True colours

The Big Issue, Australia, Number 548 (20 Oct  2 Nov 2017)

Here is my piece that was published in The Big Issue Australia:

The other day, my friends and I were trying to decide between two logo designs – both were identical except that one was Steel Blue and the other was Bubblegum Pink. I said I liked the blue one. “Every white male over thirty loves that one,” one friend said. Everyone laughed, but the comment left me feeling conflicted. I am male and over thirty, and I guess most people would describe my skin as white – on a colour chart it would grade somewhere between Blanched Almond and Papaya Whip – but I’ve never felt white.

My parents are Armenian. They emigrated here from the Middle East in the sixties. My father was Red Oxide, my mother Ionian Green. I’m a first-generation Australian, but my first language was Armenian. I have dark eyes (Baked Earth) and dark hair (Madder Brown), and I had a full beard by the time I was five. But my skin remained fair. Nevertheless, people always knew I hailed from somewhere else. “Where are you from? What’s your background?” they’d ask. They’re not questions you typically get asked if you’re Ivory or Alabaster. They’re questions that remind you of your otherness.

When I was growing up, there was never anybody on TV that I could relate to, except Gonzo with his Armenian nose, and the Count – an immigrant who was good at maths. There were only six ethnic kids in my year level at primary school. Kids called me Nig-Nog, which has a sentiment similar to the N-word in Britain (see Love Thy Neighbour). My brother, who’s considerably darker than me (Burnt Umber) was called Vegemite. In high school, we were both promoted to wogs.

One time, a Lebanese friend held his Autumn Bronze arm against mine and said, “You’re white.” It was like a competition to him. We were contestants on The Biggest Minority. My friend disputed that I was a person of colour when my skin was closer to Eburnean or White Elephant. I tried to tell him that “colour” is not your skin; it’s your experience.

When my parents came to Australia, they immediately chose anglicised names. They didn’t look white, but thought they could at least sound white with their names. Meguerditch became John, and Maro became Mary. It made life easier for them. I don’t know why I didn’t anglicise my name as well. It never occurred to me as a kid. Instead, I’d spin display racks in shops looking for my name on key rings and mugs. “You won’t find your name there,” my mum told me after many futile searches, never explaining why.

When I left my previous career, it took two years before I got an interview for a job in the writing industry. A big-time magazine editor (Floral White) told me my name suggested I wasn’t a native English speaker. “You’ll be more successful if you change your name,” she said. When I did eventually land a job interview, it was after I had listed my name on my CV as Adam. It was for an internship with one of the big publishers. “I’m here for an interview with the editor,” I said to the Cornsilk receptionist.

“Your name?”

“Ara Sarafian.”

“Thanks, Ara. Could you please sign in?” She directed me to a clipboard on her right.

I grabbed the pen and, as if struck by a Purple Amethyst lightning bolt, I jolted to realisation and rushed back to her. “Actually, my name is Adam. Adam Sarafian.” I didn’t get the job, but I kept putting Adam on my CV and kept getting interviews. Perhaps it was coincidence.

Now I’m writing a novel-length manuscript and I’m in a bind. Do I publish under my real name or should I finally anglicise it? How does word-of-mouth work if readers can’t pronounce the name of the author? “It was written by Ari Sara… Ira Safar… I don’t know his name, but the book cover is Mallard Green and Cadmium Orange.” One thing is certain: I’ll be leaving my ethnic face off the back page – though I had thought one of the privileges of being white was that you didn’t have to worry about this sort of thing.

But colour isn’t as overt as skin pigmentation. It’s everything: your look, your name, the experience of your parents, the language you speak at home, and the history and culture impressed upon you as a kid. These things shape us as individuals and forge our identities, and they’re rarely skin deep.