This is the first novel we have read all year in which the Nigerians have been given, clearly, western names. So far we have encountered, among others, Sunday, Elvis, Beatrice, Godfrey, Joseph, Innocent, Redemption, and Comfort. While reading I couldn’t help but contemplate the significance of these names. When I began reading the novel I assumed that these names were nicknames, but as it became clear that they weren’t I wondered about their meanings in light of Nigeria being a post-colonial nation. On one level I feel that is blatantly illustrates the effects of colonialism, as the usage of these English words as names as well as culturally English names it is the dismissal of Nigerian culture in exchange for the assimilation to Western culture. Perhaps, just as knowledge of the English language allows a Nigerian better to compete in the business world, these western names are a further attempt to fit in with the newly modernized Nigeria. It makes me think of the argument that some black Americans are prejudiced against for their “ghetto” names and feel that they need to have “white” names to be taken seriously.
Is it common in Nigeria for people to be named such things as Elvis and Redemption? In Half of a Yellow Sun, which is set merely 20 years earlier, none of the characters have English names, instead we have Olanna, Kainene, and Odenigbo. The only characters in Graceland, thus far, that seem to have authentically Nigerian names are Onye and Okon. Both Onye and Okon are older so perhaps it is a generational thing?
On another level I wonder if it is not so much a cultural critique, but instead a literary technique to expose or emphasize something about each character. Elvis, rather appropriately, impersonates Elvis for a living. Sunday essentially lives every day as if it were a day of rest. Comfort’s character originally provides comfort to Sunday after the death of his wife. I cannot help but be reminded of Baby from Half of a Yellow Sun who was named after what she was… a baby. The only issue I have with this theory is that it doesn’t apply to all characters as not all characters are given a name that has another meaning, Beatrice and Uncle Joseph for example. Perhaps the significance of names will become clearer as the novel continues.