Claiming the History in Family Names
My immigrant father thought adopting an American name was a prudent measure to avoid mispronunciations. To me it felt like admitting defeat.
My father, Ghevont Vartanian, left his hometown, Beirut, in 1974. He landed in Baltimore to work as an OB/GYN at Harbor Hospital where he became “Ge-VONT WarTAYNian.”
He would attempt to coach people on the pronunciation: “Wartanian, like D’Artagnan from ‘The Three Musketeers.’” Or he’d give up and say, “Just call me George.”
I cringed whenever my father called himself George. I wanted him to declare his name rather than defer to its otherness. I wanted him to teach people how to pronounce his name and appreciate its Armenian origins.
History echoed within my father’s name: Ghevont is a canonized orator; Vartan, an honored warrior. Both served as Armenian leaders in the fifth-century Battle of Avarayr. But the cloak of George silenced that history. George seemed like a mask suggesting iffy links to Western Europe, a more digestible origin story for new Americans with dark complexions.
What my father considered a prudent measure to save time on awkward mispronunciations felt to me like admitting defeat. It was the defeat of failing to defend something, a name, as Saint Ghevont and the Vartanians had defended their embattled way of life. It was the defeat of accepting he could never fully belong. And if he couldn’t belong, then how could I?
One morning when I was 10, I sat on the porch with my friend Zach. He turned to me and said, “My father’s name is Charles. What’s yours?”
“Ghevont,” I answered. Zach looked at me, puzzled.
“No, Ghe-vont,” I said, raising my voice.
“No! Gh. Like the French ‘r’.”
“Sorry,” Zach replied, shrugging his shoulders. “This is America.”
We laughed, not knowing what to do with ourselves. Part of me thought he just wasn’t trying hard enough, as if he wanted my father’s name to sound wrong, to not belong in our language.
Maybe I should have said George. I didn’t want to admit it, but adopting an American name had a certain appeal.
My brother Shahé, teased by neighbors into ShayHey, could become Shane. My mother Yeran, whose name my classmates gleefully mispronounced as urine, could become Jasmine. And I could become Kevin McCallister, like the hero of the 1990 movie “Home Alone.” I identified with Kevin’s moxie as he outwitted two burglars, and for his role as the youngest member of a big, loud family. The McCallisters had something we did not, something I thought I wanted: “normal” names.
For weeks I marched around the house demanding a name change, but when I received a Christmas gift addressed “To Kevin,” something felt off. I felt lost. Displaced. Like something essential about me had been replaced by something disposable.
One afternoon years later, while I was home from college in Baltimore, my father summoned me into the den and asked about school. “Remember, good grades, good behavior, sky is the limit.” That was Ghevont’s mantra, his attempt at a universal truth to promote hard work and discipline.
“I want to show you something,” he said as he opened the top left drawer of his desk and pulled out a cassette tape. “This,” he said, “is all I have left of my father.”
My father’s father’s name was Vartan Vartanian. This is the Armenian equivalent of John Johnson, or William McWilliams. Vartan, a cobbler who’d rather walk 10 miles than drive 10 minutes, moved to the multilingual world of Beirut where nobody questioned how to pronounce his name, even if Lebanon’s official language couldn’t fully accommodate it.
The lack of a “V” letter in Arabic meant adopting the next closest signifier — Vartanian became Wartanian.
My father placed the transparent rectangle into the cassette player and hit play. It was a 1990 interview my cousin had conducted with my grandfather in Turkish, a language I had heard in passing but never fully understood. In his birthplace of Adana in Ottoman Turkey, like millions of his fellow indigenous Armenians, Vartan’s name was a hex in a place where being Armenian meant a ticket to deportation marches.
My father spoke little of the violence. Perhaps he did not want to remember his father’s stories, or the way a stray bullet sucked the life out of his older brother during the Lebanese civil war. Perhaps he wanted to protect me from how dark the world could get. Perhaps changing a location, or changing a name, could finally mean safety and belonging.
When I returned to my dorm at school, I had lost my room key. The security guard asked for an ID. I handed him my driver’s license and he scanned it before looking at me, scowling or smiling, I couldn't quite tell.
“Wartanian?” he said. “Like D’Artagnan from ‘The Three Musketeers’?” He asked if my father was an obstetrician. When I confirmed, he said that my father had delivered his son and did such a fine job that he named his child Ghevont.
Perhaps, after all, we could belong.
Raffi Joe Wartanian, a writer and musician, is pursuing an M.F.A. in nonfiction at Columbia University and working on a memoir.
By Raffi Joe Wartanian/The New York Times
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