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What's in a (pen) name?
By Gloria Diaz
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Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne is in the news again. But whatís refreshing about this situation is that itís not that we are fat, dumb, fat AND dumb, or trying to name a government building after Harry Baals, a former mayor about whom we know little, if anything, about his grooming.
No, this time itís a little surprising, and perhaps something to be proud of. Itís about a guy so hell-bent to be published, he took a pen name. Not just any pen name, mind you, but an Asian pen name. And like a born marketer, the guy in question kept records on how many times heís been published under his real name, and the times heís been accepted under his Asian nom de plume. The Asian name has netted better publication rates than his real name.
That guy is local poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who used the name Yi-Fen Chou, which, according to the News-Sentinel, is a woman. People seemed to be more freaked out by the fact that a white guy took an Asian name, not knowing that itís a FEMALE Asian name. Apparently, heís changed nationality as well as gender. And some people are pissed.
Pen names are not new. Writers like to think they are making art, but we really do want to make money, if possible. Since everyone these days has to be a ďbrand,Ē even regular people, writers arenít any different. Writers need to have a ďplatformĒ and nowadays, you need to have a fan base, a blog, and post on Twitter regularly before a publisher will get interested in you. Basically, youíre pimping yourself when you arenít working on your writing. So the poetry world is outraged by Hudsonís name switch, but if you are interested in getting published by any means necessary, whatís the big deal? So he took an Asian female name. Ever hear of George Eliot? How about Isak Dinesen? Surprise! They were both white women. Eliot was actually the pen name of Mary Ann Evans whose male romantic partner encouraged her to write fiction, but to take a pen name to avoid female stereotyping. Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, who penned some book called Out of Africa. Then thereís the gender-neutral J.K. Rowling, which hid the womanliness of Joanne, her first name. Rowling created the Harry Potter series, which proved kids CAN and DO want to read. However, since everyone knows young boys wonít read stuff written by women, the name was suggested by Rowlingís publisher. This is a pure marketing move. If youíre spending money on an unknown writer, youíre going to do whatever you can in order to make the writer marketable.
Even real names can come as a surprise to people. Iím sure when people meet my sister-in-law in person, they wonder what exactly is Hispanic about this tall, blonde, brown-eyed woman. There isnítóshe married a Puerto Rican German, and ironically, their Spanish-surnamed children are three-quarter German. Surprise!
Sherman Joseph sounds like a white guyís name Alexie, who edited and chose the poems appearing in Best American Poetry 2015, is Native American. Surprise! So is anyone complaining about this? When I first read Alexieís work last semester, I enjoyed it. However, I think my first reaction was, ďoh! Heís the guy behind Smoke Signals. I liked that movie!Ē My second reaction? ďHe doesnít have a Native American name.Ē Did I feel duped? Outraged? No.
I guess Iím guilty too. I write erotic fiction, but I chose a pen name because I attract enough creepy men as it is. I must admit I chose a name that sounded like someone who would write erotic fiction. I chose my middle name, my deceased sisterís name, and my motherís maiden name. I did it to honor my mom and my sister. But the name, I will admit, is whiter than white. Do I feel guilty about that? Hell no. For me, itís a matter of privacy, but also a matter of marketing. Could I have picked a Spanish surname? Sure I could. But I didnít. In a country where Spanish surnames are associated with being in the country illegally, and a poor command of the English language, I guess I wanted to distance myself from that. Oh, I guess I could have chosen a name like Anita Hungwon, or Mike Hunt Hurtz, but I wanted to be believable, not hilarious.
So whatís in a name? Everything. Assumptions and prejudices. And for anyone trying to get anywhere, a name change can be a deal maker. For all the anger about white privilege, it is starting to look like being a white guy isnít so much of an advantage in the world of poetry.
How times have changed. Iím hoping a Roberta Frosty Dong or a Wilhelmina Shakenherspear emerges from the literary world. Why? Because it will make me laugh.