Why I Write Under a Pen Name
In my early twenties my mother told me that she had intended a different name for me. For all my life my given name — “Christopher Benjamin Patterson” — sounded nothing like the names of my family in Hawaii. Their names actually reflected our mixed up Hawaiian/ Polynesian/ Chinese/ Filipino heritage, with names like Kanakini, Kamela, Aihwa, Mari. So I asked my mother, why did I get such a boring, typical name? She told me:
“You know, I actually wanted to name you Kawika, but we chose Chris instead.”
My mother’s answer threw me. I was already a man of many aliases, some invented as video game avatars, some as roleplaying personas, some as masks I wore while traveling around Asia, and some just as imaginary alternatives to get as far away from my given name as possible. But now I had this name, “Kawika,” my little secret.
I inhabited Kawika like I was an alien taking on my human body, “Chris,” just for gags. At first I used the name only when chatroom roleplaying, referring to my other name, “Chris,” as my “mun,” my mundane self. Kawika was the muse, the queer heir to everything that I had previously been.
I was given my legal name, Christopher, because I was born after my mother and sister moved from Hawaii to live in Portland, Oregon, the whitest big city in the U.S. My twin brother and I were to be the only non-white people in our entire grade, from Kindergarten until middle-school.
So I don’t think my mother was wrong to name me Christopher. The name has, it must be said, gotten me out of a lot of binds. Whereas “Kawika” is recognizably Hawaiian and “Guillermo” recognizably Spanish (my mother’s maiden name via The Philippines), “Chris” kept a question-mark over my head. In pasty-white Portland I was sometimes Indian, sometimes Arab, but my name gave me a pass into the white churches. When my family moved to Las Vegas in 2000, Mexicans assumed we were Mexican and Filipinos assumed we were Filipino, which did wonders for building friendships and cruising through social groups. When I migrated to South Korea in 2006 to teach English, my name was an important gateway into a profession that notoriously refused to hire people of color (Korean private schools often ask for headshots to verify if you are really a “native speaker”).
When “Kawika” came along, I tried to imagine my life with this name. I cherished it, and took the plunge to using it more often, letting live this little secret of mine. I started using it when I traveled around China, India, and Southeast Asia, calling myself “Kavi” for short, and I became happily beside myself when others used the name.
It wasn’t until the year 2010, when I started publishing fiction under this name, that I wished I had never known it existed.
In 2011, some months after publishing my first story as Kawika, a fellow author offered me the chance to co-author a romantic novel with him based on the Amish experience. But the novel would not be published under either of my names. Instead, my prospective co-author and I would write collectively under an Amish pseudonym, Ava Troyer.
The novel would be an autobiography of Ava Troyer as she leaves behind the Amish community for the romance and buzz of New York City. I knew nothing about the Amish community, and the invitation to write a fake autobiography under an Amish pseudonym was a startling introduction into the world of literary colonization. It became clear that taking on ethnic pseudonyms was the norm in the literary world, and I became increasingly anxious that, by using a pseudonym, I had marked myself as the kind of author who fakes names, steals stories, and ethnicizes myself in order to publish.
Then, as I started sending out more stories for publication, other problems began to emerge. While I saw “Kawika” as a way to account for my diasporic histories and marginal roots, the name signaled to readers that the stories I wrote should be read as the “authentic” representation of the Filipino American or the Hawaiian male. I received some fan-mail, but mostly questions. Why was I writing about magicians, hamsters or Nazis, and not “my own people”? Why was I using a fake pseudonym? Why was I stealing from the history and stories of others?
Since I made no attempt to hide either of my names, many people presumed that I was the same as white authors who claim the artistic privilege to write the life stories of others. Writers like Michael Derrick Hudson, who in 2015 published under a Chinese name, Yi-Fen Chou, simply because it would increase the likelihood of publication. Writers like Lionel Shriver, who in 2016 gave an infamous speech defending the right of writers — implicitly white writers — to voice characters of ethnic, cultural, or sexual identities other than their own. Writers like Hal Niedzviecki, who in 2017 argued that Canada should have a “cultural appropriation prize” to encourage white and middle-class writers to “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you” because “the readers will know” if a work incorporates other culture’s respectfully.
Naturally, all of this got much worse as I progressed through the evaluative eyes of graduate school. I grew embarrassed by the name my mother gave me, just as she feared I would. I stopped announcing publications, though I kept on writing. I gave up on publishing my novel Stamped.
For six months I excised “Kawika” from existence. I published one story under my so-called “real” name, “Christopher B. Patterson,” and felt like I had destroyed something beautiful.
I write as a form of self-therapy, to think through problems, the deep and the real and the inescapable. So when Kawika was drowning I wrote him back to life. I wrote about Kawika in interviews. I wrote about Kawika in my academic work. I wrote about her in blogs and I even, Han Suyin-style, inserted Kawika into my novel as a flesh-and-bones character.
Through writing I realized that “Kawika” was no more an identity than my given name “Chris.” Distance remained whether I wrote under my father-given name, Christopher B. Patterson, which hid my racial and sexual difference, or whether I wrote under my mother-given name, Kawika Guillermo, which amplified my difference with its curious combination of “Kawika,” the native Hawaiian word for the colonizer’s name “David,” and Guillermo, the first name of the Spanish friar who my family once worked for in the Philippines.
I began to write fiction as Kawika again, and I tried again to get my novel published under this name (which would take three years). I learned not to value myself based on the whims of a white liberal literary market, with its false pretenses, its own myth that pretends as if the “literary culture” or the “literary audience” would know the difference between a respectful, committed writer and one looking to cash in on ethnic authenticity.
I began too to question why I thought so highly of the literary market in the first place, which I learned was a political canyon-leap away from the novels of Ellison, Morrison, and Beatty. In terms of real diversity, literary culture is bottom of the barrel. 88% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors. The staff of best-selling literary journals are almost entirely white. Awards committees, even for minority writers, are routinely white. 79% of the literary industry identifies as white (almost all white women), as do 89% of book review writers.
And the stories of successful people of color in literature often come with sub-plots about how they had to “play the darky” or cook “authentic Asian food” for white editors and agents. In my own experience, every single literary agent I have ever interacted with has been a white woman. The literary market pretends to be the arbiter of liberal tolerance, but considering its gatekeepers, you’d be much better off getting your diversity education from video games, whose industrial diversity is slightly better at 76% white-identified developers, than by going to your neighborhood Barnes and Noble.
And yet, these are the people we trust to decide which of our stories are worth telling, and which belong in the rubbish heap? These are the people for whom I drowned Kawika, the name my mother had given me?
I realized then that “Kawika” would always cause pause to the gatekeepers of a publishing world that is nearly 80% white women. These are the people we ethnic authors have to write for — even worse, we simultaneously have to pretend as if we’re not writing for them, so that they feel like what they are reading is an authentic, “true voice,” and they can thus live vicariously through our alterity. We have to write for white people in a way that masks the fact that it’s written for them.
At some point I had to decide for myself that this is not the kind of writing I would ever participate in. And as Kawika Guillermo, under my mother’s name, I can disrupt this system. I can refuse the ethnic story. I can remain obtuse, obscure, difficult, frustrating, silly, trite, nonsensical. Instead of invoking a question mark, my name will invoke a middle finger.
I now take pleasure in having few but dedicated readers, a small audience who in a punk rock, gen-x spirit, join in railing against the mainstream. In turn I am amazed by the few authors whose writing has somehow leaped the gulf of these expectations, and the publishing houses run by people of color who seek to change this inescapable paradigm.
I carry both names with me. My legal name, Christopher B. Patterson, where I publish scholarship and other academic work. Then my preferred name, Kawika Guillermo, where I write short stories, poetry, and reflections like this. These are not names but roofs: sometimes refuges, sometimes spaces of focus, sometimes places to kick back with friends and talk-story. Both names are a process of thinking through my experiences as a descendant of mestizo Chinese, Filipino/as, Irish, and Germans, and to understand my own role living in Asia but still seeing the world through a Western gaze.
Writers say they write under pseudonyms to free their writing. But when I write as Kawika I am not free — I feel the burden of history, the weight of unrequited pasts. Kawika becomes not a person but a ghost, taunting me in a cynical voice, “you’re a fake, this name means nothing to you, you are a plastic glossy face, a cardboard cutout, an empty house.” But this ghost comes from the future as much as it does the past. And it does not always mean me harm.