Names and Places in "The Crofter and the Laird" and "Meatless Days"

Sarah Petrides, American Civilization Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, Autumn 1997

One of the most impressive features of John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird is his discussion of the names of the people and places of Colonsay. Not only does McPhee use these lists to praise the beauty of Scots Gaelic and to evoke a sense of local history, but he also intends them to anchor the people to the land, the land to the people, and the people to one another. He lists the following people-oriented place names: "Caolas nan Locharnach (the Norsemen's Channel), Bogha nan Diurach (the Reef of the Jura Men), . . . Sguid nam Ban Truagh (the Shelter of the Miserable Women), . . . Carraig Chaluim Bhain (Fair Malcolm's Fishing Rock), Cariag Ghill-easbuig Ruaidh (Red Archibald's Fishing Rock)," and so on (54). These names remind us of the almost sessile nature of the people of Colonsay, and of their past and continued link to one place. The land and people are linked through these names.

Later, McPhee writes,

Donald MacNeill of Garvard, for example, is known throughout the island as Donald Garvard, and never as anything else. His wife, Joan, is Joan Garvard. . . . Roger Machrins, an uncle of Donald Garvard and Flora Oronsay, is a first cousin once removed of Donald McNeill of Kilchatten, who is know as Donald Gibbie (son of Gilbert). [57]

Here McPhee reminds us of Donald MacNeill's connection to the place of Garvard, and Donald Gibbie's lineage as the son of Gilbert NcNeill. Links to the land and links between people are reinforced through these names. McPhee's names are about solidity and solidarity.

In contrast, names in Suleri's Meatless Days are about mutability and instability. Previous classes who've read this text have noted that names are significant. Let's discuss how they work while keeping in mind how they have functioned in the texts of authors such as McPhee. We might take as an example Suleri's description of her friend Mustakori, about whom she writes,

That summer, dressed in Fabron red and green, Faze Mackaw changed names like clothes, getting up as Fancy and going to sleep as the Fonz. It rapidly became our favorite game, to see the permutations we could put to Mustakori's name, tossing it around like a beach ball on sultry afternoons. [64]

Here, names are play. They do not fix an identity, they fragment it, even as they define its smaller elements. But what about the following passage? Does the same hold true here?

For never has there been, in modern times, such a Homeric world, where so much value is pinned onto the utterance of name! Entire conversations, entire lives, are devoted to the act of naming people, and in Pakistan, the affluent would be totally devoid of talk if they were unable to take names in vain. Caste and all its subclassifications are recreated every day in the structure of a conversation that knows which names to name: "Do you know Puppoo and Lola?" "You mean Bunty's cousins?" "No, Bunty's cousins are Lali and Cheeno, I'm talking about the Shah Nazir family -- you know, Dippoo's closest friends." "Oh, of course, I used to meet them all the time at Aunty Daisy's place!" For everyone has a family name and then a diminutive name , so that to learn an ordinary name is not enough -- you must also know that Zahid is Podger, and Seema is Nikki, and Rehana is Chunni, and so on and on. [142]

Let's contrast this list of names with McPhee's description of islanders' names and place names. How does "knowing which names to name" function within each text? Both books deal with tropes of displacement, but Suleri comes from a distinctly postcolonial, feminist standpoint. How might this influence the way she uses names? Can we say something about interactions between names and the body in Suleri's and McPhee's texts? It's interesting that both McPhee and Suleri invoke ancient bards: McPhee talks about bagpipers (pp. 67-69), and Suleri, Homer. How might this interest in oral or performative histories influence their notions of naming?

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days Leading Questions

Last modified 22 April 2002