What Kind of Name is That?
Evgenia-Ulana Tarasivna Snihurowycz
Preserving ethnic heritage was more important to my parents than adapting to a country that had offered them asylum and citizenship. When I was born in Canada, they burdened me with an elaborate, Ukrainian name which, together with their unwieldy surname, ensured I’d be deflecting ridicule and correcting pronunciation for much of my life.
When I started kindergarten, my given name was streamlined. The patronymic, appropriate only for a character in a Gogol play, was eliminated.
We moved often, sometimes in the middle of the school year. During roll call, the new teacher read out names from a list, and my new classmates responded by raising their hands—John, Anne, Richard; appended by Smith, Wilson, or Jones; maybe a Joel or a Sandra; and a few children whose immigrant grandparents had shortened something like Meyerowitz to Meyer, or Kozachenko to Kozak. I’d wait for the inevitable pause, the stuttering and throat clearing, the garbled approximation of what should have been my name, and then, with burning cheeks, I’d fulfill a request to pronounce each syllable slowly, clearly—and more than just once.
Genia / Genusia / Genuska / Genusinka / Genusiochka
My grandmother Genia fled Ukraine with her daughter, over a frozen post-war landscape, to a refugee camp, a coffin, a grave.
My mother married my father in the camp in Austria, placed their language and culture in a trunk, brought my grandmother’s name across the ocean, and gave it to me.
She intoned its many diminutives with tenderness and care; permutations and escalations of endearment, presumptions about who I’d grow up to be.
Daria / Darchia / Darusia / Daruska / Darusinka / Darusiochka
My sister was named after my mother. She joined our family when we were both toddlers. As little schoolgirls in matching blue uniforms, we learned her real mother died in childbirth and her real father was my mother’s brother. Only one of those things was true.
I gave my daughter the same name as my mother and my sister-cousin.
Its affectionate diminutives are small remnants of culture and family.
The cumbersome surname would follow me from kindergarten to four primary schools and three high schools, through a dance education, into the theater, and onto the stage.
As Russian ballet companies toured North America, a few of their members defected; my name no longer seemed as outlandish, but appropriate for a dancer.
A second family name was attached to mine when I married a Dutchman. I never used the hyphenated hybrid professionally, but it appeared on my passport and other documents. Its Friesian consonants and vowels competed with my syncopated Slavic syllables, and the dash—meant to join, not divide—failed in its task. We took our respective surnames and parted ways.
In Lucerne, I swiveled around on a bar stool and locked eyes with a handsome stranger. “What’s your name?” My future husband was charmed by my answer, and switched from Swiss German dialect to Standard High German, although I understood both equally well.
He accepted and embraced my alien nature. I clung to his four-letter name, and abandoned my own.
The struggle was over.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations. When not writing her memoir, Escape Artists, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website geniablum.com, and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum. "Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.