Self-Naming as History Negotiation

Becoming Emma by Caterina Edwards *

Sabrina Francesconi **

(seguirà prossimamente una versione italiana del testo)

“The grown ups almost never talked of the war. And only within the family were the name of the dead pronounced.” […] if an uncle or a sister was not mentioned, did it mean nothing, an oversight, or was it a sign of imprisonment or exile? […] Under scrutiny, the phrases and words that were left on the almost transparent paper lost their fixedness (Edwards C. 1992, 90).

The grown ups are not able to cope with history and they try to obliterate war memory through silence, both as a form of defense and as a means of survival. However to accomplish a social ethical act of mourning, they confine the “uttering” of the names of the deal to a family context The very act of mourning is a delicate, private moment of exposure to the bearable wounds of history. An act of silence, as a “sign of imprisonment,” is used to veil the unbearable wounds (Smithe K. 1992).

This passage, taken from Caterina Edwards’ novella Becoming Emma (published together with the novella A Whiter Shade of Pale by Newest Press in 1992), on the one hand articulates the attempt of the first generation of adult immigrants to overcome the traumatic experience of war and migration. On the other hand, the novella stages the efforts of the first generation of young immigrants to overcome this inherited resistance. In fact, the young protagonist, Aida Avendemis, has to come to terms with her identity problems while trying to comprehend her family history. All throughout this process Aida has to face silence. This paper aims at investigating the textual negotiation of names trough a multi-focalization: first of all on Aida’s parents, second on Aida’s herself, and thirdly on a linguistic and narrative level, where the discursive plan of the naming performance is explored.

Aida is a young Western Canadian woman of Latvian origins: “She had been born in Germany in 1949, but as a daughter of a refugee, she did not merit German Citizenship. She was officially a displaced person, her passport issued by the United Nations” (ibidem, 82).1 She had left Europe as a child with her parents and had moved to Brooklyn, subsequently to the New York State and eventually, after her wedding, to Edmonton in Western Canada. The conceptual red line running along the novella is a search for identity, for location, is the attempt to erase that prefix dis- on the label provided by the United Nation: this process is textually articulated through a quête du nom.

“Her parents had named her Aida after her maternal grandmother, who had been killed a few years earlier by a soviet bomb” (ibidem, 82). The young protagonist’s parents had named their daughter after the grandmother apparently as an actof respect, of remembrance. This act of naming is a way of exorcising history without denying the dead: the transfer of the grandmother-s name on to the daughter allows its utterance without reference to the tragedy of the past. To put it differently, Aida’s parents pay their tribute to the but get rid of whar Hyden White would call “the burden of history” without bearing a sense of guilt  (White H. 1978). While unconsciously carrying this “name”, Aida is some sort of souvenir, of memorabilia, detached from the memory of the past in terms of its knowledge and awareness. While crystallizing the memory of the grandmother, the name Aida prevents the girl’s parents from enacting the performance of that memory. It allow them to experience a nostalgic, harmless act of mourning.

Obviously, Aida does not feel comfortable whit this name: “As a child, as soon as she reached the point of self-consciousness, she was not enthusiastic about her name. Aida it was too heavy, too serious” (Edwards C. 1992, 81). Not only it is a marker of an overwhelming past, but it is also a source of embarrassment: “All the kids make fun of it. Laugh at me,” she complains with her father (ibidem, 83). At the age of thirteen, Aida made the decision of changing her name. While the previous one was a symbol of death, the new one is to be the symbol of life.

The new name is “Sandra”, which “summoned up the aura, all fluffy and pink, that drew men’s attention” (ibidem, 85). “Sandra” mirrors the glamorous atmosphere of the Hollywood movie If a Man Answers, starring Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin, which inspires and entices Aida, since the protagonist is a young wife who manages to successfully organize her family life after following some advice provided by a problem-solving book. Therefore, the new name represents the illusory solution of her unstable condition through the homologation to an a-problematic system.

The act of self-naming, while motivated by a legitimate quest for identity, is performed as a passive emulation of popular, superficial movie star. After being named after her grandmother, Aida names herself after another character; instead of articulating an autonomous space of self-recognition, sge retrieves and adopts another codified space of identification. She does not choose a name for herself but hides herself behind an already existing formulaic name.

In broader terms, the standardized Anglophone mainstream system is perceived as a perfect formula which can solve every problem. However, the access to this magic and glorious site of happiness is achieved though the passive acceptance of this rules and the passive adoptions of its models. It goes whitout saying that within this symbolic system, the ideological power of the center relies on the erasure of=f what is marginal.  In fact, Aida decides to escape marginality, where her being different invisible, in order to achieve a status of homologation and to reach the center.

At this stage of her personal growth, she is entrapped in a dichotomic frame in which the past, the family, the self represent a negative and paralyzing pole while the outside word embodies success and self-fulfillment. As a consequence, her personal decisions are taken in a strict system of refusal and acceptance.   He empathetic attitude to life shapes either enthusiastic glorification or definite condemnation. As a consequence her rigid referential mode of self-perception – that is “I am my name”, “I bear the burden/guilt of war and migration” forces her to silence her original name through an act of substitution.

This, however, is only the first step in Aida-s way towards “Becoming Emma”. Soon after adopting the new, glittering name of Sandra, she feels uncomfortable whit it. It does nor seem to guarantee the promised success: for the first time Aida has some doubts about the solid future provided by the name itself and has to acknowledge and admit “ the gulf between herself and the name”:

It was no long afterwards that Aida, to her embarrassment, began to suspect that as a name Sandra was a poor choice. […] “The weird part is that at the first it felt right. Well, not right but a sort of neat. And then, it didn’t. It isn’t me. I thought I could become a Sandra, but now I don’t think I can” (ibidem, 87).

What is even worse, the name turned out to be tricky and unreliable in that it bears plural, unexpected connotation and references instead of the one Aida had selected: it “sounded Russian. (After all, wasn’t it short for Alessandra?)”, as her father had pointed out (ibidem, 87). It hides the menace of a close connection with the negative side of the past whereas it was supposed to open a gate to a glorious future. This hypothetical betrayal must at all cost be prevented.

Emma is the subsequent option. The source of inspiration is double: on in one hand, the famous heroin Emma Bovary and her dreaming attitude, and on the other the more pragmatic Emma Woodhouse. The reference to Flaubert-s heroine allows Aida to represent her passionate, romantic self. At the same time, the connection with the Austen’s novel informs the young girl’s longing for “hints of life should be lived […] to be rewarded with perfect happiness” (ibidem, 93). Aida overtly appreciates the plural and arbitrary nature of the name Emma. The new name is thus employed for the same reason the previous one had been dismissed and although still coping with with her illusions, her dream and her longing for formulaic solutions, the girl is fully committed ti her journey towards maturity.

The character process of self-recognition is interwoven with the narrator’s search for a style. The double option between a pure style and a pragmatic one mirrors the twofold pursuit of auto-referentiality and a link with society. Moreover, the narrator makes fun of those writhers who , not far from Aida’s immature attitude, engage some sort of empathetic relation with their heroines. As is argued throughout the pages of the novella, Flaubert attempted to exorcise his love through a pure style and a passionate character, while pretending to write an oevre sur rien. Boasting “a feeling of superiority”, nausea and disgust towards the vulgarity of his characters, the French writer admitted: “Mme Bovary, c’est moi” and through his masterpiece, “he punished her and punished himself for desiring passion” (ibidem, 134, 135). Austen tries to create a passionate but pragmatic character, a “heroine no one but herself could like”, in order to criticize the hypocrisy of her society (ibidem, 108). In short, the narrator mocks those writers who perceive and represent their heroines the way Aida perceived and represented her name.

The narrating I voluntarily adopts ironic devices to deconstruct and subvert linear and univocal characters, plot, narrative devices. This recurring ironic attitude, - according ti Linfa Hutcheon not only a rhetoric device but a discursive figure (Hutcheon L. 1994) – transcends the textual space of the Novella itself and addresses a broader literary space, where masterpieces and famous writers traditionally find a codified and legitimized location.

While addressing the literary sphere to re-articulate the very terms of identity formation, Aida demonstrates that she has reached a higher level of maturity. In particular, she has overcome the unicity of self-perception and self, being able to understand the fictitious and arbitrary nature of her name. Through this distancing device, she is able to critically avoid the “burden of history”, to achieve self-awareness and therefore to question her past, to “negotiate white thje dead”, as the title of Margaret Atwood’ recent collection of essays advocates (Atwood M. 2002). Her name thus become a site of identity negotiation and therefore of history negotiation. But since every negotiation is possible only within  language, that language which has been re-appropriated through the self-naming process, the name is also a site of language negotiation. No need to remember that traditionally the naming process is considered a patriarchal and colonial marker of possession and of power.

Aida is no longer a small and insignificant fragment of a given, transcendental tale but an irreducible and unique being. The novella can be read as a process of self-recognition, which is articulate through  a prior denial of the past as an imposed history, an immature and a-critical search for models to imitate and an appropriation of the past as a dialogic system of semiotic and linguistic exchange.

As the narrator points out: “”it was through an imitation, by way of a distortion, that she came to the real” (Edwards C 1992, 93). In this sense, the novella tells the story of the personal growth of a female-ethic subject where identity is to be constructed through a never-ending performance. And the site where this performance is enacted is a fictional one, among the interstices of a story, within the textual space where all the stories are told, and (once more) negotiated.

To conclude, Caterina Edwards’ novella Becoming Emma the female ethnic-subject construction identity is not only a thematic issue with documentary purposes but more than that, it is a privileged figure of discourse, which goes beyond factual history to redefine its own epistemic core.



Margaret, Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2002.

Edwards, Caterina, A Whiter Shade of Pale/Becoming Emma, Edmonton, Newest Press, 1992.

Hutcheon, Linda, Irony’s Edge The Theory and Politics of Irony, London, Routledge, 1994.

Pivato, Joseph, Essays on Caterina Edwards,  Montréal, Guernica, 2000.

Smithe, Karen E., Figuring Grief: Gallant, Munro and the Poetics of Elegy, Montréal, McGill-Queeen’s UP, 1992.

White, Hayden, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore, John UP, 1978.



* L’articolo di Sabrina Francesconi Self-Naming as History Negotiation:Becoming Emma nel volume “Shaping History. L’Identità Italo-canadese nel Canada anglofono,” a cura di Anna P. De Luca e Alessandra Ferraro, Udine: Forum Editrice Universitaria Udinese, 2005. L’articolo viene qui riprodotto per gentile concessione di Sabrina Francesconi, Anna P. De Luca e Forum Editrice Udinese.

** Sabrina Francesconi (Ph.D., University of Trento), is ‘ricercatrice’ of English at the University of Trento, where she teaches English for Tourism and  ELT. She has delivered papers and published essays on the language of tourism promotion, and on the works of Alice Munro and Caterina Edwards, which is the topic of her Ph.D dissertation. She is interested in sociolinguistics, ESP, ELT and postcolonial studies. She has recently edited, with Oriana Palusci, Translating Tourism: Linguistic/Cultural Representations (Università degli Studi di Trento, 2006). Her current research area is ESP and in particular English for Tourism promotion, on which she is completing a book-length study.

Sabrina Francesconi è ricercatrice di Lingua inglese presso l’Università degli Studi di Trento dove insegna inglese specialistico e glottodidattica dell’inglese. Nella tesi di dottorato si è occupata della scrittura di Alice Munro e di Caterina Edwards, presentando poi  il risultato di tale lavoro in interventi e saggi.  Il suoi ambiti di interesse sono la sociolinguistica, i linguaggi specialistici, la glottodidattica dell’inglese e gli studi postcoloniali. Ha recentemente curato, con Oriana Palusci, Translating Tourism: Linguistic/Cultural Representations (Università degli Studi di Trento, 2006). Attualmente si interessa di linguaggi specialistici e in particolare dell’inglese della pubblicità turistica, argomento sul quale sta scrivendo un libro.


1 maggio 2006