A few years ago, while I was living and working in London, I wrote a short play for the Old Red Lion Theatre called ‘A is for Ali’.
It was to celebrate Arthur Miller’s 100th birthday in conjunction with the world premiere of his unseen play No Villain. Four playwrights were commissioned to write response plays to his other works and I was assigned A View from the Bridge (Yes, they gave the foreigner and the immigrant a play about immigrants.)
I was curious about the politics of baby naming, especially for Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim couples in a modern world where their community is still very much demonised and villainised. The name you carry (assuming a certain melanin tone) will protect you against White America and open almost all the doors. The wrong one and you’ll be perpetually harassed, bullied, and suspected.
Subconsciously, I’m sure I was also dealing with my own issues surrounding naming since, at this point, I’ve got more aliases and dead names than 007.
There is the name I was born with.
There is the name I legally changed to when I became an American citizen (just my last name) which also included a correction of the spelling of my middle name.
There is the name I took on when I became a professional actor. (Sevan Greene)
There is the name I took on when I became a playwright. (Sevan Kaloustian Greene)
There is the abbreviated name I used as a writer when I moved to London. (Sevan K. Greene)
There is the name I used when I was working as a new writing manager and MT dramaturg. (A combination of Sevan and my legal last name.)
There is the name I have currently settled on to reflect all aspects of my professional career and personal life. (SEVAN)
I am a Homeland Security wet dream.
But I have justifiable reasons for all of them. And they all reflect the extremely problematic social and political nature of what it means to be an immigrant in America with a ‘foreign’ name.
I’ve always hated my birth name. I didn’t like the way it sounded, I didn’t like how it looked when I wrote it, and it turned into an unpleasant adjective when mispronounced by non-Arab speakers. Within my first month of living in America, I anglicised the pronunciation of it (as well as my last name), much to the consternation of my family. But they didn’t get why I really didn’t need to stand out anymore than I already did as a 12-year-old refugee immigrant starting life in America as a high school freshman in the middle of a war.
Cut to years later, when I had finally decided to move to NYC, I had the chance to choose a professional name upon joining Actor’s Equity. It was an opportunity to take on a new name and leave behind the one that I, frankly, hated. The first name was an easy choice: Sevan. It was what I was called at birth for about a couple of weeks before my parents changed it. Although, my mother and I argue about this family anecdote as she says it was ‘Sevag’ and I always remember her saying ‘Sevan’. To be fair, if I did mishear her then I’m happy as I can clearly imagine the problems behind Westerners pronouncing ‘Sevag’ correctly.
I should point out that everyone in my family has an ‘S’ name (cute). So did I (cute). Until they changed it to a name that starts with an ‘F’ (not cute). It’s like I was destined to be set apart and different from the beginning.
The last name I battled over. I knew that as an Arab-Armenian-Desi actor I was likely going to be pigeon-holed. I had friends who told me I was probably never going to play anything but terrorists and to lean into it or I would not have a career. And I refused to accept this. I wanted to make sure my name wouldn’t mark me as different. I realise, now, the folly of that given how I look, but I had been spoiled in Florida with years of being cast in roles that were counter to my ethnicity and which were never an issue. Ever.
Think about that: Theatre in the middle of Florida was more colour conscious than ANYTHING professional theatre in NYC has accomplished.
I needed a name that would throw casting people off the trail. My aunt suggested I take the common mispronounciation of my then legal last name which turns it into the colour green and to use that as a nod to my real name. So I did – and added an extra ‘e’ at the end for Jewish Flair.
That’ll really confuse them, I thought.
(Spoilers: It didn’t help. I often went to auditions I likely ‘had no business’ being at and consistently received the following praise: You’re really good. I’m just not sure what to do with you.)
And then I accidentally fell into a writing career. Well – I was pushed into the pit. And I recognised that people didn’t care how ‘ethnic’ you were as a writer. It was a boon, in fact. I wanted to keep my two careers separate, so I adopted my grandmother’s last name as my writing middle name (Kaloustian).
I should note that ‘Kaloustian’ is not a real family name because my grandmother is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and was only 5-years-old at the time she was rescued by a Christian missionary after she had been separated from her family during the escape and subsequently adopted by Bedouins who rescued her first. The only thing she remembered was her father’s first name, so that formed her last name.
And I used it to mark myself as a writer of colour.
I later discovered that, that marker meant there were certain expectations of what I would have to write and certain assumptions about lanes I would know to stay in. There were narratives that were ‘mine’ and the others were to be left alone. And for someone who is tri-cultural and trapped between two countries as a 1.5 generation child this was confusing to me. It’s something I keep battling because as we know the Dominant Culture has free license while the Other must be limited, labelled, and liminal.
In the midst of all that I became an American citizen and part of the process was filing a legal name through the court. This was my chance to correct a name I had no love for. I did not end up changing my first name because my family and everyone I had grown up with in Florida knew me as that. I felt odd deciding that they all would need to call me something new. So I kept the first name but officially changed the last name taking my mother’s maiden name. For a good reason.
The last name I was born with was not a real last name. In my father’s family they take the father’s first name to use as the child’s last name. My mother wasn’t into that practice so she chose a family name for us which was like the ‘Smith’ of the Pakistani world. I grew up with a family name that was not a family name. It made no sense to keep it when I became a citizen and the only thing I had that was inherited through my family was my mother’s last name.
It was also appropriate given that I was raised very Lebanese-Armenian and not Pakistani at all. It was an easy decision.
So I had people in Florida who called me one thing (and many of them still use my old last name out of habit) and people in NYC who called me another.
When I moved to London to focus on writing and to take a break from acting I shortened my middle name to an initial. For no other reason than that seemed a la mode. I didn’t have a political or intellectual reason to do it. It felt unwieldy to have all three names and I thought Sevan K. Greene had a better wring to it. It also meant that the simple initial was hiding something that could be interesting and worthy of conversation. We know the first name is ‘foreign’ and the last name is ‘normal’ so maybe the key lies in the initial bridge; an initial which is not typical for a middle name.
Ok, so maybe I did have an intellectual reason for it.
And then I got hired on at Theatre Royal Stratford East as their New Writing Manager and MT Dramaturg. I really struggled with what I wanted to be called because I knew I didn’t want to use my legal name, but I also didn’t want to use my professional name because I thought it was odd for an artist to be working in an administrative position (I no longer think that and firmly believe it is important). So I tried to split the difference: On official papers I used my legal name. But in terms of public facing aspects I used my professional first name and my legal last name. I was working in London under two names with only the first name being the common denominator.
This became even more complicated when I decided to start acting again and used my acting name which simply ignored the K.
And the real kicker? Linguistic differences in pronunciation and accents led to ‘Sevan’ being pronounced in a way that I loathed as much as my mispronounced legal first name. And no amount of correcting people seemed to stick. The name I chose to avoid any issues ended up leading to one I never imagined.
How I wish for the simplicity of being called George or Nicholas or Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
And then I moved back to America. Trump’s America. I have lived the last three years back in America under the most xenophobic and racist administration of my America-life. And for the first year I was back to using ‘Sevan Greene/Sevan K. Greene’ but I felt a great unease growing in me.
The culture in the industry had changed – somewhat. I moved back because I began getting auditions that defied my race/ethnicity. It seemed people weren’t caring as much (though they still do). In fact, my name became a hindrance because now no one knew or remembered that I was indeed an Other. Because I wasn’t marked as any one specific ethnicity I was now lacking authenticity to audition for roles that were of my ilk. My representation had to argue to get me into rooms because people wanted the unpronounceable and the foreign to legitimise the casting and to also celebrate the ‘color blind’ decisions being bandied about. It’s easier to tout progressive casting decisions when your actors have foreign names.
I knew I did not want to use my legal last name. For a long time I’ve avoided telling people my legal name. In some instances I’ve revealed it for legal reasons. In others for personal reason. And in a few, devious friends have uncovered it. It began as a joke and a game for me not to tell people. But now it’s become more metaphysical and woo-woo.
I do believe there is a power in naming something; in knowing a name. There is a sense of owning and ownership when you can hook into a real name. But my name is my business and it is something I own. It is my choice when and if I ever tell someone what it is. And, because, at the end of the day, as obsessed as I am with the etymology and history of names across the world, I am not defined by my name. It is an act of political and social relevance. I didn’t choose my birth name; it is not really mine.
But I CAN say something about myself by the name I am able to choose and be known by. I find power and importance in that.
A year into being back in America I played with being a mononym. I was never going to find a last name that was going to cover my Lebanese, Armenian, AND Pakistani sides. It’s impossible. I would end up being pegged as one or the other or none in some way because of a last name. And I refused to be politicised from the outside based on my name. It shouldn’t matter whether you can tell my background from my name or not. If you want to know you can ask. You’ll assume, regardless, but that’s not on me.
It also felt false to keep carrying around a name that wasn’t real; that was a construction meant to kow tow to systems of power and an industry hierarchy I no longer care about. ‘Sevan’ is, at least (despite my mother’s protestations), connected to my life in some way. It is a familiar name in Armenia. It is definitely a familiar name in Beirut. And it does carry Desi overtones with it’s spelling and pronounciation. For me it fulfills all three parts of my cultural genetic make up.
It feels more authentic.
It feels realer.
But I went one step further and capitalised the whole name. I did an anti-bell hooks. I wish I could wax philosophical about the reason for that. But the truth is I did it because it looks better. It’s more aesthetically pleasing. As an addict of fonts and typography I think it makes more of a statement and looks better on the eyes as all caps: SEVAN. Whether you’re using serif or non-serif fonts, all caps works better for it.
And I started to phase it into my life more and more. I collapsed my acting and writing careers into one. I changed my email address. Got a new web address. Changed my social media. Slowly over two years I used the mononym more and more.
Of course people who did notice it made the obligatory ‘Are you Cher now?’ or ‘Are you Madonna now?’
No. I’m SEVAN.
I am an accumulation of my experiences as a child of the East force-enculturated in the West.
I am a result of the social and politicals problematics of being an Arab-Armenian-Desi living in a Dominant Culture that has little awareness and even more ignorance of the Other.
I am a tool within and outside of an industry that has come some steps but still has a lot further to go in understanding the basics of world geography and the misnomers of Colonialist region-naming.
I’m a person who defines myself exactly as I mean to, understanding that my name and how I choose to format it is not the totality of my being or what I bring to any table I choose to sit at (by invitation or not).
I say all this while accepting that my family and the people who knew me before I moved to NYC will still call me by my legal first name and will always call me that. And I want them to continue to do so. It is a point of pride for me that they know me by that name. It brings me nostalgic joy because they were a part of some of the happiest years of my life; years I wish I could repeat over and over again. It is their true and honest experience of me, so to force them to call me a name that has no connection to them seems silly.
SEVAN is easy enough to pronounce (though to be fair I do anglicise it a little). It is enough of a marker to know that I am not White. It is simple to spell and to remember. It is a challenge to the Dominant Culture but also a contract of understanding that I am going to navigate these waters, in the industry and in life, on the terms that I choose.
SEVAN is a conscious political, social, and personal choice. And after many years, it is the best way I have found to encapsulate all the things I am and those I want to be.
It is, in my own small way, a defiance against what is happening in the world right now.