One of the best parts of my debut was being able to tell the story of my pen name. It also lines up with the passing of my grandmother, who, as you will read, was extremely influential to me. I published this piece with Shondaland at the time, and I wanted to share it with you all today.
I hope you enjoy it!
I found my name, my writer name, the way all good writers should find their name—drinking after hours at the office.
To be clear, I don’t keep liquor in my desk—I like my job. The drinks were part of a surprise planned by my younger sister, a PhD student at the university where I work. Funded by her measly graduate-school stipend and some leftover liquor from Christmas, the two of us huddled on the couches in the building’s lobby, clandestinely dumping Baileys Irish Cream into our coffees and celebrating the fact that after years of hard work, I had signed with a literary agent. Even better, my agent wanted to start submitting my book to publishers. Now, I just needed a name.
Pen names are a rite of passage for romance writers. The internet makes it easy for weirdos to find and harass us, so forgoing our real names is as much for our safety as for our mental health. Ask any romance writer how many strange or threatening interactions they’ve had in the past year, and the eye roll that accompanies that question will tell you everything you need to know. The experience is worse as a woman of color writing books with even a whiff of sex somewhere in them. If there is one thing that causes the creepers to send endless amounts of strange mail, it’s the idea of women of color with sexual autonomy.
Picking a pen name is a bit like filling out a Mad Lib. Select a word that starts with your first initial + the street you grew up on + the name of your favorite literary character. Some of us have been plotting our careers for so long that we have the domains purchased for every name we plan to use for the next 50 years before we’ve even written a word.
But not me. First, because I’m superstitious. I was convinced that picking a name before I had an agent was bad luck. (Note: Nowhere in author lore is that curse stated, so if you are an aspiring author with five pen names, don’t freak out. I’m just superstitious enough to go around making up bad luck when there is none to be had.). Second, I knew I didn’t want to go the Mad Lib route. Whatever name I chose, I wanted it to mean something to me.
The problem was that my real name is a family name, and I like it a lot. I was named for my grandmama. As a kid, I thought my name made me sound like an old lady. As an adult, I’m unapologetically proud of my name and whom it came from. Like many Black women of her generation, my grandmother’s life was difficult, and her sacrifices were many. I don’t intend to romanticize her struggle, as I am sure she would rather have not lived a hard life. I will simply say that it was the best life that she could have managed given what the world handed her, and she lived it with as much grace, style, and dignity as she could muster. (Trust me, y’all; you aren’t ready to know about the time she went out dancing with Tony Curtis!)
Sometimes, I think about the T-shirts that say, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” and laugh. I’m not laughing at the sentiment. That I completely understand. It’s just that I highly doubt that my ancestors were dreaming about me sitting groggily in a conference room at 9 a.m. on a random Wednesday, going back and forth with my coworkers over whether or not to use the word “crucial” or “critical” in a piece. My ancestors had more imagination than that.
I know they had more imagination because my grandmother had more imagination. She had boundless enthusiasm for the lives of her granddaughters, unencumbered as they were in comparison to her own. She survived Jim Crow, navigated poverty, racism, sexism, and raising five boys often on her own. After she fled Texas, most of her living took place in the roughly seven square miles of Los Angeles from Culver City to Inglewood. She had a wicked sense of humor, and her world mostly revolved around her family, Cookie Lyon, red nail polish, and throwing curses at ungrateful men.
And, while the world may have limited her opportunities, her dreams for her granddaughters were so much bigger. As far as my grandmother was concerned, the most important thing that any of her granddaughters could do was get an education. To her, getting an education was a means to the kind of job that meant we needed no man to survive. It would allow us to travel the world. In that education, she saw an opportunity for our lives to be our own in a way that hers was not. That education was a freedom that she and her mother before her, and her mother’s mother, had never known.
Often, mainstream rhetoric attempts to make American slavery seem like a faraway thing when, in fact, we are all living in the very aftermath of slavery. In May 2020, my beloved grandmama passed away at the age of 86. She was born in the 1930s. Both of her grandparents were born enslaved, and her grandmother did not pass until 1949. That means that hands that held me and loved me from the moment I was born were the same hands that were held and loved by a formerly enslaved woman. My grandmama’s memories of her grandmother were the memories of a person marked by some of the most brutal and cruel acts in American history. Human chattel slavery is not far away when you think of it in terms of loved ones.
For generations of Black Americans, reading was an illicit act. Anti-literacy laws were rampant for the obvious reason that literacy could lead to self-determination, and self-determination for marginalized peoples remains one of the greatest threats to white supremacy and colonialism. There is a reason why repressive governments and communities work so hard to control access to knowledge. Reading was, is, and likely always will be an act of rebellion as long as people are oppressed.
And here were my sister and I, reveling in the rebellion. We spend our day-to-day thinking about words — me as a writer and she as a literacy and education researcher. It occurred to us that words had been denied to our family for generations. In seeking and using written words every day, we were simply coming back to claim what had always been ours. While I wrote The Checklist, it did not belong to me. It belongs to my ancestors. And, if I wasn’t going to be me (in a pen name), then the least I could do was honor them.
In the end, I settled on my grandmama’s grandmother’s name, Addie Woolridge. She was born and lived in Marshall, Texas, the last Confederate stronghold before the end of the Civil War. Like many of the formerly enslaved, she does not appear in official records until the 1900 census, so the details of her life are mostly a combination of guesswork and oral histories. She gave birth to 11 children and owned her own home with her husband, Lott, a laborer on the Texas & Pacific railroad. The two remained married for 57 years.
When I got my author copies of The Checklist, I did what all writers do: Facetime loved ones and force them to look at the cover of the book for much longer than they actually want to look. But once I shut off the camera, I let myself feel the moment and process what I was holding. There, printed on my pink cover, in beautiful hand lettering, was Addie’s name. Every time I pick up one of my books, it is like holding her legacy in my hands. It is feeling the weight of my beloved grandmama’s dreams. It is scary and exhilarating. I hope I have done my ancestors proud. More than anything, I hope I have captured their joy and put to paper a thing they had even when the world forbade them to have it — a story worth writing down.
Thanks for letting me share my stories and my family’s joy with you!
PS if you are wondering if my grandmama is where the idea Grandmama’s iconic “husbands” came from in The Bounce Back, the answer is yes. Ha!