Pseudonyms and cultural appropration?

discussion

#1

Forgive me if this isn’t the place to post this kind of topic; the reason I’m posting it here is because (at least from what I’ve read in the old clubs), The Pub is generally filled with more mature members, and ultimately I am looking for more a mature, well-reasoned, and constructive discussion on this subject.

I’m not here to start a flame war or argument about whether or not you believe cultural appropriation is “a thing”.

I’m only curious about what you think of pseudonyms/pen names, specifically the use of a pseudonym outside your own ethnicity/cultural upbringing.

I’m not talking about using my favourite Bleach! character as a profile picture and username. I’m talking about, for example, if I as a white woman with not a drop of Chinese blood or significant cultural experience, deliberately chose a Chinese-sounding pen name, and started writing and publishing Chinese historical fic.

I know it’s not illegal. I’m not interested in it from a legal perspective. I see it happening frequently in wattpad, so I’m more interested in your opinion of it from an ethical perspective. I want to hear opinions from all sides of the board (even if your opinion is you have no opinion at all) – but I especially want to hear your opinion on the matter if you’re a writer of colour.


Cultural Appropriation with Pen Names?
#2

On Wattpad, PC culture isn’t as strong as it might seem so not many give a damn. Plus, from what I seen, similar readers/writers have a tendency to gravitate to each other so you will probably just find yourself with a group of readers/writers who admire and/or do the same thing.

However, if you branch out to tumblr, you will probably find plenty of trouble about your pen name.


#3

I think eventually it has a lot to do with intent.

My Pen name: Saint Caliendo is meant to sound ambiguous (in terms of ethnicity and gender.) It is obvious that I am a woman, and I am very very Igbo (West African) when you get to know me. But I don’t want anyone looking at my very female African name and dismissing me just because of it.

On the other side, there are people who adapt names of other cultures to LIE. This is different. Dishonest, and unethical. (Or, you could explore another layer of why they lie, but that’s another matter.) When people lie about names they create a whole different persona for it.

  • The biggest reason why people lie about names: to claim authority where they have none. Like, presenting as a Gay man to write Gay Romance, or presenting as a Japanese person to write a Japanese based fantasy etc. People who do this use their names (and adapted personas) as shields when they are criticized.

Back on topic: As long as the name is that: just a name that you haven’t attached a false persona to. You can use it to get you the privacy and fairness in judgment you desire (Say, not wanting to be dropped simply because someone feels your novel is less than because you’re not from the ethnicity) it’s sensible and even advisable.

The persona shield as explained above, is what most people are wary of when people take up pen names that don’t match up to their reality (gender wise, ethnicity wise etc.)


#4

The majority of that kind of thing comes from the teen KPOP and anime fans. They’re all Something-chan or something similar. They use the ‘slang’ they’ve picked up from the language in their regular speech. It’s rather silly, but mostly harmless.

Speaking specifically to ‘pen names’ - the name J. D. Robb was adopted to publish a series of futuristic detective novels, because the stories were not in Nora Robert’s usual genre - Romance. There have been several male romance authors who adopted ‘female’ sounding, or at least gender neutral pen names. Until recently, it was a common practice to vigorously hide who was behind a pen name.

Of course you’re going to have posers - people pretend to be many things online that they aren’t. But unless they are using it for intentionally defrauding people it’s not a big deal, IMO. If they’re faking to get an audience, they’ll be discovered sooner or later and lose whatever they hoped to gain.

On the other hand, you do have people who adopt something from their genetic heritage that isn’t obvious from their appearance. You can’t always tell just by looking at someone what their heritage is. Just looking at me, you might not guess my Native American heritage, but it shows in my facial structure if you know what you’re looking for. It’s a actual fact, and whether anyone chooses to believe it or not doesn’t change that.

My friend Becky is Irish and Seminole. Jim, her husband was a foundling, left in a church and raised in an orphanage. To look at Beck, you’d think she was pure white European - she has the pale skin, black hair and blue eyes of the ‘shanty black Irish.’ Jim looks like your average American white guy. Look at her kids and you’ll see everything from a fair blonde, blue eyed girl to a dark skinned, dark eyed girl with tightly curled hair - from the slaves that joined with the Seminole tribes. All six of her children are her and her husband’s biological children, yet they are often assumed to have adopted or have a ‘blended’ family. Thanks to modern genealogical technology, they have discovered that her husband Jim is a mix of African, English, German, Native American and Pacific Islander.

I would say that the majority of ‘pseudonyms’ on Wattpad are not meant to deceive or mislead - they’re just fan service.


#5

I guess mine could fall under some kind of appropriation then. I’m Danish/Faroese (So Scandinavian) and I’ve chosen A. W. Frasier - which is not from my own culture whatsoever. It’s probably a descent of the Scottish clan name Fraser. So, not my culture.

But like Saint said so very nicely (and way better than what I was intending to do)

Now the reason I chose the pen name I have, was because I wasn’t sure what the climate on Wattpad was. Would there be a bias towards someone with a female sounding name? I didn’t know, so I went with a gender-neutral one. And I didn’t want to use my real name because I like to be anonymous.
So, A. W. = A Writer
Frasier = From the American sitcom “Frasier”.
So it’s not meant to be decisive or to put something on me that isn’t - it was just meant as protection against a bias (that isn’t there with a large majority of female users hahaha)

So yeah, in the end I think it’s fine to call yourself whatever you want as long as you’re not trying to deceive people or lie.


#6

I don’t mind so much on wattpad, mostly because it doesn’t seem like people who do it, do so with any intent other than showing their inner weebo, koreaboo or whateverboo.

If we were talking about published novels, then it might get a bit iffy for me personally. It’s got a lot to do with what @saintc said above. That is exactly what rubs me the wrong way.

In these cases, intent matters very little to me. It’s very easy for a white American author to claim that they only used a Japanese-sounding name to show their love for the country (or whatever other innocent excuse), while publishing a Japanese-based fantasy novel. But intentionally or not, they have benefited from it, and readers are misled into assuming the author has any degree of authority or knowledge over the culture s/he ripped from.

You might call me hypocritical or cherry-picking to suit my benefit (despite also being a common name in Southeast-Asia, people might assume Amanda is a Western name, and I’m by no means white), but I do think the imbalance of power/privilege matters (awww shite, here comes the dreaded “P” word).

Whether publishers think non-Western/Eurocentric kinds of stories don’t “sell” enough, or whether there’s only a very small market for it, or for whatever other reasoning – it’s far more difficult for a POC writer to break into the industry. Besides quality of writing, their persona of having authority of his/her own culture is one of the “selling points” to entice the niche of readers they do have, and hence a publishing deal.

So someone else using that selling point, is just iffy to me. It feels like sitting in a wheelchair just so you can park in the disabled parking spot. There’s already a limited number of slots, not every market even provides one, and you don’t actually need it.

But, I do think it’s starting to get better nowadays. Publishers are signing on more and more black, Asian, LGBTQ, etc. writers and putting on more and more non-white characters on the cover of books … so maybe one day soon it wouldn’t matter so much.


#7

Cultural misappropriation smopriation. Would you use pseudonym if you were pitching a manga in Japan? I think avoiding racism in that country in more important this imagined “misappropriaton.”


#8

Japan (and a lot of other Asian countries) also has racial issues and biases. But I don’t think the original question was asking about the Japanese market.


#9

Cheers for the input, everyone, and sorry it took so long to respond. I’m not often active on wattpad or social forums.

I guess the general consensus is intent makes a huge difference.

But I don’t want anyone looking at my very female African name and dismissing me just because of it.

@saintc I like all your points, but this one I think is important and not talked about enough.
I would probably black-list any white author who took up an African pen-name just to sell books, but I would not have the same problem if an African author took up a white (or at least culturally neutral) sounding pen name. And I think @Amanda-Mae’s metaphor clarified why.

It feels like sitting in a wheelchair just so you can park in the disabled parking spot. There’s already a limited number of slots, not every market even provides one, and you don’t actually need it.

@Amanda-Mae I like that. I think that metaphor, plus your point about published novels + imbalance of power also explains my discomfort with adapting some personas, but also why on the other hand I find no issue with personas/pen names such as the one @AWFrasier uses, or the ones @WorldsInsideMyHead mentioned.

Gender-neutral (or even vaguely more masculine-sounding) names have been used since time immemorial, but it’s mostly coming from women (who traditionally had a harder time gaining readership, especially in certain genres) trying to balance out their disadvantages.

On the other hand, you do have people who adopt something from their genetic heritage that isn’t obvious from their appearance.

@WorldsInsideMyHead That’s a good point. It’s also why I think author biographies matter. If you lived in China for ten years or if you’re half-Chinese, and are writing Chinese-inspired fantasy, I think that should definitely go in the bio page, especially if your name and physical appearance doesn’t reflect that.

But that also gets me wondering, how strong does “genetic heritage” have to be before it becomes relevant? If my great-great grandfather was Maori, but I never even visited New Zealand or engaged in any Maori traditions, and all I know about them is based off books (which anyone can do) … does that give me the right to claim their culture and use it as a selling point?

*Eh. It’s not a question I expect there would be a clear answer to, but it’s interesting for me to think about.


#10

I never really put much thought into my pen name. I just didn’t want to use my official name because I wanted to keep my life as a writer separated. You know, you meet a lot of people in every profession and it comes in handy when you know who’s who? At least that’s how it went for me who is a klutz at remembering people. So I simply used one of my nicknames as my pen names.


#11

I’ve been thinking of coming up with a pen name when I ever decide to actually try to publish something, mainly because I feel like my eastern European family name might not be the most marketable one.
But isn’t it interesting how we don’t seem to be bothered when people wearing more ‘foreign’ names pick something that sounds ‘easier’ or more American. But when someone uses a more ‘exotic’ kind of name, the reaction is very different.


#12

Interesting discussion. I think one of the reasons for being okay with people taking on the ‘easier English’ names is that many view the system as unfair and biased against any name that doesn’t fit the ‘norm’. So by adopting a different name, we are just levelling the unfair playing field. Your background shouldn’t have any bearing over whether you can write a romance, fantasy, gen fiction… novel.

When someone is adopting a name that implies they belong to a specific culture, and they don’t, it gives them a perhaps unfair advantage of being viewed as more knowledgeable about their topic. @MsReviewer makes a good point about including information about your background with that would show that you’re knowledgeable without having to adopt a pen name that doesn’t reflect your background.

Although if we start to consider people who have lived in a country other than their own for a long period of time (decades), who have maybe adopted a new name to reflect the culture that they’re trying to integrate into (as I’ve seen enough new citizens and their do in Western countries), would it ever be considered okay for them to adopt a name that reflects that new culture? They may have spent more time there than in their birth country, have started a family etc. Just food for thought, no answer required.

I still struggle to choose a pen name. Part of me wants to stick with a French last name to acknowledge that part of my heritage and background. I don’t think it would affect marketability terribly, but I’ve never looked into it.


#13

I feel you on the second part. As mentioned, my family has more of an eastern European background and even though I’m fluent in my mother tongue, I’ve lived my whole life in Germany and consider my knowledge of the German language (and ‘customs’) much bigger so I naturally identify myself more as German, even though it’s not my nationality (yet).

Part of wanting to use a pen name comes indeed from the fact that a foreign name might alienate readers or even make them doubt my abilities to write in that language.

So yeah, if I were to chose a German sounding name would that be acceptable? Or, considering the fact that I write mostly in English, what if I chose an English name?


#14

I see choosing either name as acceptable.

I can understand the apprehension with a foreign name part. I chose a French name on here because all the English ones I wanted were taken and I didn’t feel like having numbers with it, so I tried my luck in my second language. I’ve had a few people question language choices that were correct (though I do seek out critical feedback and much larger a number of people make valid corrections), and had one reader call out my author’s note beliefs because I was French, but otherwise, I don’t think it’s had a huge effect, though I have no way of knowing if people avoid my work because of said name.


#15

The story of my username is kind of the same. I wanted Annie Rose because it’s a play on my first name and it sounds like a legit name, but it was already taken and like you, I didn’t want numbers, so I had to get a little creative.

About the language thing, I usually mention in my author notes that English is not my native language and sometimes people seem to try to correct things that I know are right (like my use of conditional in a sentence or British spelling) and I’m assuming it is because I’ve put that information out there.


#16

If they do, it shouldn’t bother you too much.

This happens to me too, in all my languages. I don’t really mind as long as the comments are friendly and meant to be helpful. But sometimes they get rather aggressive, and then I wonder why these people can’t simply stop reading if it bothers them so much I’m writing in “their” language as a non-native speaker. (My own mother tongue isn’t a written language, so, whenever I write, I have to use a foreign one…)

As for the pen name… mine was meant to be pronounceable in English, French and German while still reflecting a bit of local patois. Combined with an old nickname. I didn’t bother about marketing at the time and still don’t.


#17

English being the default tongue here, there’s a disadvantage to posting stories in Irish Gaelic, or Urdu, or Mäori: you might be lucky enough to attract a dedicated group of readers, but they will be few.

I grew up with Brit spelling and usage in school and went to Uni in the ‘States, having to edit my papers in Yank form. Flavor just doesn’t have the savour of flavour.

If I chose a name that accurately reflected my heritage, I’d be Hinemoana Rafferty, or the like. But why bother?

I have noticed that quite a few anglo writers who are fans of anime adopt Asian names and anime avatars. How do Asian writers who use English feel about that? Is it a two-way street?


#18

I agree with those who’ve said it’s about intent. If you’re white American and you want to write historical fiction about 1400s China, that’s OK IMO, but if you pick a fake Chinese name to publish your book under, in hopes people will think you’re Chinese and therefore believe you’re qualified to write the book? Comes across as creepy and fetishizing.

If your name is from a group that’s a minority in your country, and you’re trying to sell a book in your country, and you change your name to a name from the dominant culture? That’s different. That’s not “trying to pass for something you aren’t” as much as it’s trying to be marketable to the mainstream. Though I find it very stupid that people have to do that, I don’t think it’s wrong.

I played with a few different pen names (which I mostly only wanted because I wouldn’t want employers to Google me and find my fanfiction) before deciding to just use my full real name. I didn’t really like any of the messages it might seem like I was trying to send by modifying my real name. I’m white and have a Latin first name, and my husband is Mexican and has a Hispanic surname. I didn’t take his name when I married him. I thought about incorporating into a pen name (again, just for the sake of not being Google-able), but I decided against it because, first of all, I chose not to take his name for a reason. If I started using his name in some contexts it would seem like I was backing out of that decision. But also because i know if people saw the name “Aurora Valdez” they’d assume I was Latina, and I didn’t want to look like I was pretending to be.


#19

Imagine a folksinger named Robert Zimmerman.

Who’d buy his stuff?


#20

I’m friends with several Asian and African writers who write in American English (even though they grew up with British) set their stories in America, and use American pen names. So the appropriation works both ways. Young people all over the world are obsessed with America, just as some of them here are obsessed with foreign places.

On a site like Wattpad most of the profile names relate to a fandom or a genre, so appropriation really is not what they are about. I chose my own to reflect that I write erotic stories with noir sensibilities and atmosphere.