At my internship I write the life-stories of people whose identities are confidential. The struggle between revealing the empathetic details of a life as part of good storytelling and concealing identifying details as part of our legal and ethical obligation to our clients is a difficult one. In most of the cases I have written up, we’re talking asylum and Convention Against Torture stuff, and the names of our clients redacted: P-C-, G-M-, Y-R-. But redacted names are difficult to sympathize with, hard to really grab onto and mourn for. It was a problem I grew out of, because after internalizing their life-stories by writing about them I did not need a name to empathize. But with about 300 words per page, educated readers will spend about 30 seconds reading each of our clients’ stories, and I want to make it easy for readers to get emotionally involved, which is difficult to do with redacted names.
I started researching pseudonyms. I found that baby-name sites were my best resources. Renaming grown adults for the purposes of the website was one of the most uncomfortable jobs I have given myself this summer. The only way I could do it was to choose the names with seriousness and respect, and tried to choose names which were hopeful. P-C- is from Albania, and so I gave her a traditional Albanian name: Besa, meaning faith. G-M- is from Togo, and so I gave her Rabia, a traditional West African name, meaning breeze. Y-R- is from Guatemala, and I called her Sofia, meaning wisdom. Choosing hopeful names was my simple prayer for the well-being of men and women whose lives have held too much pain.
I see my job as bringing the stories of our clients to life. To do that effectively, and continue to conceal their identities, I needed to find meaningful pseudonyms. Working on the website is satisfying, but sometimes it bothers me that I am not really doing anything for our clients: I tell their stories but have no effect on their stories. Choosing new, hopeful names for them gave me a chance to give their stories some peace in a tangible way.
“Although we are in different boats you in your boat and we in our canoe we share the same river of life.” Chief Oren Lyons, Onandaga Nation, USA