As someone whose answer to the question, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” was always “to be invisible,” I’m sure it’s no surprise that the notion of anonymity is greatly appealing to me. I can’t be the only one who feels that there is an element of comfort to be found in anonymity. There is comfort in the idea of one’s work existing out-with the confines of context, place, or time. Perhaps there is also comfort in the ability to place a degree of separation between a piece of writing, and the authorial identity of the person who has written it. Does this degree of separation allow the work to speak for itself? Or to take on new meanings, expanding beyond the initial intent of its writer?
Since I was very young, I have loved telling stories, even before I could write. I would excitedly relay stories to my grandparents, for them to write down for me. They were completely nonsensical stories; but I loved them, and my five-year-old self believed that every single word was worth immortalising in blue biro-pen ink. (*Needless to say, I had extremely patient and wonderful grandparents). Then, growing up, I kept journals. I would document my daily life, write poems, draw; I was comfortable experimenting with my writing, making mistakes, trying new things; on the basis that I knew no-one would ever see it. However, some of the poems I’d written in my early teenage years, I was particularly proud of. I’m pretty sure at thirteen I half-believed I was destined to be the next great poet of our time. Well… not quite, but you can imagine my shock when I unearthed these journals years later, filled to the brim with illegible scribbles, and read them, aged twenty, to discover that most of them were objectively terrible. Let’s just say, I was extremely relieved that no-one had ever read them.
Although I tell this story light-heartedly, I think it aptly illustrates my reservation towards aiming for, or even hoping for, notoriety in my work. Ultimately, I think that when you’re still growing and finding your own voice, still learning so much about the world and your place in it; it can be difficult to produce a piece of work with your name in the title, and to confidently stand by it. To say “this represents me and who I am as a writer.” So much has changed in the way I think and write since I penned those first poems at thirteen, and so much will continue to change, that the thought of my name being eternally and publicly tied to something I’ve written, is pretty daunting to me, even now.
Historically, some of the most famous examples of “literature”; stories, narratives, epics, tragedies and comedies; have been anonymous works. If we consider the earliest forms of story-telling, many such tales were told orally and passed on through generations. Such works achieved notoriety, not because of the identity of the author, but through a collective sense of community and the importance of stories in bringing people together. Often these tales would hold traditional or spiritual significance, or carry a moral or life lesson that was culturally relevant at the time. We may not always be able to name the original “authors” of such stories, but I’m sure we could all recount in our own ways, and in our own words, our favourite fairy-tales and ancient myths. Hundreds of different versions of these stories now exist, and some writers have indeed gained notoriety from their retellings of them. The Brothers Grimm found notoriety in their dark and twisted takes on classic fairy-tales, and Angela Carter, for her more modern, feminist versions in ‘The Bloody Chamber’.
Many of us who study literature will be familiar with “The Death of the Author”, in which Roland Barthes argues for complete separation between author and text, and in which he argues that authorial intent, and the “figure” of the author, offer nothing to the meaning nor value of a work; he in fact goes as far as to imply that the author is irrelevant.
Personally, I disagree with this, and although I am drawn to anonymity, I believe there is great significance in considering the identity of the author in relation to a piece of work. Just as there are those who dream of fame, as opposed to anonymity, I believe there is a large portion of writers who fall somewhere in the middle, seeking instead, simply recognition. There are many writers whose ultimate goal is to be able to tell their own stories, in their own voices; and to be heard and acknowledged for who they are. I study Comparative Literature and some of the most powerful, moving works I’ve read have been works where the author is writing specifically from their own personal experience. I believe these works become all the more vivid, powerful and valuable after I learn of the author’s identity and the insurmountable odds – many of them overcome – to have their work published. I think of writers like Maya Angelou, Leila Aboulela, Edwidge Danticat, Behrouz Boochani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Eva Hoffman, to name a few. Writers who have written about lived experiences of racial injustice and discrimination, marginalisation, displacement, identity, forced assimilation and loss.
For so long, in many spheres of the Arts, we have been finding spaces that are oversaturated with the names and works of middle class white men; who have historically held centre-stage when it comes to having their narrative voices heard and their work recognised. For them, I can understand why authorial identity may seem obsolete. However, I think, now more than ever, there is a much-needed awareness of whose voices we are acknowledging and amplifying, and why that is so important. Writers often put so much of themselves into their work, and each writers’ motivation is different, but I believe we are all hoping, in some way, for the chance to be heard.
[Chelsea Thomson – she/her – @chelsealouisethomson]
[Photo credit: Chelsea Thomson]