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Image: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I was 15, I changed my last name by deed poll. My parents had recently divorced, and my Mum suggested that we choose a new family name. Inspiration came from all over – street signs bearing the names of town founders, newspapers, celebrities, even the dictionary. My two younger sisters and I spent hours rifling through the brittle pages of the phone directory, seeking out the unlikeliest of names (Sexton! ​Dick!).

Looking for a new name was a kind of rechristening: a search for a new familial identity. Eventually a name was chosen – I can’t remember who picked it; this is an origin story partially lost to teenage preoccupations and hormones. What I do remember is a series of seemingly divine signs as the name Maddison suddenly appeared everywhere; as the title of a new magazine or the brand of a ceiling fan spinning lazily in a hospital waiting room. I do remember that we chose the name with little regard to its etymology. In fact there is some historical conflict over its roots – either that it is a variation of Mathieson, meaning son of Matthew; or that it is a matronymic name originating from the mother, in this case meaning son of Maddie or Maud.

Apart from a few teachers telling me that I couldn’t just go and change my name (watch me then), it was seamless. With the flourish of my signature on an application form, I went from Brooke Malouf to Brooke Maddison. And with the loss of my ‘ethnic’ surname, I was no longer identified as different.

In my regional NSW primary school, the other kids often asked me where my Dad came from. My answer was always the same: Sydney. I thought the question meant that my classmates (and their parents) read his exoticness as big city sophistication, not that they couldn’t place his foreign looking features. If I had grown up in a city – Sydney, Melbourne, maybe even Brisbane – things would have been different. Malouf would have blended in amongst a sea of names from all over the world. But in regional Australia in the 1980s and early 90s, or at least my corner of it, having a ‘foreign’ last name pinpointed me amongst a sea of whiteness.

In regional Australia in the 1980s and early 90s, or at least my corner of it, having a ‘foreign’ last name pinpointed me amongst a sea of whiteness.

During my childhood I experienced very little Lebanese culture, partly because I grew up in regional Australia and partly because my Dad himself was half Lebanese. I saw my jidi, his father, only occasionally. Yet despite the lack of Lebanese culture in my day-to-day life, the name alone gave me a cultural identity that stood in, at least partially, for my lack of language or family traditions.

During this time I was fed two conflicting stories about my last name. Firstly I was told that Malouf was the Lebanese equivalent of Smith. That it was common and well known, and I shouldn’t worry about the mispronunciation (daily), questioning (almost constant) and teasing (at worst) that I faced.

Secondly, to counteract the teasing I was told that we were probably related to the writer David Malouf. It took me years to understand how unlikely this was if our name really was the Lebanese Smith; yet I clung to this tenuous link as if it provided a key piece of my identity.

I have since discovered that Malouf is not in fact the Smith, Jones, or even Williams of Lebanon – it comes in at number 101 on a list of common last names, as frequent as names like Knight or Mason in Australia; neither obscure nor ubiquitous.

Over time I grew into my new name. The act of changing it was exciting, new, rebellious. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name Malouf – and despite the attention it received I was barely aware of how changing it might shift and alter my identity. Perhaps the lack of a Lebanese community around me contributed to how easily I gave up the name. And at the time I wasn’t aware of the privilege of passing – those revelations were to come much later in life. At the time I simply liked the way my first and new last name sounded next to each other, the way they fit together. More than once I was told that my new name sounded like the name of someone famous, and even (ironically) that it sounded like the name of a writer. By the time I finished high school it was like I had never been anyone else.

At 18 I left my home behind, and with it most of the people who had known me as Malouf. I travelled to places where I could be lost among crowds that swelled and breathed with all of humanity. I spent years immersed in the megacities of India and the bustling alleys of Kathmandu. Places where my otherness took immediate and obvious effect. As an outsider I felt at home in these places: I was so different that I was afforded the pleasure of living outside of societal norms.

I then migrated to North West London – a place where people fill the space completely; with their jarring accents, colourful clothes and food that cannot be contained neatly within the walls of shops. There is an ever-present sticky clamour of things pressing up against each other: pubs, greengrocers, betting shops, double-decker buses, churches, kebab shops, discount retailers, mosques, market stalls, bodies.

I paced those streets as an outsider. I lived at the crossroads of multicultural Harlesden, Wembley and Ladbroke Grove; and not far from Edgeware Road, the buzzing epicentre of Lebanese London. Here I was free to explore and express myself in a way that I never could in small-town Australia. Maybe I didn’t need a name to assert my identity.

And yet, the claiming of my cultural heritage, without the name to back it up, remained confusing and difficult for others to read. At work in the UK I was jokingly referred to as the ‘one with the American name’, variations on the theme of Brooklyn or Madison Square Gardens. My partner at the time teased me for my made-up surname, and pointed out that any attachment to my former last name was an attempt to claim a cultural identity I hadn’t really earned, coming as I did from a country that – as the settler-colonial joke goes – is largely devoid of its own culture.

Even though I grew up with very little Lebanese culture, the name gave me cultural identity. It carried weight, imagined or otherwise, not just for me but for those around me.

After a few years of living in London I had started to self-identify as ‘mixed race – other’. This was the way I had been brought up to see myself, and now I had the option presented to me in a neat little box on paperwork and forms. One damp afternoon I found myself waiting at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases with a friend as the hours stretched and elongated into evening. I was given a form to fill out and ticked my chosen signifier, only to be called out by her Dad.

‘But you’re not mixed race.’

‘I am, my Dad’s half Lebanese. I used to be called Malouf.’

‘That’s not what mixed-race means.’

‘What does it mean then?’

He didn’t have a clear answer for me, but I left that conversation with the understanding that to others, I would always be read as Anglo.

I came to realise how much I liked my old name. It had marked me as other, and somehow the name reflected a part of me that felt like I didn’t fit in. The name provided a reason for my difference: people had a direction when asking me about otherness and I felt like I had answers. When I changed my name it was to a more generic name of Anglo heritage, a name that was immediately read as white, privileged, girly, even ‘pretty’. Maybe this new name didn’t reflect me as much as I thought.

Because I pass as Anglo, some of my friends are still shocked when I remind them of my heritage. Even though I grew up with very little Lebanese culture, the name gave me cultural identity. It carried weight, imagined or otherwise, not just for me but for those around me. It would have been different if I’d grown up somewhere else (Sydney, London, Beirut), and perhaps it would have been different if I looked more Lebanese, whatever that might mean.

Passing has made my life easier – it affords me privileges that I can’t deny. These are privileges that I didn’t take into consideration when I changed my name. My world, at least back then, was a more innocent one. There are people I know, as well as others well documented in the press, who have been denied entry to countries, detained and interrogated, based solely on their Arabic or ‘Islamic-sounding’ names. It feels strange, duplicitous even, that I have avoided this fate just by decoupling myself from a name and an identity.

In the end, both names are knotted to the very core of my identity. They reflect myself back to me – plural, shifting and ever changing.

As an emerging writer in Brisbane I often come across the name Malouf, attached to one of literary Brisbane’s favoured sons. I have spent time in the hushed rooms of the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library, poring over David Malouf’s draft manuscripts and boxes containing his handwritten notes, some of them scrawled on the back of napkins. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for: an insight into my past, a revelation about why it was so easy for me to let go of my name and with it, a piece of my identity?

I wonder if it would be any different if I still carried that name, especially as I try to establish my voice as a writer. As a student of writing at his former university, would I be asked about my name, mirroring the questions that followed me as a child? I find myself fantasising about writing a longer story, wherein I track down my family tree and go in search of David, hoping to discover that those fragile family links might actually carry some weight.

I’ve come to realise that my identity is tied to both of my names, and the disparate narrative threads that they carry. The unexpected joy of having a name that made me stand out as a child; a name that maybe, thrillingly, linked me to a literary great. The story that goes with choosing a new name, one plucked seemingly from nowhere, with no personal history tied to it. How much has my name, or the act of changing it, altered something in me? Or has it just modified the way that others see me? I see Malouf as a part of my history, almost like a maiden name. Even though I can’t imagine going back to it or changing my name again, I still want to recognise and claim my past as an integral part of myself. In the end, both names are knotted to the very core of my identity. They reflect myself back to me – plural, shifting and ever changing.