Kowal, Mary Robinette - On the subject of my name

Published on 2018-11-15

I'm named after both grandmothers, Mary Elois Jackson and Virginia Robinette "Robby" Harrison. Growing up, Robby always introduced me as "Mary Robinette" because she was so proud that I was named after her. Everyone on Dad's side of the family called me that. Hi. Did I mention that we're Southern?

I loved it. I loved being Mary Robinette.

It's a beautiful name, but more than that, it ties me to both grandmothers and Robinette, in particular, gives me a link to my heritage. Robby was named after her father, George Robinette Walker, who was named after the minister who married his parents. There's this family story embedded in my name.

Double-barrelled first names are a very Southern thing to do. We also had Edie Ruth and Martha Carol. To me, these names seemed normal.

I would attempt to introduce myself as Mary Robinette outside the family and gave up sometime in college because everyone heard it as a first and last name. It was tiring to have my first interaction with people be an exercise in correcting them on my name. Mind you, this is with two names that are really easy for Anglophone speakers.

I gave up. By the time my husband met me, I was just "Mary."

Very occasionally, I would meet someone who would ask if I preferred "Mary" or "Mary Robinette" and I would always equivocate to "whichever is easier."

My grandmother's generation has passed. The number of people who naturally call me Mary Robinette is dwindling. I miss my grandmother. I miss my name.

There is also a practical side to this. People attempt to attach Robinette to my surname, which is incorrect. Just to be super-super clear, Robinette is not my maiden name. The problem with this is two-fold. The first is that it shelves my books in the wrong part of the store. It puts my reservations in the wrong place in a registry. It makes my airline tickets impossible to use <--Yes. This has happened.

The second problem is that the assumption that Robinette is my maiden name is entirely gendered. Kim Stanley Robinson? Orson Scott Card? Robert Jackson Bennett? All of those middle names are also surnames and none of them gets tossed into the surname field. There are people who have the opposite problem, which is that they have a double-barrelled surname. Ask Patrick Neilsen Hayden what having two unhyphenated last names is like.

I once approached a registration desk at a conference, got my badge, and someone had hyphenated Robinette and Kowal. I asked for a new badge. The person behind the desk said, "I was told, very clearly, that it gets a hyphen."

I'm like... it's my name.

Maybe avoid making assumptions about names. When in doubt, ask the person and for God's sake, don't correct them.

Earlier this year, during a conversation about pronouns, I suddenly realized that I could just tell people that I prefer Mary Robinette. It's like curb cuts for names. A curb cut in a sidewalk is there to make a sidewalk easier for someone who is in a mobility device like a wheelchair or a scooter. It's not there for me. But it makes my life so much easier when I have a rolling suitcase.

The discussion about pronouns isn't there for me, but it makes it so much easier for me to know how to correct people on my name. And in turn, asking people to pay attention to my Anglophone-friendly double-barrelled name makes conversational space for people whose names have been shoved to the margins for their entire lives.

For people who now need to reprogram their brains about what to call me, you don't have to apologize to me every time you slip. I understand, really. I'm having to reprogram myself after decades of cutting half of my name off. Just correct and keep going.

So, in answer to your question. "Yes, please, I prefer Mary Robinette."