I have an interesting relationship with pen names. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old, and I started thinking about a pen name almost immediately. It wasn’t that I disliked my name, exactly. I’m very attached to the name given to me by my parents,—mostly because I’m very attached to my parents—but I knew it was wrong, somehow, and I had the instinct to change it even then.
When I was just entering adulthood, still in college, my dear father passed away, and my relationship to my writing name changed. You see, my father loved books. He read them in a quantity that is easily comparable to my own, but he also wrote them, though he never tried to publish. It was his dream to someday publish a book, but he never finished any of those he started.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, my father was a man who was not only instrumental to me in becoming the man I am today, but also someone I admired deeply and fondly. When he died, it became extremely important for me to honour his name, which meant I had to honour my name, because the surname was his, and he and my mother had chosen my forename with love and care as their first gift to their first child.
Despite my misgivings and my urge to at least bring my forename down to an initial so that the feminine wouldn’t show, I published short stories, graphic novels, and novels, under my full birth name, Caroline Fréchette.
This got me through a few years of publishing, but the name—even though I love it still—grated on my ears, reminding me every time that it’s hard to feel like a man with a name like Caroline. I tried to fit the name: I wore dresses, and make-up, and behaved in what I perceived to be a more feminine way, but it felt like an act, and it was exhausting.
When I was ready to admit to myself that I needed to move on and pick a name that was unequivocally masculine—so people would need to think about my gender when they heard it—I grieved my former name, even as I was filled with excitement about my new name, which fit me like an old pair of jeans you pull out of the dryer. The kind that knows exactly how to wrap itself around you for maximum comfort.
The thing is, there is magic in names. In all names, really. Naming things we don’t understand is usually the first step is shedding the fear. Naming emotions makes them suddenly real, like things we can actually deal with instead of inexplicable surges of need we can’t fill.
We name things because we want to understand them, because we want to be closer to them, because we claim them as our own, and because we love them. Almost everyone names their pets; some name their houses, their cars; I even name my plants and some of my objects. The magic in a name is that it gives a thing life; it gives it identity, and power, especially in the case of abstract concepts. The undeniable power in naming the various gender identities or sexual orientations, for example, is that people who always just felt wrong can now name their feelings; instead of feeling wrong and alone, you are suddenly just part of a whole, part of a community of others like you who have found similar power in the name they found to describe that feeling.
As a reader of fantasy, I was always fascinated by the relationship that often exists between literal magic and the naming of things. In some settings, one of my favourite is that of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin: to be able to exert magical power over something, you must know its “true” name. Similarly, when children are born, their parents give them the name they will use for the rest of their lives, but when they become adults, they go through a ritual in which a wizard will find their “true” name. It’s the secret name that exists in the core of their being, revealed only by magic, and if the name is discovered by someone else, they can claim power over you.
This concept of true names and names of use is very common in all fairy-related mythology, and so I encountered it a lot growing up as an avid reader of fantasy. At a young age, between reading all this and feeling that unease related to my name, I figured that my “true” name must be hidden, and that eventually, I would find it.
This is exactly what I ended up doing, and when I did, it was literal magic. I shed my name of use, the first gift that my parents ever gave me, and I dug through the depths of my soul to find the deepest truth of my being. Having found it, I emerged victorious, brandishing my True Name. It’s not a secret name, a name to be hidden, because it was found by someone else, but a name I forged for myself. I wear it proudly and openly, because it gives me power over myself, the power of my true self—indomitable, unconquerable, and solid as a diamond because I am filled with the power of finally being me.
Nathan Caro Fréchette is originally from Montreal, but has been living in the Ottawa/Gatineau region since 2004. He is a sequential artist and author, and the director of Renaissance press. Nathan has published several short stories, both sequential and traditional, as well as two graphic novels, five novels, and one non-fiction book on writing. He was the editor and director for the French Canadian literary magazine Histoires à boire debout, and works at the Ottawa Public Library. Nathan has been teaching creative writing since 2005.