What’s in a Name?

By Eve Kushner
This essay appeared in Moxie‘s online version in spring 2000.

I‘ve been trying to invent an alias for myself, but I never realized how tough it is. Almost any name should improve on my own. Kush rhymes with tush, and Kushner clunks. It seems ethnic but unappealingly so, as if from a country no one cares to visit. The name Eve led to childhood taunts like “Where’s Adam?” (right next door, unfortunately) and “Leave, Eve!” It’s a palindrome, for God’s sake. No wonder I’ve felt transparent at times!

A pen name should let me create a fresh identity, much as a snazzy outfit should present a new-and-improved self to the world. More important, I can write truthfully under an alias without embarrassing the people in my life.

Eve in front of creek in Miyajima, Japan
Eve in front of creek in Miyajima, Japan, April 2002.

I can’t choose just any name, though. It should be meaningful, melodious, and possibly clever. It must sing out my personality and shout out my worldview (whatever those might be).

I know a Native American who replaced his Irish surname with Running Wolf. Definitely poetic. Hmm. Do I want such a neon name? I’m more inclined to pick something inconspicuous and mainstream, a name that lets me pass as Protestant. But someday I might write about being Jewish. I could use a name like Stone; it sounds Jewish enough, yet that isn’t the first thing you notice. Am I a Stone? I can certainly be obdurate. And Stone relates to nature, which seems fitting, as I walk so much in Tilden Park. Maybe a different nature word. Kate Moss, Kate Wolf, Eve Creek. No.

Not such an easy feat, representing a complicated personality in two words. It challenges me as much as any other search for identity. Who am I? How do others see me? How do I want others to see me? If I hang out a new shingle will I seem a little different?

I began a similar inquiry when my husband and I looked for a house. I figured the building should match the way we are in the world. But what way is that? Are we like a darling brownshingled cottage retreating under redwoods? A Tudor emanating charm and grandeur? A sensible boxy structure resting on level ground?

As I immersed myself in the process such thoughts fell away. I focused instead on structural soundness and practical layouts. I fixated on broken tiles and ugly wallpaper. Insides mattered most.

We finally bought a chalk-white Mediterranean with a terrific interior. Only when escrow ended did the outside start to bother me. Rising steeply, the building presents a blank facade, like a wide, pale face without eyebrows. There’s no foliage in front (except some ugly geraniums), so it seems especially stark. When I sent pictures to friends, I wrote, “It’s kind of funny-looking right now.” What I meant was, “Don’t think it’s actually us.”

But maybe it is. With severe, ungraceful lines, the house looks much as I did before my first nose job. Like me, it’s a work in progress.

So the house doesn’t present a perfect image to the world. I have flaws, too. Maybe I don’t need a perfect alias after all—just one that fits.

Poring over baby name books, I find conventional names like Jennifer, which don’t seem right. Fashionable ones like Amber don’t suit me either. I search phone books for surnames and try out a few.

I finally settle on Maya Harvell. Maya sounds literary and intriguingly ethnic. I’ve never hated anyone with that name. Harvell? I like where the accent falls. And the names don’t clash. I enter an essay contest as Maya Harvell and await the results. Immediately Harvell begins to grate on me. So dull and inelegant. I meant to use it forever, but I abhor it already. When I don’t win, I dump the name with great relief and begin my search again.

Now I have a new pseudonym. (I can’t reveal it, as that would defeat the purpose.) The alias blends my grandmother’s name with my passion for nature. Beyond that it reflects little of who I am, and perhaps that’s good. Just as babies must learn to carry off patrician mouthfuls like Alexandra and Nathaniel, I can grow into my alias. It might fit the person I have yet to become.