Or, On Choosing My Pen Name
My given name isn’t Alysia. Well, not technically: it’s not my given first name, not the name by which most friends know me. It’s my middle name (the one trace of my Greek ethnicity given in my moniker). And Constantine isn’t my given last name, but it’s a pared-down version.
My Father-the-Greek originally had a 16-letter last name, but changed it when he immigrated to America so that American Bureaucracy could handle it. Most American forms weren’t built, at least in the 1960s, to accommodate such a ridiculously long (by American standards) family name. They expected Miller or Jackson, maybe even Kuntz, but certainly not LotsaSyllablesadopoulos. So he shortened it from 16 letters to 4 letters. A simple spelling. De-ethnicitized. Which, apparently, most Americans can’t figure out, because it gets mispronounced or misspelled on the daily.
My given first name isn’t Greek. It isn’t even Scottish, which is my mother’s heritage. It’s not “American,” either (whatever that would be). It’s German.
Which means my full given name is German NoEthnicity and, along with the fact that I’ve colored my hair lavender-on-white, means I really have little trace of either ethnic heritage–neither my mother’s muddled Scottish-American-mix nor my father’s You-WILL-Go-to-Greek-School-Twice-a-Week-Immigrant-Greek.
I feel more Greek-American than Scottish-American, in large part because, culturally, our family lived as Greek-Americans. We ate Greek home cooking. I went to Greek school (my dad actually was one of the teachers.) We spoke a Greek-English pidgen at home. Many of our family friends were called Mrs. Thea or Mr. Yannis (Greek kids respectfully call familiar adults Mr./Mrs. Firstname). There was more than one thing in our house emblazoned with the Greek flag. (That may have had something to do with the fact that the Scottish part is several generations back, but my dad immigrated in his twenties from Greece and that whole side of our family is still there. Plus, my dad is olive-brown-skinned and heavily-accented, and nobody ever discriminated against my mother for being ethnically Scottish (a concomitant discrimination based on being ethnically Greek has been happening to my dad since he immigrated in the 1960s. Although it still happens now, the treatment of my father has become less about job and social discrimination than it has about finding him delightfully “ethnic” and asking his advice about to which Lebanese restaurant one should go (I know he’s not Lebanese, but apparently, to many Americans, swarthy people are all the same.).).)
In school, we read non-white/non-American stuff for “color,” as a kind of sauce-on-the-side addition to the Real Stuff. (I know even including the “color” was progressive back then.) But the Real Stuff, the stuff the SAT and the GRE covered, was written largely by white American and British men. Though it sometimes involved a character who was, like my dad, “ethnic,” that character usually Meant Something. (And although this condition was common for “swarthy” folk, it was far more common for ethnically-more-othered people who did not pass as white. (I was, depending on the occasion, sometimes treated as “ethnic” and sometimes as white, and usually had the option to pass, especially if I could avoid giving my name or introducing my dad.) It was a problem which was more pervasive and more insidious for my friends who were racially marked in a way I was not. How tiring, always to have to be Significant or else be invisible.) My education, and the subsequent testing thereof, in large part, was entirely “Call Me Ishmael.”
Before you ask, since you’ve probably seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, no, we did not have a thing about Windex. Except for cleaning glass. (I have been asked that at least once a month since that movie came out, and just found out the joke, having finally watched it just two weeks ago.)
All this is to say that, while I identify as first-gen and grew up very “ethnic” (please hear me laughing as I use that Whitebread Nose-Wrinkling Euphemism for “Not Us”), you wouldn’t know it now. Not by my name, not by my appearance. Maybe by my cooking. Maybe by the tiny Greek-New Yorker inflection that happens to my speech when I talk fast. But not by my name.
I know they say that a rose by any other name would smell as Greek, but that’s not true in my case. So I decided to take the pen name I did because I wanted to re-Greek myself, to undo in a small way the efforts of my father to fit in as an American which, in the 1960s, meant erasing a large part of his identity. Since I’m not having children to carry forth the Greek bloodline (for shame, this is a horrible thing for a Greek-American girl to do), I wanted, at least, to do this.
See, by attempting to Americanize himself, my dad, who is by American standards “swarthy” in sunless winter and nut-brown in summer, only called attention to our difference. The kids at school, the neighbors, storekeepers at the mall, everyone looked at us as the “No Cigar” family (as in “close, but no cigar”), a mild version of Homi Bhabha’s “not quite/not white” (I say “mild” because, while our ethnicity made us “not white” in most neighbors’ eyes, we were still considered–and treated as–“more white” than my ethnically Asian or South-Indian or Black friends). We were the Mockolate of American families.
I grew up, as a result, with a “thing” about authenticity. I received daily messages that I and my family were not “real” Americans (read: white), and yet many of the Greek kids didn’t consider me “Greek enough” because of my white American-born mother. I was constantly trying to prove myself authentic to both camps, shuttling between them, trying to be both Greek enough and American enough to get by. (It may be why, in part, I resisted coming out as a lesbian until I was out of that awful midwestern whitebread neighborhood, because that would have been just one more strike against me, and to boot, would have fulfilled the Amazon/Lesbos stereotype.)
Now, older, settled into both my ethnic mixedness and my queerness (and most every other -ness I’ve got going on), I’m pretty sure I could handle those whitebread ninnies. They don’t hold power over me any more. And I’m less worried about critics trouncing my work as a novelist. Plus, most people know both my given and pen names anyway (I guess I still shuttle between identities). People often use the metaphor of “embracing” to describe that process of accepting (and even celebrating, promoting) something, but I feel like that doesn’t quite do the trick. I don’t want to say I’ve “embraced” my ethnicity or my queerness like it’s some homeless guy one charitably agrees to hug or some smelly leper-cat one loves anyway. I’ve come to love myself because of my Greekness and queerness, rather than despite it.
So come correct. Don’t be the American asshat who, upon hearing I’m Greek-American, asks me about that movie, or wants to know about whether we had a thing for Windex. We used a K-mart off-brand, and it wouldn’t really live up to the hilarious “ethnic” stereotype.
And call me Alysia.