They Who Did Not Grieve: The Power of Naming
Throughout Sia Figiel’s They Who Did Not Grieve, the author highlights the importance of names and naming. The protagonist, Malu, constantly reminds readers what her name means or what other words mean. For instance, in the beginning of the novel she explains, “Malu means ‘shelter’, ‘protection’, like a fa’amalu, an umbrella that protects one from the rain. It also means to protect from or to shelter from bad spirits” (Figiel 6). The emphasis on meaning of names runs throughout the novel and suggests that in naming something, we are distancing our selves from its immediacy. This reminding me of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo encounters this problem. In both accounts, the authors suggest an issue with language, in which language becomes inadequate in describing the actual experience.
Our protagonist, Malu, explains this issue further when describing her role as a storyteller. Her grandmother tells her, “Don’t Write Anything Down! It’s the easiest (and surest) way to forget things. Writing things down does that, Malu, you know? And you don’t wanna do that, girl” (Figiel 5). The suggestion that writing something down is the best way to forget things recalls the problem with retelling one’s experience, particularly with travel. When documenting one’s encounters with travel in a written form, the author often loses the ability to describe her encounters in their truest form. Also, like Malu’s grandmother, once something is recorded, it is easier to forget what else occurred. However, the verbal form of story telling allows the teller to alter the story in a more authentic way. Instead of documenting an experience in a formal and fixed way, the teller can change their story each time, making it more authentic.
These descriptions of naming and the power of naming also remind me of my own experiences with travel. When retelling my personal experiences with travel, I often need to rely on the other person’s imagination in order for them to understand me. However, in naming things rather than describing them, something is lost for the readers. Instead of describing the city in detail or the way a certain building looks, I rely on different vocabulary to articulate what I mean, but in doing that I take the imaginative process away from my listener. In a similar way, when listening to stories versus reading the written story, readers can tap into that imaginative process more easily. In this way, when someone finally encounters the city or place I’ve described, it is often not how they pictured it, mainly because I depended on words that impede true understanding of the thing. In agreement with Figiel, by naming something we not only avoid encountering it in its immediacy, but we also limit what it can be. Just as Malu is limited by the meaning of her name at different points in the novel.