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.