On Naming and Diversity, Part I

Last week I read the transcript of an NPR interview with Louis Sachar, author of the incredible Holes. His new book Fuzzy Mud just came out. In the interview, Sachar discussed his main character’s name:

[ARUN] RATH: I’m curious about the name of our female protagonist here ’cause you – arguably, your most famous character was Stanley Yelnats. His name’s a palindrome.

SACHAR: Right.

RATH: I was wondering if there was something I was not getting about Tamaya Dhilwaddi.

SACHAR: No.

RATH: Sounds vaguely Indian (laughter).

SACHAR: Right. It was – I didn’t want to name like Sarah or Vanessa or – you know. The world’s getting much more diverse. And I wanted her to sound more ethnic, but I didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind. So I made up a name that, like you said, sounded vaguely Indian. It could be vaguely Japanese. It could be a lot of things. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Sachar’s response bothered me. He starts out by implying that he wanted his main character to contribute to diversity in children’s literature, which is all well and good and very in the spirit of We Need Diverse Books. But then he says he “wanted her to sound more ethnic,” where ethnic obviously means non-white/Anglo-American (because of course only people who are not white/Anglo-American have ethnicity). I don’t like this wording, but I wouldn’t have minded if Sachar had then decided to make his main character Mexican-American or Vietnamese-American or some such and given her a name accordingly.

Instead, Sachar admits that he “didn’t really have any specific ethnicity in mind” and so “made up a name” that he thought could be “vaguely Indian” or “vaguely Japanese” or “a lot of things.” I’m uncomfortable with this. First, the name itself: Tamaya Dhilwaddi. Tamaya doesn’t strike me as Indian or Japanese or anything particularly, though it suggests a non-white character more than Sarah or Vanessa does. It also sounds like a name that real people probably have, and indeed, a Facebook search shows there are Tamayas out there. Dhilwaddi, on the other hand, immediately looks Indian to me. If Sachar hadn’t said he’d made it up, I would have assumed it was an actual Indian last name. It’s mainly the initial dh, which looks like it represents a voiced aspirated stop, a type of sound that’s common in Indian languages and not so common in other parts of the world. There is no way that Dhilwaddi could be construed as Japanese to anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese names. I can’t imagine what else it could be construed as either. Googling reveals that Dhilwaddi is truly made up; the name doesn’t exist except in Fuzzy Mud.

It’s notable that the NPR host, Arun Rath, says the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi “sounds vaguely Indian” because, as far as I can tell, Rath is himself Indian-American. He may have said “vaguely Indian” because he knew Tamaya Dhilwaddi wasn’t a real Indian name. Someone like me, on the other hand, would have believed that Dhilwaddi, if not Tamaya, was an actual Indian name. This suggests to me that Sachar’s imagined audience is “non-ethnic,” i.e. not Indian-American or Japanese-American, among other things. If he wanted his protagonist’s name to sound “vaguely” X or Y to readers, those readers must necessarily not be X or Y themselves or they would recognize that the name is not real.

I find it puzzling that an author would try to contribute to diversity in kidlit by making up an ambiguous but “ethnic” name. Sachar clearly took inspiration from Indian names, but the problem with trying to make up a name from a particular language/culture instead of selecting a real name is that you might be perceived as having gotten it wrong, either because the name doesn’t exist or because it’s actually phonotactically (linguistically) wrong no matter what language you claim it comes from. Or perhaps it somehow violates the naming practices of the culture you think the name “vaguely” comes from. You may end up insulting people.

I also don’t understand why an author would try to make a character “broadly ethnic” instead of specifying their ethnicity. The fact that Sachar thinks Tamaya could be a lot of things indicates that he doesn’t know what her ethnicity or heritage are, but there’s no such thing as being generically ethnic in the real world. The interview makes it sound like Tamaya’s name is the only thing that marks her as “ethnic,” but if she were actually Indian- or Japanese-American, that should affect more than just her name. (I have not read Fuzzy Mud, so I can’t be sure Tamaya’s background, whatever it is, doesn’t affect her worldview or her family life or the foods she eats, but I’d be surprised if it did.) If Tamaya’s name is the only thing that makes her not a white/Anglo-American character, then naming her Tamaya Dhilwaddi isn’t contributing much to diversity in children’s books; it’s mostly window dressing.

It sounds to me like Sachar hopes “ethnic” readers (whatever that means) will see themselves in Tamaya or somehow feel more represented because she has an “ethnic-sounding” name, but I’m not sure this will happen. Most readers won’t recognize her name as being like theirs; certainly no Japanese-American child will think Tamaya might be Japanese-American too. And Indian-American children might think her name sounds sort of like theirs but be disappointed that it’s wrong or made-up. Why not just choose a specific ethnicity and an authentic name for the character so that some children see real representation of themselves and everybody else knows exactly what kind of person is being represented?

To be clear, I think all this matters because Fuzzy Mud is set in our world. It’s different in fantasy, in which there are different considerations; I’ll talk about this in Part II tomorrow. I also understand that parents make up names for their children in the real world and that you can write a book with characters whose names reveal nothing about their ethnicities, but I don’t believe either of these is Sachar’s intention in Fuzzy Mud.

I’m curious what others think. Am I off base? Does Sachar’s reasoning about the name Tamaya Dhilwaddi make sense to you? How do you approach character naming and diversity?

2 thoughts on “On Naming and Diversity, Part I

  1. I agree with you. I’ve known several people with made-up names that their parents gave them for a variety of reasons, but none of these reasons were “to sound more ethnic”. What you say about the ethnic-sounding name having no actual meaning other than “it’s not White” is true; in fact, because it only sounds not White but not specifically like any other race, it only reinforces the misconception that in our society, there is White and then there is Other. I mean, how different is it from giving a character a ridiculous “Asian-sounding” name and claiming that you wanted the character to be identifiable with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese readers.

    … Oh Lord, this is a thing. I just Googled “Asian-sounding names”…
    https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090301123353AAicdKC
    http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/baby_names/1358406-A-Chinese-name-that-isnt-too-Chinese
    https://www.quora.com/What-are-Asian-sounding-American-baby-names

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