I am the last to see the water. I look up only when John Jr. and Grace stop singing, their voices sucked up suddenly like they’ve been swallowed by a vacuum. Ms. Laura turns from the front passenger seat…
I don’t often write stories in first person, and hardly ever in the present tense, but both felt right and true for this story. First person, to me, means this particular character’s voice is unique and matters greatly for the story. Who’s telling the story must matter as much as the story being told.
This story originated from a name, Simon, given to me on a slip of paper at a writers’ workshop. The name made me think about the Arabic name, Sulayman, which actually translates as Solomon in English. A hazy image began to emerge of a boy named Sulayman who has somehow become Simon. I wanted to know who this boy was and what happened to him that made him lose his birth name, a name with religious and cultural significance for Muslims.
I have a fascination with names and the ritual of naming, the stories and histories behind people’s names. I was thinking about the theme of naming in Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon. Our names aren’t just what we are called. They have meanings, literal, spiritual, and generational, that connect us with our ancestral history and heritage. To lose your name, or have it forgotten by your descendants, is to lose the story of who you are and where you came from.
Sulayman is losing himself, piece by piece, clinging to faint memories to hold on. He has to tell this story, and he has to tell it now, in the present, in the moment that might be his last. Sulayman’s voice is the voice of a child who hasn’t been a child for some time. He’s seen and endured things no child ever should, and his tragic experiences have shaped the way he sees things, and the depth with which he interprets people and the things they say. He sees the McNally family in ways they likely don’t even see themselves.
In working to capture Sulayman’s voice and perspective, I had to consider what he would reveal and what he would withhold. He would be more willing to share what happens to him, what people say to or about him, but less so how these words and actions make him feel. Separated from his family and homeland, he doesn’t exist in a world where his feelings matter to anyone. He’s gotten used to blocking them from even developing, which I see in his willingness to let go of Ms. V when she hugs him goodbye, and his turning away from Grace and her father’s special moment at the beach.
The greatest withholding happens at the end, when he immerses himself in the ocean water. Does he plan to drown himself, or is it a courage-building exercise? Does he believe he can somehow swim back to his homeland, or return to the night his family drowned and save them or die with them? Is he choosing life or death? We can’t know for sure because he doesn’t know for sure. What we do know is that hearing his true name called across the water by Grace gives him something he desperately needs. There’s a proverb about how a person can die two deaths, one when they leave this world, and the second and final being when their name is no longer spoken. By revealing his given name to Grace, and having Grace call him back to the shore with it, his name, his life, and his story are revived.
AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer, editor, and teacher born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her writing has been featured in Midnight & Indigo, Peauxdunque Review, Cordella, Ellipsis, and Mixed Company, and is forthcoming in Muslim Writers at Home, an anthology of writing by Muslim writers on homeland and identity. She currently resides in the California Bay Area with her husband and son. She can be found on Instagram @ambatakn musing about books, writing, and life.