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The Initials, Not the Name

I've wanted to say something about this for a long time, but most of my posts I began for the subject were false-starts. Why do I choose to write under my initials, rather than my full name?

When I first started submitting my work for publication, many years ago, I made an active choice to avoid suggesting either my sex or my cultural background by using my full name. I am, firstly, a writer. Anything else that I am is irrelevant to my occupation. I have no intention of, and somewhat disdain, promoting myself as a female writer. If a reader coming into my writing sees my name appearing beneath the title of my story, and reads it like just another piece of the text, with no assumptions of where I came from or who I might be, I consider my work done. If the reader makes any assumptions on his or her own, that's fair enough. But I like to think I contributed to that issue as little as possible.

The cultural issues surrounding my name are slightly more difficult. I have a Muslim name, which clearly states I had a Muslim upbringing, in spite of the fact that I left that religion 14 years ago. I should start by saying I have no intention of changing my name. This was a name my late grandfather gave me, and I bear no ill will towards it. But I come from a country where the choice of leaving my religion is virtually forbidden, and where the legal implications of leaving that religion would also mean giving up my entire ethnicity. I would not particularly miss the latter. As I am firstly a writer, I am firstly a Malaysian. Anything else that I carry in my ancestry is not as important as the culture that raised me.

I've spent my entire life being questioned about my ethnicity and my faith, by my own countrymen, on the basis of my name. I don't think I need or want to explain myself about it more than I already have. I don't need that questioning to follow me into the one medium I feel I have some ability to communicate in effectively.

Having said that, I have previously been published under my full name. Due to the individual policies of publications I've appeared in, I haven't entirely been able to avoid featuring my full name. It's not hard to find me online either. The nature of my non-writing work has meant that I will pop up at a few fairly public sites out there. I do still prefer using my initials whenever possible, and endeavour to keep doing so.

I would love to see a day where I could write the subjects I do handle, use my beloved initials, have people know who I am and where I come from, and be judged merely for my writing. That's never going to happen, and certainly doesn't happen even with the initials I use now. But again, anything I can contribute to minimizing the type and amount of pre-judgment that could occur is helpful to me as a writer. Now all I need to do is write something worthy of my crypticism, spread more rumours about me really being a fifty-something gay man, and find myself a tall thing to hide behind.

Negligible Trivia:

Fact: At least four editors who've previously published me defaulted into thinking I was a guy. Or just couldn't figure me out and went, "Hmmmm."
Fact: I once entered a chat room, helped hit on a guy, and the only other girl in that entire place immediately assumed I was a gay man.
Fact: Girl in chat room was semi-correct, with embellishments and elaborate scrollwork.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
i reckon you got a cool name, myself. nothing bout it makes me think of gay old men :)
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
Alas, I got the girly name end of the stick. ;) Thanks! The very first editor who published me professionally was just cracking a joke last week, which I took as a high compliment, that he spent a little while after publishing me trying to figure out if I was really a guy pretending to be a girl.
Feb. 12th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
*points to her* Ah yes, the 40-year old guy at FC chat. *G*

Just Googled your first and last name and the first entry was a work of yours at Paumanok from when you were 18 years old. It mentions The Flawed Prophets in the mini-bio on the side. Time goes by quickly, doesn't it?

(*ponders* Do you realize in a few months we'll have known each other for 10 frickin' years? Holy crap!)

When you moved to Ozland I had wondered if you'd start reinventing, or rather, redefining yourself. Despite the subject matter of your stories, would editors assume something different from a writer one assumes is from Oz rather than M'sia? And would you take advantage of that?
Feb. 13th, 2008 12:32 am (UTC)
OK, I'm curious ... link, plz?
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:54 am (UTC)
Mopey flash fiction written at 18: http://www.etext.org/Fiction/Paumanok/1.3/muffaz.html ! :)
Feb. 13th, 2008 03:50 am (UTC)
I'm amazed folks thought I was as old as Moondoggie at sixteen. Heck, I think the youngest people were putting me at was around your age at the time. :P

Time goes by really, really fast. It's funny that. I was just thinking about how I've known you, Mokes and Cabbit for 10 years now, and I met you guys pretty much around the same time. Man, I look at TFP now and sort of mildly shrink in horror. I was *so* pretty vampires and cliched fiction.

I have actually noticed differences when people assumed my writing came from Australia rather than Malaysia. The writing community here is refreshingly open to multicultural topics. At least, they don't seem to immediately judge multicultural stories by their difference from their own cultural perspective so quickly. I've had this come up with some of my stories lately from North American editors, where the culture of my stories starts becoming a focal point. Even though they meant well, I worry when the cultures my stories are set in become a selling point. The cultures my stories are set in are usually a part of the story, as well as a set piece, but they're not the whole point of it. So it bothers me a little when readers look at the difference of the culture in the story from their own, before the story itself.

I worry a lot about being seen as Australian, when I am not, especially in the context of industry-related reviews and awards my name has appeared in here. Inevitably, people do assume I'm Australian, and it does bug me somewhat, but I like presents more. So to answer your question, I do put on woeful koala disguises to take advantage of writerly things I wasn't able to get back home. And then worry intensely for ages, in my hamsterish fashion, that the Universe is about to bite me on the nose for it. :)
Feb. 13th, 2008 02:40 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing all this down
Vale from Re/Search says that choosing your own name should be a rite of passage. I chose mine precisely because it's gender neutral, so I understand exactly what you're saying about choosing your own. It's important to be judged for the work, not the assumptions brought about by a name.
Feb. 13th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you for writing all this down
Thank you for reading, and for commenting. I am still fairly bothered by writing markets that want to exhibit me as a female writer, particularly a female writer of genre fiction. I suspect being marked for a genre on top of a gender is something worse. Much as I respect individual editorial policies, and like this idea of being published enough I could "sell out", it bothers me. I'm definitely not at the stage where I can pick my publisher though.
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:23 am (UTC)
Not picking publishers
I hear that. If we boycotted all the publishers with questionable practices, we could be in trouble. :-)

Still, there's a reviewer on LJ who counts the number of women appearing in each publication and keeps statistics from year to year. (He's male.) I know Nightshade was recently in trouble because they didn't put any women's names on the cover of a book, even though the table of contents inside was gender-balanced. People in this country are trying to be aware there's gender inequity in genre publications.

Hopefully someday we can get to a place where it's all about the quality of the work, not about the perception of equality in the table of contents.
Feb. 13th, 2008 05:47 am (UTC)
Re: Not picking publishers
I think I may have seen this reviewer before. His blog is the Elephant Forgets, or something similar? Wildside's publications are very big on promoting female writers. I am aware the publisher there associates the use of initials with hiding one's gender, and he strongly prefers that writers in his stable use their full name to promote both the gender and diversity of his writers. He is, at least, the most recent example of blunt affirmative action I can think of on the subject.

There are days of the week I look at some of this affirmative "by women for women" stuff and just... cringe, mentally hollering at it to stop being a chick flick. But, once again, the writing does not choose its publishers. :)
Feb. 13th, 2008 08:40 am (UTC)
I'm never going to be a published writer, but I have considered this issue before. You know how authors with Asian names always end up writing about... Asian things? Like Amy Tan kind of stuff. While I think it's great that authors are writing about their own culture, and yes I know it's a big part of their identity, I find it kind of weird that they ONLY write about issues concerning Being Asian. You don't find a lot of second-generation Asian author names writing about being a criminal lawyer in New York, you know what I mean?

It's like either writers are obsessed with putting themselves in a cage (whether it be culture, or gender, or whatever) or their publishers are only letting through the ones with a certain "image" to go along with the name. Which has often made me think how pointless the author name really is. It's a marketing brand; it doesn't tell you anything about the person, really. I can't blame the Bronte sisters for all taking unisex pseudonyms. Or JK Rowling for that matter.
Sep. 24th, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC)
Wow. I took a really long time to find this comment. Sorry about the wait.

You really dont find a lot of second-generation Asian author names writing about being a criminal lawyer in New York. Exactly.

I think what you said here is pretty kickass. It bothers me too that authors with Asian names often write about Being Asian. It's a big part of their identity, but I think it also pigeonholes them into specific categories, mostly associated with a certain exoticism and romance.

I actually suspect publishers deliberately choose Asian authors who write stressing that exoticism and romance too, because that's what sells. So no, the name really doesn't tell us about the quality of the writing or what it's about at all. It's a decorative contraption!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )