Auto- & Pseudo-: Margaret Killjoy
December 11th, 2012 § 1 Comment
Margaret “Magpie” Killjoy is an anarchist writer and photographer whose work walks the line between punk, steampunk, and goth subcultures. He’s the founder of SteamPunk Magazine, the author of several books, and a publisher of anarchist genre fiction with Combustion Books. Magpie’s other imprint, Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, will be publishing this zine.
In this interview, Magpie talks about re-naming in anarchist culture, how naming practices work in the other subcultures he is a part of, and the sometimes-confusing circumstance of writing under a woman’s name as a cisgendered man.
Do you have a story about how you came to take on your name?
It’s a different answer for my full name and my short name. I started going by the name Magpie eleven years ago, because I had a habit of bringing home rusty things that I found on the street and collecting shiny objects. At the time, I was much more part of the forest defense culture of the Pacific Northwest, where people regularly went by the names of animals and plants and things.
A year or two after that, some people started calling me Margaret because the people you meet who are called Magpie, it’s usually because their birth name is Margaret and they go by Magpie for short. I took the name Killjoy about six years ago when I was looking for a professional name. I had the habit of raining on peoples parades and so I thought Killjoy was appropriate.
Taking on a new name also means shedding one’s birth name. Is there a reason why you chose to do this?
Choosing to shed my birth name was part of transitioning in to a whole new culture and a whole new society, when I became an anarchist and started traveling. I found the sort of rebirth of choosing a name as an adult to be very liberating.
What’s the most annoying question people ask you about your name?
Usually they look at me with a sneer and say, “Is that your real name?”
One time I was doing a talk about a book I did called Mythmakers & Lawbreakers, about anarchist fiction. One person who was recording the talk for a radio show asked me, “By choosing a woman’s name, by choosing Margaret, you’re making a powerful feminist statement aren’t you?” That was a valid question, but in some ways an annoying one.
Being a cisgendered man going by a woman’s name as a writer is in some ways problematic. I remember when I got an email inviting me to be part of an all-women science fiction collection of short stories and I had to write back and say I wasn’t eligible. And I’ve definitely had people who are very disappointed when they meet me because they’re excited that more anarchist literature is being put out by women in general and it appears that I’m one of the people doing that, although obviously I’m not. I totally understand why it’s disappointing to people. But at the same time I don’t feel that I should be constrained by gender boxes about what names I should be able to take. And I do feel that having a traditional woman’s name better suits my gender identity than a traditional male name.
Can you talk a little bit about how having a traditional woman’s name can lead to interesting situations?
Definitely. I like the gender fucking of it. I like that it is very common for mainstream media when people interview me or write about my projects without doing any research refer to me as she. I like it because it creates more gender ambiguity in the world, which can have some positive effects. But I also like it personally because, while I identify as a cis man to a more or lesser degree, I feel that I am fairly genderqueer. I wear women’s clothing more often that I wear men’s clothing. I enjoy having a woman’s name because it is sort of softening or femme and I like finding the balance between masculine gender identity and femininity.
How does your name connect to your political beliefs?
The name Magpie comes from forest defense culture and that’s a big part of my politics even though I’m not as active in Earth First! or forest defense movements as I used to be. I am proud to be part of a culture that has certain practices, like renaming ourselves.
I was sad for a while, I felt like there was kind of a drop in the culture of people taking on chosen names [in anarchist circles]. Strangely, one of the reasons why that makes me sad is that while I’m glad I’m Magpie, I like being part of a distinct culture– I don’t like being specifically alienated, I’m not trying to be different by having a funny name. I appreciate when other people do the same because it normalizes the practice and I would like to see green anarchism and anarchism more broadly normalized within our society. Not watered down, but normalized.
I think that my interactions with having a funny name have changed a lot from when it was part of my identity as a tree sitter versus when it became my identity as a professional writer and photographer. And they have changed even now, with my interactions with the goth scene and the steampunk scene, which I’m much more heavily involved in than I was when I was younger.
These scenes also have a funny name culture, but a very different funny name culture. In the steampunk scene, people tend to be cosplaying, so they take on funny names that they go by at these conventions. People don’t question my name at all in goth or steampunk scenes, but they do have this assumption that I go home and go back to a different name the same as they do and that’s not the case.
What differences do you see between a culture where people are temporarily taking on a name and a culture where people are choosing to live under assumed names?
In the steampunk scene, I think that a number of people who take on funny names and slightly different personas would very much prefer to have funny names and funny outfits all the time but feel constrained by society. They don’t go in to work every day in their top hat and goggles.
I also think there’s an element specifically useful in cosplaying and the temporary adoption of different personalities. The roleplay element of it allows people a freedom to explore different ideas and, for a lot of people, different sexual identities and different gender presentations.
I don’t want to say that it’s better to live full time under a persona of your own creation. I clearly prefer it, but I understand that it’s not for everyone. I do hope that more people find the courage or find the means to live lives where they can act like they want, dress like they want, and call themselves what they want all the time.
How do you think that choosing a new name or persona that mainstream society considers strange or weird connects to being an anarchist?
In some way it’s one of those absurdities. I have a bird name, so do you, so does my friend Sparrow. So does my friend Robin and Robin never gets asked if it’s her real name. Robin was born Robin. And being Robin is totally normal, but being Magpie is totally weird. And being named December would be totally weird, but being named April is totally normal.
It almost seems random what our society has decided we can be called. I think that picking our own names is not a rejection of mainstream values, but not being constrained by mainstream values. It’s not thinking outside the box for the purpose of thinking outside the box, it’s more like ignoring the box and making the decision that makes the most sense to you. That’s very much how I see anarchist politics. I don’t think having a strange name is inherently more anarchistic or anything, I think it comes from a similar place of being willing to question all of the values taught to us by society and being willing to do what we actually want to be doing. And what I want to be doing is I actually want to have chosen my own name.
I have been known to tell people that they’re only allowed to change their name twice, which I honestly don’t believe as an absolute rule. I do think it can reach a level of absurdity where people change their name and their gender pronouns with frequency and then expect everyone to only call them by their correct name and to refer to them only as their correct gender identity.
I actually think that by and large is a very positive thing because it’s about respecting people and respecting how people want to be identified. But I think a lot of people have seen the logical conclusion of it. I definitely know multiple people who, once they changed their name, like, four times, people stopped taking it seriously and just referred to them as all of those names, like “Oh, you know so-and-so who used to be so-and-so who used to be so-and-so.”
Some people I have interviewed have talked about naming oneself according to different cycles a person is going through. What do you think about that?
The problem that I think happens is that people forget that a name has two purposes.
One is in regards to the self. I could see that as paramount and I could see wanting to name yourself in cycles. I’ve even had that. I didn’t fly to Greece once because I had this massive panic attack. And I was like, “You know what, fuck it, I’m changing my name because I’m not even Magpie anymore, I don’t even know who I am.” And I changed my name again. It lasted a week before I changed it back. It was because people talked sense in to me, they basically were like, “Look, you kind of don’t get to do that.”
As much as a name is about my own sense of identity it’s also, more importantly and less selfishly, about other peoples’ impressions of me, other peoples’ abilities to discuss me, abilities to know who I am. A signifier. People get confused about the differences between signifiers a whole lot. The word tree is not a tree, a tree is a tree, but it sure is useful that we can talk about trees because we have these abstractions.Choosing an abstraction to be labeled by is important and it’s respectful. It can be disrespectful to people to constantly change your name.
The other day I interviewed Libertie [Valance, co-founder of Firestorm Café and Books]. They jokingly requested that I include a section on bird names and the phenomena of bird names in punk, traveler and anarchist cultures in the zine. Why do you think bird names are taken more commonly than other names in these cultures?
I think people probably identify more often with birds than with other animals. I don’t know if I started identifying with the corvid family because I’m named Magpie or the other way around. I definitely identify with these sentient, self-aware creatures who can fly. I think the fact that you find a higher instance of funny names among travelers than sedentary people and that there are a lot of bird names makes sense.
This interview is part of a project called Auto- & Pseudo-: On Names & Naming Practices. It will result in a zine, to be published by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. If you’re interested in talking about your own name history, please take a look at the Call for Interviews. If you want to follow the project as it develops, please ‘like’ Auto- & Pseudo- on Facebook.