Pen names and Positionality -Introducing Sylvanus Oliver
The use of pen names for the sake of anonymity for freedom or safety, branding or marketing purposes is as old as publishing itself. Writers have been using pseudonyms for forever. How many female authors have published under a male name or ambiguous initials because no publisher would take them seriously otherwise? How many persecuted revolutionaries have published anonymously to protect their families and loved ones, their career or their lives? And countless writers have used pseudonyms to keep their personal life separate from the public notoriety of a published author.
Online/virtual contexts take it to a new level. Handles and tags are ubiquitous as both privacy hacks and as part of a culture of cosplaying, reinventing identity. The ease with which we can create identities online, build a fictional character with a personality, acquire a reputation and networks unlinked to our biological/geographical self has resulted in an overwhelming amount of freedom and lack of accountability. People can impersonate an identity strategically to gain access to spaces they would not be welcome in person. This can be a lifesaver for queer and trans people who are afraid to come out in their physical life due to homophobia and transphobia. Accessing queer and trans positive spaces online can provide much needed support, relationships, information and can literally save someone from suicide or violence. However the impulse to exploit the anonymity is clear and sadly well represented in online bullying, trolling, sexual exploitation of minors etc.
I debated publishing in my own legal name as a gesture of transparency and accountability in writing about topics of identity, positionality, and ideology. In fact, any topic/story we write is imbued with these significant but often unexamined personal and societal biases. We can’t help writing from our own particular perspective. Even when writing objectively about facts, our biases are revealed in which facts we present in what order, from which perspective, with what connotations or associations and for what target audience.
A name can reveal a lot about a person and in the case of my legal name it does. I am White with almost exclusively British and Scottish heritage, which my last name strongly signals. My dad jokes that he is descended from the Romans when they occupied Britain, so the imperialist blood runs thick, at least in the ancestral imagination. I am trans/non-binary, and I changed my given name in my 30s to better reflect my gender when I came out in my wider social and professional spheres. I am not trying to hide either of these realities, my Whiteness or my transgenderness, in any of my writing, nor am I trying to boast or get credit for them. My legal name does however present a few considerations in balancing my obligations as a teacher in a large public board and my desire to write openly and critically and sometimes on topics that could be deemed inappropriate in the professional code of conduct.
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.
Let’s unpack the concept of social capital to be more clear on the theory. Capital is wealth in the form of money or tangible resources. Social capital is wealth in the form of ties or connections with people and groups of people. The thing about social capital is that it almost always translates into actual capital because social connections are what give us access to job opportunities, good deals when buying necessities or investments and myriad other supports that help us get ahead. The accumulation of social capital can be a function of social networks similar to how accumulation of tangible capital is at the heart of the current global economy. The people with the most contacts/friends become hubs for gathering information and opportunities. When combined with affinity bias, social networks are powerful engines of inequity.
Social media, built on algorithms of with its vast ability to track and analyse these networks has shown us that networks tend to constrict more than they expand our contact and exposure to people outside our own biases. Anecdotally we see endless examples of the echo chamber on every issue/position in all its resounding glory. Humans have affinity bias, tending to prefer others who are like them. This means connecting more easily with people who look like us, think like us, live like us, talk like us, behave like us, etc. In this way, the people who already have more power and privilege connect with others who also have power and privilege, perpetuating the status quo.
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.
Some theorists propose that social networks can become powerful engines for equity if we create conditions that support diverse networks[i]. Public education and public transit are two examples of social spaces where diverse individuals come in contact and may form connections with people very different from themselves. These spaces are increasingly rare as public institutions are de-funded and physical space is abandoned in favour of virtual. The internet / social media is another example of a space with such a mixing potential; however the driving force of affinity bias has become more and more evident as online networks form bubbles, reinforcing and amplifying the worldviews and opinions one already holds. Just over 50 years after desegregation in the US, our society is becoming more and more segregated, which goes along with increased disparity.
Using a pen name is a path I’m exploring to remove some of the social capital and benefits that come from a name as a personal brand while also practicing accountability and transparency, acknowledging my own experience and social location. In my writing, I want to give credit and recognition to people and contexts I’ve learned from while also accepting responsibility for my position of power and privilege and the legacy of my ancestors. I try to bring this approach to all aspects of life, applying the anti-racist, anti-oppressive concepts and analysis I am grateful to have access to.
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.
Naming the place in the Indigenous language and honouring the peoples who have lived in relationship with the land since time immemorial is part of the ongoing work of decolonization[ii]. While endeavouring to publish/share thoughts online in a virtual and disembodied space, I feel it’s more important than ever to locate myself geographically/historically/politically. Part of the reason we North Americans can’t seem to care about the planet or take responsibility for our impact on it is the pervasive disconnection from our natural environments, the local ecology, the land where we live, breathe air, drink water, eat food and discard our waste. Our reliance and obsession with the comforts of high tech, energy-intensive lifestyles has severed the strong connections that humans around the world once had with the land.
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.
As far as I know, my great grandfather emigrated on his own from a small town in England at the age of 14 or 15, travelling to Upper Canada in the late 1800s to work as a blacksmith. He started working as a labourer and planned on opening a blacksmith shop, apparently. That never happened because as the story goes, he had some kind of extreme experience, a religious epiphany not long after arriving in the new country. I don’t know what happened exactly… was he struck by lightening? Was he very ill with a high fever? Somehow his epiphany induced him to decide to become a Protestant minister. The life of an itinerant clergyman led him and his family, wife and 4 kids, to move out west and live in a series of small settlements around northern Alberta and southern Ontario. Catholicism was the dominant religion at the time and the Protestant Church did not have sufficient wealth to pay its staff other than room and board and donations of clothing for the children. Despite poverty and harsh conditions on the frontier, Sylvanus had a position of power, as an instrument of spreading the Christian worldview. A mid-sized cog in the colonial machine.
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.
When the railroad was extended out west, with the intent to wipe out Indigenous populations resisting colonization of the plains, using indentured/enslaved Chinese labourers, my great grandmother’s family decided to jump on the opportunity to get cheap land in the NWT (North West Territories) or Rupert’s land and try setting up a boarding house on the new railroad routes. Great grandmother Oliver married another Scottish immigrant, a MacDonald, and had three children while farming on the prairie during the dust bowl drought of the 1930s. It was the great depression. The dust blew in through the cracks in the walls and covered everything. The Olivers and MacDonalds still spoke Gaelic at home, so many years and distance between them and their Scottish Highlands homeland. The name Oliver, being a maiden name, didn’t make it to the next generation, but got passed on to her only son, who went by Olly for all of his life. I wonder what my great grandmother would think of her digital namesake pseudonym over 100 years after she took her married name.
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.
As a child, my grandmother found arrow heads in the fields and collected them in shoe boxes. She said she had boxes and boxes of them but doesn’t know what happened to them after her family left the farm. If I ask her about it, she recalls, “yes, the arrow heads were everywhere, dropped by the Indians [sic] when they left.” The way she frames it, “when they left,” strikes me as incredibly poignant and reveals the collective amnesia/denial of genocide. The erasure of Indigenous peoples. They left? Where did they go? More than the denial that millions of Indigenous people across North America died,[v] the big deceit in this framing is that Indigenous people somehow disappeared! When in fact, Indigenous peoples are still here. They never left. They survived despite the myriad tactics of genocide wielded by the European colonizers. And yet settlers like my nana, my family, convinced themselves they were gone, had just up and left.
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.
Naming and acknowledging this background as context for my present existence helps to demystify and account for the terms and political analysis of my thinking and writing. Even if no-one reads this, like the pages of legalese I never read before clicking “I accept,” this is my attempt at providing the terms of agreement, in case someone cares about the fine print. It is important to me to provide context and to acknowledge where I’m coming from. Readers can interpret the stories and ideas as they will, questioning and critiquing my perspectives as they appear in the world, rather than in the murky shadows of an online pseudo anonymous persona.
I love geography, the study of relationships between people and place, society and the environment, but I also acknowledge the colonial implications of the field. I believe that as much as the internet is a space where real interactions occur, in a physical sense, we are never nowhere. Cyber geography — the study and analysis of the relationships between people and virtual and digital space — follows the Eurocentric, colonial roots of the original discipline. The architecture of the internet being mostly developed by Americans; young, white, wealthy[vi], male Americans to be specific. The volume of posts on Quora or Reddit on the topic of Nordic ancestry, blue eyes, Vikings and other coded White Supremacist topics is an indication of the proliferation of racist rabbit holes. Access to the internet, especially access to coding and producing, is heavily skewed towards Anglo, northern hemisphere, White, urban users and the ability to operate anonymously and remotely contributes to the disproportionate exploitation, trafficking and abuse of Black and Brown people.
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.
Before the internet was big, I used to share my writing in the form of ‘zines, self-published, photocopied magazines. I sold them for 25 cents at first, then for a dollar, or in exchange for other ‘zines. Words printed on paper passing from my hand to your hand at an event or sent from my address to your address in the physical mail. You knew where I was writing from. It was obvious. The world felt much smaller, more tangible, more contained. Sharing my thoughts and ideas online is another story. It’s a drop in a vast ocean of words and I don’t even know if anyone finds mine, let alone reads them. It is starting to feel redundant and yet inadequate to continually reference my context in the articles I write, trying to summarize pertinent information as the backstory to whatever topic I am writing about. This post is an attempt to wrap my head around and navigate the tension in using a pen name while trying to be accountable to my place in the world. I haven’t managed to resolve that tension but the process of naming and articulating it is useful. I imagine I’ll be coming back to edit this post as needed and as thoughts shift and emerge.
[i] Latour, Bruno. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory
[ii] Decolonization happened in India and many African nations in the 20th century, but has never happened in the British Commonwealth countries, which remain governed by White majority leaders, perpetuating White-supremacy cultures that won independence from the crown while actively supressing Indigenous peoples. The term decolonization in Canada has connotations of Indigenous sovereignty, getting free from the colonized mindset, and is connected to ideas about reconciliation. It does not have the literal meaning of Indigenous people taking all the property/land back and removing power from Whites as it did in Kenya, Nigeria and Congo in the 1950s and 60s.
[iii] Sylvanus — forested in Latin, a nod to that Roman imperialist ancestor.
[iv] The province of Alberta almost got named Buffalo, a very appropriate option, but ended up being named Alberta after the middle name of a random British princess who had never even visited the place. What gives?
[v] Millions of Indigenous people died due to intentional and unintentional biological warfare of smallpox, and other European diseases, were killed by White colonists outright for bounties and were starved when their traditional food sources were eliminated, such as the mass killing of the bison herds.
[vi] To be middle class in North America is to be extravagantly wealthy in relation to most of the world population.