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SocietySeptember 14, 2017

Miriama Kamo: ‘Pronounce my name correctly. It’s all I ask.’

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 What’s in a name? Only everything, writes Miriama Kamo.

I didn’t always love my name. When I was in primary I used to wish I was called Lisa or Michelle, something easy that didn’t raise eyebrows. As I recall this, another memory comes to mind. I remember plucking a flower from a tree on the way to my Catholic school and offering it to the teacher to put on the altar. She exclaimed over its beauty, but the thing taunted me all day from its exalted spot, daring me to reveal to the teacher that I’d stolen it. I hadn’t really, it was hanging over the footpath and was one of dozens on the tree – but it was the principle. I shouldn’t have assumed that I could pick it from the tree without asking its owner. I was, therefore, a seven-year-old thief.

I worried that if the teacher found out she’d tell me off in front of the class, and everyone would have to make allowances for my poor choices on the basis that I was Māori. I struggled between self-preservation and honesty all day, wishing desperately that I hadn’t taken the flower. I didn’t tell, but clearly the event had such an impact that it still matters even decades later.

My name, Miriama, was difficult for people. I was difficult, just by being Miriama. It was like I was christened to challenge to the world. Every single first meeting was, and often still is, a back and forth: “Hi there, I’m a difficult person, yes, very difficult, but I’ll give you a hand to make your life easier. OK, if you can’t say it, then go ahead and mispronounce it. Totally fine if you want to call me Murri-ama. OK, Mary-ama is fine too.” When I was 12 a woman once asked for my first name and when I said “Miriama” she snapped, “I asked for just your first name!”

Now I correct people, but it gets old, especially if the one being corrected finds it tiresome. A colleague, a serial offender, finally exclaimed: “But it makes me feel like a try-hard!”

I looked at her, confused: “But I want you to try hard – that would be great.”

My name is loaded. It isn’t just the word I’m known by; it also implies things. It tells people my heritage, it alerts them to my whakapapa. I was named for my great-grandma, Miriama Ngapohe Rakatau – the mother of my feisty, fearsome, loving nana, Kui Whaitiri. But it also suggests to some that I’m untrustworthy, maybe an activist, possibly unreliable, potentially a criminal. To this day, I hesitate on the phone when I have to give my name. What if the person at the other end decides not to book me that table, give me the flat, offer me a discount? I have all those same instinctual fears even though I have the sort of profile which should dispel these concerns. Depending on the circumstances, I’ll sometimes give my husband’s name, Mike – unfettered by judgement, easy to repeat back.

The thing about names is… it’s your name! It’s the first thing you truly own. It’s your identity, your currency, your moniker – the thing by which you are you, and someone else is Michelle or Lisa. It is you.

Pronounce my name correctly. It’s all I ask. And it’s such a tiny thing to ask, especially in this country where we share te reo. I ask for your effort, your respect, the sort that I show you every time I call you Denise instead of Dennis, or Ralph instead of Zilf. My name is Miriama, the ‘r’ is like a soft ‘d’. It’s not difficult, it’s not a challenge, it’s not loaded – it’s just a name

I have come to love my name. It has history and heft. What’s your name? Does it mean something to you? You’ll know the answer to that the minute you hear it mispronounced.

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