“What do we call you?” is a question I’ve gotten used to hearing, especially in the writing world. I write now as K.B. Thors, but up until the end of 2017 I was publishing poetry, translations, and essays under the name K.T. Billey. My legal name is Kara Billey Thordarson. If I meet you, I’ll introduce myself as Kara.
That might seem all over the place, but the evolution of my nom de plume mirrors the development not just of my writing but of my self. I’d encourage any writer to experiment with their own creative license, no matter what a brand expert might say.
When I first decided to send my writing out, I knew immediately that I’d use a pseudonym. I wasn’t able to articulate this back then, but I was experiencing a common phenomenon—the need to step away from myself in order to grow into the voice I was finding through creative work. I needed room for my poems to breathe beyond ‘regular’ life. My pseudonym was a useful distancing tactic, tangled up in heritage, gender, and hiding.
Billey was my mother’s maiden name, the one she turned into Dr. Billey, working from a humble farm in Northern Alberta to become the first female dentist in my hometown, the name she kept after marriage. The Billey name taught my young self about gender as people regularly got confused, realizing that Dr. Billey was my mom, not my dad. I started writing the year after she died, and chose that name to keep it alive. I liked that it was nondescript and boyish, an anglicized Ukrainian that flies under the ethnic radar in a world that so often uses identity to pigeonhole and tokenize.
As for initials, I was never a J.K. Rowling fan but the story of how she used J.K. to reach boys who wouldn’t read books by “Joanne” stuck with me. Maybe I could trick male readers into reading cunt-positive poems! I also liked the sound of W.H. Auden, whose work I admire, though gendered aspects nagged at me. I spent a lot of energy fretting over whether I was contributing to the under-representation of women in literature by failing to show up as overtly femme in my bylines.
As I built K.T. Billey through the earliest “emerging writer” years, I felt less and less comfortable with it because it lacked any trace of my Icelandic heritage. My early writing was galvanized by mom grief and queer, gendered rage, but as time went on I began studying the Icelandic language and realizing how much of my outlook on literature, nature, and life traces back to those roots. My dad, Thor, is a first-generation immigrant. We’re close to our family in Iceland. Harry Potter didn’t hook me because I was already engrossed by the Icelandic Sagas.
I started translating Icelandic poetry as a study exercise. When I started publishing my translations, I felt wrong not hinting at my personal connection to the work. I started thinking about a name change, but Thordarson didn’t feel right. It literally means “son of Thor,” or Þórður, my dad’s full Icelandic first name (Thor—Þór—is often combined into compounds). It might seem picky, but language matters, and I couldn’t go by a patriarchal -son suffix. When I met Gerður Kristný, one of my favourite Icelandic writers, she gave me shit for not having changed this inaccurate Anglo-Canadian surname, but the Icelandic dóttir (daughter) suffix didn’t feel right either. Then Coach House Books accepted Vulgar Mechanics, my first book of poems, and I felt like it was too late to change anything.
Of course, the notion of “too late” is absurd. Like so many writers, what I needed was a deadline. My first full-length publication wound up being a book called Stormwarning, a translation of Icelandic poems by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir. As we were finalizing those proofs, I realized it was time. I had spent much of that summer as Translator-in-Residence at the Writers’ Union of Iceland. I had embraced that side of myself and was stepping into a new phase. Why not reflect that in print?
It feels right that Vulgar Mechanics, the book that helped me shake off gender qualms and celebrate queerness, came out last year, after I landed on, or returned to, K.B. Thors. It’s really just the most accurate version of my name, free of -son or -dóttir endings. I don’t put much stock in binaries, but I am Thor’s offspring. The simplicity of initials resonates with me, and I like the separation from the day-to-day that pen names afford.
Names are power. From Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” to Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce alter ego, names are how we claim space, in our personal lives and on stage. The #SayHerName movement is based on humanizing Black women and femmes, because it’s a whole lot easier to get justice when the world sees you as a person. The Highway of Tears is a cultural travesty partly because of the relative anonymity of so many women lost to the world. The problematic priorities of George Elliott Clarke’s recently cancelled MMIWG lecture at the University of Regina were easier to call out because the outcry centred around Pamela George, a named person. We can ask what Pamela could be doing right now, or what the poems Ms. George wrote are like.
It’s important to note that Clarke’s lecture fiasco stemmed partly from the fact that one of the men who murdered Pamela was publishing poetry under a changed name. To be clear, I am talking here about creative license as a means of stepping into—not away from—responsibility. Truly asking, listening, and recognizing others means owning my identity in a way I wasn’t fully ready for when I first peeked onto the page.
Even with clear relationships to ideas like gender, ancestry, and justice, creativity is complicated. Reconsidering my byline enabled me to grow further into myself, and that’s something I’d wish for anyone, though accountability underpins any choice. There may not be any easy answers, but at least we can introduce ourselves and have the conversation.
K.B. Thors is a poet, educator, and translator from Treaty 6 land in rural Alberta, Canada. Her first book, Vulgar Mechanics, is out now from Coach House Books. Her translation of Stormwarning by Icelandic poet Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir was nominated for the PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation and won the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif and Inger Sjöberg Award. She’s also the Spanish-English translator of Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo: The Story of Someone Else. She’s proud to be the 2020 CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence.
Photo credits: Layla Billey Thordarson (headshot)