Pen names and Positionality -Introducing Sylvanus Oliver

Social Capital — privilege and the personal brand

Aside from anonymity, my choice to use a pen name is also part of a strategy/experiment to address the problem of privileged networks and the effect of social capital in self-perpetuating and expanding through self-publishing and social media. Specifically, the rampant impact of White privilege and class-privilege on influence and access to opportunity. Not that I think my writing or meager contributions are going to get any attention or earn me any fame or fortune. But there are subtle and pervasive outcomes of unearned privilege on all aspects of life, and social networks are part of the significant ways that inequity is perpetuated.

Positionality protocol

As a White, class-privileged, university-educated, Anglo, able-bodied, thin-privileged person, I acknowledge the unearned advantages I benefit from, and the significance of identity in shaping life experience. As a queer/trans-non-binary person I also see how unearned disadvantages can play out along with the trauma of hate being directed at me and people like me. Despite grinding determinism, we can be conscious of the power and privilege we wield and can be aware of the function of affinity bias in our interactions. With intention, we can change patterns of behaviour and begin to include more diverse connections in our networks.

Social location and land acknowledgement

I am living and writing from Mohkinstsis aka Calgary, Alberta. The word Mohkinstsis means Elbow in Siksikaitsis, the Indigenous language of the area. Elbow refers to the shape of the land, the river valley where the Elbow River meets the Bow River. This place is the home and ancestral land of the people of the Treaty 7 Territory, including Nitsitaapi (the Blackfoot people), who include the Siksika, Pikani and Kainai, and Tsuu t’ina and Stoney Nakoda, including Chiniki, Wesley and Morley, and Metis nation Region 3. It is the former land of the long-gone Prairie Grizzly Bear and the land of the once great herds of 80 million Bison, the now extirpated Prairie Chicken, the much maligned, highly-adaptable and thriving Coyote, the communal Prairie Dog/Gopher and the fast-disappearing Antelope. I capitalize these names of animal species as I would with proper names to show respect and to honour their status as beings worthy of recognition.

Sylvanus means forested in Latin

Sylvanus Oliver, the name I chose, embodies stories from my ancestors, which locate me in the stories of how I came to be writing here and now. Sylvanus was my paternal great grandfather’s first name and Oliver is my maternal great grandmother’s family name. Sylvanus usually went by Ven, the short form. I love and revere forests everywhere, so I have always loved this name, which means forested in Latin[iii]. The short version Ven, is close to my queer/non-binary heart, like the Venn diagram, the time honoured graphic for undoing dichotomy.

Nee Oliver

Oliver was my maternal great grandmother’s maiden name. Her mother, a Buchanan, emigrated from the highlands of Scotland with her family during the highland clearances. The clearances were when British lords expropriated peasants’ common land with the enclosures acts, transforming subsistence farming life into large scale agricultural business. Many peasants were forced to move to urban centres and work in factories or to leave the country for the colonies. It was the industrial revolution of the 1850s. My great grandmother’s relatives were displaced from their traditional territory of the Isle of Skye and made their way by boat to the Eastern Townships in what is now the province of Quebec. There they eventually set up a boarding house for men working on the railroad.

The Neutral Hills — arrowheads and erasure

The piece of land where my great grandparents raised their family was outside of a hamlet called Consort, in the newly founded province of Alberta[iv] in an area known as “the Neutral Hills.” The hills are a landmark, the highest point that can be seen for miles across the rolling prairie, providing a natural meeting place and a vantage point for seeing far in all directions. The name Neutral Hills refers to a peace treaty between the Blackfoot/Nitsitaapi and the Cree/Nehiyaw people, who each relied on the great herds of buffalo and whose territories converged in that area. Both were being starved out and systematically eliminated by the Canadian government and White settlers at the time my nana’s family moved there. The buffalo herds were reduced from 80 million animals to less than 1000 in a matter of 20 years after the railroad came through. Vast diverse prairie replaced by fenced European monocrops of wheat and barley.

Naming names — identity matters

Identity matters. In naming these not-so-distant ancestors from both my patrilineal and matrilineal heritage, I am linking my current existence to their legacy as settlers, and as religious workers who had a role in the colonization of this land, currently known as Canada. I am taking account of how I benefit from this family legacy, which is directly related to the violent erasure, displacement, death and loss of Indigenous lives. While my Anglo-Saxon ancestors benefited from opportunities to settle on stolen land, they did so as other immigrants, themselves displaced by colonial violence and upheaval around the globe, were excluded from these opportunities because of racist immigration policies that kept Black and Brown, Asian, South-Asian and African people out. I and my family have benefited indirectly as White Canadians from the racist labour policies, hiring practices and exploitation of Black and Brown workers. My partner’s family is part of that wave of immigration from India in the late 1960s when the racist immigration laws changed to allow skilled workers to come and fill the labour shortages. The racism faced when arriving in a country defined by Whiteness and Eurocentrism has impacted generations and continues to harm immigrants and refugees arriving and seeking work, housing, services.

Publishing privilege — accountability vs. anonymity

Race, ability, gender and all the physical ways we show up in the world are what shape our experiences and form our perspectives. The reliance and commitment to online worlds, communities and cultures has an effect of highlighting a disembodied alternative reality, which can be separated from the ground where we sit, the land where we live and the history that has made us who we are.

End notes

[i] Latour, Bruno. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory



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Sylvanus Oliver

Sylvanus Oliver

queer white settler, writing as acknowledgement and accountability, curiosity and questioning