By Attila F. “Tilly” Gokbudak
Gokbudak resides in Salem. His careers have been in education and journalism.
On the first day of class at Andrew Lewis Middle School, an eighth-grade math teacher will write his or her name on the board. For me, in such situations, I say that my name is Mister Gokbudak. Then I spell it out and afterwards I write the name’s pronunciation which is Gock-boo-dock.
As one might fully expect, Gokbudak has been mispronounced many more times than it has been misspelled.
On the night of Sunday, Sept. 1, I saw a tweet that would later be deleted from a comedian named Jenny Johnson. She had tweeted that those of us with difficult names shouldn’t act so pretentious when someone like her has trouble with the pronunciation. Johnson added that the real focus of our scorn should be aimed at our parents.
For my part, I try to be understanding and patient when my name is misunderstood when I’m making a doctor’s appointment or filing an insurance claim.
Johnson’s infamous tweet that created a maelstrom she may have never anticipated also reminded me of not just how my last name has created difficulties but so has my first name, which is Attila (I have informally gone by Tilly for about twenty-five years).
One of the surprising things about my fist name is that I don’t actually get asked if I named after Attila the Hun that often. My assumption is that people dismiss this as a thought in their minds like when one decides that it is unwise to order an expensive beverage at Starbucks or Mill Mountain.
But, when I say: “As a matter of fact, yes. I am named after Attila the Hun,” there is a long pause.
On my part, I wonder if the person asking this might be unusually smart and witty or familiar with the Verdi opera “Attila.” Similarly, mentions of Attila the Hun have been frequently used for gags in “The Wizard of Id” comic strip, which usually excited me as a child in the seventies.
However, my sense is the person asking the question might be thinking of Attila the Hun’s notorious reputation, as my namesake killed his own brother to gain more power and influence.
But my late Turkish father Mehmet Gokbudak (1921-1983) saw Attila the Hun as a noble leader more like Napoleon Bonaparte than Josef Stalin, and he won the argument over my American mother who wanted to name me Gary.
With complete objectivity, I can assure folks that I lived a strange childhood, especially for someone born in Roanoke in 1970. From 1975-79, we lived in Salem, then Poland, Salem again, and Turkey as my father worked on steel projects overseas for General Electric.
In Turkey, I would learn the unsettling fact that my first name is spelled A-T-I-L-L-A. In my adulthood, this matter would lead to a bureaucratic nightmare that I had to resolve by visiting the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC. Thanks, baba (the Turkish word for dad). My last name Gokbudak (Gock-boo-dock) is a more delicate matter.
My grandfather Fuat Gokbudak (1892-1958) represented Konya province, a large central province that is universally associated with the Whirling Dervishes. Fuat Bey, as he was called, was also a close acquaintance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the trailblazing military and political leader recognized for radically transforming Turkey into a secular, democratic state. The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923; my grandfather was a member of the first parliament that met in the capital Ankara.
Additionally, my late uncle Ilhan Gokbudak was a Turkish diplomat who served at the New York consulate from 1960-62 as well as several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, during the time of Pinochet. Similarly, my late aunt Mulhime Gokbudak Bati was one of the first female lawyers in Istanbul.
The legacy of our family name is such that my late grandmother Zekiye Gokbudak would tell every new person she met about my grandfather especially if tea and Turkish delight were being served.
Here in America, I think one of the main obstacles for families like ours is that our family history serves no significance for us in social situations. In Turkey, Ali Sunal, 42, is a famous television and film star. But, he is also well-known for being the son of Kemal Sunal (1944-2000), a comic cinematic icon. People here would simply be unaware of that.
Given my own experiences, I am thankful that my name is not as cumbersome as Apichotpong Weerasethakul, an acclaimed Thai filmmaker. He prefers to be called “Joe.”