What’s in a name?

If you’ve followed my illustrious writing career so far, you might have noticed that I sign off under the name of Jia Wong.

And no, that’s not the name printed on my birth certificate. Close enough, though.
Something that I’ve found quite interesting (and offensive) has been people’s reaction to realising my pseudonym, whether they know me in real life or not. A publisher once urged me to use a more “common” name to bring in a wider audience. It took me a while before I realised they meant a more “white” name. Look, I’m not an idiot. I realise that as with many fields, being white (and male) is going to give you certain privileges (if you don’t believe me, we can save that debate for later). However, my real name is far too common; I wanted something that would cement my persona. Being a blogger means you basically are your own brand, and having a more distinctive and memorable name can help immensely. Choosing a more “Chinese-y” name, I think, was my way of stubbornly refusing to bend to using a name that’s more comfortable for other people because it’s easier for them to pronounce.

The thing is though, “Jia” is not a name in Chinese; it’s half a name. The pinyin of my real Chinese name (in Mandarin) is Jia Min (家 敏); I just chopped off the second half. Furthermore, it’s not pronounced as “Gee-ah”, but as one smooth syllable “J’yah” (or thereabouts, it’s impossible to write the tones in English!)

Nevertheless, I still use the “Gee-ah” pronunciation because honestly, I dislike the sound of my name being butchered. So why is it okay for me to choose a Westernised pronunciation, but not okay for a publisher to tell me that a more Western name would be better? Perhaps subconsciously I’m doing the same thing that I wanted to rebel against in the first place?

Interestingly, the literary world was recently abuzz when a poem written by a seemingly Chinese-American poet under the name of Yi-Fen Chou, was published inThe Best American Poetry 2015, an esteemed literary anthology. However, it transpired that “Chou” was actually a white American, whose real name is Michael Derrick Hudson. He claimed that choosing a Chinese pen name allowed him to be published, whilst facing discrimination using his real name. “The poem in question… was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records),” Hudson explains in his bio with The Best American Anthology. “As Yi-Fen, the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it.” [source]

The implication is clear: “The Chinese pseudonym helped me get published, therefore I was previously discriminated using my real, white name.” The controversy has sparked outrage, especially with writers of colour, who already know the struggles they face in the literary world. Whilst Hudson seems convinced of his apparent discrimination, the situation is not as simple as that.

Indian author Amish Trivedi wrote on his blog: “He took advantage of a system not designed for him- rather, one designed to AVOID privileging people like him- in order to get a work only he seemed to believe in get published. What does that say about ego? What does that say about older white male privilege in pobiz [describing the academic poetry world] when he did not consider that perhaps the poem was just bad?” [source]

I’ve seen many people defend Hudson- after all, a pen name is just a pen name, right? How I can judge when I’m using a pseudonym, too? The difference is that I, along with many other immigrants and their children, have had to change our names to suit the Western world, dismissing our heritage and culture because it was seen as different. Whilst I’m far from a powerful figure in the literary world, I’m already faced with the prospect that I might be discriminated against because of my race. I can’t speak for other cultures, but there are some positive stereotypes about the Chinese that can easily come across as privilege: intelligence, hard working and having damn good hair. However, Hudson’s adoption of his Chinese pen name simply took ONE of our few “privileges” without taking any consideration of the racism, prejudice and discrimination that comes with it. In other words, he got to cherry pick something from a culture he has little-to-no experience of, then claim this culture is advantaged over him.

When I consider my own pen name, it is both Eastern and Western- just like myself. I am Chinese, and I am British, and I feel like my pseudonym reflects that somewhat.
After over two years of writing as Jia Wong, I think what it comes down to is choice. My pseudonym is something that I alone chose, because I like it. Not because I was pressured, or it was suggested to me, not because I had no choice but precisely because I made the decision. I can face nameless snotty publishers and their racist micro-aggressions, but what’s more hurtful has been the reaction of the people who know me.
I’ve gotten incredulous exclamations to outright laughter, and honestly, I’m not entirely sure why. Is it that strange for me to adopt a pseudonym like every other writer? Why is it so unbelievable and, well, funny?

I think part of it is because they know the real me, and having this pen name seems like I’m putting on a fake persona of sorts. As if I’m trying to disregard the silly, clumsy, human me, and put out some pretence of being, well, professional. But being a blogger, although this blog isn’t very well known, overlaps somewhere between the professional and personal. Whilst I can happily share away some parts of my life online, I would never put out every detail because I’d like to maintain some degree of privacy. But no matter how much I share here, the image strangers build of me based on this blog will be exactly that: an image. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of this image compared to the reality of me that sets my friends in fits of giggles.

I’d like to think that eventually they’ll come to accept that “Jia Wong” is not a mask or an alter ego, it’s simply a pen name that I have already professionally written under and will continue to do so. I’d like for the readers of this blog who don’t know me in real life, to learn a little bit about me and the things I write about, whilst still respecting the fact that we are, in fact, strangers. I’d like to be able to attempt to get myself published without having to worry about any sort of discrimination. I’d like not to have to compete against any more “Hudsons” out there. I’d like to be published on talent alone. And I’d like to be published under the name of Jia Wong.

Best wishes,

(I promise)

One thought on “What’s in a name?

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