Joanna Ho Talks with Roger

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With Say My Name, illustrated by Khoa Le, Joanna Ho adds to a body of picture-book work that respects and celebrates the cultural identities of young children—and older ones, and even our grown-up selves; see below.

Roger Sutton: I was telling my husband about this interview, and he told me a story about when he was in fifth grade in the 1940s. His last name is pronounced “ash,” but the family spelled it A-C-H. His fifth-grade teacher said, “You’re spelling your name wrong.”

Joanna Ho: Ugh.

Photo by Katie Heiner Photography

RS: He went home upset and told his dad, and his dad got the spelling changed to Asch so it would be more American.

JH: That makes my heart hurt. Stories like that are one of the reasons I wrote Say My Name.

RS: Did you find, in putting this book together, that kids new to this country want to keep their own names, or do they want to blend in?

JH: I think it really depends on what they’re walking into and how they’re received; are they welcomed, made to feel whole and worthy and human as they are, along with the culture they’re bringing with them? Or are they made to feel the way your husband was, that they are doing something wrong and that they have to assimilate and be different from who they are in order to belong? What they’re met with when they arrive affects their whole experience and the way they perceive themselves.

There are several layers to why I wrote the book. First, my name is Joanna Ho. Ho has lots of derogatory meanings, so as a kid, especially in middle school and high school, there were lots of jokes. I would laugh along and try to be a good sport about it. But it bothered me. I’d always joke, “I can’t wait until I can change my name.” Later I taught high school and then was vice principal at a high school for a while; every time I introduced myself to a group of new students, ninth graders especially, inevitably people snickered, giggled. I’d say, “All right, you can laugh now, but today’s the only time. That’s it.” Eventually, I realized I’d come to love when I walked through the halls and students yelled, “Ms. Ho!” It came with this joy of seeing me, this feeling of knowing I had earned love or respect from students, that there was this mutual affection between us.

RS: You had changed the joke. They no longer associated the word ho with a derogatory term, but rather with a beloved teacher’s name.

JH: Especially in high school, kids are not going to hold back if teachers don’t earn their trust. They will talk about you. And my name particularly was one that, if I hadn’t done my job well, would have engendered a lot of jokes. That’s how I came to love my name and to start thinking about what it meant to me and my family and to my community. 

Second, the Chinese name at the beginning of the book, Hé Xiǎo-Guāng, is my Chinese name. My grandfather on my dad’s side gave me that name. It’s a boy’s name, and people who understand always comment on it. I say, “Yeah, but I love the meaning.” It means the first light of morning. It clearly encompasses my grandfather’s hopes for me, what he hoped I could become. My mom’s name is Wan Ling. It’s pronounced similarly to how it’s spelled. I grew up answering our landline, and people would ask for Wing Lang, Wang Long, Wendy. I felt so hurt every time people mispronounced it or didn’t even try. Inevitably she has to say, “My name is Wan Ling, W-A-N L-I-N-G.” She and her siblings (she is the youngest of ten) came to the United States at different times, and at least three of her six sisters did what your husband’s family did. They have these beautiful Chinese names with all this meaning, but they picked names like Grace or Susie so people here could easily say their names. That’s so much lost history, lost meaning. My mom never did that. I don’t know if it was intentional. I don’t think at the time, she thought, I’m hanging onto my culture. But I love that she did. 

Finally, when I worked at a tech company designing professional development material, one organization I met with was the New Teacher Center in California. They produce videos about the importance of saying someone’s name correctly. Step one in equity work, basic and simple, is saying someone’s name correctly. When you don’t do that, you erase the child. There was one video that just killed my soul; this young Latino man named Marcos was always placed in the higher reading group, and his friends were tracked into a lower reading group. His teacher called him Mark. For his whole educational career, he went by Mark, but at home he was Marcos. It wasn’t until he had a teacher who was also Latino, who said, “Your name is Marcos,” that he learned to embrace and recognize the wholeness of his identity. His name and his identity didn’t need to be separate. That has become another driving force behind why this book felt important to make. It’s important personally, but also for teachers and educators, for the education space. If we’re really talking about recognizing people for who they are, the least we can do is say their names correctly.

RS: Why did you choose to explore this theme in a picture book?

JH: I love writing picture books. There’s something beautiful in the way the illustrations can complement the text. It makes complex ideas accessible across age groups. There’s something about showing what a name encompasses that only a picture book can do. Khoa Le’s illustrations are so gorgeous. When you’re talking about a Chinese girl or a Ghanaian girl or a Persian boy, you can see how much meaning each child’s name encompasses. You don’t get that from just the text.

RS: Do you see this reaching—it’s not for babies—but little kids, I’m sure, would love looking at the pictures. But the concepts being explored are for older children.

JH: I think even younger—not babies but toddlers, kids who know their own names. I don’t think you start to feel ashamed of your name or wish it were different until you’ve met someone or a culture that, whether overtly or subtly, tells you that you should change. That can happen at a young age. It can happen when you’re two, when you’re four. It can happen when you start kindergarten. I think it’s never too early for a young kid to feel pride in who they are. My hope is that for people at that age, who haven’t yet known a world that might shame them for anything, that they’ll come into it feeling proud already. And people who have experienced that can read a book like this and rediscover or uncover a pride in their own name and heritage that they might have buried. I really do believe picture books are for people of all ages.

RS: You focus on six kids—six names, from six cultures. Which came first, the names or the cultures? How did you decide which ones to include?

JH: There is a person of Chinese descent, and of Ghanaian, Persian, Diné, Mexican, and Tongan. I’m Chinese, so that name is mine. I have close, dear friends who are Diné and Persian, and I’ve lived in Taiwan and Ghana, so the backgrounds represented come from people and places I feel really connected to. I was also very conscious that I was writing outside of my own experience. I did a lot of interviewing and connecting with friends and family members from these different backgrounds. They were so generous and helpful with their own stories and with their own explanations of what would be valued. I spoke with several Diné friends who told me, “These are the things that we really value. Here’s places you can research. This is what a name represents, and this is how a traditional introduction would go.” That’s why the text for the Diné child doesn’t “match” the flow of the other children’s. It’s based on what I learned from these friends: “We introduce our clans first, maternal clan then paternal clan, then grandparents, then we say, ‘This is how I am woman.’” I would not have been able to include something like that without so much generosity from others.

RS: So are all the names people you know?

JH: They’re not names of people I know, but they are sometimes based on people they know.  Someone might tell me their sister’s name, but I also wanted to explore meaning. For example, the name Xóchitl Luna. I wanted to include a character whose gender was ambiguous. Xóchitl is often a girl’s name. But there are also people who identify as male who use that name. And then Luna encompasses the history of conquistadores, so the naming isn’t always a happy, beautiful story. It reflects that complex history. I was intentional about choosing that name. Some are just names I thought were beautiful. The Tongan first name is my friend’s mom’s; the last name is another friend’s last name.

RS: How do you wrestle with the question of cultural authority when you’re writing a book like this? If I said, “Oh, Chinese people feel X,” that would be bull, because people feel a million different ways. Where do you land on that?

JH: I actually felt so much hesitation with this book initially. I thought, Who am I? I land on several things. One is I don’t feel authority in writing about any culture, even my own. Being a writer has taught me to ask so many more questions than I used to. I’ve learned so much about my own culture and history. That’s one reason I leaned so much on my friends. I was constantly asking, “Okay, where does this land? Please give me all your feedback.” That was really helpful. I was clear that this is not my expertise and that I’m grateful for support and help. One written work cannot encompass the fullness of a culture; that's why we need so much more representation.

RS: More than one book.

JH: Right. You can’t encompass all Chinese people into two stanzas of “This is my name.” This is one person’s name and one person’s story, and it doesn’t encompass the way all Chinese people are and what we all believe about ourselves. We’re complex, we have multitudes. And that’s true across all cultures. I wrestle with that idea a lot. I can’t only write novels with Asian characters. And if they are only Asian characters, it’s not realistic to have only Chinese characters. Even within an Asian identity, it’s so complex. There’s an aspect of writing what’s in my heart and the stories that are mine, truly just mine to tell, and there’s an aspect of doing the research and really trying to make sure that the stories that I’m telling and the characters I’m writing have some kind of truth. Nothing will have the fullness of all the truth.

RS: The way you describe it sounds kind of terrifying in a way. If you’re not just going to write Joni Mitchell confessional poetry about your own self, how dare you step into someone else’s life?

JH: Yeah, it is really terrifying. In my recent novel, The Silence That Binds Us, the main character is Chinese, and her best friend is Haitian. There’s a lot of mental health stuff, and it deals with suicide. I leaned on people who have much greater expertise and personal knowledge and took that feedback in and revised and revised and revised. It was terrifying. It’s still terrifying. I don’t ever want to do harm with anything that I write.

RS: Yikes. That sounds scary. Is there a reason you didn’t include any European-American names?

JH: Yes. At least in the United States, people don’t have a problem saying European names in the same way. They seem more willing to learn in a way that they aren’t for people of color. Although that doesn’t sound like it was your husband’s experience, so I don’t think that’s across the board. People here are very happy to say “Schwarzenegger.” When you’re looking at athletes’ names in the NBA or at the Olympics, somehow the European names all get pronounced correctly. But with the Chinese names, for example, on TV or at school, people are less willing. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to increase representation for people who have been historically marginalized, folks of color, so that’s an intentional choice.

RS: I teach ESL, a volunteer thing. This semester we have a student from China, a couple from Mexico, from Venezuela, from Cape Verde, from Haiti, from all over the place. It’s interesting hearing all of us, including myself, try to pronounce one another’s names. A lot of them have trouble saying Roger. With the “g” sound in their own language, It comes out “Royer” sometimes. How forgiving do you think people should be about the pronunciation of their names?

JH: I think it means the world when somebody tries. Like with Marcos—if you’re saying “Marcos,” it’s better than “Mark.” I think it’s the effort and the acknowledgement of trying, but your tongue has not been trained to make some of these sounds. It’s not just “Let me give you a nickname because I’m not even going to try to say your actual name.” I don’t know that the expectation is “You better say it the way my mom says it.” But if you try, that tells me you see me as a human. We don’t all speak all the languages in the world, and we won’t say everyone’s names right, but it’s the effort that matters.

RS: When I was a children’s librarian, I had a group of kids who were Muslim Albanians, new arrivals in this country in the 1980s. It was so interesting to watch them. They showed up in winter. To see the speed with which they picked up English was incredible to me. But then over that summer, they all Americanized their names themselves. I don’t know if that would happen today. It is a different world, thank goodness.

JH: My kids are in elementary school, and I’ve met parents my age—I know someone whose name is something like Ami, but everyone calls her “Amy.” I asked, and she said it’s just easier for other people. Everyone makes their own decisions about what they’re comfortable with, but my hope is that people don’t feel pressure to change their name so it’s easier for someone else to say.

RS: It should be for their own reasons.

JH: Exactly. You can change your name. That’s your power and prerogative to do what feels right for you. But hopefully it’s from a place of pride, about your worth and your beauty and your own joy, and not for someone else’s convenience. Or because someone else has shamed you.

RS: How do you use your own name in daily life? Is it Joanna, Joanne, Jo?

JH: Yeah, Joanna. Joanna is how I introduce myself. But family members and dear friends—very few people who are close call me Joanna, so it’s Jo, Jojo, Mojo. I have a real love for nicknames. I think they show so much love and understanding of who you are, or the relationship you might have with someone.

RS: Well, sometimes.

JH: Sometimes.

RS: I’ve had people want to call me Rog. You have to be one of like three or four people in the world to call me Rog.

JH: I feel that way too. This is such a tangent, but sometimes my cousins will introduce me to their friends with Jo. Their friends will hear what people very close to me call me, so they’ll call me Jo, and I feel like, I don’t know you like that yet. I accept it for now, but in my heart, we’re not at that level yet.

RS: It’s like this weird over-familiarity. I didn’t give you permission to call me that. It’s not a tangent at all. It’s exactly what you’re talking about in your book.

JH: Right. There are comfort and trust there. I love when people close to me call me those nicknames. Nicknames can be really harmful and hurtful, too, as with my last name. There are two sides of the coin. 

RS: Jo Ho is kind of a cool name. 

JH: The rhyming! There’s Jo Ho, Mojo, Jojo, everything rhymes.

RS: But you want to be in charge of it.

JH: Yeah.

RS: I think most of us have different names in different parts of our lives.

JH: Yes. What are some of yours?

RS: Dodge, Rog, Roger, Grandpa...different roles. 

JH: Yes. Grandpa—the name shows the relationship and the meaning—that name means so much.

RS: You seem to have established a kind of niche in picture books. Or what would you call it?  

JH: Actually, I'm afraid of becoming niche. I recently started a podcast with Caroline Kusin Pritchard, a writer friend, and we just released our first episode with Dan Santat. I love what he said about how when he first started out his career, he was the funny picture book guy, and he felt like he had to break out of that. People had pegged as one thing. He wanted to also write deep, emotional books, and that’s why he did Beekle. But there is a truth: I do write lyrical social justice-themed books—that’s just who I am. That’s why I became an educator and an author. That’s the umbrella for why I do the things I do, this deep desire to create change in the world. And I don’t want to create the same thing all the time. Even my novel is social justice-themed, but in a different genre. I have some silly books coming out. But I do think the reason that’s what I write about is because it’s central to me as a person, my motivation in the world. I hope that I will be able to expand it as a creative and continue to grow across genres and age groups and topics.

RS: Self-direction. The theme of this entire interview.

JH: Yeah, I want to grow.

RS: You want to grow, but you want people to let you be yourself.

JH: You’re right. I love this idea of multitudes. I am passionate about social justice. You can’t see my shirt, but it says, “Come to the dark side; we have cookies.” That’s also me. We all contain multitudes.


Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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