Juliette:  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I panicked when my publisher told me I’d have to change the names of all the people in my book.  “But their names carry their energy,” I protested.  “How unfair to deprive them of their identity in the world.”

My argument fell on deaf ears.  His insistence fell on a stubborn heart – until he pointed out that I might save a few lives by protecting their privacy.  He was right.  I didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of those who were kind to me when it all went south.  

Finally convinced of the need to protect them, I undertook the task of creating “fitting” fictional names and was thrilled to find websites that list Zulu names and their meanings.  If I couldn’t share their true names with the world, I could at least convey the nature of their spirits.

I spent days browsing the names until I found the qualities that described each person I had met.  The process was smooth, until I came to renaming the woman who would title my book.  Her real African name is bigger than life, perfectly befitting of her personality and her role in the tribe.  For weeks I struggled with reinventing her identity, until one day, walking down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley with my publisher, he said, “How about Ruby?”

It was perfect!  Ruby conveys a sense of royalty, wealth and respect.  It also hints at mystery … and blood.  Finally, I had a complete list of old and new names.

I sorted through my photographs and made two prints of each person.  With a fat black marker I wrote their original name on one print, their new name on the other, and sat down to do a renaming ritual.  I built a roaring fire in my outdoor pit and one-by-one, spoke to each of them out loud.  I thanked them for the gifts they brought into my life, explained why I felt compelled to share their story with the world, declared my intention that changing their name would protect them from any harm, and asked their blessing on their new name before I dropped their “old name” photo into the fire.

Then silently, except for my tears, I carried the “new name” photos into my house and taped them to my refrigerator. Every day I conversed with each of them using their new names, until one day, shortly before Ruby’s World was published, their identities were reborn in my heart with names that were safe to release into the world.

Shakespeare was right.  Different names took nothing away from their beauty and character.  Mhambi is still well-educated, proud and strong.  Thulani is still exuberant, hopeful and vulnerable.  Missy is still kind, loving and generous.  Zodwa is still scared, shunned and desperate.  And Ruby … well Ruby is more than ever imposing, fun and the reluctant matriarch of a powerful Zulu tribe.