Jun 20 2011

Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru

Phoebe Connelly

web exclusive


The Arab Spring has produced many an engrossing story of individual courage. But the story of Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, while certainly daring, inventive, and brash, isn't exactly inspiring. Amina, the purported author of the blog Gay Girl in Damascus, gained a small, dedicated following to her chronicle of life in Syria, where an uprising begun in late January of this year. Amina became "an unlikely hero of revolt," as The Guardian put it in a May profile, telling stories of her father protecting her from arrest by Syrian authorities and recounting her struggles to make sense of the change roiling the region.

On June 6, a post appeared on the site claiming Amina had been detained by Syrian authorities, and an online community sprung into action, creating a Facebook page calling for Amina's release, and advocating for her via tweets tagged #FreeAmina. There was just one problem—Amina was the creation of Tom MacMaster, an American living in Scotland.

"I never expected this level of attention," MacMaster wrote in a signed post on the blog on June 12. "While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone—I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about."

Pseudonyms are the subject of Carmela Ciuraru's engrossing, well-paced literary history Nom de Plume. But contra MacMaster/Amina, Ciuraru focuses on eighteen literary pseudonyms from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and while her introduction touches on recent examples that are either cringe-worthy (JT LeRoy, Margaret B. Jones) or defensible (Doris Lessing, Stephen King), Ciuraru confines her book to the deceased. It's biography on the quick, and done well.

Indeed, Ciuraru's profiles are of mostly what we might consider noble pseudonyms—authors such as the Bronte sisters adopting the brothers Bell to give their novels entry into a world largely closed to women. "I cannot when I write think always of myself—and what is elegant and charming in femininity—it is not on those terms or with such ideas I ever took pen in hand," Charlotte Bronte wrote to philosopher and critic George Lewes (and companion of Marian Evans, best known as George Eliot) "and if it is only on such terms my writing will be tolerated—I shall pass way from the public and trouble it no more."

Similarly, Sylvia Plath adopted the name Victoria Lucas to publish The Bell Jar, which she described as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past," to shield herself and her family. Because Plath committed suicide shortly after the publication of The Bell Jar in the UK (it was not published in the US until almost a decade later), nearly all of its readers know it as solely the work of Plath. Indeed, as Ciuraru speculates, its six months on the New York Times best-seller list were "fueled no doubt by the author's posthumous fame." Fame that Plath did not feel comfortable embracing in her lifetime under her own name. Women's embrace of nom de plumes was often complicated—science fiction author Alice Sheldon's creation of James Tiptree Jr. granted her early success, but also left her trapped in a male persona just as second-wave feminism stood ready to champion women's work. Ciuraru largely refrains from passing judgment about the inequities of the time—and the result is a more interesting focus on how writers' assumed identities entwined with the authorial voice. Writing was where Sheldon, for example, used "self as an experience laboratory, no sacred wall around the sealed black box of Me."

Still others, like French novelist Romain Gary, used pen names not to shield themselves from the limelight but to secure a second round of attention. Gary's first novel, A European Education (1945) gained him acclaim from no less than Jean-Paul Sartre for the book's portrayal of the French Resistance during World War II. He went on to write several more novels, winning France's highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1956, for The Roots of Heaven. But the adulation paralyzed him. "I know full well that the public has forgotten me," he worried in a letter to his publisher. "I will have passed like a dream. It's horrible. Sometimes when I look back and see my brilliant beginning and what I am today, a knot forms in my throat."

So, eighteen years later, Gary whipped up a novel, eventually published as Cuddles, which he submitted under the name Emile Ajar. Ajar was awarded the Prix Goncourt a year later, and aside from the obvious problems one can assume a pseudonymous author faces after his or her novel receives popular reception, there was also the tiny issue that the Goncourt can only be awarded to an author once in their lifetime. (Are you confused yet? Ciuraru does an admirable job with the twists and turns.) When the hoax was revealed in the late 1970s, Gary took it even further—he wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical novel "confessing" to the hoax … under the name of his cousin, who Gary had enlisted to do public appearances as Ajar.

And there are the more pedestrian evasions—like short story scribe O. Henry, who adopted his pseudonym to distance himself from a stint in prison for embezzlement. Born as William Sydney Porter, he worked as a journalist prior to his conviction, but while in jail in Ohio began writing as O. Henry. While various curious critics and reporters turned up the fact that O. Henry was a nom de guerre, no one bothered to trace the story back to his past as an unethical bank teller. Was Porter evading the past to ensure literary fame, or simply to run away? Porter writes faithfully to his daughter, Margaret, while imprisoned, and yet in Ciuraru's recounting, his daughter doesn't resurface once he makes it big in New York. How much of our acceptance of the tradeoffs Porter made is due merely to the patina of time and of having an entire cottage industry of awards bearing his name?

Indeed, as Ciuraru notes her introduction, even those whose motives are questionable, such as Margaret B. Jones, author of the growing-up-gang faux memoir Love and Consequences, claim honorable ends. "I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to," she told an interviewer. Ciuraru writes, "However varied their literary styles and their reasons for going undercover, all of them longed to escape their burdens of selfhood." The literary fakers she covers endured travails such as cruel parents, addictions, and suicide attempts. Perhaps, Ciuraru speculates, "an alter ago served as a kind of buffer, protecting them (at least up to a point) from the painful aspects of their lives." Unlike Amina, we know in all of these cases that the resultant works are fiction, so perhaps the real question is why we, as readers, care so much about the extra layer of untruth?

Phoebe Connelly is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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