‘Names in fiction have an almost mystical importance,’ writes Jane Sullivan in The enabling art of naming names (The Age, A2, Sat 13 Nov 2010 p.25). Indeed, there is an almost mystical story to the name of one of the characters in my latest novel The Half-Child.
First a bit of back-story. The Half-Child ends with a scene in a karaoke bar. Earlier this year I hit a snag when I missed out on securing the publication rights for the song I’d chosen for the scene. Because I couldn’t imagine the scene without that song, I put a call out on Facebook and through this blog asking my friends to help me find an alternative. The prize was a free signed copy of the new book, acknowledgment of the winner, and the chance to choose a name for a character in the next book.
The competition was won by my friend Palani Narayanan, who perhaps had the unfair advantage of having seen the inside of more Asian karaoke bars than most. Plus being Indian-Malaysian may also have given Palani an edge, though he wasn’t to know the song he suggested was for an Indian brother to sing.
Palani and I met in the early 1990s at the inaugural meeting of the Asian Harm Reduction Network when he was working for an outreach service for injecting drugs users in Kuala Lumpur and I was based in Hanoi, working on HIV prevention programs for the Australian Red Cross. Despite a six-year age difference and a vast gulf in experience, we hit it off from the first and remained friends ever since. (The photo at left was taken around the time we met — he’ll probably kill me for using it!).
Palani moved from Sydney to Bangkok in the middle of this year, where I sent him his signed copy of The Half-Child, his contribution duly noted on page 322. I’d been hassling him for months to give me a name for a character in the new book, which I’d already started, saying it could be any name, male or female, Westerner or Thai.
As soon as he received The Half-Child in the post, Palani sent me a message: “In regards to the name for the next book, how do you feel about Mayuri? I had chosen this name as a possible name for my daughter, if I ever had one. But I guess I am getting a bit old to still fantasize about having a child. Maybe if she was a character in your book… in some funny way, she will be given life.”
The mystical part of the story is that unbeknownst to Palani at that time, there was already a character in The Half-Child called Mayuri, transliterated as ‘Mayuree’.
And it wasn’t the character’s original name. I changed it at the last minute, just before the manuscript went to the typesetters, concerned the name I originally chose was too close to another for readers unfamiliar with Thai names.
But why did I change one name and not the other? And how was it that Palani and I, worlds apart, neither of us Thai, come up with the same Thai woman’s name?
As novelist Barbara Trapido said at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September, ‘Random life is full of coincidences too unlikely to use in a novel.’