BECOMING LOUISA KAMAL

Louisa Kamal
9 min readFeb 16, 2023
Lotus in full bloom at Nagdaha, Lalitpur, Nepal

‘Pen names are masks which allow us to unmask ourselves’ — Terri Guillemets

The decision to assume a pen name was not easy for me. Nor was it something that I did willingly. I wanted my book — the first of many, I hoped — to make its way into the world under my name, my real name, to announce my achievement to all who knew me! But there was a risk attached in doing so. I had nothing to hide, no dark secrets: the need to separate my identities hinged on the existence of a man, still legally my spouse, who, as the divorce proceedings I had initiated to get both a just settlement and freedom to start to new life dragged on and on, seemed to become more and more vindictive and increasingly intent on destroying me, my happiness and my well-being. I could not let him do that. Therefore, I had no option but leave no trail for him to follow from the wife he used to know and whose love and support, once so freely given, he had abused, to the new, more fulfilled woman that was emerging from the ashes of my burnt out self.

We are all accustomed to naming others: our children, our pets and, in the case of sweethearts and friends, devising the choicest nicknames which may be romantic, comical or somewhere along the broad intervening spectrum. But seldom do we have the opportunity, indeed the honour, the responsibility, of naming ourselves.

The love of books and reading was fostered in me at a very early age my by mother

As children we accept unquestioningly the name decided by our parents for us after much thought and many imaginings: one name alone, or, perhaps, with the addition of a middle name if we are fortunate. And then, of course, we inherit a family name, a surname, passed down unchangingly from one generation to the next in a genealogical tangle of crisscrossing lines, interrupted only by marriage and divorce.

My given name — Christian name, as it used to be termed in those less culturally sensitive days — was Lesley, common at the time. There were two of us in my primary school year, to be joined by a third in a high school class of a mere thirty pupils. I was totally neutral about the name, accepting it unquestioningly and only mildly — and silently — objecting to it being shortened to ‘Les’: until, that is, in my teenage years I learnt that this was an abbreviation for ‘lesbian’, the existence of whom I had only just become aware and was struggling somewhat to understand and accept. From that point on, I had an ambivalent relationship with ‘Lesley’.

And then there was the complication that ‘Lesley’ could be used for either gender, albeit usually with different spelling. The normal pattern for such situations — ‘i’ for ’im and ‘e’ for ’er — normally held good, with the famous model of the sixties, Twiggy, being in reality also a Lesley, Lesley Lawson. However, there was one major exception: the well-known actress, Leslie Caron, whose Franco-American parents puzzlingly chose to spell her name the ‘male way’. Throughout my life my name occasionally caused gender confusion, most outrageously when I ended up being categorized as male on a medical report! How could that possibly have happened?

Looking back to my childhood, there was never a shortage of books and bedtime stories. I still vividly remember snuggling up with my mother and listening to her read a range of what are now rather outdated children’s classics: Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’; Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ and its sequels; L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series; Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ books. Over and above all these, however, I was fascinated by the story of the March girls, as related in Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and, to a lesser extent, the follow-ups. I can still picture in my mind’s eye the cover of an illustrated, abridged version of the book which my dear daddy bought for me. Recently, gripped by nostalgia I searched online for an image of this version: and there it was! I lost myself for a while staring at that familiar and yet disconcertingly remote cover depicting the four sisters — the pretty but rather vain Meg, the tomboy and would-be-writer Jo, the artistic, self-centred Amy, and the gentle, loving Beth — grouped around a sofa draped with a crocheted ‘throw’ against a peach wallpaper sprigged with white blossoms.

Cover of the Simon and Schuster ‘Golden Picture Classic’ edition of ‘Little Women’, published in 1956 and gifted to me by my father.

I adored the story, and identified with Jo most of all. Oh how I had mourned the death of dear Beth after my mother had gently explained to me on realising that I was too young, too naïve, to understand for myself the enigmatic passage: “As Beth had hoped, the ‘’tide went out easily”, and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

Given my fondness for ‘Little Women’, it was, therefore, inevitable that when, in my last few years at primary school, the formidable headmistress, Miss Liles, announced in assembly that the school wanted to be involved in raising money for a children’s charity, I rose to the challenge and committed myself and, vicariously, my friends, to staging a dramatised version of the book’s iconic opening scene. It was perfect! No need to involve boys! I quickly rallied support and cast the ‘other Lesley’ as Meg, Wendy as Jo, Karen as Amy and Cheryl as Beth, whilst assuming the roles of script writer, director and Mrs. March myself.

The dress rehearsal, held one Saturday afternoon in the ostentatiously named ‘lounge’ of my home, with its parquet flooring and chunky wine coloured settee and chairs. The familiar words filled the small room and wove their usual magic.

Jo: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’

Meg: ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’

Amy: ‘I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all.’

Beth: ‘We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other.’

My friends did their very best and the actual performance in the school’s assembly hall the following week was a great success. How proud I felt when, a month or so later, Miss Liles read out to the whole school a letter of acknowledgement, in which I was mentioned by name, from the charity to which the funds raised had been duly donated. I glowed with satisfaction and modest pride.

So it was inevitable, perhaps, that when I came to choose the first part of my nom de plume, I cast around in my memory for a name that would reflect my identity and recalled my childhood fascination with ‘Little Women’. In my mind, I revisited the book and the March girls. Maybe I had become a kind of four-way composite of them all. There was definitely a lot of Jo in me, in the rather stubborn, forthright woman I had become, plus a large pinch of her literary aspirations. Oh how she would love hiking in the Himalayas! Like Beth, I had also become compassionate and altruistic. I sponsored my two lama godsons and volunteered as a teacher at their monastery twice a year; and I went out to feed two hungry street doggies before half past six every morning, filling their empty bellies and earning their love, trust and loyalty. Amy? Well, I certainly was not conceited but did have her talent, albeit undeveloped due to lack of time, for painting and the visual arts. And Meg? Yes, I also resembled her in my high levels of responsibility and, dare I say, romantic, unassuming nature.

So Louisa, in honour of Louisa M. Alcott, was to be my first name. But the last name? Since giving up my ultra-English maiden name and assuming my Thai husband’s family name upon marriage, I had become accustomed to a ‘European-Asian’ combination. So why not continue that? Search for a last name that was Oriental in origin; easily pronounceable; and not too off-putting?

Lotus offerings to my Thai Lana-style Buddha, now safely ensconced with me in Kathmandu

I sat and pondered. And absentmindedly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed for inspiration. As I subscribe to various Tibetan Buddhist Facebook pages, among posts featuring dogs and soaring mountains, images of Buddha and other deities appeared in turn on my mobile screen. And in many of these images there were lotus blooms.

Lotus! The Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is one of the nly two species in the Nelumbonaceae family, not to be confused with water lilies à la Monet (Nymphaeaceae). My mind lurched back to my arrival in Thailand in 1985 and my first encounters with Buddhism — Theravada Buddhism — in any shape or form. I was overwhelmed by the architecture of Bangkok’s most famous temples, like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with their strong primary colours and abundance of gold shimmering in the topical heat against a vivid blue sky. I learnt how to be respectful in front of golden Buddha images which I admired for their grace and beauty but which failed to impact upon me spiritually in any way. On the other hand, I was entranced by the lotus blooms, the way the petals of closed flowers were folded by devotes in round upon round to reveal their colour and the hypnotic beauty of their centre before being offered up to the Buddha.

Pink lotus, petals folded, ready to be offered to Buddha at Bangkok’s Wat Pho

Many years later, I started to travel first to Tibet then the Himalayan swathe as a whole and encountered a very different kind of Buddhism, Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism. After initial amazement at the contrast to the Theravada iconography with which I had become accustomed and at Vajrayana’s pantheon of gods and dakinis, I slowly grew to ‘feel’ the beauty of the creed and to find it spiritually akin to the surrounding soaring peaks. I soon became familiar with the most sacred of all mantras, Om mani padme hum — Hail to the jewel in the lotus! — and with the figure of Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, sometimes referred to as the Buddha of the Himalayas. Responsible for the spread of Buddhism in the region, the eighth-century tantric master’s name translates literally as ‘lotus born’. Indeed, the lotus is one of the eight precious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, representing absolute purity, enlightenment: it encapsulates the potential of every human being to achieve Buddhahood whatever their worldly condition, just as the lotus emerges and blooms above the water although rooted in the mud.

Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus born’ tantric master, represented in a statue in Lower Mustang, Nepal

So, I wondered, could I be Louisa Padma? No, it didn’t sound right. It didn’t flow. It didn’t resonate as it should. But there were other Sanskrit words for lotus, including kamal. Often used as a boy’s first name, it is said to reflect ‘a highly charged personality that attracts powerful ideas. [Someone called Kamal is] diplomatic, gentle, intuitive, cooperative, and might even be a psychic. A gifted storyteller,…’ And if that was not already auspicious enough, then the name was, apparently, also associated with the Hindu astrological sign of Mithun, Gemini in the West: being born on 24 May it was my zodiac sign! I had no need to look any further!

So the naming was done without any consultation with pandits or shamans, as would be the cultural norm here in Nepal: I relied simply on my own ears — ‘Louisa Kamal’ sounded harmonious, mellifluous — and my heart. In my new first name, I had memories of my cherished childhood authoress and the four sisters she created; while my last name was a potent symbol of peace and spirituality. Together, they formed a synergy of East and West, my past and my present, the secular and the sacred; and a template for goals to be striven after and achieved if at all possible.

It felt a little strange assuming this persona, to see her name on the cover of my first book; to design and print name cards in her name; to introduce myself as ‘Louisa Kamal’ to those who had no inkling of my former self, my former name. But slowly, like new garments which feel a little unfamiliar on first being worn but which one grows into, I started to feel comfortable in this fresh guise; empowered by all that the name contained and the freedom from my past which it symbolised.

Wearing a lotus design dress in my pre-Louisa Kamal days in Bangkok, Thailand

Maybe I had always been Louisa Kamal in my soul: it simply took me time to find her…and name her.

Text & images © Louisa Kamal

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Louisa Kamal

A native of the UK but long-term resident in Asia (Thailand, Japan and now Nepal) Louisa is an avid writer and photographer.