If you were browsing the shelves of a bookstore and came upon a book with that name printed across the cover, what would you do? Would you ignore it, regardless of how interesting it seemed, and move on to another book written by a clearly English native? Or would you give it your time of day because in the end it’s the story that matters?
I know that most of us would say that we’d pick it up. It’s the morally right answer. A book is a book regardless of who writes it. It shouldn’t matter if the author is English or Arabic or Indian or whatever else. Yet I can’t help but think that this is the answer we want to give, not the one we’re subconsciously thinking. Maybe we do discriminate against people with foreign/exotic names without even realising it. I mean… I only caught myself doing it recently… allowing my eyes to glaze over English books with Arabic authors in favour of books with English authors.
I paused. Then I felt disgusted with myself. Then I felt like a hypocrite. For so many years I’ve wondered if the fact that I was an Arab had anything to do with the fact that many agents wouldn’t even look at my manuscript, and now I end up doing the same to others.
I am proud of my heritage. I am proud to be an Arab, even though the times we currently live in paint Arabs as nothing more than cut-throats, barbarians and generally repressed, uncivilized individuals. Yet at the same time I know how difficult it is for an Arabic writer to make a big name for themselves… let alone an Arabic indie writer. There are several factors going against us – English is not our main language, we sometimes find it difficult to stray from traditions, and many a times Arabic writers do not venture outside what they know, and you find that most of their books have Arabic backgrounds and Arabic settings. It looks like the same thing over and over again.
That’s not to say that they do not produce good books… them or other writers who are not English to begin with… but the stigma there cannot be ignored. There are some who have succeeded, like Khaled Hosseini, Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tahereh Mafi, etc, and I am so proud of them and happy for them. At the same time I wonder if they had to face this kind of stigma too.
This has made me consider pen names. I don’t like feeling this insecurity, I want to proudly display my name, but what good will that do me if it’s driving away readers? I’m not so vain so as to cling to my name when really the most important thing for me is having people read and enjoy my work. But… while it can be fun to think of a new name for myself, I feel it would make me sad not to see my name on the covers of my books. It would be like looking at something written by somebody else. So I’ve been entertaining the idea of using “Z. H. Alayan” on my covers instead. H, mind you, is not my middle name – Arab names typically follow this format: “First Name” – “Father’s Name” – “Surname”. I could also go with “Zen Alayan” or “Zen H. Alayan”, but somehow that looks a bit odd to me.
How do you feel about this issue? Would you ever consider a pen name for yourself? Do you think I should stick with my name or go for something else?