When I published Nigerian Gems, I used the pseudonym Jo Demmer. People often ask how I chose my pen name. Jo is my middle name, after my great-grandmother, Josephine. Demmer is my mother’s maiden name. The novel I was working on at the time, Sunrise Court, was rife with intrigue and infidelity and I didn’t want my young boys embarrassed by their mother’s writing. As it turned out, I never finished the book, so this was a needless concern. I also wanted a degree of separation in case we’d unwittingly made cultural gaffes in Nigerian Gems, but again, this never proved to be a problem.
I used Jo Demmer for all my plays and children’s books. The idea of anonymity gave me comfort, but my friends knew I was Jo Demmer, so in reality, there was little benefit. Over the years, as social media became more important, having two names became confusing and caused more frustration than it saved. So, I write this blog under my real name.
In my novel series, I play with the themes of pseudonyms and secrecy. The first book, Following Betsy Sharpe, is set in the fictional Middle Eastern country Nasaat, where my protagonist, Tara Scott, writes a blog. Her views about workers’ rights and women’s rights are controversial, so she uses the pseudonym Betsy Sharpe to avoid the wrath of the Nasaati royal family. I chose the name for the initials, BS, and to be descriptive of her sharp insights.
In Betsy’s words, “My use of a pen name has come under fire. I accept the criticism of cowardice. Brave journalists have spent months or even years in jail for doing their job. Does their experience make me afraid? Yes, of course. In the Western world, free speech is considered an unassailable right. Living in Nasaat, I am not so liberated. I could be jailed for the things I write.”
Her secrecy is so tight that even her husband is unaware that she is Betsy. But secrets come with a price, and without giving spoilers, let’s just say that at some point, Tara has to deal with the fallout from this betrayal.
To mirror Tara’s need for invisibility, I also fictionalize the country. This way, I can’t offend a real country and I have a degree of creative freedom. While I aim for authenticity in representing the Middle East, I made up the Nasaati Arts Festival and a few other details.
In the second book, Trouble in Lagos, Tara blogs as herself. To her surprise, this wasn’t as liberating as she expected. “She missed Betsy Sharpe’s anonymity. Since writing under her own name, she’d become preoccupied with how her articles would be perceived by her friends and family. She’d resented the censorship in Nasaat, but now she faced a subtle self-imposed suppression.” Writing, like any art form, reveals much about the artist. Perhaps a pseudonym is a bit like wearing a mask, while a real name strips away the façade and leaves the artist exposed.
As for me, when I publish the Tara series, it will be as Andrea Barton. And for you, what will it be? To be oneself, or to be someone else?
Next time, back to Lagos with Music & Dance on the Lagoon
Next writing blog: Engineering the Story—How to Write a Novel in 80 Days