Linguistic diversity is under threat around the world. Each challenge to a patriarchal binary system marks a step away from extinction of this richness.
This is Dialek :: Dialect, a new column by Khairani Barokka on language, culture, and power.
Not using a patrimonial surname reminds me that my Minang culture is matrilineal, and to honor the nonbinary system of naming I come from.
It seems like an impossible task to go against bureaucracies that reinstate patriarchy in our very names, re-inscribing colonial norms on which contemporary nation-states are built. Think about all the areas of life in Western countries affected by this patriarchal first name-surname primacy: visas and immigration, property deeds, medical records, death records, other areas of law, schooling, academic citations—every area of public life I can think of. The forms that require “First Name,” “Surname” are not as blatantly patriarchal as the medical forms I refused to sign as an adult woman in a Jakarta clinic, requesting my father’s or husband’s name and contact details—but they are still patriarchal, I argue, in origin, and are certainly colonial vestiges.
Of course, as someone who primarily writes in English these days, from London’s heart of empire, far be it from me to judge anyone else’s choices as insufficiently anti-colonial. From the first time I traveled internationally, Barokka has been the name I use as a “surname,” though it is not. The fact is that complying with the first name-surname binary will absolutely make international travel less fraught, while also easing other dealings in the patriarchal colonial world we have to live and survive in. I completely understand why my Indonesian peers’ children are almost universally given surnames now.
I won’t say having a surname is a privilege, as though those of us sans surnames should all want to clamor for one. However, those with patrimonial surnames are absolutely privileged—which is a different concept—by the Westernized bureaucracies we live in. Someone recently told me that at a previous job, when he served clientele who were mononymic South Asian migrant workers in England, their mononyms would not be accepted by banks and other bureaucratic systems, which meant they had to place an asterisk after their names in the “Surname” bracket. This asterisk represents, for me, a beautiful marker of not fitting in the face of systems that want to control through homogenization. I know many mononymic Indonesians choose to double up their names, and this kind of name alteration also signals to me a point of fissure in the binary-name fabric.
It seems like an impossible task to go against bureaucracies that reinstate patriarchy in our very names, re-inscribing colonial norms.
Our bureaucratic names don’t have to be how we solely define ourselves; our nicknames and other names are also sources of self and community—though I do wish mothers and matrilines, women and nonbinary people, were honored through our surnames more often. There are many subversions, large and small, in the ways we change or refuse to change the way the world addresses us: hyphenating and establishing double-barreled last names; using the mother’s name as a surname; creating new surnames altogether that reflect the family lineage of both members of a couple, or simply a new beginning.
Linguistic diversity is under extreme threat around the world, and each time a patriarchal binary system is challenged marks a step away from extinction of this richness. Having never had a surname, having only one parent with a surname, sparks in me a feeling of incredible liberation—I don’t have to choose between parents’ surnames, or believe that I have to adopt any other surname in my lifetime. While some parents want their children to assimilate to avoid difficulty and friction, I’d ask people to consider the incredible resilience and self-pride that taking ownership of a “difficult” name creates—the power of possessing a name that, perhaps, does not subscribe to the patriarchal first name-patronymic surname binary and hegemony. And I’d ask more of us to reflect on and honor the value of understanding who would find such a name “difficult,” and assert that, in the face of any perceived difficulty, the feelings of the named matter, too.
Khairani Barokka is an Indonesian writer and artist in London, whose work has been presented extensively, in fifteen countries. She is Researcher-in-Residence at UAL's Decolonising the Arts Institute, and Modern Poetry in Translation’s Inaugural Poet-In-Residence. Among Okka’s honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change. Okka is co-editor of STAIRS AND WHISPERS: d/DEAF AND DISABLED POETS WRITE BACK (Nine Arches), author-illustrator of INDIGENOUS SPECIES (Tilted Axis), and author of debut poetry collection ROPE (Nine Arches).