. Yulia is bedridden now, completely paralyzed, and she no longer reads. Olga’s story however, is also her story, her history, and she has a copy of it. It is a great comfort to her when her husband reads it to her, translating it into Ukrainian as he goes. It brings back her early days, her youth. The old Ukrainian folk songs her grandfather used to sing, the school house that was heated with straw, making their own flour, the Saturday night baths when bucket after bucket of water was carried up from the well and heated then poured into the big tub—kids first, Mom and Dad last. Then the banning of the Ukrainian language, then famine, then the arrival of the Nazis, then the train ride to work camps in Germany. Parts of the story are hard. But much better that those parts be acknowledged in print than forgotten. That’s one of the functions of freedom of speech.
Then there’s Malala. Her name is now synonymous with speaking out for women’s rights. Her name is so crucial to her sense of self that her book I Am Malala opens with three pages of what her name means. When she was born female, people sympathized with her mother, and no one congratulated her father. Pashtun female babies in Afghanistan are not entered in the family tree, only male babies, but when an uncle arrived with the tree, her father broke with tradition. He drew a line from his name to a circle and in the circle he wrote “Malala”. Her father had already fallen in love with her, and knew she was different.
Named after the Pashtun version of the French Joan of Arc, Malalai was the greatest heroine of Afghanistan. In 1880, the young and soon-to-be-married Malalai saw the men were losing the fight against the British. When the flag bearer fell, she marched onto the battlefield holding her white veil up high in front of the troops, shouting to them in the name of love to be strong, to be ready to die for their land. She was killed under fire, but her words turned the battle around. Shot by her enemy, like today’s Malala was shot by her enemy (the Taliban) for standing up for education for girls. But, “our” Malala survived.
When she was a baby, Malala’s father used to sing her a song written by a famous Pashtun poet. The last verse ends like this:
O Malalai of Maiwand,
Rise once more to make Pashtuns understand the song of honour,
Your poetic words turn worlds around,
I beg you rise again.
Rise again! Is it any wonder Malala became who she did? Or, was she sent by the gods?
My parents named me after a song called Diane that they both liked. Nope, no revolutionary theme here. Although, from all accounts, I did revolutionize their lives.
Do you have a story to tell about your name? I’d love to hear it.