One Life, Two Names
Iyabo Angela Ajayi with her father, mother and sister in Nigeria/1976
During a slow-warming spring in Minneapolis, my application to a creative writing program was declined. When I read the form letter, sent via a website, and addressed to me by my first name, Iyabo, I experienced a kind of dissociative moment. My mind, befuddled by the disappointing news, rejected the name, deeming it not mine.
I had just ordered an Americano and was sitting with my laptop at a coffee shop. My hands shook as I lifted the coffee to my lips and sipped it in a desperate search for a steadying jolt of caffeine. When the jolt arrived, I gained enough composure to skim the letter again and to remember that in as much as Iyabo was my first name, Angela, my middle name, has also functioned, informally or not, as my first name since I turned eleven years old.
I have no one but myself to blame for these dissociative and confused moments, which are the effects of having unwittingly switched names as I neared the end of childhood. For most of my childhood, spent in northern Nigeria, I was known as Iyabo, a Yoruba name with a profound meaning, literally translated as “mother has come back.” My father, whose mother died before I was born, viewed my birth as a sign of her reincarnation—his mother had returned to him in the flesh of his second daughter. The name, which appeared on my birth certificate as my first, endeared me to my father, and bonded us together in inexplicable ways despite his formal approach to parenting.
As Iyabo, I raced through my childhood in Vom, Nigeria, climbing guava trees and plucking mangoes hanging from green, fertile trees. I rode my bike along winding roads and played in dusty fields with friends and classmates from primary school.
The switch came after my mother enrolled me in a missionary school in nearby Jos. On the first day of class at Hillcrest School, sixth grade, Mr. Jensen, a Dane, asked each of us to stand up and say our name. When my turn came, I stood up, and without a single thought to the transformative and lasting power of such a decision, I blurted out the name Angela. That was it—I had fractured my life into two and created, in those few seconds, two lives for myself that were separated and defined, however loosely at that point, by the use of different names.
Navigating the new space in which both names existed was tricky, and a few months into my sixth grade year, two boys, who were family friends, began to bully me. As soon as they realized that that I was not Iyabo at school, they followed me around during recess or lunch, and shouted, “Yaaaabooboo!” as loud as they possibly could in an attempt to embarrass me. At first, I laughed because it sounded funny. Then, it began to anger me. I told my mother about the bullying, and she spoke to their parents. When that made no difference, she met with one of the elementary school administrators and was assured that the two boys would be called in and reprimanded for their actions. They avoided me after that day and eventually left the school, to my relief.
As the years moved along, from middle school to high school, I settled into the duality of inhabiting a life that was defined by two names, by two cultures, one of which was very Nigerian and the other European. But this was how I had lived from birth. I was the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother. I was of two races, two countries, two cultures. As soon as I was conscious of this, I was forced to confront it, almost daily, sometimes with indifference and other times with a deep sense of bewilderment, of a subcutaneous crisis that left me unsure about my identity, which felt increasingly fragile and elusive.
From as far back as I could remember of my childhood, when my mother, sister, and I visited Ukraine, then part of the USSR, I was called Anzhela, or sometimes, affectionately, Yaba. Those summers, during which I roamed the countryside, with its thin birch trees, deep forests of evergreens, and expansive farmland replete with corn, wheat, or sunflowers, I was Anzhela. When my grandfather lifted me up in the air for a hug and a kiss in greeting, he called me Anzhela or Zhusia. When Baba Masha, my great-grandmother, called out to me, she seemed to almost sing my name, Anzhelochka, Anzhelochka. During those times, when our primary lives in Nigeria—where I was still definitely Iyabo—faded toward the very edges of my mind, I became intrigued by the name Angela, perhaps one of the reasons I chose it when prompted by Mr. Jensen on that first day of middle school.
After graduating from high school, I left Nigeria for college in the US where I continued to use the name Angela. It was easy and generic, even the girls who checked me out at Target’s register sometimes sported it on their nametags. Americans knew how to spell it. They did not stumble over it as they did with Iyabo, for which they had no context, no sense of origin. Because travel and time had separated me, almost permanently, from my home in Nigeria, I began to lose my identity as Iyabo. Like a layer of winter clothing, taken off, it was stored away for an unforeseeable time, until I visited Nigeria again or renewed contact with childhood friends, both of which began to occur over a span of years, and most recently, even decades.
The last time I visited Nigeria, in August of 2000, I had returned for my father’s funeral in Ososo, a village deep in southwestern Nigeria. After the service, held in a small church nestled among large rocks, we drove, surrounded by singing villagers, to the house by which he would be laid to rest. Long after the burial, I still lingered outside, casting my eyes, red with tears, beyond the low cement fence that circled the property and toward the rock formations and hills upon which the village had been built. I was wearing traditional mourning clothes—a white kaftan embroidered in the front, along with a white headscarf. I was Iyabo here. People called me by the first name my father had given me, after a woman I’d never met who had lived and died on this land.
Someone brought a chair for me to sit on—and as I sat, I experienced a strange kind of warmth that cut through the layers of grief within and rooted me with a fierce intimacy to the land, to my father, and to my grandmother, now long gone. And for the first time in memory, in a place so far-flung and distant, I found the kind of belonging, absolute and grounding, that had eluded me most of my life. As a result of that experience, that rare feeling, I have often thought that one day I must reclaim that childhood name, return full circle to its nascent and profound roots, and embrace with courage whatever that choice would bring my way, rejection, dissociative moments and all.
Angela Ajayi spent over ten years in publishing, mainly as a book editor, until she became a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Calvin College and an MA from Columbia University. Her essays and author interviews have appeared in the Star Tribune and Afroeuropa: Journal of Afro-European Studies. She currently writes book reviews for The Common Online. Her first short story, “Galina,” will be published by Fifth Wednesday Journal this fall. She likes to think she defies easy categorization, identifying through birth and citizenship as a Nigerian-Ukrainian-American writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.
All Articles by Angela Ajayi
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Drawing on the Universal in Africa (French Version): An Interview with Marguerite Abouet
Kenya’s Unrest: An Interview with the Kenyan Poet Mukoma Wa Ngugi
PEN WORLD VOICES
Everything Is Complicated: An Interview With Nadia Kalman
On Reading and Writing in the Future and Now – Blogs, Twitter, and the Kindle
Literature, Life and Death: On the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Umberto Eco
In Spite of the Gun: Remembering Ken Saro-wiwa, Nigerian Writer and Activist