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Brianna Bell is a writer based in Guelph, Ont.
When I was a little girl, I used to spend hours drawing my name in loopy pseudo-cursive. My tongue would poke out between my teeth in deep concentration, especially for the tricky double “n” in Brianna. But when it came to writing my last name, I always ditched the one I was given and instead scrawled a name I longed for and would never have. It wasn’t my crush’s last name, though. It was the name my mother was born with.
My mother was in the tender spot between married and unmarried to my father, having recently split up, when I was born. Naturally, she dreamed that we’d be a family of three, all under one roof again. On my birth registration, she wrote the pretty much unheard of “Brianna,” followed by “Rose,” her own first name, and then an Irish surname I’d spend the next few decades resenting. It was my father’s.
Our family didn’t get that fairy tale ending, and all I’ve ever shared with my father is half my DNA – oh, and his last name. My own mother kept her married name, too, which I was thankful for as a child. I wasn’t completely alone on my last-name island, but I still wished we were on a different one. As a young child, I lived with my mother and my maternal grandparents, blue-collar Maltese immigrants who spoke the soothing melodic Maltese language. I was raised around Maltese culture and food, and everyone else, from my Nanna and Nannu, to my cousins who felt more like sisters, shared the same last name.
Malta is a teeny-tiny island south of Sicily – actually, it comprises three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. It is the only country in Europe that speaks a Semitic language, called Maltese. Influenced by Arabic and Italian, and written in a Latin script, the language represents a mix of cultural influence from many different colonizers over the centuries.
I’ve always been a proud Maltese-Canadian, and felt like I missed out on representing my country and culture by not embracing the surname I felt most emotionally connected to. There aren’t many Maltese last names, and growing up I would sometimes meet someone and instantly recognize their name. “Are you Maltese?” I’d ask. And of course, they were. It was like a mini family reunion; we’d talk about pastizzi (Maltese pastries) and the Junction neighbourhood’s “Little Malta” district in Toronto. How many connections did I miss thanks to my boring old last name, which didn’t evoke memories of flaky phyllo pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, or traditional ottijiet biscuits dusted in sesame seeds?
I did get to ditch my dad’s last name eventually. At the ripe old age of 21, I married my college sweetheart and a few years later finally went through the paperwork headache of officially taking his surname. While I may not have had any connection to the name “Bell,” I did feel deeply invested in the idea of starting a family with a brand-new name. Besides, it was a pretty cute-sounding one – who can resist an alliterative appellation?
While many women are now choosing to keep their family name after marriage, it remains a popular choice even for younger generations. In its 2017 “Canada Project Survey,” Maclean’s magazine found that 55 per cent of Canadian millennials believed that a couple should adopt one surname after marrying. Looking back, I wish I had taken the opportunity to legally adopt both my husband’s name and the name I had always wanted.
I’m now 12 years into living life as “Brianna Bell,” and in that time I’ve had three kids who share the same surname. It’s a name I am known by in many of the spaces I occupy today. Probably the most significant has been in my life as a writer. To add a second name to my byline could confuse the people who read my work. But as my grandparents age and I feel my Maltese culture and roots fading away, I’m drawn back to the last name I once scrawled all over my notebooks. Still, even though I’m only in my 30s, it feels like I’ve lived too long to finally lay claim to a name that was never mine.
So maybe I’ll try, just this once, to refer to myself as Brianna Zerafa Bell. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? And if you’re Maltese, I hope you’ll reach out. Maybe we can bond over our mutual love for pastizzi.
What else we’re thinking about
I have three children in three completely different reading stages, which is why I loved this recent list of 27 titles for every type of young reader from Jeffrey Canton. Beyond the list, I’ve loved exploring some titles intended for younger readers for myself, like A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat and Borders by Thomas King and Natasha Donovan.
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