When I got married I went from having one of the most common Anglo-Saxon names, Anderson, to one of the most common Hispanic names, Gonzales. And besides the occasional questioning glance when a cashier reads the name on my debit card or driver's license, the transition has been easy. I even hoped the change might decrease some of the issues I've dealt with because of not having a middle name, which is more troublesome than some might expect. Mostly because everyone thinks you're hiding something. True story... Once upon a time, around age 19, after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation, I was held overnight at a very small police station in Delmar, Maryland because Vanessa C. Anderson was wanted in Baltimore for attempted murder. The information superhighway wasn't so super back then, so it took a while for Baltimore to facsimile over Vanessa C's info, including descriptions of her tattoos. So around 5a.m., the dragon on my ankle took on a new meaning: freedom. Although, frankly, I think the invite for the motorcycle ride with the officer who detained me explains it all. Ridiculous. Point is, give your kid a middle name or they're gonna get asked out on dates in really troublesome ways. So why didn't I hyphenate my maiden name after getting married? I'll let you put the initials together and figure that out. ;)
After signing a marriage certificate and submitting one simple name change form to social security, Vanessa Gonzales became my new middle-nameless identity. And I didn't give much thought to publishing under my maiden name until I actually got published. All of a sudden I was in a panic. Concerned about everything that could possibly go wrong, even worst case scenario—divorce. Yeah, I've been with my husband for 14 years, married for 11, but in our high divorce-rate society, the possibilities for disaster seem limitless. In a near frantic state, I made endless pros and cons lists. I also did research on pen names and the history of female writers who used them. I won't break into a history lesson, but I had somehow never realized that George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans! Drrrr. :) And it may be 2011, but even the middle-grade readers super-hero, Joanne Rowling (who also doesn't have a middle name :) was advised to publish with the ambiguous initials J.K. so as not to hinder her popularity with Harry Potter's initial target audience: young male readers. But following that formula would eliminate the portion of my name that is inherently me. And I've always loved my first name. Yay—progress! But I'm right back where I started, wondering what to do about Gonzales. Shouldn't this be easier?
I wondered if publishing under a Hispanic name would increase or decrease my potential audience. I consulted a few confidants and got conflicting answers. Then I worried that Gonzales might give the false impression of my having Hispanic ancestry. But like most of us, my husband's ancestry includes a variety of cultures. He doesn't look Hispanic, nor has he had much experience with the culture. Maybe we're both a big disappointment. We considered changing our last name to America. But after a quick people-pages search we found that it's being used by less than 100 people—most of whom are probably in the witness protection program (ha), but seriously.
At this point I turned to the only reliable place I know for important decision making relief: music videos on YouTube. While watching an old Joni Mitchell video, "Born To Take The Highway," I notice that she is introduced as Joni Anderson. How cool is that!? I'm off to Wikipedia. Sure enough, her maiden name is Anderson. Mitchell was her married name and despite divorce, she stuck with it. What a conflicting sign. But I started leaning toward the idea that if I establish myself as Gonzales, then come what may that's who I am to my readers. Also, I already own the domain vanessagonzales.com, which I purchased without hesitation on a day I wasn't over-analyzing my identity. The list in favor of Gonzales is getting longer. Still, I'm wavering until a TED talk I watched recently comes to mind, "The politics of Fiction" by Elif Safak.
Safak says that writers are, "Not seen as creative individuals on their own, but are seen as representatives of their respective cultures, and that we need to understand the value of representing and writing what we know." Great, I think, here I go again. But then she goes on to say that we should get out of our cultural ghetto and visit others to write what we feel not just what we know. And it dawns on me that having married someone with Hispanic ancestry, whether I know much about it or not, it is something that I feel, and getting out of my own cultural ghetto will inevitably lead me toward that one.
Vanessa Gonzales has been my identity for over a decade. Most importantly, I love the sense of confidence that comes with the realization that I don't need to change my identity to represent my writing any more than I need to change what I write to represent me. As long as it's all coming from the heart I owe no explanation to my critics.
And many thanks to all those who contributed to this decision; every once in a while I still lean strongly toward my favorite suggestion: V. Vanessa Anderson deGonzales Fancy Pants. ;)
Turns out, it's fabulous to be/feel "enlightened." But not everyone is, and publishing under Gonzales dramatically decreased my sales. And also resulted in a lot of hate-mail on social media sites. Sigh. I now publish under both names.