By Any Other Name
I’m thankful that I have never had to be someone else, in order to have my writing voice heard. As a society, we still have a way to go before women and Black women writers are on a level playing field with their counterparts.
One of the most successful authors of our generation, JK Rowling, developed a gender-neutral name in order for Harry Potter to appeal to boy readers. This happened before taking on the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in order to anonymously write crime fiction.
In different countries, different races, and different class backgrounds, sexism has contributed to the struggle for women writers to be heard.
In 1939, Ann Petry, a Black woman writer wrote the short story Marie of the Cabin Club but it was printed under the pseudonym Arnold Petri. Once she became comfortable enough through publishing so many stories, she published her novel The Street in 1946. By then, Ann Petry was able to ‘enjoy the fame’ under her real name. Her novel was widely successful as the first novel by a Black woman to sell more than one million copies.
We can’t talk about Ann Petry’s story without discussing that being a Black woman writer during the 1940’s didn’t come without its own set of challenges. Books written during that time inspired readers to think differently about how Black people were being depicted in stories and of race relations in general.
We can also look at Pauline Hopkins in the late 19th century who also used a pseudonym. It was less about concealing identity, and more about supplementing it.
Writers used their real name for ‘serious’ literature, expected to authentically reflect the Black experience and explore racism. This opened opportunities while also narrowly prescribing the kind of work they could produce. So, they adopted these pen names to make money writing popular fiction. Marie of the Cabin Club is a good example. It was a romance-thriller with illustrations, published in a mass-market newspaper.
Women writers may have historically had many reasons for adopting male pseudonyms – but these days, your book being assumed to have been written by a woman is actually beneficial. We’ve come a long way but still have unchartered paths to go. We’re here for it.