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  • Shona McCarthy

What Is In My Name?


I have two names, and within those two names, I have seven names in total. Soon after I was born to my parents, a mixed race couple, a Chinese name was selected for me:

"Luo" is the Chinese Surname I have inherited from my Mother's Mother. In Chinese tradition, the daughters of a family would take their mother's family name and the sons would take the surname of their fathers. The name itself does not mean much, but in use it appears with other words to create the names of various nets for catching birds, sifting flour, a type of fine silk gauze, an ancient form of compass and a Buddhist saint who has achieved the highest levels of perfection. It can also mean "fussy" or "talkative".

"Seena" or "Xian nà" forms my first name with two names; "Little Fairy" and "Beautiful Woman". The name is also associated with artistic merit and death. This word, "Xian" has historically been translated in the West to mean "Fairy" or "Goddess", a fascinating example (to me) of how a word's meaning can be difficult to translate from one language to another. Xian are not quite like Western Gods or fairies. Chinese deities are typically not intrinsically immortal, but eat magical peaches or pills in order to live a long time, sometimes forever, sometimes only a thousand years. They are corporeal and look much like normal people, but they may have special abilities, such as flight, speed or intellect. They more or less lead their own lives and do not seem to have a special regard for humanity. They usually aren't associated with creation and are specifically Asian. When I have shown my name to Chinese or Japanese people, they have often complimented me on it, but when I have tried to ask them for an exact definition of "Xian", they always struggle, since there is no exact Western equivalent. They will often say it's like an angel, an immortal or a celestial being. Sometimes, I have wondered if the name means I'm something like a ghost or an alien. The Chinese once believed that Heaven is ruled by someone called "The Jade Emperor", the assistant of "Yuanshi Tianzu", who was believed to have created Heaven and Earth. The Jade Emperor was said to have many daughters and sons, with his daughters being called "Xin" or "Xian". Such a being appears in one of China's most beloved folk tales, that of the Ox Herder and the Weaving Maiden. It is said that long ago, the daughters of the Jade Emperor descended from Heaven to bathe at a beautiful lake. As this was happening, one of the guardians of Heaven's Oxen stumbled upon them and noticed the youngest in particular. She was absolutely beautiful to him but he knew that he had to do something audacious to keep her from leaving before he could meet her. So he took her clothing and hid them.

Eventually, it was time for the daughters of Heaven to return home, but the youngest, of course, could not find her clothes, meaning she could not go back. At this point, the Ox Herder revealed himself to her, saying he would only return the clothes if she agreed to remain with him on Earth and to marry him. Though he had done something so outrageous, the Xian could see in his eyes that he was well meaning and earnest in his desire. She agreed to marry him and for some time they lived happily together, but they were so happy they neglected their duties to the Heavenly beings; The Oxen were not well managed, and since it had been the Xian's work to weave the silks that formed the beautiful colours in the sky and clothed the Heavenly Beings, there was a terrible shortage of new fabric. It should come as no surprise that when the Jade Emperor found out what had become of his most beautiful daughter, he was furious. But since his daughter was married, he could not or would not act. Over time, the Xian gradually came to miss her old home. Some time later, she succeeded in finding her old clothes, meaning she could finally return to see her father. By then, the Jade Emperor had taken pity on the couple and did not wish for them to be separated, so he created the Milky Way, which acts as a bridge, enabling the Xian and the Ox-Herder to meet. Their time together is celebrated each year in various festivals across Asia.

In a curious twist, the Chinese branch of a camera company from Switzerland, Sinar, has the same Chinese characters as my name. The name can be read, spoken and understood in Japanese, as well. My Western name is the name that appears on all of my legal documents.

My father said that when I was born, the family still hadn't settled on a name. While my mother was in labor he claims that the name "Shona" came to him as a flash of inspiration. It wouldn't be till a pizza delivery girl also named "Shona" came to the door years later that we would learn it was a real name. "Shona" has many different meanings depending on culture and language, but the main association my family has formed for it is with the Irish origin, since my father's father was Irish in ancestry. "Shona" is a female variant on "John" and so it, and all other variants on John have the same meaning, "Gift of God". By connecting the name to the Biblical meaning, it also forms a connection with the Ancient Hebrew culture. A DNA test revealed that I am 3% European Jew. An ancient form of John appears in the Bible's Old Testament, "Jehohanan", which means "God is gracious". Jehohanan was one in the succession of High Priests. The name has variations all over the world, from Albania to the Ukraine. "Shona" is the name of a tribe in Africa, with it's own Shona language and culture. In India and some parts of the Middle-East, it means "gold", "beautiful", "sweet" or "cute". In Japanese, it means "small". Sijin is the first name of my mother's mother. The "Si" is "思", meaning "think". It can refer to analytical thought, careful consideration or one's train of thought. "Jin" is "瑾", meaning "beautiful jade", but can also refer to flawed jade, signifying something that is beautiful in its ugliness. The two words placed together simply mean "thinking".

Marion is the Anglicized version of my father's mother's Gaelic name, Morag. Marion is derived from the names, "Mary" and "Miriam", and so it is connected to variations of that name all over the world, from Arabic to Uygur. The meaning of Marion is the subject of debate but common hypothesis include "sea of bitterness", "sea of sorrow", "rebellion," "wished-for child," and "mistress or lady of the sea." At various times in my life, the meaning of "bitterness" seemed truest. It was said to suit me in my younger years. Many Catholic hospitals are named "Our Lady of the Sea". "McCarthy" is one of the most common names in Ireland. It was the Royal family name in Ireland before Britain was United. It is derived from other Irish names; "Mac", which means "son of" and "Carthach", which means "loving", but the name is thought by some to be ironic, since the early McCarthy's were notorious for their quarreling.

Cormac McCarthy of the 15th century built Blarney Castle, home to the Blarney Stone. It is said that when Cormac was being called to a court case, Cliodhna, who may have been an Irish Xian, told him to kiss the Blarney Stone. Cliodhna had three birds who could heal the sick with the sound of their voice. But she would also lure men out to sea with her beauty. She is said to have drowned to death, cursing the Harbour of Glandore with violent waves.

It isn't easy to kiss the Blarney Stone; you have to be held by your ankles and could fall to your death. But Cormac kissed it, and in court he was able to speak eloquently and exonerate himself. Since then, millions have come from around the world to kiss the Stone, so that they too could be gifted with words. There are multiple women named Shona McCarthy in Ireland. All of them, as far as I know, work in writing, the arts or charity. I am grateful to have a name so diverse and full of meaning; to have a name that connects me to so many different histories, legends and cultures. I get to carry the names of the two matriarchs of my family, the Irish royal name and even elements of divine literary inspiration. Whether I love to write fantasy because of my name is difficult to know, but my name gives me faith that writing is something I was born to do.

(A selfie I took with some pig head dumplings, 2019.)


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