When my father would come home from work, lighting up our windows with his headlights, my siblings and I would rush downstairs to welcome him. On days when we were too drawn to the TV upstairs, we would wait for my mother to recite our names – always in order of birth. Never, she’d say, in order of favorites. Either way, I was third.
It was then that I was most aware of my Nigerian roots.
Mommy said my name the way it was meant to be said – loudly. But during any reading of the class roster, my name became the silence before the stammer before the surrender. Sitting on the page, my name overwhelmed and intimidated most who encountered it. As I imagined they would react upon seeing a foreign dish on a menu, my teachers would admit defeat, saying: “I won’t even try it.” They’d leave it to me to pronounce it to the table, altering the ingredients until the dish became more familiar, more digestible. Over time, I started to respond to the butchered version of my name. It did not sound as sweet, but I acquired the taste.
When my mother said my name, not one of the three syllables was diluted or mangled, assimilated or Americanized. Effortlessly, she would paddle forward and ride the wave of the double ‘n’ and subsequent vowel, then bend around the hard consonant – never neglecting intonation at any point.
So, what did it sound like?
A motherly lullaby in the hum of the first, a motherly concern in the pitch of the second, and her motherly release in the staccato of the third, and each time it was a warm satisfaction that filled me like the fufu that snugged my throat as it slid down the trail of egusi soup every Monday evening. I could always hear it, no matter how far away I was.
In Igbo, Nneka means “mothers are the greatest,” or so I had been told. I don’t speak the language, but I remember my mother translating it for me as a little girl. As I grew, I heard several variations of its meaning, my favorite, and the most accurate, being “mother is supreme.” (Tell me a time you’ve described someone as supreme.) A woman who had just finished reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart first revealed this meaning to me. Every time I’ve said the words since, I’m reminded that I still have not read the book whose rich red and yellow cover ornaments my bookshelf, the book that my dad told me to read in the 6th grade, the book that I then stole from Uche’s room and never returned and never read but carried around with me from dorm to dorm to dorm to homestay to apartment to apartment to this day.
I once joked with Mommy that the reason she shouts my name so much is because she likes to compliment herself. When I say my name, I’m asked if it means that I will be a great mother. I never thought of it that way, that my name could possibly be referring to me. Aren’t all of our names more of a reflection of our parents than they are of ourselves?
My dad had suggested a different name. It can certainly be her name, I imagine my mother saying, but it won’t be her first name. It won’t be the name that is called out, the name that is repeated, the name that is declared. And just like that, my father’s suggestion was demoted to my middle name.
Nneka is my mother’s name (for me).
For when I pronounce it, I do so with hesitation. The three syllables shrink to two and are sometimes even reduced to a gesture: me pointing to my neck and then out. Neck-uh, I say – knowing how different I sound from my mother, how different I am from my mother. Too many times, I’ve been exposed by Nigerians who can sense my lack of comfort with an Igbo alphabet that has never truly felt like my own, and an Igbo accent that I never truly inherited. My mother’s name sits heavy on my tongue. It’s hard to swallow, and I’m too embarrassed to spit it out. So it sits and it sits, and I continue to chew.