Monday, June 18, 2012

The Character of Names with Dori Jones Yang

Today Dori Jones Yang, author of Son of Venice,
 A Story of Marco Polo begins her blog tour here on the Mod Podge Bookshelf!

Reflects on the Character of Names

Names are tricky when you’re writing historical fiction – especially if the story is set in a place where the language is unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. Mongolia is a fascinating country and I loved traveling across its grasslands, riding camels, and staying in yurts. But even though I have a gift for languages, I couldn’t get my tongue around Mongolian words!  The ‘gh’ and ‘kh’ sounds are guttural ones we don’t have in English, and even the ‘l’ sound gets swallowed somehow. Yet I wanted my book to reflect the beauty and richness of Mongolian culture. What a dilemma!

Emmajin is the most important name I chose. She’s the central character, a strong-willed athletic young woman who grew up at the court of her grandfather, the Great Khan. I wanted her to be appealing to readers who love strong female characters but also a believable love interest for the romantic Italian Marco Polo. When I was in Mongolia, I asked a 19-year-old woman for some girls’ names that might have been used back in the days of the Mongol Empire. One name she mentioned was “Emujin,” which she told me was the female form of Temujin, the birth name of Genghis Khan. She pronounced it “EH-moo-jin.” I liked that. But I wrote down the name, and an American friend pronounced it “Eee-MU-jin,” which sounded ugly. I didn’t want to risk my readers pronouncing it that way.  So I changed the spelling to Emmajin, which sounds more like the correct pronunciation. It also sounds like “Imogene” or “Emma Jean,” both familiar European names.  I put the name EMMAJIN on my car license plate, and another friend saw it and came up with an alternative pronunciation: “imagine.” I love that hidden meaning in Emmajin’s name. Imagining is what we novelists do best.

Marco Polo, like most of my characters, was a real person, so I couldn’t change his name. It’s amazing to me how many people know Marco Polo only as a swimming pool game! To me, his name symbolizes exotic travel and Asian adventure.  Surely he had a love affair during the many years he spent as a young man in China!

Temur takes a bigger role in Son of Venice, as Emmajin’s cousin. In real life, he became the next Great Khan after his grandfather, Khubilai Khan, died at the age of 79.  Temur’s name means “iron,” so his character is rigid in some ways. Emmajin wants to be close to him, but he makes it hard. 

Ai-Jaruk looms large in Son of Venice, too. Marco Polo wrote about her as a woman warrior who defeated all her suitors in wrestling matches and won the right to remain single and fight in battles. That passage in Marco Polo’s book inspired me to create the character of Emmajin. When Emmajin and Ai-Jaruk finally meet, sparks fly!  In Mongolian her name was Khutulun, but I prefer the name Marco used. In the Turkic language, Ai-Jaruk means “Bright Moon.”

Shirki was a historical character, too, a nephew of Khubilai Khan who turned against him. Sometimes his name is spelled Shiregi, but for a shifty, snarky guy I preferred this spelling of his name: Shirki. 

Hope you enjoy reading Son of Venice, to find out what Emmajin and Marco do next. For more, see Thanks!

No comments: