Naming Characters

About Olga becoming Katya.  Back when I was writing The Kulak’s Daughter I chose the name Olga for my protagonist. While uncommon here in North America, it’s popular in eastern Europe. The name, in fact, has Scandinavian roots and is meant to be a positive blessing for a child. But every immigrant knows that names don’t always travel well. What’s considered a pretty name in one language, might connote only ‘otherness’ in another.

My mom had a Tante (Aunt) Olga and there were several older Olgas in my immigrant church congregation. It was a name I associated with ‘otherness’ but also with old and with the 'old' country. Olgas were the 'babushkas' during my childhood ... along with the Elfriedas and Hildegards. Just plain old-fashioned immigrants.  I also like Olga because it translated to Helga in German and that seemed convenient to my purposes as I developed my stories. (There is no H sound in Russian. Hence, Hitler becomes Gitler.)

My editor, however, decided that the name Olga was too foreign-sounding and off-putting for potential Canadian readers and wanted me to change it. I did so reluctantly and still regret it. It seemed to only underline the foreignness of my own name, Gabriele Ulrike, a name that marked me as an outsider when I was going to school. My parents called me Gabby (Gabi) and teachers butchered my name, giving it French flair, like Gabriella, or masculinity, like Gabriel. I still have to correct official documents. And my middle name, Ulrike? Well, that’s also been an embarrassment. 

How I pined for a simple name that would blend in with the masses … like Debbie or Karen … a name that would not be mispronounced or misspelled. I was named after twins that my mom helped birth in post-war Germany, and all I can say is, I’m grateful that Gabriele was born before Ulrike! 

The Ukrainian newcomers I’ve been meeting here in Canada, all have such lyrical names like Tatiana, Elena, Oksana, Anastasia. Musical names that sing like songbirds.  Makes Gabe sound like a lonely one-note crow. 


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