Books

My Second Life as a White Writer

I publish thrillers under a pseudonym because I know how my creative choices will be interpreted by an industry fixated with identity

Photo by Christopher
Christopher

A few years ago, when I was twenty-nine, I wrote something that splinted the fragile ankles of my writing career and pushed me into the world of professional writing. Ray Bradbury often retold the experience of completing “The Lake”: “When I finished the short story, I burst into tears. I realized that after ten years of writing, I’d finally written something beautiful.” I didn’t get dramatic or mystical-creative enough to cry when I finished writing my first good story. I just felt helpless and beaten.

The piece was both the best I could do and something I’d never done before. I called it “Cinema Rex,” and set it in Mauritius, where my father is from. It told the story of three boys attending Rex’s opening-night screening of The Night of the Hunter. I was arrested by the idea of a boy growing up next door to a movie theatre and seeing it as a portal into the West, and aligning past and future timelines on the same page to create a sense of each character’s future informing his past. Footnotes leap the reader forward in time, showing the future film careers, deaths, successes, and failures of the boys, two of whom manage to escape Mauritius. These boys want out, they have as much desire to stay on the island as Clint Eastwood had to remain on Alcatraz. They seek a way out of their childhoods through the screen, and they make their escape without wistfully looking back.

The force of the idea as it came to me—the boy who lived next to the movie theatre, a portal into a world he wanted to live in, rooted in a place that was trying to hold on to him—felt strong, insistent. As I wrote it out, I felt free of any of the critical doubts about retreading stories of homecoming, of the homeland, of the past. I knew the shape of the story and what the characters would be doing, and I knew it had more power than most of the scribbling I’d been doing until then.

Depleted by the lack of success that typically characterizes the early days of a writing career, I took what I told myself was a last shot. I put a story in an envelope and mailed it in to a small literary journal contest.

When “Cinema Rex” won one prize and then another, and agents and publishers communicated their interest in me for the first time, I thought I’d expand the story, fill in the interstices between the past and those footnotes, arriving at a full depiction of what became of these kids from the fifties through the nineties. It would be a novel spanning that Mauritian cinema, London squats in ’68, rent-boy life in 1970s Rome for a brown film composer both hiding and using his race, right up to the grotesqueries of 1980s Hollywood.

But a general—while certainly not universal—lack of interest in anything else that I was writing about alerted me that I was at risk. Publishers and agents who were initially intrigued that I wrote crime fiction, and that many of my other short stories were about contemporary people of various races and social classes, rarely with a South Asian central character, had little interest in that work once they actually saw it. They wanted, it seemed to me, the brown nostalgia book, the one that fit a slot in the publication schedule for readers who like buying that sort of thing.

In Canada, which has a literary industry supported strongly by arts grants and a healthy prize culture funded largely by private and corporate donors, there may be a particular relationship to publishing such books. Prominent on my familial shelves when I was growing up were two novels by Mumbai-born, Canadian-settled Rohinton Mistry: 1991’s Such a Long Journey and 1995’s A Fine Balance. These were international hits of the highest order, with accolades from the Booker shortlist to Oprah’s Book Club.

Mistry’s brown success in Canada at that time was outstripped only by Sri Lanka–born Michael Ondaatje, whose own ’80s and ’90s megahits In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient strayed from any blueprint of brown writing by centring on characters of varying races with no geographical link to the author’s country of origin. Mistry’s big books were Indian-set, and were the high-visibility descendants of novels by South Asian–Canadian authors such as Bharati Mukherjee, whose earliest works centred on ethnic identity and alienation in the West. Mistry’s novels, rooted as they were in India, embedded looking-back as part of the successful narrative of diasporic writing in this country, especially when his success became international.

In a small literary culture fuelled by publishers seeking material with a trackable success record and granting agencies with juries who may tend to favour riffs on what they’ve read before, pieces of writing that strum familiar chords tend to rise to the top. My anxiety is justified: being so invested in avoiding the tropes means some brown writers, like myself, may end up tripping over them to the detriment of our own ability to tell our particular stories or, at least, to get them published. What they’re interested in up here in Canada, it seems, has a lot to do with how you write about where you ultimately came from, and not about what you write about as a brown Westerner with a collection of different interests and experiences.

Diasporic South Asians appear in much of my work, and my experience pervades all of it. But I suspect that many of the few who read me wonder where my identity is, my struggles with belonging, ethnicity, and dislocation. That’s why I can’t ever be completely lighthearted about what I call currybooks: they teach us to predict the contents of what we are about to read, and they prescribe the limits of what we are—of what I am—supposed to publish.

My decision to write thrillers under the pseudonym I made up when I was fourteen—basing the last name on Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien and the first on the simplest WASP analogue of my name—came from my desire to write crime and horror fiction alongside my literary fiction. I wanted to have two simultaneous careers like Iain Banks or John Banville. But I knew the audience could see it another way. They could interpret me as trading one genre for another, avoiding the currybooks that would come “naturally” to me by assuming an identity that I could write anything from—a white identity.

Thrillers, at least the kind that I want to continue writing, offer something wonderful to writers: you’re supposed to defy the conventions that you flirt with; you’re supposed to endlessly surprise the reader, to lead them into the unfamiliar. This, of course, is something that can be said of high literary novels as well—they’re meant to initiate us into an experience of the unfamiliar, or a different experience of something we believe we’ve felt or done before. I have confidence that the readers of my thriller fiction want unfamiliarity from me, and that gives me great pleasure.

Pseudonymous writers like Stephen King (Richard Bachman), Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark), John Banville (Benjamin Black), and Julian Barnes (Dan Kavanagh) used their other names for various reasons: King to publish at the rate he was writing, and to test whether he could still sell under another name; Banville to indicate to his following of literary readers that his detective fiction was a different thing altogether, and also to create another persona, one who could write much faster than his literary self.

I feel the same as Banville does about the actual creative process, though he’s more willing to credit the mystical. As he wrote in The Guardian: “When I stand up from my writing desk, ‘John Banville,’ or ‘Benjamin Black’—that is, the one whose name will appear on the title page—vanishes on the instant, since he only existed while the writing was being done.” Banville has his Booker Prize–winning, high-lit reputation to think of, and escape from, when he’s writing as Black.

Am I escaping the expectations of what a brown writer is supposed to make when I write as Ripley? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d also be lying if I said it ever occurred to me when I was actually writing. And I know that while my pseudonym can vanish when I stand up from my laptop, my racial and cultural identity will never separate themselves from the name Naben Ruthnum on any title page or cover that I have the fortune to arrive at: not to an audience and a business that retains a fixation on the writer’s identity.

A couple of years after standing up from the desk (actually a small TV table in my Vancouver bedroom) where I wrote “Cinema Rex,” I found agents who liked all of what I did. We sold the thriller I’d written to an American publisher. (“Cinema Rex” had attracted as much notice as a short story in a Canadian literary journal can be expected to draw in the States.)

After that novel sold, I had to acknowledge that I may have imagined the industry disinterest in the work I’d done that strayed from the field of brown nostalgia. I kept having stories published, with certain editors and magazines clearly not caring what I was writing about, as long as the pieces were good.

Writing “Cinema Rex” had made me better at writing whatever came next. In a true currybook narrative, this would be thanks to me finally writing about my heritage, to discovering what made my voice worth hearing. But that’s not it—once you’ve written something you truly believe is good, you keep working to match and exceed it, not to recreate its reception or the formal elements that went into it. The story’s value to me was its quality, not its setting.

When I discussed my career anxieties with a writer friend a couple years back, he faked together portions of a nightmare essay that pinpointed my fears of what people would think of my pen-name decision:

Like much of Ruthnum’s writing, his thriller deals with a man’s conflicting inner and outer lives, where the protagonist spends most of his time fretting the veil is going to be lifted. (The reason most of Ruthnum’s work is so often redolent of the pulp style is because its built-in requirement for duplicity allows him to explore his identity issues while masked in tradition.) The purpose of Ruthnum’s employment of “Ripley” as the author of this latest novel (which is larger in scope and scale than “Cinema Rex”) is twofold. One is to efface Ruthnum’s identity, CV, and previous publications (including “Rex”) as a whole, and two is to supersede that work with one that is more true to who Naben/Nathan really is.

The associations that come with the South Asian Writer designation—the tropes that make us easy to group together on a table with a sign reading Subcontinental Sojourn in a bigbox bookstore—are the recurring narrative patterns I’ve always tried to avoid. Categorization—the same industry- and consumer-focused drive that allowed Indian restaurants and the late-twentieth-century variation on the eternally changeable curry to thrive—has a role in the stratification of the South Asian immigrant novel, in the delimiting of what these books can be.

Particularity doesn’t market as easily as familiarity: hence the drive for a South Asian experience that can be defined, replicated, and sold as a comfortable reflection of lived experience. What’s lost? Thanks to writers from V. S. Naipaul to Jade Sharma, who ignore the exigencies of categorization and the smoother path to publication that it offers, perhaps very little. Stories of particularity, of individual experience emerging from an undefined South Asian experience, continue to emerge. But there must be other stories that are lost, or go unread, because of the dominance of the story we’ve heard before.

Excerpted from Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.

Naben Ruthnum (@NabenRuthnum) is a Journey Prize-winning author and a former books columnist for the National Post.

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