“I think they misspelled your name.”
“But wait, where’s the ‘A’ in the beginning?”
When most people see the double consonants at the beginning of my name, they just know deep down in their soul that a mistake has been made. Some develop a stutter; others pause at its spelling as if waiting for the letters to magically rearrange themselves into something more familiar, comfortable and pleasing to the American palate. Others see “Nneka” in print and shut down completely as if losing all faith in language. They won’t even attempt to pronounce it and simply wait for me to do the heavy lifting. The re-arrangers are my personal favorite: “Nneka” must be a suggestion. Let me just spell it like this…
I’ve always had an appreciation for the uniqueness of my name, from its spelling to its pronunciation (N-knee-ka). But, oh, the confusion! While my name always made roll call at school much more interesting, it used to be a source of frustration. I did not long for a so-called “normal” name, I just grew weary of hearing and seeing my name butchered time and time again. (If baristas can eff up a simple name like Megan, imagine what they’ll do with mine). I was over the questions it raised and assumptions that my name was some made up, wannabe Afrocentric concoction. I was tired of suspecting my ethnic name was the reason I did not hear from employers, despite sending out résumé after résumé. But don’t get it twisted, there are benefits galore to having an eccentric and seemingly difficult name to pronounce. No one will ever have to clarify which Nneka they are talking about because more likely than not, I am the only one they know. When someone pronounces my name correctly without my assistance? Whoo. Sends shivers down my spine.
And while I knew my name’s West African origin, it wasn’t until I read author Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart in high school that I learned the true definition of my Nigerian name: mother is supreme. It packs considerably more punch than “gentle,” the definition my non-Nigerian parents read in the book of names they referenced when deciding what to call me. Nneka is both a place and person of refuge. It is coming home. So specific, so precise. So beautiful. While I have a slightly different spin on the original pronunciation, my name’s meaning is still the same and seeing it in this book was a real aha moment of the Oprah kind. It imbued me with a tremendous sense of pride. I started standing a little taller. I no longer cared that my name was difficult for most people to pronounce, and I had more patience with those unfamiliar with it. Discovering my name’s meaning made me feel less alone if that makes any sense. These five letters and this one name brilliantly recognizes the power of women and femininity, of the amazing woman who bore me, and of my ancestry and heritage. What a gift, what deeply rooted knowledge and power. I cannot think of a more fitting name, and I thank my parents for its gift. Nneka is a name I bear proudly.