Pleasantly Surprised

by Jen Calleja

A decade ago, I was introduced to the concept of nominative determinism – the idea that a name such as Baker or Smith can influence one’s chosen trade – as first described by Jung using Freud as an example: Freud, ‘joy’; a researcher of pleasure. I was at a Christmas gathering in Brighton, packed in tight on a friend’s sofa, talking in a low voice while avoiding eye contact with a man I’d just met (now my husband) when my ear caught this term I didn’t recognise. 

It was quite self-explanatory (pun not intended, originally, in any case) and I figured out its meaning in the context of the conversation, while mentally noting that the guy using it must be pretty smart. Half an hour later, I heard him use it again and mentally noted: ‘Ah no, he’s just pretentious.’ When we eventually became friends, I told him about my judging his ‘nominative’-dropping, he found it very funny. 


Jennifer is the namesake of a psychiatric nurse my mum really liked, her favourite, and a lovely name for a girl.

Anne is my middle name. My mum’s middle name is Ann. She said that the extra ‘e’ made it ‘more posh’. She once said that I sound ‘well posh’. I like to think that social mobility is my middle name. This ‘upgrade’ feels like a symbol of my parents’ hope that I would get an education and do well in life – that the name would suit where I wound up.

Calleja is one of the most common Maltese surnames. People sometimes have trouble pronouncing it – Cal-ay-ya, Calais-ja – which is, of course, fine. Yet sometimes they don’t ask how to say it before confidently and enthusiastically winging it in front of full rooms at readings and events, rousing flash-backs to school, to assemblies and the register. Or, as has happened on a couple of occasions, they chew it up in introductions then say ‘that’ll do’ with a resigned sigh, or ‘it doesn’t really matter, does it?!’ while pulling a cheeky face. My dad says that it’s never bothered him, so perhaps it shouldn’t bother me, I just think it comes down to manners, like checking someone’s title, whether they abbreviate their first name, or which pronouns they use.


Since being told, at the age of fourteen, that I should expect to grow up to be a manic depressive schizophrenic, I have been hyperaware of the schism that can occur when expectations are placed on a person based on nothing more than preconceptions, stereotypes and assumptions – of how they stay with you for life.  

My prognosis was announced by a GP during a visit to the local surgery with my mum regarding my insomnia. I had had irregular attendance at school for about six months and was spending my daytimes in a numb stupor. My teachers offered me cassettes of whale noise and relaxation tips, and said they looked forward to me coming back, which eventually, I did.

“This is the beginning,” the doctor had said.

“Beginning of what?”

“Of the depression, of it all.” He replied, nodding at my mum.

But mum said it was ‘rubbish’ and whipped me out of the room. I had never seen her that angry before.

Of course, I know now that his diagnosis, after less than five minutes’ consultation, was really for my mum, who had, from her teens until about ten years ago, spent significant periods in and out of psychiatric care. He was considering me through the filter of her, that is, not really considering me at all. But fourteen year old me felt that this was now my destiny, that my path had been set in motion. 

I was a quiet and introverted child, and this swift and curtailed diagnosis seemed to confirm why this was in fact the case: that ‘depression’ was an inescapable and terrible part of me. I still don’t like losing control and ‘going wild'; extremes of emotion or not being gainfully busy, and I think these are linked with a lingering belief that if I edge beyond neutrality or become too inactive, I could somehow ‘bring it on.’ Instead, people think I’m emotionless, and I also get sick more often than most due to burn out.

I never thought any of what I now have would be mine, or even possible, so I try and make the most of it and say yes to everything. Studying, living abroad, working, being comfortable in my own company; speaking and performing and touring, and being extremely happy were, for a very long time, things that would never happen. I fully expected to never leave home.


The first time I feared that I was falling into the great depression, I went to see a university counsellor. I was feeling overwhelmed and isolated, while placing high expectations on myself – normal student behaviour I realise with hindsight. But, I was nineteen and out of my depth. I was the first person in my family to go to university, freshly returned from a life-altering year in Munich, and felt I had no one to talk to.

The counsellor asked why I was putting so much pressure on myself.  

“I want to do well,” I said.

“Well, what do you want to be when you graduate?” he asked.  

“I want to be a writer,” I replied, very clearly.

“Hah”, he said, “don’t you think you’re having delusions of grandeur? I’d forget all about that.”  

I often think about his words. I sometimes imagine writing this exchange in the acknowledgements of my next book. 

And I wonder what compelled him to say it, whether he wanted to replace my ambitions with realistic goals for ‘my own good,’ or whether he assumed that this person that he barely knew couldn’t possibly have what it took to be a writer – that I was spoilt and unserious. Based on his mocking tone throughout our two hours together, I think my being young (and a young woman at that) was a major factor in his dismissiveness.

Having started to work as a writer, literary translator and editor in my mid-twenties, I often had instances where people projected muddled expectations onto me based purely on my age, and I sometimes still do, even at the age of 31.

While setting up a translation workshop with a colleague a couple of years ago, one of the attendees introduced himself to the slowly filling room. I raised my hand and said that it was I who he had been speaking with over email and that I would be helping to lead the workshop. 

“Oh!” he said, in front of the group I was about to give the workshop to, “You’re not what I was expecting.” 

There was the time an older freelancer told me I looked like a twelve year old, French schoolgirl when I was introduced to her by my boss while working at a cultural institute, the boss in question was forever telling me that I was practically her son’s age (seventeen.)

There are other, subtler jibes: where the word ‘cool’ is employed as code for ‘young’, while serving to also further undermine one’s work. There’s one particular blog post I came across discussing the positives and negatives of what my and others’ ‘cool’ statuses could do for translation. (See also: ‘millennial’.) And then there are derogatory remarks along the lines of: “anyone can call themselves a translator these days.” I think anyone can, and should, if they have the translations to prove it, but how you present seems to decide how seriously you’ll be taken and how readily people allow you to have your hard-won title.


After graduating and forgetting about writing for a bit, I worked for a now-defunct clothing brand, both in their shop in Brighton and at their head office in London. When I got the job, they said I was perfect because, "being mixed was in."

I was 22 and fully indoctrinated in the brand’s projection of women being sexually empowered and after years of bullying and not fitting in, felt complimented that the way I looked was deemed attractive. That being a bit brown was sexy, exotic. That it made me better at my job. Thinking back on it makes me cringe. Though I’m white and not particularly foreign-looking, there have been contexts where I have been othered. Just when I think it’s not a thing anymore, up it pops. 

While touring America last year, a guy approached once we’d finished playing and asked pointedly whether I was from Saudi Arabia. There’s the guy who shouted, "In England, we say thank you!" at me out of his car when I acknowledged his stopping at a zebra crossing with a polite, if mute, wave.

I’m not sharing these experiences to place myself on par with people of colour who have to put up with racial discrimination on a daily basis, more to point out the extremely low level of tolerance that exists for people even slightly different from ‘the white norm.’ All moments of alienation and fetishisation persist.


Jenka had been the name my best friend had called me as a child, and it was the name I brought to Munich, my post-school email address, and my MySpace account. But sixth form was where I properly became Jen. I’ve always liked it as a name, it has a certain androgyny to it. My dad had originally wanted to call me Georgina, and I definitely would have shortened it to George. Boyfriends have called me Jenny as a diminutive or to tease me. I tried out Jennie at secondary school. I thought it made me sound like a newsreader: Jennie Calleja, News at Ten.


While I was doing my MA, I tried counselling again.

I felt out of place and frustrated that I couldn’t talk to my parents about what I was studying, which had always been the case, but I had a compulsion to share the burden of all this knowledge with them for some reason. “It’s quite normal not being able to talk about Foucault with one’s parents,” the counsellor reassured me during our sole, uncomfortable session. (I haven’t had much luck with counselling.) But I mainly didn’t return because of the following exchange.

“Are you in a relationship?”


“What does your partner do?”

“He works on music-related projects. We play in a band together, actually."

“And do you have any siblings?”

“Yes, a younger brother."

“And what does he do?”

“He’s studying informatics and music.”

“Ah, another musician! And what did your ex-partners do?”

“Well, my ex-boyfriend writes, but also did a lot of music. The one before that was a musician.”

“So, you’re attracted to musicians?”

“Well, I’m a musician, so I meet quite a few musicians.”

“Do you think that it could be possible that you’re somehow attracted to your brother?"

“Uh. What do you mean?”

“Well, your brother’s a musician and you’ve predominantly had relationships with musicians.”

“Yes, I'm in love with my brother.”


“No. I’m not. I’m going to go now.”

The idea that my interest in music and musicians must be so sexually-driven that I would fancy my brother pretty much epitomises the sexism I’ve experienced while playing and touring in bands for the last ten years.

A woman in a band, even a punk band, is still such an alien concept that you’re often treated as a curiosity – an amateur – like you’re ‘playing’ at being in a band. And when not perceived as a child, you’re sexually available by dint of performing on stage. There are many stories, but here are a few.

After we finished playing a gig in Middlesbrough, a member of one of the other bands on that night approached and said, “When I saw you were going to be playing drums, I wasn’t sure if you’d be any good, but you were actually alright.”

Another time, in London, a member from another band said that my drumming was ‘so cute,’ before asking me back stage, at which point I pointed out that I could already go backstage – because I was playing in one of the bands!

At one show, after I’d been singing, I was trying to make my way to the bathroom when a friend of the main act asked me, with a completely neutral expression, if I’d, "like to go somewhere and fuck." I was gobsmacked. I mumbled something about having a boyfriend and he said, "One of the guys in the band right? I thought it would be that kind of set up."

The time I lost it the most though was when I was putting together my drum kit before a show and the sound-worker came over and said, "Don’t worry, I can do that, I’m a drummer’." When I said that it was, "Okay, I’ll do it. I am, after all, a drummer too." He said, "What? In a band?!"

I’m currently translating the tour diary of Marlene Marder, the guitarist of Swiss punk band Liliput, formerly known as Kleenex, and her experiences in the seventies are identical to those of women in punk in 2018. You would think things would have changed.

I’ve gone through phases where I’ve dressed more masculine on stage to blend in with my male bandmates, fooled momentarily by the misconception that what you wear can make you impervious to harassment. I was wearing the same uniform of black jeans and a black t-shirt with short back and sides when a man slapped my arse as I was leaning over while packing up on stage after playing a gig in Hebden Bridge; dressed the same but with shoulder-length hair when a guy cornered me in a stairwell to say that the best thing about my drumming was ‘your hair’ and tried to grab it.


A couple of years ago, I was so fed up and angry about being harassed, or seeing other women being harassed at gigs or bars, or in the street that I felt on high alert every time I left the house. I hated the feeling of knowing that it could happen again that night; that there could be a fight or disbelief from whoever was working the door – that everything would be ruined again.

A friend of mine from the DIY scene, Bryony, founded the grassroots campaign Good Night Out, and a year and a half ago, four more of us joined her, first as trainers, now, co-Directors. We’re currently forming a community interest company to help it expand.

Did I ever think I could lead workshops for bar staff on how to handle disclosures of sexual harassment and assault? Or give an interview on live television about it? I absolutely didn’t. And in a way, I let the feeling that ‘I wasn’t one of those people,’ the ones with confidence and charisma, stop me getting involved in activism. I’d managed to break through that feeling with writing and playing in bands, because I knew I wanted to express the sexism I experienced, but visibly, vocally fighting was my final frontier.

I was (and still am) a member of ‘sad girl theory,’ I have embraced it as a political weapon – refusing to smile or be perky, and performing disinterest at every moment ‘niceness’ is expected – never hiding my rage, dissatisfaction and sadness. But this role at Good Night Out requires positivity, sharing, patience, hope, enthusiasm. It’s even bled into my performing. Playing angry and nonchalant, being anti-performance, still does it for me as a woman in a band, but I’ve also learned how angry and confused it can make a guy in the audience if you play happy, that is, to really be happy for yourself because you’re performing and performing an empowered happiness. That being a content woman is just as political, and just as unexpected.

In the workshops, we talk about myths around sexual harassment e.g. ‘women always lie about it’; ‘it’s just banter’; ‘everyone’s out to pull’; ‘women like men to be forward.’ We ask people to not to bring previous experiences to new instances of people reporting harassment e.g. ‘well, last time it happened it turned out she was lying…’,  and also challenge their perception of previous experiences: 'maybe she said she was lying because she no longer felt safe reporting?’

But I must admit I have also pre-emptively judged others.

A big, burly guy walked into one of the recent workshops, he greeted us with a nod, and sat down with his arms folded. I assumed that he wouldn’t be an active participant, and resigned myself to it.

In one of the exercises, we asked about which groups of people most receive harassment and why. This guy stood up and explained to the group what misogyny, xenophobia and transphobia are, that he tries his utmost to make sure that everyone – no matter who they are – has an equally good time, that he checks which gender people identify as before patting them down, told us that he watches videos made by gender-queer and gender-fluid vloggers because he wants to educate himself.

I felt elated, and suddenly noticed how exhausted I was, as I always do, when I find someone who shares our simple – almost common sense – worldview: prioritising that everyone’s needs are recognised and that everyone is treated the same – without it being seen as a problem, a conflict or waste of time. An unlikely comrade, but such a pleasant surprise. We shared the same motivation, and lived by the same questions: What if we never assumed things about people, and no one had to feel they didn’t belong due to others’ presumptions?  


My married name will be Phoenix-Calleja, once we change it. A marker of a certain rebirth, whereby I allow myself to be truly happy, and also confident on behalf of others, while embracing being an introverted person – as if through my cross-cultural and collaborative work, I can see myself from the outside, and he can see himself from the outside, and we always expect the best for each other, without placing expectations on each other.


I do wonder sometimes if everything I’ve ever set out to do has been in reaction to a feeling that it wasn’t what I was ‘destined’ to do, that it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t welcome. If it got me this far, then perhaps it doesn’t matter, but what more could I have achieved if I hadn’t wasted energy combatting expectations, if people had just taken me by words and deeds alone.


Find out more about Good Night Out here.


Illustration by Richard Phoenix-Calleja

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