What’s In A Name? : Names, Labels, and Identity in YA Lit

Newly expecting parents know this feeling: you’ve just had a baby and you’re both excited about the prospects of naming it. You take one look at the decisive genitalia, and, perhaps based on a list you’ve generated or a personal affiliation for certain names, the child suddenly ceases to be nameless and becomes a Tiffany or Trevor. It seems at first like you’ve accomplished the most simple thing a parent can do thus far in the child’s life, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that. You’ve just ascribed an identity to your child. It’s not that your Trevor will grow up to be a Trevor because he’s named Trevor, and it’s not that Trevor will necessarily have an existential crisis later because he doesn’t feel like a Trevor. It’s more that Trevor was never given the chance to decide if he feels like a Trevor. Further still, beyond the name, that baby boy might grow up to realize that they are not actually a baby boy at all. They may decide they’re a baby girl, that they’re both, that they’re neither — but the point is that they were never given the opportunity to figure that out themselves.

Identity is important, especially for young people who are discerning their own for themselves. And it’s hard growing up in a world where everyone – family, peers, “nature” itself – thinks they have it figured out in a way that defies a child’s feelings and instincts about their own identity. Not surprisingly, young adult literature, a hotspot genre for self-discovery in adolescence, features a number of books tackling such topics of identity. Two such novels, John Green’s Looking For Alaska and Steve Brezenoff’s Brooklyn, Burning, both in some way explore the idea of choice and agency as teenagers learn and discover about themselves in ways that society cannot dictate and ascribe to them.

In Looking For Alaska, the titular character, Alaska Young, asserts her identity in many ways, but most notably through her name. When Miles Halter, the novel’s protagonist, asks her about the origin of her name, she explains that her parents, unable to make up their minds about a name for her, decided to let her choose herself. After sustaining a placeholder name for a few years, a seven-year-old Alaska finds her desired name on a globe. “‘It was big,'” she mentions, “‘just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama [her hometown], just like I wanted to be’” (Green 53).

Any of us are enabled to change our names – in a court of law, by asking to be addressed a certain way, or by attaining a nickname. Here, Alaska was granted the unique opportunity by her parents to name herself. Now, a name doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She could have stayed Mary (the placeholder name) or become Harmony Springs (the name her mother wanted), and might have turned out the same way. What’s significant about Alaska naming herself is that she chose a name that meant something to her in terms of the person she aspired to be. She wanted to be big (important? accomplished?) and she wanted to leave home (to assert independence? fearlessness?), and she knew she wanted these things for herself at the age of seven. By choosing her name, Alaska is mapping her identity for herself. She is creating the person she wants to be instead of conforming to a mold or a predetermined assumption. And though we cannot determine how telling a name is of a person’s identity, the reckless, free-spirited and brilliant Alaska does ultimately live up to her namesake.

Kid, the protagonist of Brooklyn, Burning, however, is not quite so lucky as Alaska. Like Alaska, Kid is deciding the kind of person they want to be. Kid firstly achieves this by naming themselves. In choosing the name Kid, “as in ‘Billy the'” (Brezenoff 7), Kid perhaps hopes for fearlessness, adventurousness, and to be unrestricted by rules. Kid also takes it one step further with their identity when they choose to deny their biological sex and refuse to claim an identity that falls under the gender binary of male or female. Unlike Alaska, however, Kid was not granted this right by anyone. Kid’s father refuses to acknowledge their name and also displays a constant disapproval for Kid “not knowing whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a guy or whatever” (Brezenoff 121). Kid’s father has assumed an identity for Kid that conflicts with the identity Kid has discovered for themselves.

The issue of gender identity in the book calls to mind Susan Stryker’s essay on transsexualism, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” In her essay, Stryker asserts that to encounter a transsexual person is “to risk a revelation of the constructedness of the natural order.” What this means is that as transsexuals seemingly defy nature, they are actually shattering the illusion of what is considered “natural.” Similarly, Kid’s father cannot cope with the idea that Kid’s self-prescribed transgender identity directly contradicts with what he considers to be “natural.” It doesn’t make sense to him. It’s this confusion, however, that serves as an acknowledgement of the constructedness of the natural order, one that arbitrarily claims that a biological female must be female, that a child cannot shape their own identity, by name or gender, for themselves. It proves that just because something is confusing doesn’t make it wrong; it instead deserves a second look at the way society constructs natural law. Kid, like Alaska, is denying predetermined assumptions made about their identity, but the effort isn’t simply a rebellion against labels and the natural order. It is also about a child learning about themselves and pleading with a parent to try and understand.

The point is not necessarily that parents should stop giving their children names at birth, or that if a child is given a gender it will eventually conflict with their identity at a later point in their life. The point instead is that kids should be given room and freedom to discover themselves, discover how they would like to be called, how they would like to be identified, without feeling the oppressive weight of the world on their shoulders as they do it.

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