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
I was very disappointed to find out that the inspirational quote at the end of this post was not only actually said by Chief Oren Lyons but that Oren Lyons wasn’t even a pseudonym and that he was, in fact, a chief.
Shame on you