People assume Myung-Ok is my middle name. But it’s just my name, one that was benched, like a junior varsity player, for my entire childhood, and then revived–but not for the reasons one might think–when I needed an “author name” for my novel.
When my parents came to the U.S. from Korea in 1953, one of the first things they did was choose “American” names. Grace for my mother; my father loved William, partly for its Will-I-Am, Seussian pun. He never understood why people subsequently shortened it to “Bill,” which kind of ruined everything.
Being a Korean War refugee/Korean immigrant in the 1950s was a rare thing, given the racist U.S. immigration laws that barred Asians. Pivotal to their new American life was a doctor with the World Health Organization, whom my father worked with at a liaison office during the Korean War. His name was Leonard Schuman, his wife was Marie, which is how my brother came to be Leonard and then I, following, am Marie.
My first big publication was an essay in Seventeen when I was still in high school. I don’t remember being asked or consciously choosing how my name would appear, and it is listed simply as Marie Lee. But for subsequent publications, including a slew of young adult novels, I asked to use Marie G. Lee to include my mother (even though “Lee” is a surname for both parents).
I now teach in college, to students who grew up with my novels, and I’m always touched to hear about what they mean to young readers. However, the first time an actual young reader came up to me and said, “You’re Marie G. Lee,” which I heard as MarieGEE Lee,” I wondered who this MarieGEE she was so enthusiastically searching for was, and almost turned around to look before I realized she meant me.
Being called by this name felt as weird as referring to myself in the third person. I had an eerie sensation of the person I was to the reader—Marie G. Lee—separating from the person I was to myself. Marie G. Lee was an entity, while I was a person.
Appropriately, I then put Marie G. Lee as my name on my boilerplate speaking contracts and soon noticed that I, Marie, was a better advocate for this Marie G. Lee when it came to negotiating speaking fees; I didn’t take it as personally. There is a business side to writing, and she was it.
In my 30s, I went to Korea for a year as a Fulbright Fellow to research my next novel. I’d barely passed the oral language test and so my fellowship was contingent on taking language classes, since my project involved taking oral histories of Korean birth mothers.
But soon enough I noticed “Marie” would either be transliterated as “Mari,” which is a place-holder for counting animals, or, what my relatives cheekily used: “Mori,” which means “head.” The white people in my university Korean class adopted Korean names and wore them proudly, like a costume, so I decided I might as well put my official but never-used name to use.
For our Fulbright business cards, the clerk asked for the Chinese-based characters underlying my Korean name. “Lee” means plum tree. Myung means brilliant, Ok means jade/crystal. There was something about writing out the pictographs that made me think about how my father would, throughout my childhood, always indulge me by taking me to the rock and crystal show whenever it came to our town. How he was always so convinced I was “brilliant” enough to be a doctor. How “Marie” was an homage to another person while my Korean name was not only a kind of aspiration and hope my parents had (and weirdly personified in my obsession with clear quartz crystals), the “Ok” was also a generational marker that linked me not only with my sibling (Michelle/Chung-Ok), but with my distant cousin, Soon-Ok, whom I’d only met now, as an adult. We were strangers, but the “Ok” always reminded me of our shared generation in the Lee family tree, that the relationship ruptured by immigration still endured via our linked names.
Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn’t think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel—many years later—was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I’d started publishing, I’d had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received. Once, I even mistakenly had one of her royalty statements appear in my mail, which made me wonder if the same thing was happening to her. My agent promptly rooted out the problem—Books in Print, the bible of booksellers, had the IBSNs of two of our books switched. This was also in the pre-digital era, so the mistake would remain until a new edition came out.
That was in 2005, and I have been using Marie Myung-Ok Lee for my “writing” name all this time. There was some question about “consistency,” since I’d used Marie G. Lee as a published name for years, but I decided not to worry about it—I could always go back to MarieGEE, later, but Marie Myung-Ok got some immediate results: First, I stopped receiving Cape Cod Skull Mystery fan mail. But I also realized that just looking at my name, and hearing it, even when people pronounced it incorrectly (Myunk-ok, Myung-O.K., Mee-Yung, etc.) it felt like me, a separation but also an integration in a way I’d never had when I was MarieGEE Lee.
Writers obviously know the power of words, and how naming something sets it on a certain path. Mine was inadvertent, but other writers have named themselves with more intention. Poet Leslie McGrath (Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives) says, “My married name is Taylor and that’s ‘family’ persona, but my writer’s name is McGrath, which was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up poor and Irish, never made it beyond high school, and always wanted to write. Each poem and book I publish is a tribute to her.”
“As a hapa [half-Asian], it was hugely important for me to be Karl Taro Greenfeld (True) instead of Karl Greenfeld. The latter made me sound like another male Jewish writer, nothing wrong with that but also not who I am. But, strangely enough, it was a magazine editor who decided to put my middle name on a story I’d written about Japan. I was 25 and hadn’t thought of doing it myself. As soon as I saw it in print, I knew it would be my byline.”
Myung-Ok is my first name and so I also enjoy, when filling out fellowship forms, cramming Myung-Ok next to Marie, because that’s where it belongs. Occasionally I’m asked to put it in the slot for “middle name,” but I always refuse: it’s not my middle name. And as the American-born daughter of immigrants, why should I have to bend to the form? Since the racist laws were changed in 1965, there are more and more Asian immigrants and their children also with compound first names. We are Americans. The form should change for us.
And while author’s names need to be individual, and distinctive, the way my generational name connects me to my sister, Chung-Ok, and my cousin Soon-Ok, so, too, I enjoy a connection with other Korean American writers like Nora Okja Keller (Fox Girl) and R.O. (Okyong) Kwon (The Incendiaries), something MarieGEE didn’t do.
Perhaps the author name is also a brilliant tool that should be used as such. Friends and family call me Marie, and Koreans revert to Myung-Ok—but no one uses both. Marie Myung-Ok Lee then becomes the embodiment of my writing, a protective shell that diverts the attention from that overly open, curious part of me that I need to be able to write in the first place. I’m not talking about being fake with an alias, I am talking about being able to engage with people who’ve read my writing, and therefore have their own relationship with “me,” which can indeed be startlingly intimate, but a different kind of intimate than in the relationships I have with the people I am close to in my life.
But names can evolve and change. We will see.
MARIE MYUNG-OK GRACE LEE is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her next novel is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (when she finally finishes it). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.
Our thanks to The Millions for permission to reprint this essay.