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November 30, 2021
Culture

Call me by my name

Prasanna Godakumbura, a Sri Lankan-born adopted Australian, is one of several South Australians who've recently reclaimed their birth name as a way of "taking back my identity and coming back to who I was originally".

  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins

The long-haired, lanky man in front of me I have known as Duncan for almost a decade. He’d known himself by that name for most of his life, too.

That was until October this year, when the Sri Lankan-born yoga instructor, who lives in a cosy cottage in the southern pocket of postcode 5000 with a young family, announced publicly, via Facebook, he would now go by Prasanna Godakumbura.

“It’s not an identity crisis – it’s about taking back my identity, and coming back to who I was originally,” Prasanna tells CityMag.

“I was born in Sri Lanka, and it’s a bit of an interesting story. My mother was 37 when she had me and – I didn’t know this until recently – but my father was quite young, he was 17.

“So, they put me up for adoption, and at the age of three months, I was adopted by an Australian family.

“They called me Duncan.”

Prasanna doesn’t know what motivated his adoptive parents to give him an anglicised name, but he doesn’t believe it was ill-intended. However, he does feel that it’s had a deep impact on the way he sees himself.

“I was a brown-skinned kid living in a white society, in a white household, with a white name,” he says.

“You know how they always say kids don’t see colour? They don’t, but also they do. They’re very aware.”

For 32 years, Prasanna’s former name, Duncan Djukanovic, was a conversation point that would force him to repeat his adoptive story again and again.

“I was surrounded by kids like ‘Christopher’ and ‘James’ and ‘Mark’ and all these names that are very Aussie names, Western names,” he says.

“My whole life I’ve had to explain I’m adopted, my dad’s Serbian, and this is my name. It’s been a whole 32 years of just having to repeat the story because people were confused. But if I had ‘Prasanna’ as my name from the start, they’d have been like, ‘He’s Sri Lankan – that’s his name’.”

Around five years ago, after getting married and fathering two children, he first had the idea to reclaim his birth name, which means ‘cheerful’, ‘pleased’ or ‘happy’ in Sanskrit.

When migrants come here, we adapt to the Australian culture. But it doesn’t mean we have to change who we are as people.
—Prasanna Godakumbura

Baby Prasanna in the arms of his mother, Kumari Godakumbura. This picture was taken in the coastal Sri Lankan village of Chilaw, where Prasanna was born. This picture: Supplied

 

Since changing his name, Prasanna has received compliments on how beautiful his name is to pronounce. This has started to change the way he sees the name.

“I was always ashamed of it because I didn’t really like the name growing up. But then recently, in the last few years, people are like ‘Prasanna is a beautiful name’,” he says.

“And it’s like, ‘Is it? It really is. I can get around this now.’ It’s nice when people embrace the name, and it is a nice name.”

Prasanna is currently in the process of changing his legal documents to reflect his new first and last names, but he wants to keep ‘Duncan’ as a middle name.

“It’s still a part of my identity,” he says.

Although the Attorney-General’s office, which is the department that handles name changes in South Australia, could not offer any data on how many people were changing their names to reclaim their heritage, Prasanna’s story is not uncommon.


 

TRUC TRUONG

Second-generation Vietnamese-Australian artist Truc Truong also goes by a name she reclaimed.

“When my mum gave birth to me in the hospital, she said, ‘Okay, well, we live in Australia, so she needs a Western name,’” Truc tells CityMag.

“And they didn’t know anything about Western names so they just asked the nurse… and the nurse said ‘Tracy’.”

At home and in the classroom, Truc was referred to by her Vietnamese name. But people sometimes mistakenly refer to her as ‘truck’ or ‘true’, which made her feel that her birth name – and by extension, her heritage – was a joke.

When I started going to art school, I decided that I was just never going to use the name ‘Tracy’.
—Truc Truong

Truc Truong is the young girl seated at the table, boasting an impressive bowl cut. This picture: Supplied

 

As an adult, Truc experienced different challenges relating to the perception her name presented to the outside world.

“When I went out into the workforce… [and applied] for jobs as ‘Truc’, I wasn’t getting anywhere with it,” she says.

“I’d send the same résumé with ‘Tracy’ and I’d get an interview and I’d get a job. It happened to me… same résumé, different name, and I got the interview with ‘Tracy’.”

In one workplace, after getting the job, a superior at the organisation made the decision for Truc that she should go by Tracy instead, “to make it easier for everyone”, she recalls.

“I felt very deflated from it,” Truc says.

Once Truc started studying art, she decided to let get of the name Tracy entirely.

“I decided that I was just never going to use the name ‘Tracy’,” she says.

“I’ve started the process of just trying to teach people how to spell my name and how to say my name, whereas six years ago, I was really embarrassed about it. I didn’t want to deal with it.”

Truc reclaimed her name for personal reasons, but she also hopes to inspire other Trucs, and any children of Vietnamese parents, not to be ashamed of their heritage.


 

KERRY VLAHOS

The anglicisation of names in Australia is not solely a contemporary phenomenon. The practice has been happening for generations.

My mother is a first-generation Greek migrant, born Kyriaki Vlahos.

On her first day of school, Mum’s name was Anglicised by the enrolment officer, who renamed her Kerry.

Mum doesn’t know why the enrolment officer made this decision, but she does not look back fondly on the school’s decision to rewrite her story.

“‘Kyriaki’ was my given name at birth, and also the name that I was known by up until I went to and enrolled at school,” Kerry says.

“In my memory, at four years old, I have the enrolling officer say ‘Kryiaki? Oh no, that won’t do. We’ll just write ‘Kerry’.

“There is kind of an arrogance in somebody changing your name for you.”

I wonder if keeping my original name would have affected my life.
—Kerry Vlahos

“When [the enrolment officer] changed my name, it made me feel there was some kind of embarrassment or shame, that I am less-than with my name,” Kerry says. “Growing up, I didn’t want to be Greek, and wasn’t comfortable with my heritage… As I got older, I reflected on that moment.”

Kerry was born in 1962, 11 years before the White Australia policy was abolished in 1973.

She grew up in a time when ‘wogs’ – the derogatory term then used against European and Middle Eastern migrants – drew the ire of contemporary Australia.

“The name change just speaks to the attitudes to migrants in the late ’60s; the Anglo-Saxon perspective,” she says.

As a teacher, Kerry now sees third-generation Greek students proudly brandishing their original names. Instead of going by ‘George’, for example, they ask to be referred to as ‘Yorgos’.

“They’re not anglicising their names at all, and they’re very much embracing their heritage and their parents,” she says.

Kerry says she wouldn’t go back to being called Kyriaki, as she doesn’t feel like that person anymore. But my Greek grandparents call her ‘Koulie’ — a riff on her original birth name.

“I wonder if keeping my original name would have affected my life. It may not have made any difference,” she says.

“But I do wonder about that.”


 

Call me by my name

The name a person goes by does have effects on the way they’re viewed in their community.

A 2018 study in the United States found the existence of in-group bias from white Americans towards immigrants with anglicised names.

The study’s lead author, Xian Zhao from the University of Toronto, said rather than recommending migrants anglicise their ethnic names in order to avoid discrimination, “the whole of society should work together to improve the system to promote diversity and inclusion.”

For Prasanna, taking back his name is part of a bigger truth-telling story.

As a young boy, he was told by his adoptive parents that his biological mum and dad, Kumari Godakumbura and Alex Fernando, died in the Sri Lankan civil war. But he later found out this was not true.

“I really want this to be an encouragement to other people from all backgrounds to be very proud of who they are, and where the culture and the story is from,” he says.

“And I suppose [it’s about] educating white people that we are different.

“When migrants come here, we adapt to the Australian culture. But it doesn’t mean we have to change who we are as people.”

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