Friday, August 13, 2010

Pennames not WASP

I was thinking of pennames, and how we choose them. You know, one thing I worry about is how while our culture is becoming more wonderfully diverse, writers so often choose Anglo "easy-sounding" pennames no matter what their own names are.

So "Margie Kowalski" becomes "Joanne Gray." And "Jamie Martelli" becomes "Bill Gray."

I was out to dinner tonight, and there was a fun group of people. There was the guy with the Welsh name married to the Finnish woman (who had a Hispanic surname and a Finnish given name), and the Jewish fellow and his Italian wife, and the African-American couple with the African first names and Anglo surnames. This is actually our culture, isn't it? And we love it. We love the diversity and especially the food from around the world. :)

So just a hope-- if you're going to choose a penname, for whatever reason, consider choosing a name that is in the same grouping as your own name. If you're Italian, choose an Italian name. If you're Asian, choose an Asian name. That way no one will think that most writers are Anglo-Saxon. Celebrate the diversity that is us.

Alas, I'm a typical American mongrel, Anglo on one side, and three types of Eastern Euro on the other. And like many women, my surname is my husband's (Swiss, so not all that exotic). But I love the name "Novak" (like Kim Novak, who was an actress in one of my fave Hitchcock films), and that name is Slovak, like my mother. So I'm thinking of using that as a penname if needed-- attractive, but also resonant with my own background ("All names ending in K are Slovak!" my grandma said, though I doubt it's true :).

Just a thought. We are multitudes, and we love it, and we should show it and not hide it. And there are plenty of writers with Anglo roots who can use those lovely English names too!

So, if you had to choose a penname for whatever reason, what would you use?



Tara Maya said...

I have a pen name. It is not from the same culture as my ethnicity (Anglo/Swiss/Mexican); I picked it when I was living in a Buddhist nunnery in Nepal, and it combines the name of a bodhisattva (Tara) and Illusion (Maya). I thought that was appropriate because it represented truth wrapped in illusion, which is what fiction writers do.

Also, it's much shorter than my real name, and I thought it would look nice on a book. :)

Whirlochre said...

I haven't yet managed to come up with a pen name that doesn't sound any more or less ridiculous than the name I already have.

That said, I'm discussing pen names here, albeit not entirely seriously, and all are welcome to join in the fun.

Erastes said...

Well, I couldn't be more Anglo Saxon, born and raised in the east of england, red hair, pale skin, freckles. Also officially a Protestant, although I'm not. But I didn't call myself "Frika Albertsdottir" LOL. My penname is Greek!

Jenny Brown said...

Ironically, my pen name is my maiden name, and though it couldn't sound more WASP, I got it from my Orthodox Rabbi grandfather. It had been Braun, but as so often happened 100 years ago, got mangled on Ellis Island.

Cate said...

Although I love my name, it's hyphenated and I've spent my whole life marveling at the many ways people get it wrong. I certainly don't want people not buying my books because they heard it was Davis-Stevens or Davies or Stephens (all wrong!).

Sometimes I think I'd use my middle name and be Catie Waier, which has a nice ring to it. Though I'd probably spend my whole career saying, "actually, it's pronounced where..."

CatherineBerlin said...

I use my maiden name. I don't want someone to try to order my book only to give up because my real (Polish married) name is so hard to spell!

And there is that second factor that I am a teacher, so I need to be hard for my students to find.

C.L. Gray said...

I used my initials instead of my first name. Kept the last name. I did it for two reasons. First I liked the way it sounded: C.L. Gray. Second, I write Civil War alternate history and wanted to disguise the fact that I was a woman.

Cat's out of the bag now. Most of my targeted audience know I'm female, but I'm going to keep the initials. Like I said, I like the way it sounds.

Anonymous said...

No one could ever blame me for trying to simplify or beautify my penname. I chose the Franken-moniker my parents gave me at birth. :)


Livia Blackburne said...

So I'm Chinese, with a European sounding last name (even my maiden name was European sounding). Sometimes I think about writing fiction with Asian characters, in which case, I wonder if I should choose a more Chinese sounding pen name for more street cred :-)

Edittorrent said...

@C.L. Alicia and I were just talking about gendered pen names last week and all the misconceptions surrounding them. There was a story going around about a female freelancer who adopted a male pen name and saw her income skyrocket. But on the other hand, there are all those male romance authors who write under female names for the same reasons.

Just brings me back to an idea we've mentioned a time or two -- your author name becomes your brand. A genderless pen name works in your particular niche because the books themselves are probably not targeted at a male or female readership.

a Polish-Irish-German-Dutch-English mongrel

Edittorrent said...

@Erastes I've always thought your pen name was very well chosen and suits your books. And it's memorable.


Edittorrent said...

@Catherine @Jenny
My grandmother's family came through Ellis Island with the Polish spelling intact, but that didn't last long. Half the family Americanized the name, and the other half has been screaming over it ever since. Names are tricky devils, aren't they?


Julie Harrington said...

I'm horrible with this. Since I'm targeting the romance genre, I figure using my real last name is out (there's already 4 Harrington's crowding the shelf), plus that whole "choose a pen name for privacy sake, crazy people, etc"). I was going to use my mother's maiden name (Pavich) and still might, I don't know. But every time I try to find a pen name nothing ever really "fits" right. I did find one that I like but whenever I tell it to friends they give me that look like, "Really? Isn't that boring? And I think, what? Because it's romance I have to pick a name like Felicia Fancybottom? I'm a writer, not a James Bond villain. (and obvious Psych fan. *G*)


JessicaN said...

In those daydreams when I get published, I always have a pen name, even if it's just using my initials. I've often thought I could go first initial, middle, then last - not unlike M. Night Shyamalan.

If I ever write romance I'm soooo swiping my pen name from a family friend, who passed years ago. His drag/stage name would be utterly perfect for writing romances.

Anonymous said...

I have a WASP name. I picked a WASP (interesting spelling though) pen name. I'm not a WASP. So if I understand you correctly I'm supposed to pick something that is not so WASP sounding? Something that is stereotypical which would identify me as belonging to a particular racial grouping so that people don't assume I'm white? Really? Wow.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I think you misunderstand her. I read this as an argument in favor of diversity and tolerance.

Jordan said...

All surnames that end in K, huh? So, like . . . Clark? Black? McCormick? Brook? ;)

I'm American. Period. Two hundred years ago, my people were mostly (boringly) Anglo (aside from the Anglo-Americans; my European ancestors arrived here more than four centuries ago. Oh, and the Anglo-conquered Celts, like my married surname). Even my non-Anglo ancestors had fairly WASPy names. (Neilsen and Harmon don't exactly sound ethnic.)

If I had to pick a pen name, I'd probably use some variation on my (very common, very Anglo, but, hey, it's mine) maiden name (I'm thinking first initial-middle name-maiden name). Which, apparently, is popular.

Historical note: Contrary to popular modern belief, Ellis Island workers didn't alter names in an effort to force Anglicization on dirty foreigners. Immigration officials relied on ship registries. Most name changes happened for the same reason as Theresa's ancestors. DH has four generations of Faulkners who have five spellings on records. Genealogy is such fun when you've got such creative ancestors.

Speaking of creativity, I recently found out some friends with the surname "Kirk" come from Polish ancestry (changed their name), and I met a guy who contracted Kowalsky to Kay.

Names really are tricky devils—and much more fluid than we usually think!

Evangeline Holland said...

My family is mixed race (African-American, Irish, Dutch, French), but we all have "normal" American names, all the way back to the sixth generation. So I have a variety of ethnicities to choose from! My present pen name derives from my real first name and that aforementioned Dutch heritage. *g*

Anonymous said...

My real surname marks me as coming from a very specific part of England (there aren't many of us in the world's phone books, and the vast majority live within 20 miles of my birthplace). Plus no one not from round there seems to be able to spell it.

My real first and middle names aren't typically English at all (the first has four letters and people still can't spell it).

So I went with the combination of a name I'd used in the school playground and the author of the books from where one of my other long-standing nicknames came.

Edittorrent said...

Tara, but "Maya" will make us think "Mexico." So that works ethnically as well!

Anon (1) said: So if I understand you correctly I'm supposed to pick something that is not so WASP sounding? Something that is stereotypical which would identify me as belonging to a particular racial grouping so that people don't assume I'm white? Really? Wow.
Anonymous (1), don't look for reasons to take offense, please. Life's too short to find offense where none was meant. I'm not telling you to do anything. I am, however, suggesting that those who are from an ethnic group consider using a penname that reflects their own family background. Just to consider it. You've apparently considered it right now, and chosen not to. As always, your identity is your own choice. What's the problem? As Anon(2) suggested, I'm just suggesting that celebrating our diversity is something to consider. And if you find me offensive, best not to read my rants about participles-- boy, are THOSE offensive. :)

Jordan, I wish you'd been around to say that to Grandma. :) "-ak" is pretty Slovak, at least. But not "Black"!

Jessica, do you think "Night" is really part of his name? It's very cool.


Jami Gold said...

Back in my family history, one name was misspelled because the officials didn't know what to do with an umlaut. :)

Karalynn Lee said...

Speaking as a Korean, there aren't all that many names from my culture that would render gracefully when spelled out in English -- and it is a concern that readers be able to remember and spell your pen name! But I love the sentiment behind your post. I do use my real last name, as I want to hold on to that bit of my heritage, but there seem to be a fair number of Western Lees out there as well.

Edittorrent said...

Karalynn, the most common Korean surnames are kind of easy on English-speaker ears too-- "Park" and "Kim," right? :) Lee is easy too, and it is really euphonious.