By Melissa Lake
I wince as my professor calls out the attendance; “HAY GAN” he says, in two sharp, nasally syllables. “Actually, it’s pronounced like Hi-Gone.” He doesn’t correct himself and continues down the list. “Haygan” I say again, interrupting him. “It was my grandmother’s name. Today is the anniversary of our genocide.”
It is strange to think the one thing that we use to label ourselves for our entire lives, our name, is not even something we are free to choose. Our most constant and indelible part of our identity is often chosen before we even take our first gasp of air, gifted to us by people who are virtual strangers. And yet, somehow, our names come to define us intrinsically. How strange the turbulent mix of fate and destiny and lack of free will melds together in a near perfect form millions of times a day to blindly identify an entire future. And yet, regardless of all this lack of choice, more often than not, that name that was chosen before we were ever given a chance to form our own presence can come to define us more than any other nomenclature we could staple to our persona.
I used to say that the only gift my grandmother ever gave me was my middle name, and while I know now that that statement is inherently false, as my grandmother bestowed countless intangible gifts like courage and strength and history upon me, my grandmother’s christening gift to me is my strongest connection to my heritage.
I used to hate my middle name. How bitter I was, surrounded in a sea of Marie-s and Ann-s, with a name no one could neither pronounce nor spell, a remnant of a people and a culture no one knew about. My cultural identity became reduced to the abbreviation “H.” and was something I neither talked about nor wanted to talk about. I was ignorantly ashamed of a remnant of a history more powerful and awe-inspiring than I could even fathom, and in my shame, I disgraced a culture far more noble than I.
For years I was H. , a one letter symbol of my cultural denial. I reveled in my ease at being able to conform; a white girl with a white name. But blind conformity is boring and bland. My whiteness was not nearly as fun or entertaining or interesting as my true ethnic heritage. Being Armenian actually was a lot cooler than being like everyone else, it turned out. So when I learned to embrace my ancestry, when I learned to love being Armenian more than I loved fitting in, I became Haygan again.
But Haygan came at a price, it came with a burden of history and memory and sadness. Haygan came with a sense of duty, because remembering is a holy, sacred thing, and it is a calling all Armenians share. Being born Armenian, being gifted with the name of Haygan, instilled in me an obligation to do what the world could not, bring justice to the generations of people whose future was never formed because of one of the greatest crimes against humanity to ever occur.
But there was a sense of beauty in being born Armenian as well, for we are a rich culture not defined solely by our tragic past. For a people who have suffered so much and who have experienced no closure, we are lively and welcoming and jovial. Our tiny country and its hundreds of diasporas has a voice louder than that of nations 100 times its size. We are powerful and determined and tenacious. Now, more than ever, the world is hearing what we have to say, and they are acting with us.
My grandmother is the strongest woman I have never met, gone before I had the chance to form in my mother’s womb. A woman born in the middle of a period of unspeakable blight, may the privilege and opportunity I was conversely born into paint me as the phoenix rising from her ashes, from the ashes of her past and her culture’s history, and may I bring her honor by carrying her name with the same cloak of fierce pride and strength that she shrouded herself in.
So today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I am not Melissa Lake. On a day that reminds us of the egregious cost that comes from forgetting, I am the name that lies hidden, sandwiched between a chorus of cultural assimilation. Today, and all days, I am Haygan.