My White Pen Name

Does this pseudonym make me look pale (enough)?

My White Pen Name

In this era of ruthless self-promotion, when so many thirst for their 15 minutes of fame, pen names seem quaintly anachronistic. Elena Ferrante is that very rare bird who employs one to retain anonymity. Famous authors use pseudonyms to distinguish their franchises, as with Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) and Anne Rampling (Anne Rice).

Some, like Anonymous (Joe Klein) or Professor X (author unknown), may seek to avoid damaging their careers. For African-American writer bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), the use of an alias allows for the construction of “a writer-identity that would challenge and subdue all impulses leading me away from speech into silence.”

Thanks to writers like hooks, a growing chorus of minority voices is bringing greater awareness to the shameful lack of diversity in a literary world long dominated by whites. But no good deed goes unpunished. This move for inclusiveness seems to have spawned another type of pseudonymous writer: the Caucasian who hopes to get published on the affirmative-action plan.

When Sherman Alexie chose a work by Yi-Fen Chou for inclusion in the 2015 edition of The Best American Poetry, the poet revealed that he was actually Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man from Fort Wayne, Indiana. With a wide-eyed, corn-fed guilelessness that betrayed no inkling that he might have crossed the line into colonialist opportunism, Hudson admitted he had used the Chinese pen name as a “strategy” to get published.

And it worked.

The poem that Alexie selected had been rejected 40 times when submitted under Hudson’s real name, but only nine times before it was accepted by the literary journal Prairie Schooner.

Alexie was forced to defend both his initial choice of the poem and his decision to include it in the anthology after the poet revealed his true identity. Outrage and think pieces ensued. Writers of Asian ancestry flocked to the Asian American Writer’s Workshop What’s Your #WhitePenName generator and tweeted their new, vanilla-flavored names.

I didn’t need to use the generator because I already write under a white name. It’s my real name, the one engraved on my passport, driver’s license, diplomas, and credit cards.

I have another name, though, given to me by my Korean birthmother. It has occurred to me that if I submit under that name, editors would realize I am an authentic minority voice rather than yet another white writer fetishizing the Orient or purporting to speak for another race. By being able to decipher my identity at first glance, they would read my work accordingly.    

But I won’t submit my work under a pen name, even if it is my own name and not one I had to scrounge from a high-school classmate. To use my birth name as a ruse to get published — to add some “authenticity” to the work that the white publishing world might crave — is to cheapen my identity. It would be playing into the stereotypes and lazy marketing that publishers so heavily rely upon, yielding to the racism I deplore.

It would be denying the very forces that formed my character and that impel me to write.

As a mixed-race, transracial adoptee, I confound the labels and automatic assumptions that our hyper-racialized society imposes. The writer in me was forged by every teacher who called out the name “Alice Stephens” and looked everywhere but at me; by everyone who refused to believe my siblings when they introduced me as their sister; by each nosy stranger who thought it was her right to demand I explain myself; by every person who let me know that I didn’t belong; and by every lame-ass wah-wah joke about adoption and Junior-ran-away-because-he-thought-he-was-adopted-but-he-really-wasn’t sitcom episode.

I write because I know the surface never tells the whole story, and nothing is what it seems at first glance. I write to explore the grey areas, the dappled shadows, the vast chasm between light and dark. And yes, damn it, I write to get published. But I will not sacrifice my hard-won identity or hide behind something I am not in order to achieve that goal.

I feel sorry for Michael Derrick Hudson, not only because of the shitstorm he so naively didn’t seem to anticipate when he copped to adopting a Chinese name, but because he was willing to do anything to get published, even if it meant exploiting our complicated history of race and racism to do it.

But I also recognize the conviction that one’s work is worthy of publication and it is only the irrationality of the publishing world that is standing in the way, for I have the same abiding faith in my own writing and lack of faith in the publication-selection process.

The system may not be fair, but by trying to game it, you perpetuate the iniquity. There is no honor in cheap gimmicks.

My white pen name is part of the armor which every writer who presents her writing for public scrutiny must don; it is also my own, soft skin.

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