How I Chose My Pen Name: On Racialized Names and the English Literary Canon

Hello, my name is Charmaine Anne Li. That is my full legal name on all my documents, and everyone calls me “Charmaine.” However, I sign off on all my literary pieces as “Li Charmaine Anne.”

Truth is, I’ve always been a little sensitive as to how “Asian-sounding” my name is. “Li,” after all, is the most common surname in the world, and is almost iconically Chinese. Growing up, the books I read and the movies I saw with Asian names attached to them were almost always exclusively about “Asian issues.” This gave me the impression that Asian writers can only ever write about Asian Issues and nothing else: no medieval adventure stories, no detective stories, nothing “normal.” Of course, what constituted “normal” in my world at the time was Disney shows and British novels about wizards—stories that were about people who were white, Western, middle or upper-class, usually American or British. But more on that later.

So began my hunt high and low for a catchy pseudonym that would help rocket me to superstardom when I finally became a Big Name Famous Writer. (A status which, unfortunately, hasn’t happened yet—I mean, your gal has been procrastinating real writing in favour of finding her own Hannah Montana persona). I flitted through a number of very pretentious sounding pseudonyms that either made no sense, were clearly pseudonyms, or referenced something too obscure to even be cool. Finally, I sat down and wondered: why have a pseudonym anyway? Why am I so ashamed of my name anyway?

The truth is, being sensitive about the other-ness of my name was a form of internalized racism. “Li” was something I was ashamed of, or wanted to hide, or at the very least—something I felt very disconnected to. Having been born, raised, and schooled in Canada, with a very elementary understanding of the Chinese language, I couldn’t see how this name even suited me. I didn’t deserve it and it didn’t deserve me. As a pre-university student meandering around bookstores before the advent of online social justice movements and intersectionality, my name was something I wanted to lose.

Then I became aware of identity politics. Moreover, that racism and racialization are not only alive and well but are powerful forces in modern society today. My experience with Asian Writers Can Only Write Asian Things was just one tiny fragment of contemporary racialization. As a UBC English Literature student, racialization in literature is blatant and alive: we are all obligated to study a certain “literary canon” that is overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, economically privileged, and male. (Fortunately, this is something professors I’ve encountered have addressed). Now, you can argue that English is from England, but the reality is that English widely used and spoken today by people of all cultures (thanks to colonialism, no doubt). Writers of colour, many of whom come to English from a colonial background, previously did not have had a language so widely used to share their stories. Now, there is finally a vehicle to bring awareness to their lived experience. And to think: wouldn’t it be wonderful if these writers could have their true names attached to their work, and have their work read not as tokens but as part of the English literary canon, part of English Literature as a cultural whole?

The Chinese character for my surname, “Li.” It’s the most common surname in the world, apparently!

The pen name I use now, Li Charmaine Anne, is an expression of my cultural background. Chinese names traditionally begin with the surname first, with a (typically) two-character given name following. Thus, I choose to write with my surname first, in honour of that tradition.

The obvious Anglicization of my name is also a part of who I am. Having been born in Canada, I never had a legal Chinese name until I finally procured my Hong Kong Identity Card in my late teens. “Charmaine” has always been my legal given name, and “Anne” my baptismal name (my mother is Catholic). “Charmaine Anne” speaks to the Canadian-raised part of me, the part that is, well, for lack of a better term, “white-washed.” I don’t stifle my white-washed-ness though: it’s part of how I was raised and who I am—submerged in two cultures.

My pen-name represents my journey to accept my name and then embrace it, in all its dual-language totality. It represents how I’ve learned to become passionate about representing minority voices in the English literary canon. In fact, I have to admit I write quite a bit about Asian Issues (shameless plug at my creative non-fiction piece for Ricepaper Magazine here!). But I also write about other stuff. Coming-of-age stuff. Medieval adventure-quest stuff. Comedy stuff. Queer stuff. Each of these things are important to me, and so I write about them, and when I do, I sure as hell stamp my name on ‘em.

…For more on this topic, visit this post on my blog, Breakfast with Words. Feel free to drop me a comment 🙂

Li Charmaine Anne (English Literature + Creative Writing major) is a Canadian-born Chinese writer who grew up on unceded Musqueam territory. She has written for local publications such as Ricepaper, Discorder, and SAD Mag, and you can find her original work on her website Breakfast with Words. She is passionate about diversity and representation in literature, film, and television.




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