Is my name against me?

Zeinab Alayan. 

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?

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33 thoughts on “Is my name against me?

  1. Another way to think about it is that your name is highly original. There won’t be a million Zeinab Alayans out there. If fans search your name, you’ll be the author to come up. I sometimes wish I used my more obscure maiden name as an author instead of my more common married last name. Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve never chosen or ignored a book based on the author’s name. I look at the cover, reviews, and description.

    Best of luck to you!

    • Thank you! I admit I didn’t think of it that way, but yes, my name is usually the first thing that comes up in the search results!

      And I think that should be the norm really, but I don’t know exactly how the market works. Maybe some further research into this would be useful. 🙂

  2. Well, personally, I love reading exotic names in a book cover (but I’m also a proponent for more diversity in SF/F stories, so…). But in the end, the name is neither here nor there for me, because I tend to read what I like regardless of author. And if the author really catches my attention with her books, I fixate on her like a soul-sucking octopus-demon. To be honest, when I look at books, my glazing tends to be due to book covers that don’t interest me (which pretty much throws the “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage out the window XD). Yet even that doesn’t stop me when I read book jacket summaries.

    Anyway, I don’t think you should consider exotic names to be stigmas, and I think your name is awesome as an author name. I think non-conventional-English names give stories a bit of an edge, especially when I’m seeing a clamor for more diverse authors and character representation in stories (at least, I see this in the independent publishers I’ve submitted to lately).I have a name that’s strange as far as “American” standards go, and I intend to use it every time something of mine gets published in the writing world. Unless I write one of those harlequin romances…then I might rethink my stance, because that could be a bit embarrassing…

    • Well, I’m relieved to hear that. I tend to judge books by their covers too, or rather… it’s the first thing that attracts me to a book, unless they’re arranged sideways on a shelf, then I pick out whatever title appeals to me. 🙂

      Thank you! And I had no idea, it just seemed to me like most authors have these really nice, cool names. And your name is lovely (assuming it really is Mari xD)! But yeah, I think when it comes to “questionable” content, it might be better to stay on the safe side. 😉

  3. I just read a book by an author named Hanya Yanagihara. Her name didn’t even factor into my decision to read the book. I read it because it had been recommended to me. Which is also why I first read Khaled Hosseini’s books and Rohinton Mistry’s books and countless others.

    But of course, these were books published by the big publishers, and they’d had widespread reviews. I think there are many things that make it difficult for Indie authors, and I suppose their name could be one of them (at least for some readers, maybe).

    I thought about using a pen name mostly because I thought my name was boring for a book. I wanted something with more pizzazz, something that would stick out. But then I figured it would be hard enough for people to find my book. Why make it harder by using a pen name? Plus, as you point out, it’s kind of nice to see your name on a book.

    So to answer your question, the author’s name does not at all affect my choice to read a book. It’s contents and reviews do. But I can’t promise everyone feels the same.

    Go with your gut. But I do have to say, Zen Alayan rolls off the tongue nicely! Either way you go, as the first commenter pointed out, you have a lovely unique name. When googled, you’ll likely be the only author with it. That’s a definite plus!

    By the way, I made that chocolate mug cake recipe you shared on Twitter. Really, really good!! Next time I’ll put some chocolate chips in it. And having it with ice cream? Oh so good. Now I’ll have to do a little extra exercise tomorrow. 😉

      • Oh don’t worry about that! I love long comments. 😀

        It does seem like recommendations are a big factor in what people read these days, but it’s also true that publishers play a pretty important role too. Or at least where these books are found, as in… people are more likely to pick up a book with a foreign name at a store than purchase it online.

        Your name is nice as it is, and it is quite easy to remember. 🙂 I love seeing my name on my book, even though I sometimes can’t actually believe it’s there.

        And thank you for that. I do like my name, but I think it’s rather uncommon and sometimes even difficult to pronounce, which could be tricky. =[ Zen Alayan or Z.H. Alayan definitely roll easier off the tongue.

        Yay!! I’m glad you liked it! 😀 Chocolate chips is a fantastic idea, and I must try it with ice cream sometimes. Sounds heavenly.

  4. Personally I don’t notice who wrote the book. I love books, but most of the time, I don’t read the author’s name and when I do I forget it. So the name on the cover doesn’t affect me a single bit. I mean of course I remember the name pf some authors. But even for some books I really like I actually have no idea who the author is…

    • I’m the same way. Usually it’s titles that catch my eye. If the author’s name is someone I recognize already, like Terry Pratchett, then that’s a different story, but the name would have to be someone I already disliked to get me to avoid a book just because of it.

      • Yeah, fair enough. I always check out books when I recognize the name of the author. When I don’t I usually judge based on the title or the cover. 🙂

        Speaking of Terry Pratchett, today I purchased a super cool edition of Small Gods. I can’t wait to dig in!

  5. Honestly, for me, I rarely if ever look at the author name — unless I’m specifically trying to find an author. Which is why someone can say to me “Have you read this author?” and I’ll be like “Umm … maybe? What did they write?”

    That being said, I think you’re definitely right — there is a stigma attached to the author name, regardless of what nationality it is. For example, if you see a guidebook about living like a native in, let’s say, Kenya, and it’s written by Bob Jones, wouldn’t you be a bit suspicious about how much a probably middle-aged white man really knows about Kenyan life?

    So yes, it is possible that your name deters some people from reading your book. But then, it’s also possible that the black cover of Puppet Parade turns off people because they don’t like the color black. Or the word “puppet” turns them off because they don’t like words with more than 3 Ps in them. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone — so I say do what makes you happy 🙂

    • One particular stigma I worry about is the issue of Arabic/Muslim traditions. There is one author called Tahereh Mafi who apparently wrote some steamy scenes in her YA novel, and she received some backlash because she was promoting things like that when she’s very obviously a Muslim. It feels like with such a name, you may feel a bit limited regarding the things you write. A more ambiguous name could be liberating.

      You’re right though, you definitely can’t please anyone, no matter how hard you try!

  6. Oooh, this is a tough one! You are so right about people giving the ‘right’ answer when their subconscious may be leading them a in a different direction. Humans are creatures of habit, we always like to go towards what we know and in this case that would be more traditional English or American kind of names I guess. But at the same time, how can we expect it to change if people with interesting names come up with more sell-able ones? It’s so difficult!
    I have to say I think Zeinab is a really unusual and cool and if I saw it in the fantasy section I’d probably grab at it (for some reason I gravitate towards fantasy authors with super random names). Plus, it’s a lot better than a boring non-distinct name like John Smith. Like Michelle above however, I am 98% more likely to be influenced by the book cover, that’s always what draws me in. In those cases sometimes I won’t even look at the name.

    Good luck deciding. 😉

    • It is quite difficult! Let’s take Rainbow Rowell for example. I was VERY skeptical when I heard her name. It made her sound like… a hippie, for lack of a better word. It was only after I’ve read a lot of reviews that I finally decided to go for it, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how original her voice was.

      Why thank you! It’s true that I haven’t seen it on any book to date, but I’m still unsure how much it would appeal to the general public. And covers are indeed quite the tempting thing, haha.

  7. I don’t pay attention to authors’ namessay. Once I’ve’ bought or rented it I will, but not when browsing, especially if it’s fiction. One thing to consider is people’s ability to remember a non-English name. I’ll remember Zen before I remember Zeinab. I had to scroll up and look for your full first name while I remembered Zen easily. It’s a word I’ve heard a lot when people reference something peaceful like a zen garden. My last name is terribly boring, as is my first, I can’t find myself by Googling it! I like your last name and think you should keep it in your pen name if you choose to use one!

    • That seems to be the case with many people! As for my name, yeah… I think people might also have difficulty pronouncing it, which kinda sucks. “Zen” is a one-syllable word and much easier to remember. Aww… yeah, I think I’ve seen Hunter on more than one occasion. Shawn Hunter from Boy Meets World comes to mind too, haha.

      And thank you! I think if I do change my name I will be sticking to Alayan at the very least. 🙂

  8. I wish I had a pen name, Zen because there is another writer in America called Dianne Gray and people confuse us. Having a unique name is so much better. My favourite author is Salmon Rushdie and I’m pretty sure if he asked me if he should change his name to something more ‘English’ I would say absolutely not. The most important thing is to be yourself 😀

    • Well I think we all know who the better Dianne is! 😀 Oh I’ve heard of Salman Rushdie; he’s quite the popular one too.

      And you’re right, that is the most important thing. =]

  9. I’m not sure what I think on the subject. I suppose an author’s name is easier to share if it’s easier to remember and we Americans like things dumbed down. Z. H. Alayan certainly is simple enough, yet exotic enough to have a flavor of its own.

    • Yeah, I find myself partial to Z. H. Alayan too, though it’s true – as some people said – that Zen Alayan is a lot easier to remember. Thank you for your comment!

  10. I know a couple of people named Zeinab so the name isn’t unfamiliar to me, but I don’t think a “foreign” name would deter people. Think of the success of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

    Or maybe I’m biased because my name sounds foreign in America where I now live, haha!

  11. Interesting post. You touch on some pertinent issues.
    Although I have a very Anglo Saxon name, I have in the past used a European name for myself. At least half of the work I have had published has not been under my real initials, and occasionally that has been because I did not want my identity associated with a certain writing style, or because I had difficulty becoming published under my real name.
    Although you could use a traditional Anglo Saxon, English or American pen name, I might ask, how many authors out there are named Zen? There are lots of John’s and Michael’s (and a couple of Penny’s), but there aren’t too many Zen’s; the uniqueness of your name might cause your manuscript to stand out in contrast with others. Or, as you say, you could use the J.K Rowling technique and simply use letters of the alphabet.
    All you need to decide Zen, is how do you want to be remembered? What makes you feel most comfortable? And what do you think is the most advantageously professional strategy?

    • When you ask me that, I have to say I’m more comfortable being Zen than Zeinab. I find myself unconsciously signing my emails (even my formal one) with Zen before quickly backtracking, but at the same time I don’t feel it’d be the most professional approach, which is why Z. H. Alayan sounds like happy medium. If people are curious about me, they can simply look me up on the internet. 🙂

  12. This is a really interesting, sensitive and important question. I have certainly read plenty of books by authors with “ethnic” names or from different cultural perspectives. Usually though, it’s because I’m looking for something from a perspective different than my own. Sometimes I’ll specifically look for a woman writer because I want a perspective I know I’ll be able to relate to. Sometimes I’m surprised. You have both issue for and against you. I agree that the uniqueness of your name is beneficial, and most white Americans honestly will not identify it as specifically Arabic. If you use the initials you will bypass some of the bias against women writers. If you use Zeinab many people still will not be able to identify your gender, but will also struggle with pronunciation. Zen implies associations with eastern philosophy (to an American ear), even though it’s clearly a reasonable nick-name for you. What’s harder to put up with, having you name mangled or working with your initials and allowing people their assumptions?

    • I was actually discussing that with a friend earlier today, and the bias against women writers did come up in conversation. I would like to avoid the bias, if only because I want readers to enjoy the book at face value rather than try and analyze every nook and cranny of it. Z. H. Alayan seems like the safest bet – it would prevent my name from being “mangled”, as you put it, and I would be exempt from the bias. Then if anyone wishes to know more about me, they can look me up.

      Thank you for your comment, Lisa – it really helped me settle into a decision about this. =]

  13. I can’t remember the last time I was in a book store 🙂 Names can be relevant to me though – I’d rather read, say, about the Arab experience by someone who was an Arab name than by a John McDonald. It also depends on the genre you write in some names are ideal for fantasy but would never fly on a romance novel.

    • Fair enough! As an Arab myself though, I am sometimes curious to see how non-Arabs see us, so I tend to pick up books written by them. I guess it all depends on perspective. 😉

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