ANS Special Panel at the 2023 MLA Conference



Aside from their indexical discursive purpose, names also serve a pragmatic function by (in)directly providing key information about the individual and collective identity of the name-bearer.  Fiction writers often exploit this dual functionality by employing literary names that go far beyond providing readers with narrative orientation.  In the hands of the skilled wordsmith, literary names can help fortify the symbolic scaffolding upon which the story-telling rests.  From the tangible to the intangible, the real to the phantasmagoric, the literary names an author selects have a direct bearing on the power of the narration to activate readers’ conscious imagination and trigger their subconscious associations.  Chief among these associations are deeply-ingrained notions of belongingness and being.  By challenging these internal(ized) concepts through literary names and naming, the writer’s story-telling can help shift readers’ understanding of identity both inside and outside of the narrative.  As the presentations in this panel on literary onomastics will show, through the systematic analysis of the names featured in works of fiction, it is possible to gain real insights into the writer’s and the reader’s collaborative, yet distinct, process of worldmaking and identity-building.  With that goal in mind, this panel is dedicated to revealing names and shifting identities in contemporary US American fiction written for both adult and underage readers. 

PAPER ONE: Viewing Names and Identity in Diverse Picturebooks Through a Lens of Damage and Desire

A child’s name is an important part of their identity, and various picturebooks have depicted this reality by narrativizing and illustrating stories centering young protagonists with linguistically and culturally diverse names. As these young protagonists—the name-carriers—negotiate the meaning, pronunciation, and cultural context of their name with others—the name-users and name-givers—positive and negative experiences arise that further impact the characters’ perception of their name and their identity. In this presentation, we began with a framework combining a socio-onomastic perspective (Ainiala & Östman 2017) with the children’s literature metaphor of ‘mirrors and windows’ (Bishop 1990) and the educational research concept of ‘damage and desire’ narratives (Tuck 2009). This framework guided our content analysis of twelve picturebooks featuring characters with culturally and linguistically diverse names, which led to a coding scheme of six common episodes of name negotiation in the picturebooks’ narrative arcs: 1) inflicted damage; 2) internalized damage; 3) supplying desire; 4) internalized desire; 5) asserting the desire; 6) joining the desire. Our findings highlight how episodes of damage focus on the pain, sadness and struggle name-carriers undergo, while episodes of desire center the support of parents and teachers as well as detailed cultural and familial information about names. In this presentation, we describe our coding scheme and results by sharing our analysis of three picturebooks—one which contains entirely desire episodes, one which contains a balance of desire and damage episodes, and one which features numerous damage episodes. We conclude that while both damage and desire episodes contribute to the narratives, too heavy a focus on damage could lead to the perpetuation of a ‘single story’ (Adichie 2009) that normalizes pain and struggle as an inevitable experience for children with linguistically and culturally diverse names.


Carrie Anne Thomas is a doctoral student in Teaching and Learning—Literature for Children and Young Adults with a graduate minor in Comparative Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University. Her primary research interests are in linguistic pluralism and cultural diversity in children’s literature, including socio-onomastic inquiry into multicultural and multilingual picturebooks.

Blessy Samjose is a doctoral candidate in Teaching and Learning—Literature for Children and Young Adults with a graduate interdisciplinary specialization in South Asian Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research explores applications of postcolonial theory in reading South Asian children’s and young adult (YA) literature, focusing on the scope of social justice through critical readership.

PAPER TWO: Public and Private Names: The Internal Journey of Natalie Waite in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

In light of a 2016 biography and 2020 feature film about writer Shirley Jackson, contemporary readers are rediscovering Jackson’s work. One novel of interest is Hangsaman (1951). This is a book in motion, with shifting realities and narratives that are mirrored in the author’s naming schemes. It is thus a worthy topic for literary onomastic analysis. Moments of disorientation in Hangsaman originate in, and reflect, the inner life of protagonist Natalie Waite. There seem to be multiple Natalies who struggle at times to be whole, and at other times to be a different person entirely. Along with these vicissitudes in personality, the protagonist takes on variations on the name Natalie. At the point at which she is at the greatest risk of losing herself completely, Natalie adopts a new name, the gender-ambiguous Tony. Natalie is ultimately saved from slipping away and becoming Tony through the author’s device of false starts, i.e., opportunities for characters to relive and rename events in a new light, in a different reality. Natalie’s internal journey has been, all along, tracked by her public and private names.  This paper will discuss how progressive shifts in the main character’s identity are revealed in the multiple name changes she undergoes.

Contributor Bio

Susan J. Behrens holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics. She is associate dean for academic affairs at Marymount Manhattan College, where she also directs Marymount’s teaching center. Her interests are in literary names. She has presented at the American Name Society (ANS) conference and published in NAMES: A   Journal of Onomastics, and she is the Facebook special group coordinator on literary names for the ANS. Her books include Understanding Language Use in the Classroom (2018), Grammar: A Pocket Guide (2010), and Language in the Real World (edited with Judith A. Parker, 2010). She is a regular contributor to

PAPER THREE: Planting Seeds in Literary Narrative: Onomastic Concepts and Questions in Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar

On the surface, Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar (2001) is a simple story of a very young immigrant girl who considers changing her name so her new classmates will like her. Embedded within the story, however, are key onomastic concepts and questions: What are names? Who decides our names and how? Can we choose different names to use in different contexts and should we? If we change our names, does who we are change? How do names affect our senses of personal and cultural identity? In this paper, I revisit scholarly conversations about onomastic theory and discuss Abbott’s (2008) understanding of narrative as a means of knowing. I draw on Nikolajeva’s (2003) work in narrativity, that is, the ways in which the narrative encourages or discourages deeper thought about the implications of the text. Akinasso’s (1981) thoughts on personal names being part of communally-derived symbolic systems informs my discussion of the choices the child faces with regard to the name itself, the liminality of being caught between two cultural identities, and the relationship between name and self. Using analytic reading strategies, I demonstrate how Choi’s use of verbal and visual narrative devices give the story depth and create space for readers to parse out and ponder key onomastic concepts and questions for themselves.

Contributor Bio

Anne W. Anderson is an independent scholar studying semiotics of multimodal text, critical studies of children’s and young adult literature, and theories and methods of research and of llearning. An alumna of the University of South Florida, where she taught writing development and children’s literature, she currently is the accessibility coordinator at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her articles and book chapters have appeared in Children’s Literature in Education (2018), The Early Reader in Children’s Literature and Culture (2016, Routledge), Toward a Spiritual Research Paradigm: Exploring New Ways of Knowing, Researching, and Being (2016, Information Age Publishing), and Creative Approaches to Research (2015), among others.

PAPER FOUR: Politicized Place Names: Toni Morrison’s Literary Map in The Bluest Eye

In The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison introduces themes that will recur in the works that follow, the meanings of home, the perversions of education, and the injustices of discrimination.  There she also plots a linguistic landscape that she will employ again and again to reveal the toponymic politics of racism.  If Dickens tests his creativity by the names he gives characters, Morrison—his equal in names like "Pecola Breedlove" and "Soaphead Church"—proves the subtlety of her art by casting toponyms as political markers.  In her onomastic matrix, place names signify not in their derivation or connotation, the usual sources of meaning for character names, but in their racial geography. "Lorain" matters not because its founder visited France, but because here Pecola is destroyed by her father, dislocated in the Great Migration and haunted by his past in Georgia. With comparative examples available across Morrison’s corpus—a plantation named "Sweet Home" in Beloved, a trip through a race-divided country in Home, hellish tensions in Haven and the Convent in Paradise—this paper uses The Bluest Eye to establish her pattern and demonstrate her ability to highlight place names as contested markers of the racism that pervades the nation.

Contributor Bio

Christine De Vinne is professor of English at Ursuline College in Cleveland, Ohio.  She received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University with a focus on American confessional texts.  She studies names in their literary and cultural contexts.  Her onomastic work has appeared in Names, Onomastica Canadiana, Onoma, Antipodes, and various anthologies. She is the Book Review Editor of  Names: A Journal of Onomastics.