My Undead Name

Jules Gill-Peterson, University of Pittsburgh

I have the unusual experience, for a living author, of having been both male and female — in print, that is. Not because such crossings of sex are what actually define being transgender, but because naming  —  as a gendered system that organizes authorship and publishing –  forces such scenarios upon trans authors. If you pick up a copy of my first book, Histories of the Transgender Child, you’ll see it has a name different from the one under which this present writing appears. When my next book comes out it will proudly bear the name Jules, much to my pleasure and affirmation. When Histories was preparing to go into its third printing, the press reached out to me, having noticed that my name and pronouns had shifted publicly. My editor asked if I’d like to see the next printing of the book altered to my new name. I said no.

I wasn’t willing to kill my old name.

That choice of verb is deliberate. The neologism “deadname” has exploded in popular usage in the last five years, particularly thanks to the efforts of high profile trans celebrities like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. As the documentary Disclosure  details, both Mock and Cox pushed back forcefully on the gatekeepers of popular culture to end the routine misgendering, sexualization, and horrifyingly transphobic and misogynist interrogations to which trans women were subject in the media. As a trans woman of color, I am forever grateful for this. I would not dare be publicly trans and brown as a writer if not for the efforts of so many other Black trans and trans women of color who have shifted the ground floor of trans legibility.

But what makes a name dead, exactly? And need names always die?

But what makes a name dead, exactly? And need names always die? There isn’t much of an origin story to the term deadname, other than it likely grew organically out of the early 2010s Tumblr-verse that has impressively, though not without its challenges or problems, remade the mainstream vocabulary for gender and sexuality over the past decade. Whatever you know or think of the conventions or best practices of names, pronouns, and identity categories, you owe it to queer and trans Tumblr.

Against the grain and somewhat polemically, let me make my case against the deadname.

The demand placed on trans people for consistency and commitment to names and pronouns has the opposite of its intended effect in the outcome. Would-be allies think they are showing that they take trans people’s identities seriously by intensely conforming to contemporary conventions, but what they are really saying is I need you to be legible, clear, and easy for me to understand. I need your gender to make me comfortable. The system of gendered naming and pronouns itself is completely untouched, untroubled, by this maneuver. Whatever the origins and possibilities of the deadname as a useful concept—which are many, I admit—it is nevertheless ensnared in this gendered system that obligates each of us to have a clear, consistent, readable gender. Most gendered violence trans and nonbinary people face, especially when we are racialized, comes from situations in which the visual is read as fantasized proof of a problem needing correction or punishment. This question of the power of a broader system radiates back down to names and authorship. Trans-inclusion into the terms of the dominant system is not good enough and there is a lesson here for everyone.

In “A Year Without a Name,” a moving essay in the New Yorker drawn from their book of the same title, Cyrus Grace Dunham puts it this way: “Any name can be destroyed, can destroy itself. I know myself only insofar as I know that I will always surprise myself, that ‘I’ will collapse and be scrambled whenever I think my own structure is sound.” As Dunham emphasizes, “Cyrus is a sign, and he may not last.”  

So are all names, I would add. My name, Jules, is one that I’ve had my entire life. Though it’s not the name on my birth certificate, nor the name gracing my first book, it was the nickname my mom gave me and called me my whole life. When it came time to find my new name as a woman, then, Jules was already me. But even so, it should not fall on trans people to bear the instabilities and impossibilities of a gendered culture that relies on but disavows the inconsistency that greases its wheels.

I raise the question of the deadname and the fact that trans authors sometimes have two published names in circulation not because I consider this an analogy to the questions raised in the critical pushback on Reclaim Her Name. Trans naming practices are not analogous to the question of altering non-trans women’s noms de plume. I would argue that they are the same issue. Renaming is no simple matter when it involves, by necessity or in practice, making decisions without asking or being able to ask the person in question for their opinion. Smoothing out, or realigning names after the fact, is not categorically a good move. To assume in renaming a recuperative victory presupposes a harm and an integrity to gender that isn’t nearly true enough to work as a categorical imperative. How do we know when a name is alive or dead? How do we know that zombie names have no value? In short, if we cannot presume that a trans woman author wants her life’s circumstances to recede from visibility by aligning past name with present, then how can we assume that the same would be true for non-trans women? Both are subject to the same system of gendered naming, however differently.

The erasure of the power dynamics that make access to a writerly voice, to authority, and to a platform in which to think so difficult for women, trans and non-trans (notice that I did not say cisgender), are much more important than assuming that retrospective renaming without an author’s permission repairs a wrong. In fact, to do so may cover over the original wrong and the persistent wrongs for women of color and trans women of color, whose voices may be increasingly visible in print, but who are certainly not valued or taken as seriously as white women or white men. I know this, too, from the way that race and history live inside my names. Jules Gill-Peterson is brown like me in that it obscures, or muddies, the histories of empire that gave it to me. Gill, an anglicized Scottish surname, is common to Sikhs like my family from the Punjab province of India, who traditionally bear only one of two last names: Singh, for boys, and Kaur, for girls. The process of immigration to white Dominions of the British Empire like Canada forced them to adopt surnames that bear no information other than the violence of colonization, twice over. Yet that process, that whitening, also saved me from having a gendered last name. Its hyphenation, a product of my mother’s feminism, further complicates what it signifies about gender. The name I have chosen for myself is still two thirds what I did not consent to but was throw into by history. To pretend that I could refuse such an inheritance of empire, race, and gender is, I think, as naïve as someone else deciding on my name posthumously.

If I die tomorrow, take this as my explicit instruction: do not misgender me in my obituary, but do not re-release my old work under my current name, either.

My old name is not dead. It’s just not my name anymore.

Works Cited

Cyrus Grace Dunham, “My Year Without a Name.” The New Yorker, August 12, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/a-year-without-a-name.

Disclosure (directed by Sam Feder), 2020.

J. Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

Posted in Conversations

“And Yet . . .”

María Carla Sánchez, UNC Greensboro

I beg a little indulgence, and an indirect path to explaining my titular ellipsis: I have been writing about three Mexican women who published poems in the newspaper El republicano during the early months of the 1846-48 war with the U.S. The poems are fascinating and none-too-optimistic responses to the political future Mexicans found themselves contemplating in 1846. Two of the women, Guadalupe Calderón and Josefa Letechipía de González, published poetry elsewhere that I have been able to locate. The wonderful Hispanist scholar Christopher Conway argues that the few Mexican women who found their way into print during the 19th century utilized family networks: they were sisters, sisters-in-law, and sometimes cousins of the hombres de bien who ruled Mexico’s belletristic culture. (But rarely were they wives or mothers. That’s a story for another day.) That’s true for two of the three poets, the two for whom I’ve been able to find other published works; they were not only related to literary men, but distantly related to each other.

But the third woman? Her name is Josefa Terán. Conway surmises that she, too, could have been related to a male author, but he has no proof. Nothing connects her to a better known man, or to anyone, actually. No birth record, no death certificate, no record of marriage, residence, inheritance, notoriety: not one other extant glimpse of her. These poems, spirits from a world in which Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas were still Mexican territory, represent the only trace that once, a woman named Josefa Terán possessed a beautiful way with words, and that she used it as a figurative weapon against an invader – one of the few weapons, it turned out, that any of her fellow citizens possessed.

I share this story about Terán because her name and two poems are all that can be reclaimed about her, and my frustration and sadness about this makes me sympathetic to the basic aim of the Reclaim Her Name effort. Let me be clear: I’m not sympathetic to the bizarrely tone-deaf and intellectually slapdash manner in which the staff of the Women’s Prize for Fiction went about forming this project. As all of the brilliant scholars of Legacy and SSAWW’s original panel astutely noted, almost everything that could be done badly in this endeavor, was done badly, from the choice of author to the tokenizing of writers of color to the failure to recognize any of the glorious nuances that now enable us to push categories like “woman” to their vital limits. (It’s the general haplessness that offends me. To pay so little attention to getting things right that you could put a photo of Frederick Douglass on a cover and call him Martin Delany strikes me as too much akin to this for comfort.)

And yet… at some early conceptual moment for Reclaim Her Name, I assume there was a heartbeat of what I call that “basic aim”: not to let the least known of these names and texts languish in obscurity and perhaps disappear. For when I look at that list of 25 texts, I see a majority that are absolutely unknown to me. Neither pen names, birth names, nor titles. Despite a professional lifetime devoted primarily to studying nineteenth-century women writers, I was utterly ignorant of who these figures were. Henrietta Everett/Theo Douglas? Julia Constance Fletcher/George Fleming? The Roadmender, or Attila, My Attila? Never heard of any of them, and this nags at me. Women, regardless of how capaciously or narrowly they understand that category as pertaining to themselves, are still in a position of having their intellectual legacies rendered marginal and tenuous. What protects the writers that the Legacy readership and SSAWW membership have worked assiduously to recover and recuperate? (Or those brought back to print and accessibility by the Recovering the Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, or the Schomburg Library, and similar entities?) What guarantees do any of us have that in a century or two, these authors won’t meet the same fate as Josefa Terán?

What protects the writers that the Legacy readership and SSAWW membership have worked assiduously to recover and recuperate?

Lest my concerns strike anyone as melodramatic, let’s recap: all of us in the USA, at least, are experiencing the first “female recession,” with job losses in the service sector and a punishing lack of childcare options driving women out of the work force and into lines for food banks. Media of all kinds have documented for months now that school closures and childcare duties are sinking the productivity of female academics. Looming budget cuts due to coronavirus collateral damage will strike first at the most vulnerable in our ranks, those scholars actually categorized as contingent. Our citizenry faces political choices in the coming weeks that will immediately affect how all of us, across a wide spectrum of gendered and racialized identities, are comprehended as autonomous persons before the state – or not. I could elaborate, but this is likely enough to comprehend why I am sober about the challenges we may face striving to keep publishing initiatives, scholarly organizations, and a wide range of conferences and symposia vibrant and thriving. And most important of all: a future for the humanities in which tomorrow’s graduate students replace us, take on new projects of claiming, reclaiming and proclaiming, get it right, and are never, in any sense of the word, contingent. 

So I’ll happily join the criticism of the artless fumbling of the Reclaim Her Name project. But I won’t fault the basic desire to preserve a past for someone who may one day need it. Let’s follow Mary Chapman’s sage counsel: Let’s “get better at sharing our research with the public.” If we can find ways to work with gente outside academia, we know we can do recovery, reclamation, and legacy very, very well.

And let’s hit Bailey’s up for more money. I volunteer for that task. Seriously, a little Bailey’s on ice, maybe some chocolate, your favorite music? It’s the only way to grade papers.

Works Cited

Rockeman, Olivia, Reade Pickert, and Catarina Saraiva. “The First Female Recession Threatens to Wipe Out Decades of Progress for U.S. Women.” Bloomberg, Sept. 30, 2020. Web. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-30/u-s-recovery-women-s-job-losses-will-hit-entire-economy

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

A Response to Baileys’ #reclaimhername: The Challenges of Literary Recovery

In early August, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and their corporate sponsor Baileys (yes, Baileys of Irish cream liqueur fame) launched the Reclaim Her Name project, “25 books previously published under male pen names, with the real female authors’ names finally printed on the covers, to honour their achievements and give them the credit they deserve.” These books were made available for free download, with the organizers announcing plans to donate complete print sets of the books to libraries. More than 3,000 writers were considered for inclusion. The series featured George Eliot’s Middlemarch (now identified as the work of Mary Ann Evans), Vernon Lee’s A Phantom Lover (with the name of Violet Paget on the cover), and Michael Field’s Attila, my Attila! (Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley). The works of a number of writers of color, including Ann Petry, Edith Maude Eaton, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, were also highlighted.

Despite its rhetoric of finality, however, the Reclaim Her Name project has resulted in far more questions than answers for those of us at Legacy. As Lois Brown puts it, “What does it mean to think about reclaiming? Who is reclaiming, what is being reclaimed exactly, and for whom is this reclaiming being done?” We agreed that a more public discussion was in order. On Friday, August 28th, Legacy, along with the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) sponsored a panel of scholars to talk abou the series and the politics of recovery. Panelists included Lois Brown (Arizona State University); Mary Chapman (University of British Columbia); Brigitte Fielder (University of Wisconsin); Grace Lavery (University of California Berkeley); Christine “Xine” Yao (University College London) and Sandra Zagarell (Oberlin College). Jennifer Putzi (William & Mary), co-editor of Legacy, moderated.

Given the success of the forum, we asked each of the panelists to write up their comments for this more public venue. You’ll find these thoughtful and provocative pieces here on the Legacy website. We’ll also be posting responses from other scholars as we receive them. If you’re interested in having your response–to the panel, to these comments, to the larger issues discussed here–posted, please contact Jennifer Putzi at putzi.legacy@gmail.com.

Faced with criticism from publications like the Guardian and the Smithsonian Magazine as well as an array of scholars, Baileys has seemingly curtailed the Reclaim Her Name project. If you go to the web page today, you’ll find a brief description of the project, a superficial discussion of pseudonymity, and a vague commitment to donating the series of books to select libraries. There is no list of the books in the series, or the names of the authors included. There is no way to download the texts. There are no images of brightly covered book covers. The series is shown only from the side, with spines out, as if appearing on a shelf. This is, after all, what Baileys intended to create–an object, not a book, in all of its glorious complexity. Authorship itself is similarly stripped of its wonderful complexity, rendered a simple case of “real” or “fake,” “male” or “female.” Baileys is able to drop this project because, let’s face it, they’re in the business of alcohol, not literary recovery. We at Legacy and SSAWW are more than ready to take on that challenge–to continue taking it on, really, as our panelists point out.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

Reclaiming Black Biography

Lois Brown, Arizona State University

Acts of reclamation are often, at their core, heroic acts of intervention and inclusion.  They are motivated by the realities of implicit and explicit gatekeeping and the politics of inclusion that relegate some to the periphery of canons, histories, and traditions, or that insist on enduring invisibility for others. Acts of reclamation are inherently political acts that strive to expose the architectures and systems of exclusion on which socio-cultural, artistic, racial, gender or political dominance depends. 

The Reclaim Her Name campaign presents itself as an aesthetically pleasing project of reclamation and revelation. Launched in honor of the 25th anniversary of the London-based Women’s Prize for Fiction, the campaign is not simply an effort to draw attention to long-lost individuals. Rather, the campaign emphatically articulates its investment in unveiling women writers who, challenged by their eras, chose to employ pseudonyms and monikers that veiled their gender identity and also asserted maleness.  

What, one might ask, could possibly go wrong?  Reclaim Her Name quickly reveals that acts of sweeping and dehistoricized reclamation produce a fevered myopic view of the arc of literature by women and individuals identifying as female.  Reclamations untethered from the archives and substantial, deliberate scholarship give way to a careless, frenzied enthusiasm that culminates in problematic re-veiling as well.  These two fault lines emerge clearly in the Reclaim Her Name treatment of African American biography. 

Reclaim Her Name quickly reveals that acts of sweeping and dehistoricized reclamation produce a fevered myopic view of the arc of literature by women and individuals identifying as female.

The only dark brown cover in the set of 24 Reclaim Her Name books also is the only one to feature the image of a man. Between the bright white print of the name Frances Rollin Whipper and the title The Life of Martin R. Delany, is an image not of Delany but of Frederick Douglass.  Delany and Douglass—who, one must assert immediately, looked nothing alike—were peers across the awful antebellum years of the 1800s and both lived well into the era of Reconstruction. To mistake Douglass for Delany is to manhandle key differences between the two. Douglass, a formerly enslaved and boldly self-emancipated individual, became the nation’s most influential abolitionist and orator. He advocated for African American inclusion and citizenship, supported African American military service, and saw two of his sons join the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. He was a prolific writer and journalist, publishing three volumes of his autobiography, and was a diplomat and statesman. Delany, who never was enslaved, pursued multiple careers as a physician, journalist, author, and judge, to name a few. He became the highest-ranking African American man in the Union Army and was known for his emphatic pan-Africanist and emigrationist politics. These details—in concert with the fact that Delany kept his hair cut short and Douglass was immediately recognizable because of his gorgeous mane—underscore the canonical violence done by mis-seeing Delany and imposing Douglass on the cover of the biography authored by Frances Rollins Whipper. 

The canonical violence continues, though, with the assertion that Whipper’s biography of Delany, published in 1883, is “the first African American to publish a biography.” This is false.  The Life of Martin R. Delany was predated by some 48 years by the first known work of African American-authored biography published in 1835 by educator and abolitionist Susan Paul of Boston. Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson, The Attentive and Obedient Scholar, Who Died in Boston, October 31, 1833 By His Teacher Miss Susan Paul and in so doing also produced the first biography of a free child of color in the North.  The significance of the Memoir of James Jackson is heightened when one positions it against the tumultuous world in which it appeared five years after the enactment of the Indian Removal Act and the 1831 Nat Turner Revolt.  When Paul published the biography, black lives and bodies across the nation increasingly were under siege because of the aggressive Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  Her turn to biography was a determined effort to claim—and not to reclaim–place, perspective and presence for people of color, families of color and readers and writers of color.

1835. 1883. This span of forty-eight years between Paul’s Memoir and Whipper’s The Life violently shifts the beginning of a black literary biographical tradition by almost a half century. The space between Paul and Whipper, as a result of this historical inaccuracy, becomes a yawning void. The 1880s are a late, late date from which to think about a beginning of African American life-writing, biographical intention and literary output. Claiming the 1880s as the beginning of African American biographical tradition also suggests that the writing of black lives did not happen before then. We know, of course, about the tradition of narrative written by enslaved and formerly enslaved people and the significant epistolary, journalistic reportage, documentary writing and fiction produced by people of African descent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Does everyone know of this? The treatment of Frances Rollin Whipper in the Reclaim Her Name campaign compels us to consider how this troubling, incorrectly decorated dark brown covered republished work posed as a “first” warps the hard-won collective literary “knowledge” and the painstakingly archivally-informed restored timeline.

The Reclaim Her Name campaign has emerged at a time when so many are coming to the realization and making public assertions that black lives matter. Black lives, black writing and black histories matter.  Today’s growing political awareness underscores the importance of seeing clearly, documenting carefully and contextualizing deliberately black lives and our reclamations of them.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

Missed Opportunity

Mary Chapman, University of British Columbia

The Reclaim Her Name project was a missed opportunity for public scholarship. Imagine what a group of Legacy readers could have come up with, had the Board of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (and their sponsor, Baileys) collaborated with them instead of with an advertising firm! The project would have been much more carefully considered and would have better achieved its goals of honoring the achievements of women, cis and transgender, and transgender authors and giving them the credit that they deserve.

Imagine what a group of Legacy readers could have come up with, had the Board of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (and their sponsor, Baileys) collaborated with them instead of with an advertising firm!

Scholarship is built on giving credit: on attribution, citation, acknowledgements, and permissions. Much of our research works to correctly attribute unsigned and pseudonymous works to their authors. Our footnotes recognize and publicize the scholarship of researchers (whether we agree with them or not). Our acknowledgements thank those who have assisted us, including the libraries, literary estates, and translators who have made our publications possible.

It is ironic, then, that this ambitious project–to publish twenty-five works of literature by women in order to honor their achievements and to give them credit–fails to give credit to anyone who played a part in the rich networks through which women writers write and publish: namely, the scholars who recovered many of these works and traced these authors’ uses of pseudonyms; the librarians who preserved manuscripts; and even the translators who made some of these texts available in English.

The Reclaim Her Name project’s “recovery” of “How White Men Assist in Smuggling Chinamen across the Border in Puget Sound Country” which it attributed to Asian American author Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far) is a case in point. In my 2016 book Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton, published after I’d spent years recovering her oeuvre, I speculated about whether or not this short story had been written by Eaton.   I wrote that the story, signed Mahlon T. Wing, “may . . . have been written by Eaton” for several reasons: because it bears a strong formal and thematic resemblance to Eaton’s other journalistic and fictional works about smuggling (“Thrilling Escape,” “Woo Ma and I,” “Tian Shan’s Kindred Spirit,” and “The Smuggling of Tie-Co”); because Eaton was familiar with the story’s Pacific Northwest setting; and because the story appears in the Los Angeles Express on March 5th, during a period in which Eaton was publishing regular-installments of a travel narrative she signed with a male pseudonym, “Wing Sing of Los Angeles on His Travels.”   I wondered if perhaps Eaton had fallen behind on an installment and offered the newspaper this story as a replacement. But I hesitated to make a definitive attribution because the story was, in style, like much newspaper fiction of the period. However, the advertising firm who orchestrated the Reclaim Her Name project dispensed with all the nuance of my speculation, gave me no credit for the theory, and simply attributed the story to Eaton under the simplistic tagline: “Disguised as a man, she smuggled her story out into the world.”

As all scholars know, literary recovery work takes time and it is costly to do, whether one is paying for travel to archives or subscriptions to databases. If literary recovery scholars had been asked to collaborate with the Reclaim Her Name team and had been given their budget, imagine what could have been accomplished! But when I spoke with the advertising account managers who had worked on the project, they hadn’t the faintest idea how to reach out to literary recovery scholars. They had not heard of Google Scholar or Academia.edu—platforms scholars rely on to make our work publicly visible or available. If I learned one thing from Reclaim Her Name, it was that we need to get better at sharing our research with the public.

As the inaugural academic director of a new Public Humanities Hub at the University of British Columbia, I’ve spent the past year developing, with Hub staff, Public Scholarship training modules (“How to write an op-ed,” “How to develop a scholarly podcast,” “How to pitch and write a nonfiction book for a trade audience,” “How to curate an exhibition,” etc., as well as complementary toolkits about how to use these more public-facing genres. Please check them out! You are welcome to use them to figure out how best to share your research more broadly https://publichumanities.ubc.ca/. My hope is that sharing our research in these public-facing genres will dramatically improve public discourse about the topics we care about!

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

On Claiming and Naming: Whose Feminism? What Ends?

Brigitte Fielder, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As I consider the efficacy of the Reclaim Her Name project, I am interested in trying to understand the rhetoric of “reclaiming.” What does it mean to claim or reclaim an author’s name? Whose names require reclaiming? Who needs / ought to reclaim them? And for whom are they (re)claimed?

One reason for my confusion is the project’s odd unevenness with regard to well-known and understudied writers. Why, for example, republish Middlemarch (a book that is widely available, by a well-known author whose identity is hardly a secret) when one might have highlighted an understudied woman writer?

As a scholar of African American women writers, I cannot help but notice the project’s merely tokenizing inclusion of nonwhite women. That the texts for writers such as Frances Whipper, Sui Sin Far, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson were also fraught with factual errors resulting from sloppy research is not lost on me. Nor is this lack of care surprising, given the ways that mainstream white feminism has refused to attend to the lives, work, and needs of nonwhite women (despite countercurrents of work that thinks beyond whiteness and other limiting normative categories).

In this refusal to engage authentically with the literary histories of marginalized women writers, the project truly missed an opportunity. The frame of Reclaim Her Name has led me to consider how I discuss names in my own pedagogical practices. This semester I am again teaching a course on Early (pre-Harlem Renaissance) Black Feminisms. In this course I assign a fairly standard array of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century African American women writers, including Phillis Wheatley, Maria Stewart, Ann Plato, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Harriet Jacobs, Julia Collins, Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper.

At the beginning of the semester I always ask students how many Black women who lived before 1900 they can name. They have never (collectively) named more than two or three (the two most popular being Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, only occasionally accompanied by Harriet Jacobs). The vast majority of U.S. students are still taught very little about African American women in K-12 schools; most of the names on my syllabus are entirely unfamiliar to them. These names–and the very existence of Black women writers–must be first reclaimed, so to speak, in order to open up not only the work of individual authors but an entire area of study that was previously unavailable to my students.

As I think about this pedagogical reclaiming, I consider the oddness of the Reclaim Her Name project’s framing around a presumed need to “reclaim” names that people chose deliberately (under a variety of circumstances) not to use. Why not amplify names that are right there in the archive but ignored by mainstream accounts of literary history? Moreover, even if we begin with names, why make this an end point? Notwithstanding, for example, the inaccuracy of claiming Frances Whipper’s biography was the first written by a Black woman, the choice of this text seems rather arbitrary. Choosing a book about Martin Delany’s life risks eliding the fact that African American women have long written about Black women’s issues specifically. A truly feminist project (such as the #SayHerName activism that this project riffs on) does not end with naming alone.

Why not amplify names that are right there in the archive but ignored by mainstream accounts of literary history?

Academic recovery of women writers has, in contrast, focused on making little-known or out-of-print works available for study. The accompanying editorial labor often involves filling in biographical details or publication histories, providing historical context, and at times even speculating about the sources of anonymously published texts. Recovery work on women writers has increasingly taken up difficult questions regarding whose work is recovered and why, who does this recovery work, and who that recovery benefits. Such projects have often been collective and collaborative, as scholars build upon earlier, foundational research. This work is cumulative and expansive, not only adding new texts or information to an existing canon or genre but demanding that we reimagine notions of literary canons and generic categorizations in light of these additions. The results are exciting and field shifting, often complicating what we once thought we knew, uncovering new avenues for producing literary knowledge. Recovery scholarship of the past several decades has questioned not only who we talk about when we talk about women writers, but also why and how, and for whose benefit.

As we consider the project of naming and claiming women writers, I want to consider still another question: To what (kinds of) feminist ends do these acts of naming or reclaiming bring us? A feminist project need and should not simply reinscribe a narrow, exclusive, and limiting form of feminism. Rather, we might use this opportunity to interrogate its feminist framing by considering the unevenness of past namings and claimings as we seek to build more capacious forms and avenues for feminism in the twenty-first century.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

What Is a Female Author?

Grace Lavery, University of California Berkeley

The project aimed to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, highlight the challenges faced by female writers, past and present, and ignite a conversation as to the many reasons why writers chose to use a pseudonym.

–Freddie Campbell, letter to the Legacy/SSAWW panelists, 09/11/20, emphasis added.

To a certain kind of reader, the question “what is a female author” will appear pedantic. Its catechetic prosody, for one thing, suggests an isomorphism of call and response, an answer that resembles the question. Such catechisms are the order of the day. “What is a woman?” A woman is an adult human female. “What is a female?” A biological organism from the sexually dimorphic human species, whose morphology includes large immotile gametes. When playing in this authoritarian key, “female author” appears both redundant and insufficient as a definition of “woman author.” Redundant, because a “woman author” would mean an author possessed of large immotile gametes (and thereby already denote a “female author”); insufficient, because it is necessary that there be a difference between “woman” and “female” in order that the latter category be useful in defining the former. Or, perhaps, the only difference between a “woman author” and a “female author” would be–of all things–adulthood, and one is in essence forced to argue that a social role and a biological condition are co-essential, and that a woman author’s place, presumably, is in the home.

George Eliot, as everyone knows, was not a woman writer.

George Eliot, as everyone knows, was not a woman writer. Charles Dickens, writing to the author of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, admits that the stories possessed “such womanly touches” that he had been inclined to “address the said writer as a woman.” Dickens continues, more cautiously, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.” If there is a transgender quality here (and it is gender, rather than sex, that Dickens invokes when he couches his response in terms of “address” and “womanly”-ness) it is a transfemininity, a womanliness of mind, acquired through an act of “making.” So George Eliot was not a woman writer, except (perhaps) in the transfeminine sense of the word. But to respond that Eliot was, nonetheless, a female writer is to strip authorship to the reproductive (albeit unreproducing) system; it is, indeed, to confront Margaret Oliphant’s bitter (but accurate) remark that Eliot’s legacy dwarfed her own in part because Eliot had no children, whereas Mrs. Oliphant was widowed, indebted, and raising three offspring while struggling to find a room of her own.

The philistinism of the contemporary anti-trans movement is by no means its worst feature. Yet it is hard to think of a more clumsy, compulsive engagement with the history of feminism than to redress each and every act of authorship–authorship, which is the opposite of personhood–by reference to lurid speculations about hormones and chromosomes, neither of which had yet been discovered when Eliot related the sad story of Tertius Lydgate, the quasi- Byronic scientist who believed that social relations were ultimately reducible to a primitive matter, and who suffered much for the superstition. Except if it be the cringing “you go girl!” whooping, as the trousers are whipped off and the female author’s genitals exposed to the rigor of gendercritical “feminism.” Except if it be an attempt to flog Bailey’s Irish Cream, a commodity in trade from Diageo––which, if ever there were a corporation that did not need to play dumb about gender, it would be the company that markets its manliest stout in a somber monochrome epic of man, sea, and horse, and adorns its girly digestif with a meet-cute that pulls back a gamete short of coercion.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

Literary Recovery, #ReclaimHerName, Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Sandra Zagarell, Oberlin College

Consider some of the propositions that inform the Reclaim Her Name project. One: “the author” is a singular, unified person with a “true” name. Two: that true name is a woman’s name, which she had to conceal with a male pseudonym, but must now be affixed to her writing. Three: a single book is synechdochal of her career. Four: thanks to Reclaim Her Name, previously obscure books and obscured women have now been permanently rescued. Five: the names of scholars whose work was apparently consulted for Reclaim Her Name project need not be acknowledged, though the project promotes with considerable fanfare the name of the liquor company that sponsors it.

Scholarly literary recovery follows radically different principles. We take seriously the names under which authors publish and give rigorous consideration to the circumstances of their choices. We seek to retrieve oeuvres, not just single books. Moreover, recovery is collaborative. Scholars rely on and generally acknowledge each other’s work; we team up, we offer mentorship, we productively challenge one another. Time-consuming, demanding, often frustrating, recovery is frequently undertaken with limited resources and often brings scholars neither acclaim nor reward. Recovered writing may not be recovered for good: funding may be limited at university presses, traditional scholars and institutions may prove resistant: patience and persistence will be required. And the objectives of recovery scholars far exceed those evinced by the Reclaim Her Name project. We want to make marginalized and under-read writing known and accessible to many readers, including writing by queer, trans, Black, Brown, Asian, and multiply-identified authors. But we also aim to change the lenses through which this literature is generally viewed and, in the process, to transform still-dominant concepts of culture, identity, and history.

While scholarly recovery seeks to make unrecognized writing visible, the Reclaim Her Name project is fraught with erasures.

While scholarly recovery seeks to make unrecognized writing visible; the Reclaim Her Name project is fraught with erasures. Its inclusion of Alice Dunbar-Nelson is a prime example. The project’s seeming restoration of her name and writing is full of errors. Falsely asserting that “Alice Dunbar Nelson” (hyphen omitted) was forced to resort to a male pseudonym, Monroe Wright, to appeal to publishers, the project’s directors  proclaim that “now” her real name is finally attached to a book of her “earlier stories,”  the  book it  sponsors. Titled Ye Game and Playe of Chesse, this “book” comprises three battle-of-the-(hetero)sexes romance tales that were probably never published and do not reflect the author’s  concern with race.. Archival research suggests Dunbar-Nelson wrote them in the early 1900s for placement in magazines like The Smart Set, using “Monroe Wright” so editors would not notice how much material she was submitting, most of it as Alice Dunbar. The invention of this “book” and the name that Reclaim Her Name project assigns its author are not merely sloppy: they amount to erasures of the multiplicity of Alice Ruth Moore/Alice Dunbar/Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s public self-presentations and of her generically and stylistically diverse work. By her late teens, Alice Ruth Moore (her birth name) was publishing stories and poems. Her first book, Violets and other Tales (1895), appeared under that name. Although its contents can seem unraced, its publication by The Monthly Review, an African American press, established her as a talented Black woman author. Once she married Paul Laurence Dunbar, she became Alice Dunbar, known as an author in her own right and as the wife, and later widow, of the famous poet (they separated but never divorced). As Alice Dunbar, she published The Goodness of St. Roque and Other Stories (1899) as well as essays, short fiction, journalistic columns, poetry, and a play, and edited an anthology, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence.  Directly or indirectly, most of this work engages with race and racism, complexities of racial identity and forms of white racial violence; often it challenges normative practices of racial ascription.

Marrying Robert Nelson in 1916, she became the author, activist, and cultural-political commentator Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the name by which she is now known. This name was unusual. In the U.S. in the early twentieth century hyphenated surnames were not standard. It has a commanding ring; the trochees of each word and their matched number of syllables endow its three components with equal stress. The name Dunbar-Nelson affirms the author’s history and status, preserving Paul’s last name and honoring Robert, but Alice—the author’s first name, a woman’s name—enjoys pride of place. Moreover, though one would never know it from the Reclaim Her Name project, Alice embraced the gender of all her names and for her, and not for her alone, gender did not decree sexuality. She was a lover of both women and men, as her published diaries show. Her names may not have conveyed that publicly, but they did to her, to her family, to her friends, and to some of her associates.

Reclaim Her Name’s erasures include privileging the book over the many forms of periodical publication in which Alice Dunbar-Nelson and other women flourished. It also collapses the extraordinary length and breadth of Dunbar-Nelson’s creative life by labeling her “A Queen of the Harlem Renaissance”—oddly upstaging Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and other women more closely associated with that movement, in the process. Writing as she did for over forty years, Dunbar-Nelsonshould not be defined by her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance – which, when made a signifier for all early African American writing of note, erases the century and a half of vital Black cultural output that preceded.

For reasons as yet unexplained, Reclaim Her Name has now ceased publicizing “Ye Game of Chesse” and removed it from the online site. In fact, all twenty-five of its books have been removed. That is no loss for Dunbar-Nelson or for her writing, much of which scholars have made available in print or online, with more in the pipeline. Still, we might thank the Reclaim Her Name project for the attention their efforts have drawn to the real work of recovery. We will keep the momentum going.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged

Which “Women” Are Prized? On Racialized Gender

Christine “Xine” Yao, University College London

#ReclaimHerName invites us to affectively participate in the triumph of rescuing benighted women authors from the grasp of an agèd patriarchal literary tradition that has forced them to toil under the false mask of a masculine pseudonym.  Liberate these women from that history so they may stand proudly in the light of our feminist moment!

To my eye the catchy phrasing developed by the Baileys marketing team capitalizes upon the unacknowledged influence of two recent Black feminist hashtags and their attendant critiques: #ReclaimingMyTime and #SayHerName. The former references U.S. Representative Maxine Waters’s pointed response to Republican prevarications during a congressional hearing in 2017. The latter is the movement by the African American Policy Forum to draw attention to the Black women such as Sandra Bland who are victimized by police brutality and anti-Black violence but whose names are too readily forgotten in the discourse around Black Lives Matter. The complicated affects involved in both become streamlined into #ReclaimHerName’s promise that we can share in a sense of struggle and feel good about it too.

If this is the Women’s Prize, which women are prized? Or rather, how does a reductive idea of womanhood based on whiteness operate as the lens of legibility through which writers are prized?

Although the array of writers selected by Baileys in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Women’s Prize is diverse, there is something pernicious about this campaign’s universalizing of Black feminist hashtags about misogynoir concerning time and names. Liberal multiculturalism co-opts and makes invisible Black women and their labors in the name of uplifting them alongside other women of color and white women on a playing field that flattens out difference. There is an erasure of the nuances of racialized gender that implicitly reinstates the white cisgender woman as normative template for all other modalities of minoritarian gender. If this is the Women’s Prize, which women are prized? Or rather, how does a reductive idea of womanhood based on whiteness operate as the lens of legibility through which writers are prized?

I wish to make two further points about #ReclaimHerName by tracing counterpoints to the affects the marketing campaign wished to elicit. First is my interest in lingering with racialized modes of unfeeling like Oriental inscrutability that defy the affective and epistemological transparencies that the project relies upon. Among the twenty-five writers, they incorporated a short story allegedly written by Edith Maude Eaton, best known as Sui Sin Far, under the name Mahlon T. Wing. I am less interested in the errors–such as claiming her novels were famous when Eaton never wrote a novel we know of–than comparing the choice of “How White Men Assist in Smuggling Chinamen Across the Border in Puget Sound Country” to one of her best known short stories “The Smuggling of Tie Co.”

Of the Wing short story whose title functions as straightforward summary, the framing text on the Baileys’ website states, “Unlike her characters, she no longer needs to hide.” But what if Eaton and her characters are resistant to that reclaiming, to that assumption that exposure is justice? “The Smuggling of Tie Co” complicates the scenario of white men aiding the smuggling of Chinese across national borders. The story is recognized by scholars for its queerness: Far disaggregates gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation from the supposed fact of Tie Co’s body reclaimed after the character’s death. “Tie Co’s body, and yet not Tie Co, for Tie Co was a youth, and the body found with Tie Co’s face and dressed in Tie Co’s clothes was the body of a girl–a woman.” The story ends with the white Jack Fabian “pondering long and earnestly over the mystery of Tie Co’s life–and death.” Fabian is unable to reclaim a Tie Co that would be legible to him and the narrator preserves that inscrutability.

My feelings about #ReclaimHerName, however, are not so obscure. The clumsy inclusion of the Wing short story twists the careful recovery work of my postdoctoral mentor Mary Chapman. This faux-feminist campaign erases the intergenerational and horizontal practices of feminist scholarship necessary for the sensitive attention required to do justice to minoritized writers.

In closing, I turn to the celebration of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at the Dickens Universe conference as a contrasting project of feminist scholarship not only in content but in practice. In these events Brigitte Fielder, Koritha Mitchell, Derrick Spires, and Nazera Sadiq Wright demonstrated the intellectual richness of Harper studies as it is strengthened by an ethos of collaboration and pedagogy; it emerged that over the years Carla Peterson’s graduate seminar had been the generative site for the next generation of Harper scholars. I myself am indebted to the generosity of these scholars in my work on Harper. In honouring the names and works of writers, we need to remember the importance of citation. Citation is political, as elucidated by theorist Sara Ahmed: uplifting names can be feminist and anti-racist critique.

Posted in Conversations | Tagged