The power of names – radio interview


Maria Zijlstra: This week I’ve invited Mem Fox to be interviewed. Hi Mem.

Mem Fox: Hello Maria.

Maria Zijlstra: Mem, you are, as we all know, a writer and have been for years, and a very famous, much-loved one too. But, as you point out in the covering letter at your website, for many more years you’ve worked in a university teaching teachers how to teach reading and writing, right?

Mem Fox: Yes.

Maria Zijlstra: And you’ve got a newly revised edition of a book called English Essentials, which I’ll give the details about a bit later, but at your website you also have a page with the heading ‘Mem’s Name Story’ where one can skip off elsewhere to hear you telling a short version of the story of how you came by your ‘Mem Fox’ name.

Mem Fox: Yes, I do. I don’t reveal my real name though, if I remember rightly.

Maria Zijlstra: May I play it?

Mem Fox: Indeed.

Maria Zijlstra: Okay, here it is.

Mem Fox: [recording from website] Hello, my name is Mem Fox. Very easy to pronounce, very easy to read, but it wasn’t always ‘Fox’ and it wasn’t always ‘Mem’. Of course I was a different person when I wasn’t married. I was ‘Somebody’ Partridge, and then I married a Fox. Everybody thought that was funny. But I did have a different first name for about the first 13 years of my life. In fact I still have that name, it’s my real name, but I didn’t like that name, so what I did was this. I, with two of my friends when I was about 13, decided to change my name, to shorten it. My best friend was called Barbara and she became Blar, my next best friend was called Caroline and she became Clang and I changed my first name to ‘Mem’ and I’ve lived happily ever after.

Maria Zijlstra: Do you remember that?

Mem Fox: I do, I do remember that.

Maria Zijlstra: So, we’ve just heard that there were three of you, three 13-year-old schoolgirls who all changed your names at the same time; Barbara to Blar, Caroline to Clang and you to Mem.

Mem Fox: Yes, that’s what we did. It was weird, I can’t believe that we sat there and said, right, let’s get better names than the ones we’ve got. It must have been initiated by me because ‘Barbara’ and ‘Caroline’ are perfectly normal names, I would have been very happy to have been either a Barbara or a Caroline because they don’t need explanation, whereas (dot, dot, dot) my name needs explanation every single time you say it, and it has to be spelled, and it has to be explained that it’s not this name because it sounds like that and it’s not that name because it sounds like that, it’s actually unique, and I know that you cannot say ‘almost unique’ because you can’t qualify ‘unique’. You can’t say ‘very unique’, you just have to say ‘unique’. It’s not completely unique because it’s a square in Dublin in Ireland. I’ve never been there but it is an aim of mine to stand in that square and to feel good about my first name for the first time in my life.

Maria Zijlstra: I wondered whether (dot, dot, dot) wasn’t one of those familial names, one that gets passed down and becomes terribly archaic and a bit odd.

Mem Fox: No, would that it had been. I had great-aunts with very interesting names: Pearl (actually Pearl was my grandmother), Effie was my great-aunt, a lovely name, Amy was my grandmother, Dora, lots of normal names, these are normal names. I think my parents were…had they lived in the 60s and early 70s they would have been hippies, I think. They wanted something different, they wanted a different name that made their little child stand out but what they didn’t think about when they named me was how often I would have to explain it in banks, at passport offices and in schools every single year, spelling it out yet again for a new teacher. You know, when I say it people think it’s a pretty name, but it was a heavy name, Maria, it was a heavy name, and I felt that I was much more…let me put it this way, elfin, much more elfin than that name. It was just three syllables of weight, whereas ‘Mem’ is a click of the fingers.

Maria Zijlstra: And in your story you tell that you wanted it shorter, so that kind of fits in to that elfin image. How did you luck on to ‘Mem’ though?

Mem Fox: The first two letters of my real name are the first two letters of ‘Mem’. My real name then wanders off into two other syllables, and I just put ‘Mem’ at the end of it, because had I put the last letter of my real name at the end of it I would have been called ‘Men’ which would have been really ridiculous because to have been called ‘Men’ when you’re a girl would have been very foolish.

Maria Zijlstra: Yes, you’re not.

Mem Fox: No, I’m Mem and I’m not foolish.

Maria Zijlstra: Yet there is, isn’t there, a lengthened version of ‘Mem’ in use, a ‘Memsie’.

Mem Fox: Yes, ‘Memsie’ is what my father called me. After I changed my name, his pet name for me was then ‘Memsie’, which I really liked, and one of my close friends in emails, even if not in real life always calls me Memsie, and sometimes my American editor calls me Memsie. It’s a warm name, I love ‘Memsie’, that’s fine, that’s an okay name.

Maria Zijlstra: Well, it’s a bit like ‘Mumsie’, isn’t it? I wondered whether a child had perhaps called you that.

Mem Fox: No, no, it was just my father and a couple of friends.

Maria Zijlstra: I have to tell you now that I know the word ‘mem’ in Frisian, ‘mem’ does mean ‘mother’, and everyone has heard of Frisian cows, and in the capital city of the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, the capital city being Ljouwert or Leeuwarden there is a beautiful life-size copper cow with a little plaque at its feet that says Us Mem, ‘Our Mother’. But while we’re on the mother/child theme or before we leave it, what does your mum call you? You may say (dot, dot, dot) if it’s a name that can’t be said.

Mem Fox: Yes, my mother called me Mem, but when I was small…and I suppose this suited me, I was very white-haired, white-blond child, and a happy-go-lucky child, I was the oldest and therefore enormously happy for the first four years of my life until somebody else came along and put my nose out of joint. So we’re going to get very close to revealing my name because we’re going to have one letter left before we finish this interview, you’re so naughty! But because of the length of my name, even my parents shortened it, they didn’t call me my full name, and for a very long time in the household and among close relations and friends I was called Merri. We know from something I said earlier that my name ends in N, and it has to be a vowel and there are five to choose from, and I go no further.

Maria Zijlstra: It’s you who’s naughty, it’s teasing. Just to get a bit serious for a moment though, there is something about a name claimed as your own when you do it yourself that makes it very special, and yet a name that’s given isn’t lightly discarded and, as you say in your story, you still have that name, it’s your real name, is what you say. But what do you mean, ‘real’?

Mem Fox: What I mean by ‘real’ is that my real name is on my driving licence, my passport, my birth certificate, the deeds of houses when I buy them, any legal document has my real name on it. Book contracts have my real name. I don’t like it…I’ll tell you what I’m embarrassed about and that’s when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room…say I’m seeing a specialist for the first time and I’ve written out my real name because legally I have to write my real name, and then it’s called out and I’m in a room full of people and it’s called out and I hear it and I’m embarrassed, I think, ‘Well, who is that person?’

Maria Zijlstra: I was just going to ask you, how does it feel when…?

Mem Fox: It feels weird. It feels wrong, it doesn’t feel like me, it feels like a maiden aunt.

Maria Zijlstra: Yet, when you say who you are in that lovely little version of how you came by your name, you don’t say, ‘I am Mem Fox’, you say, ‘My name is Mem Fox.’

Mem Fox: Well, only somebody as deeply psychological as you obviously are, Maria, would have picked that up. Isn’t that interesting? I think that when I said, ‘My name is Mem Fox,’ because that’s what I did say, ‘My name is Mem Fox,’ I think that that was set down by the people who asked me to do it because it is a website of names of children’s authors all over America, and I think they obviously thought I was American because I’ve published so many books there, so I was included in that list, and I think I did have to start with that sentence. I don’t think it was my sentence, I think it was put into my mouth.

Maria Zijlstra: You’re right, because all of the other ones, they also say, ‘My name is…’ but in the middle of your little story you say, ‘My best friend was called Barbara,’ you don’t say, ‘My best friend was Barbara,’ ‘She was called Barbara,’ as though she was really someone else. So I still want to ask you, who are you?

Mem Fox: I am definitely Mem Fox. My name is Mem Fox and I am Mem Fox. I once said to my husband, ‘It’s so irritating, this other name, do you think I should change it, do you think I should change my name to be ‘Mem Fox’ completely and forever and legally and everything else?’ And he said, ‘Can you imagine the things that would have to be changed and the drama that you would have to go through? It’s not a great hassle for you to have two names, why bother to change your real name to Mem? It’s ridiculous, just deal with it.’ So I have, I’ve just dealt with it, but I seriously considered not having my real name, because it’s so unlike me, Maria, it’s so unlike me. It’s ponderous, it’s serious, it’s humourless, it’s strict.

Maria Zijlstra: Mem Fox, thank you so much for joining me here for Lingua Franca this week and participating so freely in our onomastic exercise.

Mem Fox: My pleasure, I think. I think it was my pleasure, Maria.

Maria Zijlstra: And the rest was mine entirely.

Mem Fox: Thank you.

Maria Zijlstra: Mem Frances Fox. And the newly revised edition of the textbook called English Essentials: The wouldn’t-be-without-it guide to writing well that she co-wrote with Lyn Wilkinson for secondary school students is just out from Macmillan Education Australia.