I don’t remember how or when FEE-za was born, but I can imagine my reluctance to correct the teachers who, during roll call, would announce this mispronunciation of my Muslim name with a confidence I didn’t know a name could hold. There was no “Did I say that right?” No room for even a reluctant plea for rectification, let alone a chance for me to boldly assert myself as the FIZZ-ah my Pakistani mother birthed in my hometown of Indore, India.
The butchering was done with such conviction that I forgot it was a mispronunciation at all. My teachers probably knew better, I thought.
But it didn’t take long to internalize the inaccuracy and make it mine.
“It’s actually FEE-za,” I valiantly told my parents and younger brother, proud of the mispronunciation I’d adopted sometime during my first childhood years in America — somewhere between New York, Texas, or Georgia — at one of the dozen suburban schools I’d end up attending before high school graduation.
My folks didn’t seem to care much. “If changing your name makes life easier at your American school, then go for it,” their apathy implied.
Ease was the goal, after all. After decades of instability, of bouncing from country to country, state to state, and city to city to ensure a future safe and fruitful enough for their children, quiet assimilation to White America was a signifier of success in my parents’ eyes.
Nikita Redkar, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Austin, Texas, can empathize.
Like me, Redkar, who goes by Ni-KEY-da, moved around a lot as a kid and grew up in predominantly White American neighborhoods.
“Teachers would look at my name on attendance lists and pause with doubt,” she says. Afraid to draw attention to herself, a shy Nikita adopted whichever pronunciation caused the least fuss.
Her parents understood, just as my parents did.
“Their mentality was to survive, survive, survive,” she says. “That was just life in the ’90s.”