A few years ago, I collaborated with a friend to write about the double standards young girls face in Bangladesh. We wrote about how it's a health risk for young boys to smoke, but immoral and scandalous for girls to do the same; how the girls we interviewed aren't allowed to make plans after a certain time of the day, while their younger brothers come and go as they please. The article received 2.5k shares online when it was published in this newspaper's SHOUT magazine. The irony? I wrote it under a pseudonym. I didn't have the courage, at the time, to tag my name onto something so controversial yet so relevant to my own life.
Anonymity can be liberating. The pen names Currer and Ellis Bell, respectively, allowed Charlotte and Emily Bronte to use influences from their local neighbourhood to craft Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. George Elliott, the famed writer of Middlemarch, was actually Mary Anne Evans. The aliases allowed these women to break into a literary market that was rigidly male-dominated at the time, giving us some of the seminal works of 19th-century western literature. In the decade that followed, Charles Dodgson disrobed the identity of a mathematician to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll. The gender-neutral initials of EL James allowed the writer of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to engage with a particularly notorious topic. And closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore composed poetry in the literary language of Brajabuli as Bhanusimha, a name he found in the torn leaves of an old library book.
The removal of a name tag brings on the freedom to shift genres, write from the perspective of a different gender, or tackle topics that are particularly sensitive or experimental. This makes the pseudonym itself a powerful and useful tool. But it's troubling to think of how we, as readers, often make writers feel like they can't use their own identity for their work. A talented young writer I know prefers to use a pseudonym for his published fiction pieces. He doesn't want to have to answer probing questions, from relatives in particular, about what his stories might mean about his personal life. Why these questions? Why do fictional works lead to assumptions about an author's private life? Given that this is a concern I've heard on several occasions, it forces us to notice how the hasty judgments and prying nature typical of our society are stifling the creative spirit of so many aspiring young artists in our midst.
And then there's the battle of the sexes. Joanne Rowling, as we know, was advised by Bloomsbury to use the initials JK for the Harry Potter series to appeal to a wider audience—boys in particular, who are seemingly more likely to read books by male authors. This was later supported by a 2014 Goodreads survey, which found 90 percent of men's 50 most read books that year to have been written by men. Eighty percent of a woman writer's audience was similarly found to comprise of women.
It's one thing to respond better to a writer of one's own gender; even natural, one might say. But to deliberately choose not to read works written by a certain kind of author deprives both parties. You're robbing an artist of the chance to share the product of their hard work with you, work that might be just the kind of thing you're looking for. You're missing out on the perspective that an opposite sex can provide. Much, much more importantly, you're closing yourself off to a plethora of ideas that have nothing to do with gender, because there's no such thing as a woman's topic or a man's topic, contrary to archaic belief. Some of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years span a range of topics written by women. Gillian Flynn created an entire genre of mystery/thriller, writing from both a man and a woman's perspective, in Gone Girl. Zadie Smith has been detangling the nuances of race, identity and academia since the publication of White Teeth to more recently Swing Time. And authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy have become icons in their rich portrayal of South Asian history. On the flipside, some of the most iconic women in literature have been created by men, from Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) to Madame Bovary (Flaubert) to Binodini (Tagore). Even Hazel Grace Lancaster (John Green), if you like your YA fiction.
Casual Vacancy was the first book JK Rowling published in her own name after the end of the Harry Potter series. It didn't work out so well, unfortunately. But, instead of hanging it up simply as a hit-and-miss, readers were quick to pass the judgment that all she's capable of handling is the magical world. Hence the creation of Robert Galbraith, a nom de plume she took up yet again, for a fairly successful crime series known as the Cormoran Strike novels (starring a gritty male detective, FYI).
But perhaps the most extreme example of pseudonyms gone wrong is that of Elena Ferrante. An Italian writer who kept her identity hidden since her first book of the Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante, in many of her interviews, has repeatedly emphasised how the pseudonym allows her to concentrate on her writing, to make her literary identity exclusively about her work. Last year, however, an Italian journalist set about revealing her real name, which set off a media explosion into the personal sphere that she had determinedly preserved since 1992.
As much as we'd like to believe that times have changed, these subtle instances of gender bias, intrusiveness, and hasty judgments continue to stifle creative pursuits in our midst even today. We're all too quick to judge that a woman can write about only a woman and a man about just a man, that an author of magical realism cannot handle crime fiction, and that reading an author's works entitles us to pry into what is off limits.
But the joke's on us—the loss, of missing out on fascinating, manifold literary realms, entirely ours.
Sarah Anjum Bari is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.