On pseudonyms and non-English surnames

For a while I used a pseudonym, “Tawney K.” The “tawney” came from reading a poem back in Grade 12 where the colour “tawny” stuck to me. (I’ve since forgotten what the poem was called). The “K” comes from the name of the main character of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” and is also the main character’s name in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite books. I know, it’s all pretty pretentious…

I chose a pseudonym because I really really dislike “ethnic writing” and the baggage that comes with having an “ethnic” surname. When I was growing up, all the authors with ethnic surnames had books attached to them that had to have some ethnic edge. I can’t tell you how many Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism novels I’ve seen attached to people with Chinese surnames. I thought: why can’t a person with an ethnic surname write about a “normal” book for once? Like high fantasy? Or a detective story?

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about history, I’ve come to appreciate more the importance of storytelling from the real perspectives of lived experiences. I can see the importance of Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism stories. I’ve realized what I thought as a kid to be a “normal” story was something middle-class, white, North American, and Western. And really, there’s no evidence that that is a “normal” story.

But at the same time, I’m still a little alienated by these stories because my family, incidentally, did not belong to the wave of immigration often fictionalized and immortalized in mainstream Asian-Canadian/Asian-American historical fiction. And not all Chinese-Canadians do.

Where, then, was my story?

My story was loudly absent during my childhood, but it makes me smile to know that it’s (slowly) getting more visibility. Shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat directly star Asian-Americans in contemporary settings, in stories I recognize and relate to.

Still, there is something about putting my non-English surname on an English-language publication that, well, kinda “others” me. Maybe it’s all in my head. After all, there is nothing strange about my writing in the English language despite my non-English background. I was born, raised, and educated in an English-speaking country after all.

What is this dissonance I feel then? Why do I feel that if I attach my name to a work of literature, that piece of literature has to do something for the culture of my name? Like I have to “represent” something, “tell” people something. Be a mouthpiece. Do some activism, even.

To fully give this topic justice, I would have to write way more than a blog post. But I think the bottom line is this: the Anglicization of non-English surnames is, well, kinda problematic, if you look at it from a historical lens. It’s a remnant of colonialism, and it fails to translate the nuanced meaning and history of the surname at the very least.

Of course, I recognize the impracticality of walking around without a surname whilst living in my English-speaking corner of the universe. Some things are status-quo and you just can’t change them.

But you can change what you decide to attach to your work. Some authors use pseudonyms, J.K. Rowling being one of the most famous ones. Her pen name Robert Galbraith was “was kind of a basic desire to distance this persona as far as possible.”

I realized I wanted to use my Tawney K. pen name to distance myself as well, and as a way to distance myself from my cultural background. My non-English background isn’t something I chose and I remain having mixed feelings about it, having been grown in a completely different (western) atmosphere. To be honest, I don’t know if I can identify with my surname as much as I could identify with an English surname.

But my cultural identity remains, for better or for worse. And, the older I get and the more I educate myself about my cultural history, colonialism, and the colonial reverberations that run through my family (my parents and grandparents grew up in colonial Hong Kong as British subjects—not citizens, there is a difference!), the more I’m willing to draw closer to my surname.

The fact that it is an inaccurate representation of my real surname in its native language remains, however. That is why I have since opted to stylize my name as “Surname-First English Given Name-Middle English Given Name.” While preserving the Anglicized spellings, this re-ordering at least preserves the traditional Chinese ordering of surnames-first, followed by one- or two-character given names. It’s tough straddling multiple cultures as a first-generation citizen of a family with an already-existing history of colonialism. But names are more than just words. Even Romeo and Juliet knew that.

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2 thoughts on “On pseudonyms and non-English surnames

  1. Pingback: Why I Chose My Pen Name: On Racialized Names and the English Literary Canon

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