“I know it’s an unusual name, but my mother is rather a fan of word games. And Enola spelled backward reads, well, ‘alone,’” Enola mentions at the beginning of “The Case of the Missing Marquess.”

Drawn into this lonely girl’s story, my fifth-grade self quickly read through all the pages, hoping that Enola would find some consolation for her gloomy circumstances. Left by her mother and neglected by her older brothers, I desperately wanted Enola to find some solace. 

As the story progressed, I came to understand that its purpose was to show how Enola discovers she isn’t alone and that you can find friendship in the unlikeliest of situations (an appropriate lesson for a children’s book). I changed my assumption about her name: Enola’s name serves as a reminder that she is never truly alone. The name was, in fact, very fitting. I was in awe by the way the author used her name to contrast the idea of loneliness with friendship: One’s name can carry so much weight or significance. 

Hearing Millie Bobby Brown repeat those words in the recent movie “Enola Holmes” caused me to revisit this particular story, and the thoughts I have surrounding the idea of assigning names. As I continued on my reading journey, I started subconsciously keeping a mental repertoire of the characters I enjoyed reading about. I mapped out what their names could represent in the context of the book and what other significance I could derive from them. I believe that authors purposefully choose characters’ names to make a point. The way they interact with their names or the meaning behind them displays important aspects of their identity. As a reader, I am impacted by their messages. The following are some other characters whose names have taught me something. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot 

The mustached Belgian detective extraordinaire, Hercule Poirot, never misses an opportunity to correct his peers on the pronunciation of his name. The detective insists on precision and neatness: not a spot on his clothes, a smudge in his shoes or a hair too long in his mustache. As I read more books, my admiration for the strange detective grew. Poirot manges to dramatically expose the murderer in a suspenseful, yet coherent manner. He does so with great confidence, conviction and a touch of panache. He is unapologetic and refuses to let the judgements of society cloud his pursuit for justice, and in doing so, creates a renowned reputation for himself. He is clearly accomplished, why shouldn’t he demand respect toward his name? 

Pride and Prejudice

In my opinion, “Pride and Prejudice” is a literary masterpiece. I adore the character development and the 1800s drama, which meld together to encapsulate a perfect romance. That being said, I’m a sucker for a “Pride and Prejudice” retelling. My favorite retelling is “Unmarriageable” —  set in Pakistan, reflecting the country’s culture in the characters’ names. The author cleverly changes Elizabeth Bennet to Alysba Binat, creating the perfect parallel. Binat means “girl” in Arabic, tying in with how the famous first sentence of “Pride and Prejudice,” and likewise “Unmarriageable,” questions the role of women in society. 

Alysba writes her own variation of the sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband!” She reverses the genders in the original statement, and in doing so, sets a new precedent for women. She also questions why it is that a woman’s goal must be to have a husband. Her relatively bold assumptions of the role of “binat” cause drama, conflict and, of course, some humorous altercations in the modern retelling. 

A Woman Is No Man

Isra from “A Woman is No Man” is a beloved character of mine. This tragic yet hopeful story, outlines the roles of women, the oppression of women and how the characters eventually embrace womanhood. Isra in Arabic means “night journey” which references the miraculous journey the Prophet Muhammed SAW made to the seven heavens. This connection is metaphoric, comparing two extraordinary journeys. The journey Isra embarks serves as a powerful reminder to me about the tremendous strength of a woman. 

Ms. Marvel

When Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, hit the shelves, I immediately ordered it. A marvel superhero series, featuring a young, Muslim, Pakistani girl, obviously appealed to me, a Muslim, Pakistani girl. Kamala in Urdu means marvel, so the name is an appropriate fit. Even her last name is the same as mine! Seeing a name like mine on different platforms, especially in books, makes me proud. Perhaps readers can come to appreciate the beauty of my heritage, religion and background, which I hold so dear. 

***

As I think about more and more characters, a pattern emerges: names showcase an important aspect of each character’s identity. When I think of my name, Zoha, I am reminded of my values. Zoha means the first light of dawn from a chapter in the Quran. This natural phenomenon and the complexities that are behind it, remind me of our humanity. I’m comforted knowing that there is a higher power watching over me.

The meanings I have extracted from these beloved characters’ names inspire me to be more unapologetic, like Hercule Poirot, to question societal norms, like Alysba, to honor a woman’s strength, like Isra and to celebrate culture and background, like Kamala. Our names portray our identity; we should embrace them wholeheartedly.

Daily Arts Writer Zoha Khan can be reached at zohak@umich.edu.

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