When I was eight years old, and my youngest brother was four, my mother sent us on an errand. It may have been for cheese or bread or meat. There were separate stores for each of those. The bread could be ordered white or brown, sliced or not, and round or cut—the sort of cut done with scissors, geknipt, not with a knife, gesneden, probably because the latter indicated a sliced loaf. Cut meant the baker had carved a line down the middle of the dough, so that it rose in two parallel mounds, and each slice looked like it had large mouse ears. I found this version more delicious.
On this day, there must have been some small item that held my brother’s attention. When I turned around, he was half a block behind me, crouching, looking at the ground. I shouted “Zamir!” repeatedly, until he came over.
At the same time, a man approached us from the direction of the shops. Perhaps he had been sitting on one of the benches, under which sparrows pecked at crumbs. He shuffled, and wore a rumpled brown suit, and his hair and mustache were dark gray.
“Zamir?” he asked, “Zamir?” He beamed at my brother as if a loss had been undone.
I could by then read some of the ethnic conventions of our Dutch town. A short man with formerly black hair, olive skin, and an old-fashioned suit was Turkish. Of course, I also knew the hollowness of that assumption; people called us Turks sometimes, and they were wrong and it was never a neutral term. Turkish immigrants were not a major presence in our neighbourhood, but lived in the apartments further south. I felt an allegiance and empathy with their status, an almost familial bond, and I also understood that it was detrimental to be mistaken for them. In the supermarket, where the eyes of some cashiers would track us with such vigilant, venomous, warning looks—a silent language that our mother seemed unaware of, and that I sensed would be impossible for me to translate—it was our resemblance to Turkish children that made them stare.
“Zamir,” I confirmed, a little hesitantly.
The man asked me something, but not in Dutch. Then he fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a bar of white chocolate, partly eaten, and tried to give it to my brother. I held my breath. Here was the notorious stranger offering candy, but his gesture felt benevolent. I told my brother he could accept, as long as he didn’t take a bite. The man rubbed Zamir’s hair, and muttered his name again, and then I thanked him and we left.
Names are an intimate pocket within every language. There are no other words that we arrive at quite so purposefully and lovingly as the names we give our children. Nouns may lose specificity as we experience the world; bread is a rye slab, a rice flour loaf, a pale baguette, a slice from a bag, bread is money—but names burrow in the other direction; they progressively signify the close entities they represent. I don’t mean that Zamir is a single, focused image. Zamir is decades of interactions; he is a child and teenager and adult, he has his son on his shoulders at a summer festival, a confiding way of saying his name on the phone, a range of insights, a biography. What I mean is that almost every new quality the word has taken on for me has to do with his particular existence.
We often lose our names when we emigrate; in earlier decades, some officials anglicized names without asking, and current immigrants may still choose to do so themselves. But even when our names remain the same, they are unlikely to be pronounced exactly as they were, or to be understood for their historical or cultural implications. In my own case, I was twenty-eight years old when I learned that my first name is old-fashioned; a Toronto taxi driver, originally from Pakistan, asked if it bothered me. I said I’d only ever lived in places where people encountered it as new.
I don’t know if that man in the parking lot was moved to hear a familiar name in itself, or whether it suggested someone in particular to him, but even before our own migration, his emotion of recognition was fathomable to me.
My favourite writer then was Astrid Lindgren. I don’t think I ever considered that her work was not written in Dutch. Her translator, Rita Verschuur, recalls Lindgren’s encouragement and instruction: “As long as the tone is right.” Her books were immersive to me. I was relieved to find, on our weekly trips to the library, that I hadn’t reached the end of them.
We had an attic, where laundry was hung and some items were stored, and when I curled under its slanted roof with any one of her books and a few provisions—apples, nuts, raisins—and heard the vague noise of my family below, and rain drumming overhead, I felt a sense of utter contentment, an ideal balance of shelter and abandon.
During outdoor play, I liked to assign the other children names from Lindgren’s writing: Rasmus, Olle, Gunnar, Britta.
The book I loved most of all was about a lonely boy named Bosse, who was transported to a magical land, where he learned that his real name was Mio, and he was the King’s son. The title of that book, Mio, My Mio, was almost too beautiful to say out loud. Recently, I looked up the English translation and found it was called ‘Mio, My Son’. I missed the mesmeric repetition of that name.
At first, in Canada, I found English names very hard to retain. They were empty labels, strangely alike, and I made an effort to give them narrative moorings. Brent. The boy on the corner, with smooth glossy hair and a sneaky-sounding laugh. A fast name, with the Dutch word for ‘run’ in it. Kimmy, the girl up the street with a boat in the garage, and cheerfully large teeth. With a soft k, with a muffled y.
And what would I have done if I had met a child, in those vertiginous months of adjustment, who was named Joppe, like my oldest friend? I probably would have felt a sudden affection, and wanted to approach him, and confirm the realness of his hair.
That long gone day with my brother, we did the shopping and walked home. My mother inspected and approved the chocolate bar, and we argued, Zamir and I, over whether it was his or ours.