32

There is currently a dearth of Asian American writers on U.S. library bookshelves, and those few authors who are Asian Americans tend to write about things associated with Asian culture. Think of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lisa See, etc. All books about China, growing up as a foreigner, and the likes.

I have a very Asian name but grew up in the United States. I'm writing a YA novel set in the Midwest about a completely white protagonist, with no foreign elements. The closest cultural thing in the novel is the Fourth of July celebration with hot dogs and corn on the cob.

My question is: if I'm trying to reach a wide teenage audience, would it make sense to adopt a pen name under something American, like Susan Brown? Teenagers especially tend to make snappy judgments, and may unconsciously think, "What would Li Ang Chang know about what the typical American teen goes through?" Moreover, someone might pick up the book expecting Chinese elements because of my name.

I know this may contribute to the problem of low visibility of Asian American writers, so I would like to know your honest opinion on the best course of action.

  • 2
    you seem to have a really deep fear about bias. It leads me to wonder if you had a troubled past which led you to this? I suggest taking a look over my answer if you haven't already but it seems both corsiKa and I have the same opinions that books aren't judged by author's name. If this is because of reason's from your past, I am sorry that is the case and it is wrong but you shouldn't be afraid to be who you are. A name is what gives us our value. Even when playing a game online if I use another name besides my gaming name, I just feel lost because my main gaming name is who I am online. – ggiaquin16 Feb 15 '17 at 18:23
  • 8
    Be weary of the wishful thinking speculation, it may harm your career. Here is an actual experiment confirming that choosing a pen name to cater to people's prejudice is highly effective: jezebel.com/… – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 0:26
  • 2
    Getting more scientific, here's a study on the effects of race in searching for employment: nber.org/papers/w9873 Their main result shows that being white is approximately equivalent to 8 years of experience in the relevant field for a black person. (I'm applying this result to this context because another result of theirs is: "The amount of discrimination is uniform across occupations and industries." so likely it holds here too.) – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 0:30
  • 4
    I like what I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say about this on the Tonight Show back in the '80's. When he went in to acting, everyone wanted him to change his name, but he saw it as an asset. He said (I think correctly) that his name is tough for an English speaker get, but once you do you'll never forget it. – T.E.D. Feb 16 '17 at 17:02
  • 2
    I'm not saying whether you should or shouldn't pick an anglicised pseudonym, but I guarantee you that there will be people who will make judgements based on your name, even if they would not openly admit to doing so because they know it would be frowned upon. It cuts both ways though, I remember a particular case of a black woman I once knew saying the equivalent of "What would an old white man know about the mind of a black african woman." about Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of novels. – Pharap Feb 16 '17 at 23:50

11 Answers 11

7

You needn't make that decision until you get an agent.

You're quite right to identify this as a thorny situation, with strong considerations in both directions (and maybe additional options besides).

If you have a strong preference one way or another, either way is certainly workable. But if you don't, if you're willing to work either way depending on what improves your odds, then you might be better off leaving your options open -- until you'll be in a better position to make a decision.

Ultimately, this is a question of branding. Every author has a brand, whether they want one or not; yours may have some natural gravitation in a direction you're unhappy with. You will have an easier time once you know what kind of branding you do want, than what kind you don't.

If you're not there yet, that's OK. You've got time, and in order to get to "a wide teenage audience", you're going to need some steps along the way -- an agent; a publisher. These people will (hopefully) have the industry expertise, and the insight into your particular book and brand, to help you reach a decision.

A decent agent is not going to be put off a book because of the author's name -- nor is a decent publisher. With them, you can make it in on the strength of your writing. Then -- when you've got some pros on your side, when you're starting to talk about branding and marketing -- that's when you really need to make decisions like "what name will I publish under," and you'll also be in a pretty good place to make an informed decision.

There are exceptions here. Reasons to make a decision right away could include:

  • You have a strong preference one way or the other.
  • You want to start establishing a strong social-media presence even before you've started publishing.
  • You're writing short fiction, or are interested in small presses, or otherwise writing something that can get you published but without giving you an agent to consult.

There are also some other alternatives:

  • Publish under more than one name, if you have more than one "type" of fiction -- basically maintaining two distinct brands.
  • Use your initials -- "L.A. Chang" is not false, but sounds less distinct. (It worked well for J.K. Rowling...)
  • Publish under a name which is still Asian, but less obtrusively so. First-name "common-English," last-name "foreign" is something you see a fair amount of -- including the authors your cited in your own question.

Hope this helps, and all the best!

  • 4
    There is evidence that agents and publishers generally are not "decent" by your definition. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 19:12
19

I think right now some publishers are looking for diversity, especially small presses. Li Ang Chang might get a little farther than Susan Brown, and probably quite a bit farther than Joe Brown.

I also think you have a good point about being a positive representation of an Asian writer, particularly if you aren't writing about Asian culture. Make the point that you don't have to be stuck in a cultural ghetto — your nationality shouldn't define what you write about.

From a reader's perspective, I'm going to look at a cover and a blurb first. The writer's name will only register insofar as I will check to see if it's someone I already know. If it's a good story, the writer's race/nationality/gender/age/orientation etc. is irrelevant to me.

@ggiaquin makes an excellent point about making sure whatever name you use is pronounceable and readable. If you feel like you might need to tweak your name to be a little easier to remember, that's fair enough. But I wouldn't erase your heritage. Bank on it.

  • 8
    It's irrelevant to you personally, but the question is how irrelevant it would be to a wider audience. Do you have sources for it, or it is just a guess or wishful thinking that most readers would behave like you just described yourself? – vsz Feb 15 '17 at 20:49
  • 4
    You say 'your nationality doesn't have to define what you write about' but it does. Nationality is integrally tied into culture, and culture absolutely determines what people write about. It definitely does. – Miles Rout Feb 15 '17 at 20:55
  • 3
    @MilesRout Culture influences what you write about, but what I was expressing was that an American of Chinese heritage raised in Illinois doesn't have to write about China. The OP is concerned that most Asian-American writers seem to be writing about Asian countries and Asian culture, not "American culture which may or may not have Asian influences." Or urban fantasy, or film noir, or anything else which isn't Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 15 '17 at 21:21
  • 3
    @vsz I have only anecdotal experience from what I see as a reader among other readers, but I'll willingly admit I self-select the readers around me and may not be representative. But then, who among us is? If you do have stats, by all means share them. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 15 '17 at 21:22
  • 2
    I'm sure many publishers are forward thinking, but to dismiss unconscious bias is at best wishful thinking. Nearly all fall prey to it. For example, when you say, "If it's a good story, [...] is irrelevant to me." I feel I'd better point out that if you do not specifically work to counteract your own unconscious bias, then you're guilty yourself! Literally, how the cover of the book looks and feels to you absolutely changes depending on these details like race and gender of the author! People who deny this are often the worst offenders, thinking they are somehow immune. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 1:25
13

People adopt pen names for all sorts of reasons. George Orwell, Mark Twain, and John Cougar Melloncamp all had pen names for different reasons.

Realistically, there's no one that can answer this for you. And as you point out, this is a business decision. As such, you should probably be in contact with your publisher, agent, or business manager as the case may be. Likely involved would be market research, in particular some polling across your target demographic.

You touched on the flip side of the coin - sacrificing the potential business in favor of making a personal statement. Low visibility is a one of those self-recurring feedback loops. People get pen names, so the next wave of authors said "well pen names worked for them!" so they do it too.

Personally, I've never looked at a book and consciously thought "Man, that looks like a good book. Oh, wait, it was written by a Swede. NEVER MIND!" Then again, as we no doubt find in real life and in our stories, people are rather subconsciously racist and tend to keep to their own.

So, you need to first decide if this is a business decision or a personal decision. Only you can make that decision. Then you need to follow that up with the right people.

  • 1
    As a counterpoint to your made-up example, I've had situations where I've looked at a book, not thought much of it, and then realized it's by an author I like or have heard good things about and so I pick it up. So you can also build a brand around your name (though I know that some authors use different pen names for different genres, though I can't think of any good examples at the moment). – JAB Feb 15 '17 at 21:08
  • 5
    @MasonWheeler Bork bork bork, bork bork-bork bork. Hodor. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 15 '17 at 21:23
  • 2
    @LaurenIpsum I am Groot! – Mason Wheeler Feb 15 '17 at 21:26
  • 4
    @JAB That's not a counter-point. A counter point would be "I wasn't going to buy the book, but I saw it was by Olaf Svenska, and I figured I'd never read a book by a Swede so I bought it." – corsiKa Feb 15 '17 at 21:45
  • 2
    @MickLH I added that in there to illustrate that I am exactly not missing the point. The entire premise of my answer is that OP needs to do market research to determine if the name has a positive or negative affect on book sales before moving forward specifically because you don't know if the unconscious bias is a problem until you test it. Unless, of course, she's making this a personal decision (of which there may be many reasons to do so) in which case she needs to follow her heart. – corsiKa Feb 16 '17 at 3:07
7

I don't believe I've seen anyone else mention the "intermediate" option of Anglicizing your first name only, or equivalently picking a pen name that combines a typical English first name with an Asian last name. "Li Ang" could become "Leanna", for example. (Or pick whatever strikes your fancy, but I do think "Leanna Chang" has a nice ring to it.)

As I'm sure you know, many Asians who live in the US or other Anglophone countries go by an English name in day-to-day life. Children of Asian immigrants might even have their full legal name take this form. I would imagine that Americans would tend to see such a name and think of a second generation Asian American, someone who probably is in touch with their Asian cultural roots but nevertheless is American and who is also familiar with American culture. (I can't speak to how well this would carry over to England or Australia etc.)

Obviously you should look up some market research, consult with a publisher and marketing advisor, and all that. I'm just saying, be aware that a "hybrid" English+Asian name gives a different impression from a fully Asian or fully English name.

  • Just noticed your reply. I mentioned it in my own comment, farther down. – user23046 Feb 16 '17 at 21:18
4

This is merely my opinion as a YA(28) but I feel that you shouldn't have to worry about hiding who you are. 90% of the time I never even looked at the author's name of a book when picking one out at a library or at Barnes n Noble. The cover art/title and the back of the book was usually what drew me into it. If I found myself enjoying the book, I am going to try to look up the name so that I can see what else they wrote but again doesn't matter about the ethnicity of the name to me. With that being said, I also think that... your opinion of youth today may be a little unfounded. Yes there will be some that see an Asian name and say that, but the broad spectrum of people who pick up a book won't judge you because of your name. It doesn't matter that you are Asian heritage because you are AMERICAN. Also from personal opinion, I find it quite interesting when I see other cultures portray American life, especially in Anime as I find what they stereotype to be quite humorous. Anime in general has really grown among the youth which should also help you with your culture fear of not being accepted.

The only real issue is... that someone may struggle to say your name or remember how to spell it when trying to go through an online book store or in person. To change your name though out of fear of being discriminated I believe would not be correct. It would be better to change it to make it an EASIER name or because it is your chance to write under an alias. I have thought about making a pen name for myself but that is mostly because I thought it would be cool to have a name more easily pronounced that I can pick that would... dictate my writing personality. My last name is pretty hardcore Italian and a lot of people butcher it.

  • 4
    This is an excellent point. Simplifying your name if it's hard for Western tongues is not a bad idea, but "Li Ang Chang" isn't hard to say; I'd keep something like that. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 15 '17 at 17:47
  • 2
    @LaurenIpsum yes I agree. I have a friend who is french who has a fairly hard name to say for westerners. So he made his nickname "Oreo" because that is the closest word we have to his real first name that people can say (plus he liked it for the cool factor). It isn't that his name was actually hard to say though, it's that generally speaking most people just didn't say it correctly. – ggiaquin16 Feb 15 '17 at 17:55
  • 2
    @ggiaquin I'm born and bred American and everyone gets my name wrong, despite the fact that they can say it when they say other people's names. Everyone gets Meryl Streep right, and Merrill Lynch right, but they all call me Merle. Even my father in law FeelsBadMan. – corsiKa Feb 15 '17 at 18:04
  • 1
    @corsiKa, I get that, I am too born and bred American from Jersey (yea yea falls into the Stereotypical Italian from Jersey), but everyone tries to make it spanish or who knows what lol We also believe that when we came to Ellis Island, they changed the first few letters from Ja to Gia as it was common back in the early 1900s to do. – ggiaquin16 Feb 15 '17 at 18:13
  • 1
    "[...] but I feel that you shouldn't have to worry about hiding who you are." ... that's how all sane people feel. Studies show this does not apply to average people though. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 1:30
2

When you're ready to submit your manuscript, try submitting it a couple of times with your actual name, and a couple of times with a more mainstream pen name. A non-scientific, albeit interesting, experiment!

If you are planning to run it past some beta readers first, you can do this experiment at that level too.

If you do some experimenting as I suggested... please report back on your results!

1

The Author of a book is extremely important. I totally agree that if you have a Chinese name usually people when they first look at your book could wonder if you are in a rut of only writing about China. It has nothing to do with being self conscious about being Chinese it is everything thing to do with perception. I associate certain writers with certain categories and I am dubious to buy a book if the author is of a particular nationality where I could get tired of repetition or prejudice or a chip on their shoulder that they write books like a carthasis because they have suffered.

1

It seems having an asian name was not greatly detrimental to the reception or sales of books written by Kazuo Ishiguro, "one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world"

So I would rule that out as a strong reason for adopting a nom-de-plume.

  • My first thought: Kazuo Ishiguro. Then, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Of course, there is also Józef Korzeniowski. – Malvolio Feb 23 '17 at 16:25
1

You make a good point about prejudices and I agree that it could impact your sales. To avoid "What would Li Ang Chang know about what the typical American teen goes through?" I would suggest a compromise. Instead of Li Ang Chang, perhaps use Lee Ann, Leanne or Lianne Chang. Obviously, you may choose any first name you like but if you keep your last name you won't deny your Chinese heritage and still appear more 'Americanized'. It could also help to avoid another situation you took issue with "someone might pick up the book expecting Chinese elements because of my name." Much less likely with Liannne as a first name, especially in a book about American teens in the midwest.

Something else to consider, the author's photo is often on the dust jacket and your photo with the caption 'Author, Susan Brown' would needlessly set off speculation as to "Was she adopted?" and other scenarios which again, would distract one from the book.

Also, you won't "contribute to the problem of low visibility of Asian American writers", as you stated in your query. The Asian American writers you referred to, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston and Lisa See, all have American first names. In fact, even the surnames Tan and See are not obviously Asian either.

  • Interesting point about the cover photo caption – Joe Feb 22 '17 at 1:44
0

The contents of your book is the same, no matter what name you use. I'll like or I won't. So I should buy it or I shouldn't, no matter what name you use. Therefore you should use the name that makes it most likely that I will buy your book.

As you said yourself, lots of people who would like the book won't buy it if you use the name "Li Ang Chang". And many people who buy it based on the name will regret their purchase because it doesn't meet their expectations based on the author's name. Using a different name, well chosen, will increase sales and avoid buyer disappointment.

  • 1
    I would upvote this because the conclusion is useful, but the reasoning provided in the first sentence is outright wrong. The name absolutely does effect people's perceptions of the entire book, both before and during reading. If you feel the need to deny this fact, read some studies on "unconscious bias" and then do some self reflection. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 1:33
  • @MickLH The first sentence of this answer is indisputably correct. Apart from the title page and the colophon, not a single character in the contents of the book will need to be changed if the author changes her name (except if the author’s name is used as a running header, naturally). How people perceive those contents is not the same as the contents themselves. The contents are raw data; perceptions are interpretations. The second and third sentences in the answer are where the author’s name starts to become relevant. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 16 '17 at 14:18
  • Lol No. Read up on "unconscious bias". Books aren't about the literal sequence of letters. You can change "a single character" in any book without changing the actual perceived content. It is only the perceived content that matters here... The target customers will not be doing highly accurate character frequency analysis on the book, don't be a frivolous pedantic annoyance. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 19:09
  • 1
    @MickLH - To me, the first sentence of this answer is talking about what the author put into the book; I think the unconscious bias you're talking about is on the reader's side, no? – aparente001 Feb 16 '17 at 19:31
  • 1
    Yes, exactly. The reader is unconsciously biased by every detail of the book including the author's name, and then goes on to have perceptions of the content that are filtered by this bias. – MickLH Feb 16 '17 at 19:44
0

Are you writing in the genre of Asian-American literature, nor not? This is important.

If you are writing in that genre, and hope that your book will be selected for required reading in ethnic studies courses at colleges, then I advise you to keep an Asian surname. But don't be afraid to use "Jack" or "Jill" as your given name.

If your genre is something else, especially fiction, then use whatever name you like. I (a guy) sometimes write using a female name, if I think that is more consistent with the style of fiction than my real name. Not only that, "she" is a middle-aged Italian. I am neither. There are many examples of this in literature.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.