One Naomi, Two Naomis, Three: The Too-Real Experience of Reading Naomi Klein’s Doppelgänger
Naomi J. Williams on Being Mistaken for Other Naomis in Art and Life
It’s Best Books of 2023 time, and Naomi Klein’s Doppelgänger: A Trip Into the Mirror World is sure to top many lists. I rarely pick up the much-ballyhooed book du jour and almost never recommend one, but this lucid, unflinching examination of our fractured world: you should read it.
For those who missed the hype, the “doppelganger” of the title is Naomi Wolf, ’80s-feminist-icon-turned-conspiracy-mongering BFF of Steve Bannon. For decades, people have mixed up Klein with Wolf, and Klein uses this confusion between herself and “Other Naomi” as a springboard from which to tackle some of our most divisive issues, from Covid vaccines to climate change to—excruciatingly relevant right now—the Israel-Palestine conflict.
And I have a mortifying confession to make: I’m pretty sure that I’ve conflated these two Naomis for decades. Am I the only one?
Okay, I see a few of you sheepishly raising your hands out there.
I don’t know what your excuse is, but mine? I never read The Beauty Myth. Or Shock Doctrine.
But I should have known better. Because I’m also a Naomi who’s been confused or associated with Other Naomis. We’ve even been confused for the same Naomi. Early in her career, Klein was often identified as Naomi Campbell.I’m also a Naomi who’s been confused or associated with Other Naomis. We’ve even been confused for the same Naomi.
“I realize this sounds far-fetched,” Klein writes. Well. If it seems absurd for her to have been mistaken for statuesque Black English super-model Naomi Campbell, imagine how much more absurd it was for me. At least Klein was also a public figure. I was just a production gal at various San Francisco publishing concerns.
I cannot top Klein’s hilariously weird anecdote about an undersecretary for the Kuwaiti prime minister returning her call only because he thought it was from Campbell. But through the ’90s and early aughts, far more often than seems plausible, I got mail and voicemail and, eventually, email, addressed to “Naomi Campbell, Production Manager, SIERRA Magazine,” Naomi Campbell, American Academy of Ophthalmology; Naomi Campbell at WebMD; Naomi Campbell of BabyCenter. (I had a lot of different jobs.)
Klein’s theory is that “this name of ours was just uncommon enough that the first Naomi a person became aware of tended to imprint herself in their mind as a kind of universal Naomi.”
Maybe. Years ago I arrived at a writers residency and shyly introduced myself to a famous poet. “Hi, I’m Naomi,” I said.
“Naomi Shihab Nye?!” she exclaimed, naming the renowned Palestinian-American poet.
“Oh, no no no,” I said. “I’m a Naomi you’ve never heard of.”
Perhaps in Poetry World the “universal Naomi” is Nye, just as in Media Land at the turn of the century it was Naomi Campbell.
I wonder if this was also true for Klein when people called her Campbell: every single one of these misaddressings to me came from a dude. Sometimes I’d cheekily reply, “FYI, I’m Naomi Williams, your friendly, short, half-Japanese production manager, not Naomi Campbell.”
Reader, the abashed responses that would follow! “Oh my God, Naomi,” some mortified man would gush into my voicemail. “I’m so sorry! I just wrote ‘Campbell’ when I meant ‘Williams.’ I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Neither do I. Somehow I’ve gotten through my entire adult life without ever absent-mindedly appending “Cooper” to every “Bradley” or “L. Jackson” to every “Sam.”
I was reading Doppelgänger when I landed at an arts residency in Virginia in October and discovered that another Naomi, lovely and gifted visual artist Naomi Alessandra, was also in residence. (She’s had to contend with Naomi Campbell too, who has a habit of popping up in her Google alerts.) The coincidence of two people with our “just uncommon enough” name occasioned considerable amused surprise among the staff and other fellows here. But I wasn’t surprised. Maybe because I’m already accustomed to both having and being an “Other Naomi.”
The novelist Nayomi Munaweera and I have been colleagues for years at a low-residency MFA writing program that offers an intensive two-week residency every summer. We’ve shared lodgings there and co-taught craft classes, and are affectionately (I think?) referred to as “the Na(y)omis.” We occasionally get work emails intended for the other, and have even accidentally messaged the other when—no lie—we meant to message ourselves. (Siri pretty much thinks I mean Nayomi anytime I say or type my own name.) Ours is a friendship based on candor and caring and solidarity as Asian women, fiction writers, and teachers. I’m honored and lucky to be her “Other Naomi.”
But I also have a troublesome “Other Naomi”—and we share a last name as well. This Naomi Williams supposedly said the following:
It is impossible to feel grateful and depressed in the same moment.
If you’ve spoken with me for even five minutes, you know: I would never say such a thing.
In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve spent my entire life proving this quote wrong.
You can be grateful for every blessing of your life and still feel depressed. You can even become depressed by things for which you’re grateful, as I learned in the difficult months after I had my first child. Hell, I’m grateful and depressed right now. Grateful for the late autumn light in Northern California, where I’m writing this. Depressed by the brutal violence of our world and by my own biochemical inclination toward melancholy.
Yet this bromide appears all over the damn internet in blog posts and tweets and Instagram captions. Sometimes I’m tagged in them. It’s even in print, gracing February 19 of one edition of Body, Mind, and Spirit: Daily Meditations, a twelve-step-oriented collection of inspiring quotes and reflections.
A few years ago I found it on some feel-good website, attributed to “Naomi Williams, Japanese-American author.”
I messaged the guy who ran the site and asked him to remove the “Japanese-American author” reference. To his credit, he wrote back a few hours later to say he’d done so, adding, “I am as interested in accuracy as you are,” a claim that, I would submit, was manifestly untrue, as the most rudimentary fact-checking would have prevented the error.
A much-more-than-rudimentary level of online sleuthing has failed to confirm the identity of Other Naomi Williams. At first I thought it might be the other novelist called Naomi Williams. Yes, there are two of us, and when my book came out in 2015, it was her bio that appeared in place of mine at IndieBound. That Naomi Williams, who died in 2020 at age ninety-one, wrote several novels after her retirement from a career as an English teacher. I read some nice tributes to her but found no evidence that she believed feeling grateful and feeling depressed were mutually exclusive.
The sentiment is occasionally attributed to yet another Naomi Williams, a photographer who died quite young in 2009. The only mention I’ve found with anything akin to a citation offers a link—to my website. At any rate, the quote, attached to our not-quite-uncommon-enough name, was already in circulation. It graces the Thanksgiving 2007 bulletin of a now-defunct Catholic Church in New Hampshire, where it’s nestled among other gratitude-related lines from the likes of Emerson, Proust, and Willie Nelson.Yes, there are two of us, and when my book came out in 2015, it was her bio that appeared in place of mine at IndieBound.
Appreciation. Despair. I experienced both while reading Doppelgänger. Grateful for its nuanced, carefully researched analyses. Depressed by her dire prognoses. So compelling are these prognoses that the impassioned calls for collective action with which Klein concludes her book felt at once immediately urgent and already too late.
But if Doppelgänger achieves little else, it will at least correct Klein’s misidentification with Wolf. I, on the other hand, have no doubt accomplished the opposite. By holding forth online about a platitude I did not utter, search engines everywhere may forever associate me with it.
Ironic. Because I’d rather be known for saying this:
You can say “thank you” even if you feel hopeless.
I do it every day.