Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from a woman in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write.
By Mandy Shunnarah
They think they know me based on a billboard. Sure, the billboards with my last name dot I-65 from Mobile nearly to Nashville, but none of that was my doing. I was as surprised as anybody when Shunnarah Injury Lawyers signs started popping up around my neighborhood, then on my commute, then on hours-long car rides for weekend trips out of Birmingham.
Each sign has a black, white, and red design––like a bad newspaper joke––and Alexander Shunnarah’s face. Until he started his billboard vanity project, I’d never seen the man in my life.
At first, all the questions of “Is he your dad?” were a novelty. Perhaps even a little cute. Suddenly, instead of people looking at me sideways and asking “How do you pronounce your last name?” and “Can you spell that for me?”, people said, “Oh, yes, Shunnarah! Like that lawyer on TV!” That was when I learned Alex had commercials, too.
Although I don’t watch much TV, the few times I did soon became riddled with his commercials. “Are you injured in a car accident? Call Alexander Shunnarah!” followed by the string of digits of his office phone number. He ended each commercial with a campy, “I AM your attorney!”
It wasn’t long before people’s questions went from tolerable to insufferable. There was a point when I was in school at Birmingham-Southern College and I was asked if he was my dad or uncle at least three times a day. The pre-law students suddenly wanted to be my best friend. Professors would say, “You don’t look anything like your dad.” After a couple of months, the questions became so commonplace on BSC’s small campus that I was often waylaid and running late for class.
At my peak frustration, when people asked “Is that lawyer on all the billboards your dad?” I started shouting “YES!” and speeding away from my would-be conversationalist. I don’t know if word ever got back to Alex, though I can imagine his confusion upon learning he had a daughter in college he didn’t know about.
I came to dread introducing myself at social events. “Hi, I’m Mandy,” I’d say. “Mandy what?” they’d ask, and I’d choose that moment to fall headlong into the cheese tray or realize I couldn’t go without a drink for a moment longer.
I’d always felt weird about my last name, like it was a misnomer, because my parents divorced when I was young and the father who gave me this last name was seldom in the picture. But Alexander Shunnarah made me despise my last name for a whole different reason. And not just my last name, but Alex as well. Without ever having met him, I loathed him. I hated his face peppering my drives and hit the gas when I neared one of his billboards because 70 mph wasn’t fast enough to get away from him. I’d speed by with a middle finger up and a sigh in my throat. From everything I’d heard, my probable distant cousin was a perfectly nice man, but I couldn’t stand him.
When my then-boyfriend, now-husband got his dream job in Ohio and asked me to come with him, the first thing that came to mind was, “I won’t have to see those damn billboards!” A new life with my partner was the motivation but getting away from Alexander Shunnarah was a bonus.
For the first year I lived in Ohio, my partner and I still joked about the billboards. Every time something didn’t go like we’d hoped or when luck wasn’t on our side, we’d say, “At least you don’t have to see those billboards every day,” and “At least no one thinks the local ambulance chaser is my dad.”
But after that first year, I started missing the questions. Rather, I started missing feeling special, known, and interesting, even if it wasn’t for something I actually did. I hate to admit it, but I started missing Alex’s goofily grinning giant face. Nowadays, my last name is a fun fact. A silly anecdote about how I’m from a local celebrity family in Birmingham. Something to whip out for those “two truths and a lie” icebreakers.
In Ohio, I’ve had the benefit of people not making assumptions about how wealthy I may or may not be based on my last name, but I’ve also had to learn how to be a normal person without anyone setting expectations, reasonable or not, for me. I’ve had to learn to make a name for myself.
Here, I’m known for running two book clubs in town, organizing book events, and documenting the local literary happenings on my blog, Off the Beaten Shelf. I’m known for writing everything from personal essays to poetry to short stories and doing freelance writing and editing for local businesses. I’m known for shredding at skateparks around town and fighting for the city to protect low-income housing. People finally know me for what I have done and what I care deeply about, not just a name I was born into.
At last, my name feels like my own.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, and many more. She’s currently working on a book about her half-Southern redneck, half-Palestinian family. She runs the book blog Off the Beaten Shelf. You can learn more about all her writing endeavors at mandyshunnarah.com.