How We are Perceived By Our Names

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A name plays an active lifelong role in shaping your life. And a culture’s response to a name plays a similar role.

My given name is Djelloul. It’s fairly ordinary in Algeria. But here in America it’s not. Keeping this name, rather than changing it to a more American-sounding name, has been a saga.

My first five years in Brooklyn, living with my maternal aunt and grandmother, raised no issues about Djelloul. But in boarding school in West Islip, populated with a large contingent of British evacuees from Nazi bombing, my name ran into trouble.

I was called Jello, Jerome, Jules, Ta-loo, Da-loo, and many other takeoffs on this un-American name (more about that later), and to make matters worse, I myself didn’t know if the name was French or Algerian. As it turned out, the French, who ruled Algeria from 1835 to 1962, Gallicized Algerian names, just the way our own Ellis Island immigration officials used to do-officiously.

My own maternal family never learned to spell the name properly. In her nineties my mother was still misspelling it.

I didn’t really get much of a handle on my dilemma until I went to live with my stepfather when I was 15. He had arrived at Ellis Island from Misilmeri, Sicily, as Domenico Giovanni Guccione, a descendant of the famous uGucciones of Florence. He left Ellis Island as Dominick John Guccione.

But Italian Christian names were quite recognizable to most Americans once they had been anglicized. Many Irishmen, after all, were named Dominick, and many Englishmen and Irishmen were named John. But Djelloul was another matter. There were no English equivalents, not even remotely.

At prep school in Manhattan, at Columbia, and throughout my Navy career I encountered no difficulty with my name. Gone was the disconcerting razzing I had experienced in boarding school. Often in the Navy I was moved by the heroic efforts of noncoms and commissioned officers to say my name correctly. Their attitude was that I was a brother in arms and deserved to have my name said properly.

But when I was discharged and applied for a job as a newspaperman once again my name was a problem. For those of you who are familiar with the diverse bylines of, say, The New York Times, this will seem improbable. But in the 1950s in America it was deemed awkward to sport a “foreign” name. There was of course nothing foreign about it. I was an American citizen, a veteran. But perception is powerful, and I was told to change it. To what? I liked my stepfather’s name, Dominick, but the hiring editor folded my name up like an accordion and came up with Del. So Del Marbrook I was throughout my newspaper career. Most people thought it was short for Delmar or Delbert and they were flabbergasted when I said it was short for Djelloul. Jehwhat? they would ask.

It took me a long time to recognize that this seemingly innocuous name change-I needed that job, so I wasn’t about to protest-was damaging, because it implied I couldn’t go about being me, and it also implied that an acceptable disguise was better than being perceived as “foreign.”

It also raised questions about the nature of foreignness. Is Joaquin, for example, as foreign as Djelloul? Is Singh or Piotr or any number of other names? In short, are we all foreign if we’re not Anglos or people posing as Anglos? Are the Irish more American, say, than the Italians, or the Swedes more American than the Russians? Is it “better” to look North European-even if you happen not to be of North European origin? I think the answer to that question, if you look at our elected officials, is yes. And that’s a little horror all by itself, one we have yet to fully address.

So my name has brought me into confrontation with many of the same issues we either confront every day or choose not to confront. It has prompted me all my life to consider the nature of Americanness, and it has enabled me to understand why a Native American named Running Elk, for example, may be given to know by others than he is not as American as a neighbor named John Smith. Running Elk and Djelloul know they’re Americans, but do their neighbors?

I talk about my name and the contemplations it has aroused in me and others in a poem called “Djelloul“, which has been the featured poem this winter (in the orange box) at From The Fishouse, An Audio Archive of Emerging Poets. I hope you’ll listen to it. If nothing else, it will tell you how this oh-so-opinionated blogger sounds.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.