Identity politics are all the rage, even within the world of books. This is odd since most of us are chameleons. We shape our identity to match our current circumstances as easily as we change clothes or the color of our hair. Child, spouse, parent. Angeleno, American, Dutch. An author identity is a choice, too, and sometimes a burden as well.
First off, you have to decide whether to publish under your own name. As Marie Myung-Ok Lee notes, some authors need a writing persona.
Poet Leslie McGrath (Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives) says, “My married name is Taylor and that’s ‘family’ persona, but my writer’s name is McGrath, which was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up poor and Irish, never made it beyond high school, and always wanted to write. Each poem and book I publish is a tribute to her.”
There are also less celebratory reasons for a nom de plume. Mary Shelley preferred anonymity to claiming authorship of Frankenstein. George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) wanted to be taken seriously. More recently, J.K. Rowling chose Robert Galbraith as her crime fiction author identity in order
to begin a new writing career in a new genre and to release her crime novels to a neutral audience, free of expectation or hype.
a masked ball
Rowling was bucking the trend. For the past ten years, male crime fiction writers have been choosing female pseudonyms. It makes so much sense according to Sophie Gilbert since
women readers have come to dominate fiction, where they’re widely touted as representing as much as 80 percent of the market. And while crime fiction and psychological thrillers are often associated with male readers, women read most of those, too—between 60 and 80 percent. […] women also prefer to read books by women, citing a Goodreads survey that found 80 percent of a new female author’s readership is likely to be female.
Not everyone is happy with this masquerade. Paula Cocozza reports on the fall of Yasmina Khadra, once celebrated as the authentic voice of the Arab women, until her husband Mohammed Moulessehoul was unmasked as the true author. Poet Michael Derrick Hudson submits poetry using the name Yi-Fen Chou. As you can imagine, allegations of cultural appropriation abound, made further fraught by the commercial motivations behind such an identity choice.
The line is hard to draw when a writer adapts their name in order to draw closer to a readership. In a world where authenticity is prized, maybe the last fiction readers want to buy is the one about the author’s identity.
How to understand authenticity in the context of fiction? By definition, fiction is false. The author made it up. Sure, she may have modeled certain characters on people she knows. Maybe transplanted an event from life into her story. Or mined history for the bones of a story. For example, Jennifer Egan researched the Brooklyn Navy Yard, deep sea diving and the mafia in New York City in order to produce Manhattan Beach. We writers will go to all lengths to make our fiction feel real.
Kirstin Chen put plenty of research into Bury What We Cannot Take, her novel of a family fleeing Maoist China. Yet despite all that elbow grease, Chen questioned her identity as an author, asking Am I Chinese Enough to Tell This Story?
who was I to embark on this novel, set in a part of southern China that I’d only visited twice, during a time period that I knew almost nothing about? While I am Chinese, my family hasn’t lived in China for several generations. My relatives live in Singapore, Hong Kong, or the US. English is my first language, and my years in America have chipped away at my ability to read Chinese. […] how could I possibly be Chinese enough to tell a Chinese [story]?
fear of failure
When I was writing The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, a friend suggested that I interview rape victims for insight into my character Song Anyi. The idea appalled me. I couldn’t imagine asking someone to relive her trauma merely to feed my novel. Also, I had faith in my own powers of imagination.
So I wasn’t (too) worried about the big stuff. But the devil is in the details and like Kirstin Chen I was sure I’d get them wrong. Like which Model T Ford was on Shanghai roads in 1937. So I asked my father to read my manuscript. It must have worked because none of the Asian book reviewers has called me out as a hoax.
With my current novel-in-progress, I’m flying without a net. Peace Court is set at the dawn of the Mao era. By that time, my immediate family had left China. We had no contact with the relatives who stayed behind. Even if I could have found them, I have no right to dig in their wounds, all for the sake of authenticity.
In the absence of family eyewitnesses, I’m left with research. But there, too, I’m stymied. Mao’s policy on Socialist Realism silenced most of the contemporary voices inside of China and the Bamboo Curtain kept Western writers out. Only the propaganda survived. So that leaves secondary sources like historian Frank Dikötter, who may have a political agenda of his own.
When anyone asks which of the characters in The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is me, my answer is: all of them. I tried to place myself into the shoes of each of my characters. To take on their identity and see the world through their eyes. Empathy, it seems to me, is the only way to achieve authenticity in fiction.
Yet, inasmuch as my life informs my writing, my characters lead lives of their own. As a result, I feel no need to sever myself from my author identity by writing under a pseudonym. Instead, I allow my mind to roam free to write about shady characters and unlikely heroes. I’ll even use my fiction to comment upon the sorry state of our society, present and past. In short, to write noir.