This week, Anne Cher­ian, the author of The Invi­ta­tion blogs for The Post­script on how to find the right names for her char­ac­ters. The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Anne at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

TS Eliot famous­ly wrote, The nam­ing of cats is a dif­fi­cult mat­ter,” and where once I had thought it was charm­ing dog­ger­el, I dis­cov­ered its gen­er­al truth when I was writ­ing my nov­el, The Invi­ta­tion. I had the entire plot in my head, and knew my four char­ac­ters, but had no idea what names to give them. I was so des­per­ate that I even Googled com­mon Indi­an names, only to stare at hun­dreds and hun­dreds of names – in a coun­try of bil­lion, what did I expect? 

So I sat down and thought about the char­ac­ters, hop­ing they would name them­selves. One male char­ac­ter, I knew, would come from a rich fam­i­ly, and would have gone to all the right schools. In the nov­el he is described as a colos­sus, able to pros­per any­where in the world, east or west.” So I sud­den­ly thought, Jayant, which means vic­to­ri­ous in Hin­di, and which, hand­i­ly, can be short­ened to Jay, a west­ern name that is easy for my read­ers. The ques­tion the nov­el rais­es? Is Jay, indeed, vic­to­ri­ous? The oth­er male char­ac­ter is his foil, born to a poor fam­i­ly in a vil­lage, who pulls him­self up via his brains. He would have to be very tough to with­stand the dis­crim­i­na­tion he would encounter in India, which, like Eng­land, is class-based. Vikram means strength, and again, can become Vic, and in this case, also pro­vid­ed me with the name of his com­put­er com­pa­ny, VikRAM Com­put­ers. I con­fess that I know noth­ing about com­put­ers; I am aware, how­ev­er, that ram isn’t just a male sheep.

All that remained were the two girls. One, I had always known, would be from Ker­ala, my father’s home­land. Most peo­ple from there have a bap­tismal name reserved for school, and a pet’ name used by fam­i­ly and close friends. Lali goes against tra­di­tion by using her pet name alone; indeed, her bap­tismal name nev­er appears in the nov­el. Such a char­ac­ter, I thought, would con­tin­ue to be rebel­lious, and so it makes sense that Lali mar­ries Jonathan, a Jew­ish doc­tor. The last char­ac­ter is based on girls I knew who came from Goa, all Catholics, of Por­tuguese descent – except that my char­ac­ter isn’t rich. Some peo­ple, like her, try to off-set pover­ty by using any­thing to make them­selves look good, and she even uses how she was named. When her moth­er was preg­nant with her, her father kept telling every­one that this time, after four girls, he was final­ly going to have a son and had already picked out Fran­cis, the name of some fore­fa­ther who may or may not exist, since the fam­i­ly likes to show off their Por­tuguese ances­try. When she turns out to be anoth­er girl, he sim­ply changes the i’ to e’ and so Frances, from her very begin­nings, has a sto­ry about her­self, and as the nov­el shows, also starts her life being a dis­ap­point­ment and is con­stant­ly try­ing to appear bet­ter than she is. 

Born in India to an Amer­i­can Jew­ish moth­er and Indi­an father, Anne came to study com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture (Eng­lish, Clas­si­cal Greek) at Berke­ley and meet her Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. She stayed on to pur­sue her dream of being a writer. The Invi­ta­tion, her sec­ond nov­el, fea­tures Lali, an Indi­an, who mar­ries Jonathan, a Jew­ish doc­tor, the cou­ple being a reverse of her parents.