Sunday, December 4, 2011


It's a cool winter late afternoon; a lazy holiday flavor hangs heavily in the air. My husband, Steve, half-dozes before a TV bowl game; our son, Teddy, beside him in the den, carefully constructs a miniature Superdome with his Christmas erector set. The girls play noiselessly in their room upstairs.

The sky dims in shades of orange and rose through the kitchen window steamed by supper's boiling pots and sputtering skillet. I step to the window and run my hand across it; the mist runs like tears down the clouded pane. Interlacing branches of bare-limbed trees show, blurred and distorted, through the cleared swath, creating an angular mosaic against the fading, pastel sky. The image is shockingly exquisite, as if the gentle tones of Odilon Redon had been emboldened by Rouault's stark strokes. I try to capture it with my eyes, to memorize each line and shade of light, realizing that, if I ever find time to transpose the scene to canvas, its memory will have faded nearly as much as the image itself.

This afternoon, a long-distance telephone call broke in on the waning holidays. Sandy Martin, a long-time friend and modestly successful artist living in New York City, called to wish me a Happy New Year.

"Say, Cora," she asked, "when are you going to move to New York? This long­distance friendship is for the birds! I never see you anymore. Calling long-distance is expensive for a struggling young artist." She laughed.

"I don't know," I answered. "I can hardly keep up with small-town life. Can't imagine how I'd handle living in New York."

Sandy changed the subject. "How's your holiday been?"

"Just great. Busy, but everyone's been in the holiday spirit most of the time."

"Are you doing any painting while you’re on vacation?"

"No. Haven't had the chance. My in-laws came for a few days around Christmas, and I did a lot of cleaning and cooking for that. Then we had a party last night. There was more cooking and cleaning ahead of time and cleaning up afterwards. In fact, I just put away the last load of party dishes and I'm getting ready to cook supper for the family. More dishes!"

We chatted for nearly half an hour. After we hung up, I put a tape in the stereo and went into the kitchen to begin dinner, musing with the music, listening to the rhythms and moods of the piano etched, in some mysterious way, into that plastic.

And I wonder: What has happened to the ten-day holiday? I realize that, in one more day, I'll have to go back to work. The two canvases I planned to paint are still not begun and an unread book lies on the stand beside our bed. 

I turn from the window to the stove, set the sizzling pork chops on simmer, pour rice into boiling water and put the vegetables on medium heat. It should all be ready to eat in ten or fifteen minutes. I call my six-year old daughter to come downstairs and set the table for dinner. She neither comes nor answers. Before I call a second time, the music stops and I know she can hear me.

"Debra!" I call out for the third time, raising my voice. "Come down here and set the table for dinner!"

She stomps down the stairs into the dining area adjacent to the kitchen.

"I don't want to set the table," she says sullenly.

"Well, you're going to do it anyway," I respond.

"I was playing. You interrupted me."

"That's too bad."
"Why do I always have to set the table?"

"Because it's your job."
"Why doesn't Tammy ever set the table? She never does anything."

"She's only three years old. When she's your age, she'll set the table and you'll have other jobs to do. But for now, you're the one who sets the table."

“What about Teddy?  He never does anything, either.”

“He’s busy with his father,” I reply, knowing it's an evasion.

"Well, I'm not going to," she says with a determined tone.

"You are going to do it whether you want to or not," I reply, my voice rising and eyes narrowing. She turns her face away.

I place the plates on the counter. She picks them up, struts over to the table and slams them down at each place with such force that less sturdy plastic might have cracked. Her lithe body flings this way and that; her blond curls toss about with each jerk of the head. Her small hands and slender arms seem too delicate for such emphatic boldness.

"I hate this!" she says, her voice catching.

"You'll do it and you'll do it gladly," I say, articulating each word slowly and deliberately.

She begins to sob softly, putting the rest of the dishes slowly on the table. I put glasses on the counter and she sets them gently above each plate. She gets silverware from the drawer and puts each piece in its proper place. As she sets forks on carefully folded napkins, I hear a thinly voiced refrain.

"Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la..."

I smile and join in. "...'Tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la."

She smiles back at me and I turn to the stove to dish up the food as she finishes setting the table.

[This was published in the College of Charleston Miscellany in 1981]

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Suppose one day you were to walk upstairs to the second floor of the Clinical Science Building of the medical school near you, one hurried step behind your new boss, Dr. Harris Green, Chairman, Department of Medicine.

You pass down a corridor wide enough to allow five or six people to walk comfortably abreast, except where lockers or freezers or gas cylinders or temporarily unused centrifuges jut into the hallway. The walls are a light lime green on top and amber ceramic on the bottom; the floor is white and gray chipped marble inlay, common in public buildings of decades past. The odor in the hallway is disturbing - rich and slightly fetid - like a mixture of sour cream and decaying seaweed.

You turn to the right abruptly as Dr. Green takes you through a door, then you walk down a narrow inner hallway and through another door into a quiet internal room. There, three young women are working, surrounded by racks of test tubes filled with a rose-colored fluid. You're in a laboratory catacomb; you could never have guessed its complexity from the corridor outside.

"This is the tissue culture womb," you hear Dr. Green say, then realize he meant  'tissue culture room.' "This is where we grow the cells."

The young women look up from their work with expressions ranging from disinterest to hostility. Dr. Green scans the scene and says, "Girls, introduce yourselves and show her what you do." Then he walks out abruptly.

"Hi, my name's…," you begin. As you say it, the young, dark-haired woman sitting at the bench nearest to you twists the cap on a tube forcefully and snaps the glass with a sharp crack, gashing her finger. She cries out, and her blood and the rose­ colored fluid begin to mingle and spill onto the lab bench and onto the floor as she rushes to the sink. The others stop their intense activity and gather around her, like bees around a wounded hive-mate, as she runs cold water over her finger until the bleeding stops. Your presence is eclipsed by the episode. It's not the time for introductions.

"Ooh," shudders the woman with the bleeding finger. "I hate that. It's one of the things about this job that makes me want to quit."

The other girls go back to their tubes and begin working once more with silent speed and agility in an assembly-line rhythm. The dark-haired woman says, "I'm Carolyn, and that's Betty and Marie. I'm sorry I got so upset when you came in. It's just that it frightens me to cut myself when I'm changing the tubes."

"Why's that?"

"We work with HeLa cells. They're cells from the uterus of a woman who died of cancer a long time ago. I really don't like to get them on me, and especially not in a cut."

"What do you use the cells for?"

"We grow viruses in them."

“What will I be doing in the lab?"

"I don't know, for sure. At first you'll probably just feed the cells. You can watch the rest of us for a day or two, then take over some of the routine jobs yourself. I do tissue culture—grow the cells and make up the medium. That's the pink fluid in those tubes.

"I'm planning to quit work in two months. If you're good at the job, Dr. Green may want to train you to take my place and do the tissue culture. Betty does most of the virus titrations, and Marie takes throat swabs from clinic patients and inoculates the swabs into the tubes."

For the rest of the day, with the exception of lunch and coffee breaks, you watch the others change the medium in the tissue culture tubes. Dr. Green comes into the lab twice during the day; on neither occasion does he speak to you, but he says a few curt, incomprehensible words to Carolyn and Betty.

On the second day, the technicians show you how to set up a sterile syringe, and you change a rack of tubes. The test tubes are set at an angle in aluminum racks—15 tubes in a row, five rows of tubes in each rack, each tube tilted up slightly from the horizontal so that the pink fluid forms a small pool at the base and along one side of the tube. The cells can be discerned, barely, as a faint, whitish streak—a mere apostrophe—at the bottom of each tube.

The racks are set from top to bottom and front to back on one side of a large, walk-in incubator, its temperature set to match the warmth of the human body.  When you take the racks out of the incubator, the fluid in the tubes is a muddy orange like a mixture of blood and urine. When you bring the racks back after changing the medium, the fluid in the tubes is a delicate rose color.

Day after day, you change row upon row of tubes in rack upon rack. You take a tube out of a rack, take off the cap, flame the top, empty the tube, squirt medium into the tube from a syringe, flame the top to sterilize it, and cap the tube ­over and over for unending racks of tubes, each tube containing perhaps a million cells.

As the days bleed into weeks, you pick up the rhythm and perform it mindlessly. The tubes, the cells—you could change them, feed them if you needed to, in your sleep.  And as time goes on, the other technicians become less aloof, and you begin to make friends with Carolyn. Dr. Green has decided that you should learn to do the tissue culture, so you begin to follow Carolyn as she works, and you ask questions. As you pick up the details of her techniques for growing cells, you also discover that Carolyn is having marital problems.

"Every married woman who has worked in this lab has had marital problems, especially if they do tissue culture," Carolyn says after she has hinted that her husband wasn't always coming home at night. "He says he's on call a lot and has to stay at the hospital at night, but I don't really believe him. When I told him I had trouble sleeping when he wasn't home, he gave me a prescription for sleeping pills."

She takes a stack of bottles out of the incubator. "It's like it's something with the cells. They get to you after a while. That's why I'm going to quit.  I may have been here too long already."

"That's pretty hard to believe. How on earth could such tiny things as these cells influence a person's life?"

"I don't know. All I know is that Lillian was doing the cells when I first came. She left her husband after she'd been doing them for two years. And Denise—she did tissue culture after Lillian—broke up with her fiancé after only three months on the job. She quit work, and they got back together. Then I took over."

"But those are just coincidences," you say. Yet you feel an odd chill in the warm laboratory. You ask yourself, 'Could some glass-encased fragments of life really upset a stable marriage?'

"Maybe. I wanted to have kids, but Andy wouldn't hear of it until he finished medical school," Carolyn continues. "Then he wanted to finish his internship. He said we couldn't afford children on an intern's salary. Then he started his residency, and he asked me to work a while longer so we could get ahead. Now I'm sure he's got a girlfriend."


"I even know where she lives," Carolyn says as she turns back to the incubator and lifts out another stack of bottles. "One night, when he didn't come home, I went out driving around and found his car."

"No kidding! Did you wait there for him to come out?"


"Did you go up to the house and knock on the door?"


"Well, what did you do?"

"Nothing. I drove back home. It wouldn't have been very civilized to go knocking on some strange woman's door looking for my husband."

"It wasn't very civilized of him to leave you stewing at home all night, either."

Carolyn smiles strangely. "The car was there another night when he didn't come home, too." She turns back to her bottles of cells. These are large bottles that lie on one of their flat sides, millions of cells growing on the inside, covered by a thin layer of the pink liquid. She flames the top of one of the bottles, gingerly removes the stopper, flames the top again, and pours off the fluid.

Into the bottle, she pipettes a solution containing trypsin, an enzyme that causes the cells to come up off the glass. She waits for a few minutes, and then begins to pipette the solution up and down, rhythmically, to lift the cells off the side of the bottle so that she can transfer them to other bottles and tubes, where they will continue to grow, divide and multiply.

That weekend, you invite Carolyn to play tennis with you. You urge her to stay and have dinner with you and your husband. The evening is pleasant enough, but Carolyn doesn't talk much. You're aware of tenseness, a distance that you have felt before with her, particularly when you imagine she is preoccupied with thoughts of her husband. She is self-conscious and self-contained, as though her inner life and this outer one were only tenuously connected.

A few days later in the lab, she remarks: "Why do you have everything—a happy home, a husband who loves you—and I have nothing."

"In two years, Carolyn, everything will have changed. Either your husband will be back with you, or if you two separate, you'll find somebody else you'll be happy with."

"I don't think so."

"Look, this weekend is the lab picnic. My husband has a friend, a fellow named Ron.  He's quite attractive. Why don't I ask him to come along to the picnic?  We can go as a foursome."

"I don't think I should. How would it look? After all, I'm a married woman."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Carolyn, you might as well not be. Besides, almost everybody in the lab knows what a louse your husband has been. No one would think twice about it. Come on, it would be good for you. You'd probably enjoy it. He's really a nice guy!"

"I don't think it would be a good idea."

You ask Ron to come to the picnic anyway, thinking you'll surprise Carolyn. When you phone her apartment Saturday morning, you get no answer. You and your husband stop by her place on the way, but no one seems to be there. She's not at the picnic when you arrive. In some vague way, you're almost glad that she isn't there, because you're annoyed at her stubbornness. Besides, your husband's friend seems to enjoy your company very much, which pleases you more than it probably should.

Monday morning, Carolyn is not at work at the usual time. An hour later, Dr. Green comes into the small tissue culture room and says, "Carolyn is dead. She apparently took an overdose of sleeping pills over the weekend."

That's it; that's all he says. For a long, slow, bewildered moment, no one moves; no one speaks.  Everything in the lab stops; the restless, directed activity is stilled; the click-clack of tubes going into and out of the racks is silenced.

You are stunned almost as much by the cold-blooded, matter-of-fact manner of his announcement as by the news itself.  Finally, you open the tissue culture log book and see the entry: 'Saturday, July 20. Changed medium on HeLa cells."

You open the shiny, stainless-steel incubator door. In it are 24 large, rectangular bottles, lying on their sides, stacked three deep, a thin layer of pink fluid covering the almost invisible, slimy film on the bottom of each bottle. The cells—millions of them—are warm, nourished, growing, dividing and very much alive.

"From now on," says Dr. Green, looking toward you, "it's going to be your job to keep the cells alive."

[This was a winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project in 1986, and was published in the State Magazine (Columbia, SC)]

Thursday, September 15, 2011


We take the Metroliner to Dupont Circle and walk up from there to the gallery. It's an early November evening and the air is cool and brisk. You walk with your hands thrust firmly into the pockets of your heavy, dark-blue pea­ jacket; the legs of your Levis rub together with each step; your dark hair escapes in ringlets from under your gray wool cap. You stride along quickly, eager to arrive, although you've already seen much of the art work to be shown at this opening.

The name of the gallery is partly obscured by an overgrown hedge but you know where it is. You say, "Everyone knows where it is," although I certainly would not have known.  The gallery is a converted brick row-house, painted an unassuming gray. This is your first invitation to an opening at a major gallery and you consider it a signal that your career as an artist is finally underway. The front door opens into a crowded hallway, and a large room expands to the left, its walls a stark and glaring white. Dimly lit stairs covered by a black corrugated runner lead to the upper floors. You decide that we should go to the top of the gallery and work our way back down to the first floor.

On the way up the narrow stairs, we press past other guests, mostly oddly dressed.  We pass a black man with an iron-gray beard jutting in all directions from the skin of his cheeks and chin; his wide eyes seem wild behind thick, round glasses. A loose, gray overcoat, trailing nearly to his ankles, is open in front, exposing striped overalls of a type worn in days past by railroad engineers. A tall, thin woman, heavily made up, her hair swept into a roll set like a beret at a cocked angle on the side of her head, stares boldly at me on the lighted landing.  A dark blue body shirt plasters her flat shape; maroon, skin-tight pants are bound at the waist by a knotted red sash and tucked into knee-high black boots. The sash sags like a wilted flower on a stick figure stem. I must seem bland by contrast in a light blue shirt and khaki slacks, my normal office and lab attire.  We climb and angle to the top, to the third floor of the building. The brightness of the room and the whiteness of its walls glow into the dim hallway.

You stop just inside the door and take off your coat. Your quick glance darts first one way then another, seeking familiar objects and people around the room. You take off your cap; your dark curls swirl about your face as you toss your head in a gesture of freedom and abandon. I love you when you're like this – your excitement, the vigor of your movements. We look at the art work; I follow you, but not too closely because you don't like me to crowd you when you're in this mood. You talk with others you know or seem to know. I watch at a distance as you gesticulate with your hands, obviously analyzing a piece of wood and terra cotta sculpture set on a stone block. You draw two fingers of your right hand parallel to a curve of the piece in a broad gesture as you talk, your eyes glancing first at the sculpture, then at your listener, then back at the piece. You draw your shoulders back and open both hands, palms upward, your arms spread widely. You slowly curl the fingers of your left hand as if holding a small bird and then draw your arms together, so that they hug the sides of your chest. Your left hand rises, dove-like, toward your head, which tilts backwards as your arms spread once more like petals of a flower unfolding.  The sequence of gestures seems so understanding, so informed; even more, it has a beauty of its own that, to me, transcends its source of inspiration.  I look at the objet d'art - at its formlessness, its obscurity, the bits of stick stuck obliquely, to all appearances randomly, in a mound of clay - and I wonder that this could have inspired such a dance of comprehension and appreciation in you.

We spend two hours at the gallery and then go back to my place that evening because I have work to finish before I leave for a conference in the morning. In the small living room of my apartment, posters are laid out neatly, symmetrically, on the floor. I have to mount two graphs that were not finished by the illustrator until this afternoon. You walk slowly toward the posters and bend over thoughtfully. You take off your coat and hat and lay them carefully on the couch, then kneel and stare at the graphs and photographs for a few minutes.

Finally, you ask, "Can you tell me what you've done? What have you found out?"

I tell you that, within cells, certain chemical elements are present in different compartments but, until now, no one has known for certain where these elements were.  I tell you we now have good evidence for where calcium is localized.  I mention the measurements we made and the controls we performed to show that our information and conclusions were correct. I tell you what we expected to find and how reality surprised us. I tell of my excitement at being able to determine whether a certain element is in one cellular compartment or another, even though those compartments are only a millionth of an inch apart.

You glance first at the graphs and pictures, then up at my face, then back at the posters, an obscure look in your eyes. You nod occasionally, your brow creased with attention and concern.

When I finish the explanation, you ask, "Why have you done all this?  Of what use is it?"

You gaze at me hopefully, as if in expectation of some explanation that I realize I will not now (perhaps not ever) be able to give you.

"I can't tell you," I reply, kissing you lightly on your upturned forehead. I kneel next to the display and pick up tape and scissors lying on the floor beside it. You go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine, then come back and settle into a chair from which you watch me, the glass tilted slightly in your hand, a disappointed expression on your face, as I finish the project.

[This was published in 1981 in Miscellany, the College of Charleston literary magazine. It was also a semi-finalist in a New Millenium Writings contest in 2009.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I would like to express gratitude to all who provided encouragement and ideas for these stories; many of you had no intention of serving as models or foils.  Most of the stories (although not all) are virtually totally fabricated, their plot lines arising from a passing remark, or an indignant comment by a colleague, or some dynamic of departmental politics, or expressions of "collegiality" in meeting rooms or at scientific conventions. 

Such stories began to formulate themselves in my mind when it became clear to me that scientists are as irrational in their behavior as any other category of people. This was initially a surprise, and contradicted a rather naïve world-view held until my third decade. There was plenty of evidence to contradict such naiveté before then; I simply hadn't paid attention to it.  The stories that will follow on this blog were written long-hand in notebooks, and on pieces of paper, on planes going to or from scientific meetings, during car rides with the family, or during those few other periods of forced inactivity in what was an otherwise extraordinarily busy time of my life, juggling a demanding scientific career and the duties of being Mom to two small children.  The typed versions were mindless therapy that occupied many evenings as I wound down from a busy day.

I would like to thank my ex-husband, Michael Smith, for his support of these efforts, which he read and praised, and for his willingness to be ignored during many family outings, although my neglect may have eventually doomed the marriage.  My daughter, Briana, later also read and commented on several of the manuscripts.

I would particularly like to thank Marion Hinson, a former secretary in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Medical University of South Carolina, for her unstinting help and support with all of my writing efforts--both scientific and literary--during the time that we shared departmental facilities.

I am also deeply grateful to my parents:  to my mother for her encouragement of reading and good literature, and to my father for his encouragement of science and for the commitment to question everything.  Without the harmonies and dissonances of such disparate influences, these stories would never have been imagined.

Two of the stories to follow have been published previously.  The Cells was a 1986 winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project, and was published in The State Magazine, Columbia, SC.  The Gallery was published in The College of Charleston literary magazine, Miscellany, in 1981

Monday, August 29, 2011


Jo Ann(e) Valentine (Pascoe) Simson (Smith)

Sign.  Symbol.  Word for something.

Words have power.  Names define.
The issue of the name  crops up intermittently when an identity crisis pops into my life.  I had a small foreboding of name-change anxiety while still a teen-ager, when I discovered that my name was not spelled the same way on my birth certificate as it was on my driver's license, and as I had always spelled it.  So I changed it to the birth-certificate version. That name change caused only a ripple of concern and involved simply adding an "e" to the given (personal) name.

Upon marriage however, the name change – from Valentine to Simson – felt radical, and I experienced it as a loss. At the time, the pleasure of marriage seemed to compensate for the maiden name's forfeiture and my identity confusion.  No woman I knew had kept her family name when she married.  

Shortly after that marriage, I flew to Wisconsin to be bridesmaid for a college friend. Waiting in the airport for the bride-to-be's family, a rather desperate plea from the public address system broke through my reverie: "Jo Anne Simson PLEASE report to the courtesy desk." I realized that they were paging ME, "Jo Anne Valentine", so recently become "Jo Anne Simson" that I did not recognize that name as mine.


Two factors contribute importantly to low female self-esteem:
1) the frequency of sexual abuse of girls and young women,
2) the almost obligatory name change when women marry.

 Only when my marriage began to falter, then crumble, then dissolve into the chaos of divorce, did the issue of the name resurface. Although I had been working and paying bills while my husband was a graduate student, our credit was in his name.  After the separation, I was refused credit and, as a single mother with limited income, was forced, slowly, to establish a new personal and economic identity.

For practical reasons at the time, I kept the married name instead of reverting to my maiden name. My daughter's last name was, after all, the same as her father's. Keeping that name seemed the easiest and least expensive option. So, I entered graduate school and re-established credit with the name "Jo Anne Simson."  Obtaining the Ph.D. in that name solidified it for me; it encoded the personal and academic struggles of a decade.  On several occasions however, I have been unable to locate a female colleague in a professional directory or meeting roster because I didn't know her married name. This problem tends to diminish professional networking for women; after they marry, colleagues simply can't find them anymore.

A few years after finishing graduate school, I remarried. That was during the early '70s, before the full wave of that decade's feminism crested.  It was assumed that I would change my name, but I was determined not to change it again. I had established credit in the name and had earned the Ph.D. in that name. 

I initially resisted the marriage proposal, saying, "I might consider getting married again, but I really don't want to change my name." What won me, I believe, was his response, "Well, you shouldn't have to change your name if you don't want to."

So I went to a lawyer and had a document drawn up enabling me to keep the name I had before the marriage. Everyone thought it was strange, keeping a first husband's last name when I remarried. Most of the children in the neighborhood called me "Mrs. Smith." Their parents found it scandalous that I did not have the same last name as my husband.

Still, it became something of a precedent in my family. My sister's daughter kept her previous husband's last name when she remarried. Her college degree and her professional credentials had already been established in that name.  My sister, herself, did the same when she remarried in middle-age.  And my eldest and youngest daughters both kept their maiden names when they married.


Adam named the beasts and gained control over them.

My sister had two name-change crises early in her life.  The first occurred while she was still in grade school. She decided to change her name when she discovered that she was being called by a name given to her by our father, but the name did not remotely correspond to the name on her birth certificate.  Our father had been conveniently absent at her birth but decided to give her a name of his choosing when Mother brought her home.  The method my sister used to manage the transition to her new, "real" name involved simply refusing to answer anyone who called her by the other name.

Her identity crisis was no doubt precipitated in part because she was then in rebellion against our father's often autocratic parenting style.  Her rebellion didn't abate until much later, long after she had married in secret, having become pregnant at age 18, a taboo of major proportions in the '50s. When her marriage was revealed, she was disowned and expelled from the house, and my father took all her personal belongings to the local dump. Thus, when she married, she lost her identity in a great many ways: her name, her clothing, her books, her photographs, her mementos.


We do not believe that something exists if it doesn't have a name.

Ours is a country with a history of changeable names and flexible identities, except perhaps among New Englanders and Anglo-Scots-Irish South-Easterners. An immigrant's name might have been changed intentionally, perhaps to hide from a past identity, or by accident, because a customs official could not spell the foreign name. In many cases, the change was not contested because the past had been an unpleasant reality from which the newcomer was fleeing.


                                                            Slaves were given the master’s surname;
             this could be changed if a slave were sold.

Among African-Americans though, the name change ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most violently.  Moreover, the change in name signified an identity conversion from personhood to property which still echoes in the deep undercurrent of resentment that disrupts the order, cooperation and stability of this country's culture.
A woman's name change upon marriage also carries, historically, these same (rarely articulated) implications:  Leave your past behind.  You are now property, not person.  Your identity is tied to that of your master.


If you steal my money, I become poor.
 If you rob me of my name, I become nobody.

I was active in Amnesty International in the 1980s.  At that time, our group had a prisoner-of­-conscience who was imprisoned in Bulgaria for refusing to change his name from a Turkish name to the Slavic name assigned to him by the government. He was so impassioned about keeping his name that he was willing to go to prison rather than forego that key symbol of his identity and heritage. His personhood was intimately entwined with the name by which he had always been known, and he could not imagine an authentic life without it. We wrote letters to Bulgarian national and prison officials in an effort to persuade them to release him, suggesting that they were effectively trying to rob him of his very humanity by forcing him to change his name.

Individuation, specification.

There are more than twenty names for snow in the Inuit language.

The issue of the name resurfaced when I began writing fiction and poetry. In writing scientific articles, I used the name "J.A.V. Simson."  There were fewer hassles from editors if initials preceded my surname. A few colleagues who knew me only through the scientific literature expressed surprise, when we met, that I was a woman.

Since about half of the fiction I have written is set in the laboratory, and the stories are often not flattering to the practitioners of science, I didn't want to jeopardize my professional position by using the name that was on research articles.  It didn't seem like a very personal name anyway; it was the last name of an ex-husband whom I hadn't seen in years.

My maiden name was Jo Anne Valentine.  But my literary inclination came largely from my mother, whose maiden name was Helen Pascoe, and who had earned an M.A. in English from Bryn Mawr.  Her mother's maiden name was Temple. I can't trace it farther back than that.  Women's names become lost in the mists of history.

I thought perhaps Pascoe would be a good literary name. I tried it in combination with Valentine, yielding the possibilities: "Pascoe Valentine" or "Valentine Pascoe." A friend preferred the latter, since Valentine could be a first name – if somewhat exotic – and was not gender-specific. Eventually it was abbreviated to "V. Pascoe."  I prefer not to call it a pseudonym but rather a literary name, because it doesn’t seem like a false name. I see it as a true name, the name of my literary self, and I would have trouble writing fiction or poetry with any other name.

The name was intended to honor my mother, and the literary career she didn't have, as well as my matrilineage (if you'll allow me to construct a term). When I showed her my first story published in a national literary magazine, she read it and said: "Well, Dear, it's not the sort of story I would have written." We honor as we can.

Literary pseudonyms have been widely used, especially by female writers: George Eliot, George Sand, Isak Dinesen (all women hoping to be taken more seriously by using male names). Even Jane Austen was published as "Anonymous" until after her death. And of course, O. Henry, certainly one of the great American short story writers, was "really" William Sidney Porter. Or was he? Perhaps he was really O. Henry. And what about Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)?  After all, what could be more natural than using a pseudonym for fiction?

Now I’m faced with a new dilemma. My children are grown. I have retired from scientific research. That name continuity is no longer important to me. I have considered assuming my maiden name once again.  And I have begun writing non-fiction. NOW, what should be my name?  Who is it, here and now, writing this?


A name is a basket where meanings are cradled.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

V. Pascoe, Fiction

From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, I wrote a good deal of fiction as well as some poetry using the pen name V. Pascoe.  Some of it was published, most wasn’t.  By the late 1980s, I had received over a hundred rejection letters - to be expected, of course, for any literary effort.  I had published only two short stories in wide-circulation magazines (Kansas Quarterly and the SC State Magazine) and three others in a local literary magazine (College of Charleston Miscellany), as well as a few poems – including two in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine The total receipts for all these publications came to about $300.00.  This seemed like a meager success after ten years of effort (part time to be sure, but intense and consistent).  So I folded my tent (threw away the box of rejections), and moved on to other efforts like travel and travel-journal writing, which were satisfying and done largely for self and friends.
With the advent of blogging and online publishing, it’s no longer necessary to win the lottery from a slush-pile genie, so once again, I’ve decided to put some fictional efforts “out there” – that is to say, here on this blog.  The stories are quirky, with subject matter often depicting irrational human activity in the pursuit of science, and are definitely not MFA-style.  One collection is entitled Laboratory Notebook.  I’ve also done stories of odd chance encounters between strangers, tentatively called Brief Encounters.  I try to paint word-pictures, and the stories don’t have much dialogue.  Tolstoy was my early, poignant, and persistent model for fiction, followed later by Nabokov, so those influences come out in my style.
I’ll load one or two stories a month, beginning with the shorter stories and those that have already been published.  I’ll work up to longer stories, and then maybe serialize a couple of novellas.  I hope you enjoy the stories, or are at least surprised and intrigued by them.  Before submitting the fiction, though, I’ll post an essay written a few years ago entitled:  What’s In a Name?  This should explain the pen name and may offer a clue to my literary motivation.