That’s Not My Name: Ethnicity and the Writer’s Life

I am an introvert.

I find small talk exhausting, and being around the general public makes me feel like I am on The Truman Show. It feels like I’m only being spoken to because it’s part of their job as an actor in the story of my life.

jim carrey in the truman show
Jim Carrey in The Truman Show

The worst feeling in the world for someone like me is walking into a room of people you have never met before with your name plastered on a sticker. Your primary directive is to glad-handle everybody and their grandmother for the sake of networking.

A typical script:

(deep breath) “Hi, hello, my name is Guilliean. What do you do?”

“I’m sorry, your name is what?” they ask, as they squint freely at the sticker.

(inward sigh) “Guilliean. Hard G. Rhymes with Lillian.”

“Oh, what an interesting name.”

Meanwhile, I’m doing my best imitation of how a human being is supposed to behave during these forced social interactions.

As part of the commencement exercises at my alma mater, you were given the option to phonetically spell your name on an index card. The person to whom I handed my card to paused.

I understand she was on a schedule, but she butchered my ethnic name like a cow at a Filipino wedding as I cringed and tried not to cry. I knew it was going to happen, and they gave me the option to be proactive, and it failed.

I prayed to God that I would not stumble from the shame as I held it all in to receive my diploma holder, shake a few hands, and receive hugs from my program directors and former teachers. Not one of them offered any support, sadly enough. I too realize they were on a schedule.

My mother was furious for me. She wanted to talk to the woman who so murdered my name and give her a talking-to.

I told her to cool it; it was not worth it, it was over now.

She and my best friend were waiting on pins and needles for my name to be called because they wanted to cheer loudly for me. Their seats at the ceremony were not so great.

My father, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my aunts, and my uncles, all of whom could not be there but were with me in spirit and were watching on the live stream, reported back to me how stupid the name caller was.

I did not disagree.

I walked away feeling like she killed my one chance to be known alongside my peers, feeling marginally ashamed of the overall experience.

I’m confident that as I get on with this thing we call the writer’s life, I will meet people who have not come across my name and will trip on it.

cracked-sidewalk
cracked-sidewalk

Oops, there’s Guilliean, better trip on her name right now.

Growing up, I always knew exactly what to expect on the first day of school.

I grew up in the working class town of Modesto, California, in the ethnically diverse area we called Southside. When you know, you know.

the modesto arch

Teachers would not even attempt my name when they came to it on roll call. They would skip right to my last name.

I died a little more inside for 12 years as I raise my hand, make eye contact with the teacher, and say as bravely as I could muster, knowing my classmates knew how to say my name, “it’s Guilliean.”

Then the teacher would smile and say, “wow, I have never heard that before!” or “it’s easier than it looks!”

Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.

My introvert side is thrilled that I do not have to defend my honor on the first day of class anymore. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing. I’m done with academia for the time being.

So you are probably wondering what the big deal is.

“It is just a name.”

Yeah, well, my name’s my thing.

The play’s the thing.

William Shakespeare

It sets me apart from everyone in the world. No one else has it. They might pronounce it similarly, or use a J instead of a G, but it is my name. It took me a damn long time to embrace it as part of my permanent identity. I am proud of it.

Guilliean is a combination name, something that is often done within the Filipino culture. It exists as a tribute and brings together the names of my maternal and paternal grandfathers: Guillermo and Antonio.

My mother took it one step further. She gave me the middle name of Marieta, which is a combination of Margaret, Purita, Emilia, Teresa, and Asuncion. They are my paternal grandmother, my maternal grandmother, my paternal great-grandmother, and my maternal great aunts.

Furthermore, my last name is Pacheco, which is Portuguese. But I’m completely an American of Filipino descent. They see my slanted eyes, my last name on a name tag and ask me,

“how did you get a Spanish surname? Is it your married name?”

No, it is the one I was born with! Thank you kindly for assuming an Asian person could not have a Latin surname without marrying into it. Do your homework.

“You know Guilliean,” you are probably asking yourself as you read this, “you could use an alias, a pen name like Elena Ferrante and almost every other writer in the world did by separating their writing lives from their real lives.”

I could.

But I’m not Elena Ferrante.

I told myself that I don’t need to split myself into different parts. Look at how well it worked out for He Who Must Not Be Named!

He Who Must Not Be Named
He Who Must Not Be Named

It’s not like I haven’t tried.

I would make up identities as a kid and make my friends call me by that name. I went by Gwen Stefani, Carey Anne, Volcano Spice (don’t ask). None of them stuck, thankfully. I’m sure Gwen Stefani’s lawyers probably appreciate that a lot.

I now realize that the reason I made up identities is because I wanted to write about them.

Actors have my utmost respect because they are able to slip into the skin of a character and become them to sell the story. They can walk away when the curtains close.

Writers do not necessarily have the same ability, nor does the art form allow ourselves to do so unless we control it. We write our characters into these stories and hope people understand what we’re trying to tell them.

There is a disturbing trend in our media-fueled world that the writer must always be writing from real life, that the plots are ripped straight from their history or implications of their background, that all the characters are based on real people, and why do you not simply tell the world who they really are so we can be in on the joke?

But we know that is not always the case, such as with Ferrante. She valued privacy above fame. Rather than allow her true identity to be compromised, she created the Ferrante character.

To me, that takes guts.

Guts that I do not think that I possess completely.

There is this amazing push and pull inside when I dwell on it. It is an amazing internal argument to have, a bourgeois way to approach the bourgeois writing life.

I have the utmost confidence in my writing skills, yet I’m continually stuck on how to sell myself as a brand.

The crux of my fear is why would I want to be known as someone else? I have struggled for almost 30+ years to embrace my tongue twister of a name, the hurricane of vowels that modify the tongue.

Who am I to deny someone the brief pause of confusion by tackling the age old question of hard G or soft?

I’ve done it, I live it! They should too.

I’m motivated to be famous (or infamous), if only solely for the fact that I want everyone to know my name.

I want babies, old folks, my peers, my readers, to know my name when they see it on the cover of a book and know exactly how to pronounce it without doubting themselves.

I want them shouting it from the hills.

I want them to say MY name when they eat their dinner, cast their votes for the next president, and when they’re driving down the highway, singing along to a song on the radio.

There is a downside to that. Lady Gaga has crafted her entire career in this way. She was a jazz singer at the beginning of her career, a gifted pianist.

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga, or as my parents like to say, Lady Gagoo

When she really wanted was to become famous, to have her name in the papers and to sell records and share her talent with the world, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta became the pop star Lady Gaga.

In a way, my embracing of this aspect runs counter to the inner nature of a true introvert, which is to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves.

When I realized that, it made me think that there will always be a part of me that longs to be in the spotlight, to take my place in front of the camera, and be someone people know.  

These broad thoughts come from the greater perspective of ethnicity and what it means to be a writer with an ethnic name in the 21st century.

A quick look at the New York Times’ Bestsellers List for Hardcover Fiction in December 2016 reveal rather commonplace names: John, James, Mark, Nicholas, David, Colson, Lee, Janet, Jodi, and Michael.

That is not to say none of these authors aren’t part of a different race or culture themselves. But their names read like they should be chapters in the Bible:

“a reading from the book of Lee.”

You won’t won’t see my name in the Bible, and for that, I am grateful.

I’ll never know the struggle of being known as Guilliean P. because Guilliean R. and Guilliean J. exist alongside me.

I dream of seeing my name alongside Tom, Dick, and Harry’s of the writing world.

I’m stubbornly confident that I will do so under the name I was blessed with.

But then my practical introvert side kicks up again and I freeze when I realize that my birth name could hold me back in terms of marketing. It is a perfectly logical and legitimate fear.

It’s commonplace in Hollywood to change ethnic sounding names to palatable to mainstream America.

Margarita becomes Rita.

Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino.

One of my favorite modern actresses Chloe Bennett was born Chloe Wang. She took her father’s first name as her stage name because she never got called for auditions with her given surname. The moment she changed it, she immediately got a call for a television show and started booking gigs.

There are plenty of actors who kept their ethnic names, but it is somewhat surprising to me how close an actor’s struggle with marketing themselves is when compared to how a writer has to market themselves.

A writer is always known by their name, as an actor is as well.

We judge a book by its cover; we judge an author by their name.

An actor could light up the screen, but their ethnic birth name could hinder their success.

J.K. Rowling was advised to use initials because of the fear that boys would not buy a book with the name of a woman on the cover. She does not even have a middle name; the K comes from her grandmother Kathleen.

Is the world ready for someone with my name and ethnicity to be on their bookshelves? I’m not sure, but I’ll find out, no matter how long it takes.

I look at the big picture of marketing myself as a writer, and I continually struggle with the idea that my agent or publisher could even field the question of me using a pen name. There are days that being published under my name is not a question.

But the constant push and pull of my inner bourgeoisie realize that I could spend all my time, going through all the paces. I could write and revise the Next Great American Short Story. I have it in me. The onslaught of marketing could end up being a total wash because mainstream America won’t buy a book by someone named Guilliean Pacheco.

It does seem silly to be so up in arms about a name.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

If babies are to know my name, first it must be shared. It must be known.

Is it worth all the trouble and internal strife I’m causing myself?

What if I’m causing this drama to persist?

What if it’s all in my head?

One thing is for sure is that I know I’m not wrong. I have experienced time and again the same damn issue when someone sees my name.

Should I let my introverted side take the lead as it has always done and not raise a fuss, but take my licks as they come?

Should I do as my ancestors have done and continue to be a model minority and keep my mouth shut?

Or do I stand up, loud and proud, and do my own shouting from the hills about my name?

Is that the only way to be heard as an individual in the 21st century?

I should take the lead from my fellow creatives and put on an act, become Guilliean the Fabulous Writer for the cameras and smile and sell more.

Smiling gives you wrinkles.

How can Guilliean the Writer and Guilliean the Person Behind the Pen exist as one?

Should they be treated separately or simply coexist?

Is it on me to do that?

I don’t know if I will ever stop asking myself these questions.

I feel like the push and pull of expectations of fame is part and parcel of being in the public eye.

Writing does not have the comfort of Hollywood accounting. Whether we push units or not is a tangible, data-driven aspect of the writer’s life. There are countless discussions in real life, and on the Internet about how such data affects the writer. Our publishers anticipate what sells, and the onus is on the writer to do some work beyond writing the book.

To be on the defensive about my name is an interesting argument to have. I quite honestly have no other complaints about the other aspects of the writing life.

Yes, I know it’s hard.

Yes, I know I won’t be on the New York Times’ Bestsellers’ List anytime soon. Sometimes it feels like at the rate I’m going, I may end up on it posthumously.

Yes, I’ll be burning the candle at both ends for a long time before I’m financially comfortable doing what I do.

But none of that has deterred me. In fact, it spurs me on. It pushes me to be true to myself. There is nothing else in the world I would rather be doing than writing. It’s not even a question.

If this is the one thing I get stuck on as I embark on this journey of mine, life is good.

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