by Mike Ekunno
I have had occasions in the past and present to dissemble. I hide Mike Ekunno and go for something more or less cryptic depending on what I assess to be the risks. In situations where there is likelihood of a future reward like the recent literary contest I entered, I take a pseudonym that is closer to the real thing. You never can tell when a prize would come calling and you’d need to prove your identity. Not that it’d be a difficult thing, all things being equal. There is after all, the email address, phone number and bio details that can be matched. But all things are not equal in my society. The anti-corruption agency once laid hold on some laundered funds and dared its genuine owner to come forth and take the rap. A slew of claimants answered the call. The dollar amount was much. So in such circumstances where a potential benefit is in view, I choose something close to “the name my papa gave me.” It was Chukx Michaels in one such recent contest with pecuniary benefits for the winner. Chukx comes from my Igbo middle name which is hardly in the public domain. As for Michaels, its Hebrew etymology is almost a give-away that the bearer couldn’t be for real as surnames go in my society. But it is a better risk because the society boasts a tiny demographic that bear English/Hebrew surnames led by no less a figure than Mr President himself, Goodluck Jonathan. Above all, the name maintains fidelity with the adage of my people that a lie is better told in English (read foreign language). How I came about submitting with a pseudonym in that contest is another story.
A contentious issue had arisen in the Yahoo group of literary minds where I hold membership. I dived into the fray and aired my views carpeting some other viewpoints and, by extension, egos. Not long after this comes the contest in which some of my victims wield judicial influence and I couldn’t resist applying. I had to play it safe with a pseudonym just in case somebody wants to be vindictive. I’m not as foolhardy as I am outspoken.
There are times I have come up with pseudonyms that are simply unrelated to my name. One such occasion was when I had to comment on a disgraceful conduct by a high public office holder. As a public servant, the rules bar me from critical media interventions. But the pull of polemics did not prove resistible. Not when aberrant conducts suffuse the public space on a daily basis. So I penned a shooting-from-the-hips piece to the newspapers under a pseudonym unrelated to the real name. I’ve not got another job, you know. It was when the piece appeared in the dailies that a round of regret overtook me. Reading one of the outings and seeing the huge support on the comments thread, I rued not being able to blow my cover. The opinions I canvassed in the piece were nothing to be ashamed of. Neither were they libellous (if not, the editors wouldn’t have dared). But here was I, the “author and finisher” of those germane viewpoints not able to bask in the glory of their potential to advance the cause of humanity in one little area. Vanity? Maybe.
We who trade in ideas and words find ourselves holding on to our creations as the capitalist entrepreneur would his bank account. In a way, our ideas and the peculiar ways we put them together represent our capital in a world of other capitals of a more gross material hue. To watch such vital accumulation being credited to a phantom figure must be akin to a woman having to give up her adorable baby for adoption and worse, knowing that the adoptive parents are non-existent.
Using a pseudonym is a form of anonymity. But not all forms of anonymity oppress my sense of identity. As speechwriter to a cabinet minister, I have sat in on engagements where my boss’s speech elicited ovation. At none of such times did I feel any tinge of possessiveness or jealousy at not being the one on the podium. You could say I was duty-bound to craft those speeches or that I couldn’t be minister, anyway (don’t bet on it). Whatever, but I never begrudged my boss the glory from any of my applauded lines. This also happens with ghost writing. We can argue that the fees have effectively extinguished the ghost writer’s claim to any emotional affinity with his creation. Or has it? Legal rights can be bought off but emotional ties with spores are not necessarily extinguished thereby. Ask the Michael Jackson estate, if you doubt.
Parsing on matters of identity recently got me thinking of this pull to hide as well as be known at the same time. What could inform this ambivalence among writers who blow their covers yet keep the pen names? Could they be suffering from the same tension I suffered over my loss of proprietary rights on quality that is lost to anonymity? What motivates an artiste to be anonymous or take a pen name can be varied. Circumventing conflict of interest (or, at least, not letting the public know) is one. Being free to bring candour to freedom of expression is another. However, these excuses have to battle the pull for credits for writers and artistes who have done exceptional work. And this is where a different form of conflict of interest takes over—between the real identity and the faux. When the false identity begins to garner accolades which do not redound to the true owner, can pseudonyms be sustained?
It was not this pull that caused the unmasking of JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author who became Robert Galbraith in her second novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Rowling’s cover was blown via investigative journalism by Britain’s Sunday Times. Her motivation for the cover up was “to publish without hype or expectation and...get feedback under a different name.” That feedback had been largely positive before Rowling’s true identity was revealed and the book’s sales on Amazon went bullish. Which raises the question of what would have happened if it had been otherwise. The glee with which Rowling took her outing would be different if The Cuckoo’s Calling had been a failure whose association with the Rowling brand would bring erosion of brand capital.
Only few artistes whose false identities have done well in the market place have been able to resist the pull to out. They deserve canonisation for resisting the vainglorious urge for recognition. Rene Brabazon Raymond (1906-1985) remained James Hardly Chase to all in my generation for whom he and his crime fiction novels achieved cult followership. In Nigeria, one Afro jazz recording artiste maintains both the anonymity of the person and the name. Lagbaja—his brand is eponymous for his masked identity. Only his male gender seeps out of this anonymity. I am in vicarious distress for his achieving so much fame and not being able to even be waved on in traffic on that account.
Newspapers make a show of having columnists writing under pen names but whose identities are known either within a select, in-house group or among the readers. Those are the instances of pretend anonymities that baffle and sicken. Eating one’s cake and having it only exists in fiction and ostrich hiding is used in the pejorative sense.
On the comments thread of online platforms, I have never felt the urge to hide my identity. That is not to say that while disclosing who I am, I do not still remain anonymous. Without the surname, anyone of a million Mikes could have been the one commenting. This partial disclosure is a halfway house that enables me maintain some integrity in nomenclature without fully unveiling the cloak of anonymity. Online discussions in fractious societies can be, and often do get, bigoted and highly vituperative. Comments are profiled using the names behind them to know who is Christian, Muslim, or to know their ethnic affiliations. While I scroll down the trolling for academic reasons, I try mostly not to join, not even with a pseudonym.
Mike Ekunno (real name!) comes from a background in real estate where he consulted before switching to writing, his first love. He now works in film classification after working as senior speechwriter to Nigeria’s last Information and Communications Minister. He freelances as copy editor and proof-reader and likes reading Old Testament stories in his spare time. His short fiction, essays and poems have been published in Warscapes, BRICKrhetoric, Cigale Literary Magazine, The African Roar Anthology, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja. The last two publications came with wins in continent-wide contests.