Foucault tells me that it isn’t “necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” Admittedly, it’s a statement that sounds both wise and aspirational; but what if the goal isn’t to become someone else? What if we are all simply supposed to become who we are? We are not the sum of our parts or the distractions we put on our personhood. If every outside influence, label or experience is to permeate our identity, then doesn’t that just absolve us from the self-care and awareness needed to be a conscious human being? In my non-academic opinion, I consider becoming someone different over time a cowardly pursuit.
According to an Ancestry DNA kit, I am an almost half North African, part French, and Irish woman with a dose of trade routes and colonialist shades of shame thrown in. That part of my identity was revealed to me via email in Doha Airport. The government and anyone who knows me would tell you that I am Joanne, or Joanna, or Johnny if we were in Indonesia, but I’ve never liked my name. The root of that hate-fire is most likely that I lived in France until I was eight, where Joanne is essentially a boy’s name. It was there that I was first asked what are you? Objectively speaking, that’s a very strange question to pose a child. It becomes flagrantly unacceptable when you realise that those adults were asking what gender I was, overtly implying that I didn’t look pretty enough to be a little girl. My father had always insisted my hair was cut short. Boyish, not cute. Ugly. That’s what I heard for a long time when someone said my name. It’s also how I felt. I asked my mother why she called me Joanne, because most expectant mothers take great care over naming their child and she had always told me about the various and in my opinion superior names my father had suggested. She never really gave me much of an answer other than a reminder that I narrowly avoided being called Fanny. A traditional French name that she wisely vetoed because of the English translation, which brings me to the age old question: what’s in a name?
A friend of mine says that your traumas and everything you think you are but probably aren’t are attached to your name. It’s one of the only mainstays in your life from birth, so I suppose it makes sense. Your ideas, values, teeth and even your skin change over time but your first name doesn’t, unless you change it yourself, and then somehow manage to persuade everyone you know to not call you by your old, and presumably haunted, moniker. Torment has a name, my friend, and it’s your very own. A name can’t be your entire identity, much like whatever label that’s thrust onto you by society doesn’t amount to much either. Being a woman continues to shape my experience every day; as does being white-passing unless I’m being not-so randomly selected at airports – thanks, Dad! I changed my surname from my typically Algerian one to an innocuous sounding Irish one and, very tellingly, I have not been randomly selected since.
I suppose where I grew up must have influenced me too. I served ten years in Birmingham, one of the least well regarded cities in the United Kingdom. A recent online poll asked the general public whether they’d prefer having chlamydia or a Birmingham accent. Chlamydia won by a landslide. I’m a history graduate, a former teacher specialising in additional learning needs, a one-time almost wife and so many other things but whenever I heard my name, my mind was ringing with that old question: what are you? Everything I’ve ever lived through, every harsh tone that carried it and some of the softer ones would cloud my head. Joanne became less of a shockingly banal title given to me and more of a weighted albatross around my neck. Still, then I thought I had myself all figured out.
I turned thirty-two in July and realised through a sequence of events over the next month or so, that I didn’t know myself at all. However, I suppose that process of undoing started when I decided to cancel my flights, plans, and life back home to return to Goa, and the first hostel I got to on my three month trip around Asia. It’s been almost nine months and I’m a piece of furniture here now. I’m the purposeful laughs that come from those in the know when newcomers ask how long I’ve been here. I’m an equally aspirational and cautionary tale. I can barely get through a conversation with most of the people I knew before I left because they feel like strangers. Then again, maybe I’m the stranger. I’m almost a stranger to myself, not recognising the me in photographs taken last year, not just because I’m now a shaven head hobo that no longer wears makeup, but because it doesn’t feel like me. That’s not to say I’ve metamorphosed into a different person, but rather that, somehow, I’ve grown into myself, something that I never was before. I don’t mean to sound all Julia Roberts bought some Om pants and found herself, but when you strip everything away to be seen under a revolving door of new eyes, some becoming permanent, you can’t rest on your identifiers. Your memories are just memories and your name isn’t always known. Sometimes you’re just that bald girl who told me to shut up when I was playing music at 7am or, somewhat inexplicably, Germany Girl. When you’re forced to answer to any epithet that might be you, the poltergeists hiding in what your parents told the government to title you are exorcised and make way for the hard work to start, beginning with figuring out the question what am I? The answer is simple, you’re you. It just takes a while to strip away all the white noise and get there.