A tumultuous period started in 2014, which marked the beginning of my journey to find my life’s purpose.
Since I had been in high school, I had aspired to write a novel. I began to experiment with writing and I read prolifically. What’s in a Name began then as one of my experimental short stories that I titularly called “Lena,” which is the name of the protagonist.
I was still a relatively new immigrant to Canada while in high school, for I had arrived the day after Halloween in November 1990. (I still recall that date with both humour and a child-like regret: I was told that I had just missed all the free candies.) Although I had turned fourteen years old in the previous month, I had heard and seen a lot in life. There were things I still questioned from when I had been a young boy in Jamaica.
Come March 2016, I was going to be forty years old, and ready for the kind of change I knew could come through actually living out my life’s purpose. I dusted off the story of Lena with a clear intention to fulfil my writing aspiration. I had filed a hard copy away in a Duo-Tang with some other writings and a reading list from high school. The first thing I did was to read through the thirty single-spaced pages of text. Not a bad story, I thought, but the relationship between the protagonist and her husband was prosaic. That was when I discovered and focused on what was at the heart of their marriage.
As I writer, I ascribe to the narrative device of subtext: what the characters are not saying. Lena is not saying something, and that fact is understandable given her past, so I began to work with what she is not saying about it and make her silence about the past the story itself. I have had much experience with the consequence of a lack of communication on matters concerning our deepest hurt, and our greatest areas of vulnerability. With that personal experience, I committed myself to telling Lena’s story novelistically.
Her story is about a woman who has been renamed by her dying mother. She accepts that name, but then she goes silent thereafter about the significance of her new name. Now an adult, a married woman, she finds herself in a battle to unsilence herself.
This story is not about, according to what I had initially approached it as, anything that a woman does to save her marriage. Nor is it about her insecure love for a man who loves her unconditionally. Instead, the story is about the destructive power of silence once we have been violated. And one way that Lena herself denies the truth of that power and hides behind the silence is by having accepted a name that is a cover-up. I aptly renamed Lena’s story What’s in a Name.
As I delved into the writing, I soon realized that I needed to have a deep, and a great deal of, understanding of my main tool, English. And my childhood questions became necessary to explore the different subject matters in the novel and even help me come up with some answers.
The novel has gone through more revisions than I like to admit since it was initially self-published in October 2017. There is an honesty in the overall work that has resulted in this version of the novel. I believe that writers write about what they know, not necessarily what they have experienced. Personally, I did not write about a specific event, or about myself through any of the characters. Instead, underpinning the story are representative occurrences of events that I heard about when I was a child. And as written by the editor who completed the editorial assessment of the initial draft, “everyone has something that [he or she] carries with [him or herself], and some carry more than others.”
I encourage you to trust me on this journey and allow yourself to consider another point of view (there are a few in What’s in a Name). Storytelling is about offering the reader another way to look at something and, according to Margaret Atwood, about holding your attention. There is something in this story that is in the shadows. It can be found in the shadow that a name can cast. It exists where there is silence, which is a place and a state that I believe most of us are familiar with, and a lot of times for the wrong or false reasons.
At a certain point when the protagonist realizes that her husband has not asked any further questions after the truth has come out, the narrator expresses: “she could also count on his being a logician. He was probably sparing her, and himself, the obscenity of the details.”
That, I believe, exemplifies the things that can be in a name. And these things are also likely enabled by the power of silence.
January 15, 2020
Revised June 22, 2020