Hiding within the Diaspora with a Sharky Pen Name
(CB Mako)

Verity La Discoursing Diaspora, Nonfiction

Edited by Ivy Alvarez

When I first wrote fanfiction in 2013, then transitioned to nonfiction in 2016, I knew I would continue writing using a pen name. My grandfather had used a pen name when he published his poetry. His pen name was an anagram of his full name. But I never expected my pen name to be the name of a species of predatory fish with sharp teeth.

 ‘So, your pen name is based on a type of shark?’ my partner said, when I wondered why the white narrative pronounced my surname as ‘may-koh’.

Chris googled, showed the search results, then read aloud, ‘The mako shark is the fastest-swimming shark, and lives in all the temperate waters of the world.’

‘Fastest?’ My brows rose. I considered myself a slow writer. When other writers from my previous writing group were already flaunting their published chapbooks, publishing multiple works in a short period of time, and —

‘I know what you’re doing,’ Chris admonished, halting my downward spiral of self-doubt. ‘Stop comparing yourself. Members of your writing group were either kid-free, young, or single.’ 

I paused, remembering a couple of episodes from The Garrett Podcast, when they interviewed authors Melanie Cheng and Michelle de Kretser. They were among the few Australian authors of colour who admitted they were slow writers, too.

‘So, mako is a shark, huh?’ I chuckled as I wiped my eyeglasses, pondering on this new revelation.

Beyond the binary gaze, my pen name could either be a male or female name. Having a pen name also meant shedding off a patronym (Trayhurn, 2017). Despite written claims that Philippine society is matriarchal (Measham, 2019), I grew up in Manila with strongly held, deeply — even unconsciously — embedded patriarchal structures.

What if I told you I prefer my pronouns as they / them…or simply use cubbie as a pronoun? Would you read my nonfiction if my pen name didn’t indicate my gender? What if I told you I wasn’t part of the white, mainstream, narrative? Would you read my written works if you found out I was a person of colour? 

My pen name derives from an alternative to the Bechdel Test, called the ‘Mako Mori Test’, a character of colour from the movie Pacific Rim (Romano, 2015). At the same time, my pen name is the same name as a black-haired, male, anime character from the highly-acclaimed animation, ‘The Legend of Korra’ — the same team who wrote and animated Voltron: Legendary Defender.

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Despite my lived experience, among Filipino migrant communities and even among writers of colour, discussing or writing about mental health, disability, and being the carer of a disabled child—these are not part of the ‘migrant creed’ (Chan, 2018).

My pen name gives me the space and necessary distance to write difficult topics deemed taboo inside Filipino culture. We from the diaspora are expected to show the world we are successful, talented people of colour, driving brand-new vehicles, and purchasing grandiose houses. Instead, I write nonfiction which, if I wrote in my real name, would easily bring dishonour and shame to my family, relatives, and my elitist, high-brow in-laws, who are very much like the fictional characters of Kevin Kwan’s book, Crazy Rich Asians (Allen and Unwin, 2014).

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When I gave birth to my child in 2010, we told my mother-in-law that her apo was born with Down syndrome. The first thing she said in response was that she would pray for her grandchild, send lots of novenas and pray lots of rosaries to get rid of the Down syndrome. 

This was what I had to contend with each time I would go to reunions—such blatant ableism and discrimination within the religious migrant communities. And then there were the furtive gazes, the eyes that held knowing looks when my child and I were out and about. I was accursed, and carried negative karma in my arms.

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In 2012, I started using a cargo bike as my everyday transport. Anything—from five to ten kilometres, from school runs, multiple errands, and trips to other inner western suburbs of Melbourne—was easy using a cargo bike.

Once, during one of my errands, I was outside a Filipino bakery when a kababayan approached me, just as I was locking my cargo bike in front of his parked car.

In a joking tone and with a sarcastic smirk, he asked if I was selling ice cream from my bisikleta.  

With a glare, I simply shook my head, then stomped my way to the bakery. When he followed me inside, I scowled at him and he, embarrassed, avoided my stare.

As I slowly cycled around my local suburb, people would laugh or gape at my made-in-Denmark, Christiania-branded cargo bike. They’d call it a tuk-tuk or a rickshaw, and shout at me, ‘Go back to China!’

Later on, I attached a digital HD camera to my helmet and the verbal abuse stopped.

Now, every time there is a spike in petrol prices, people will approach me, asking where I bought my three-wheeled, pedal-powered transport.

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Book blogger @bookthingo tweeted in 2018, ‘The #MWF18 program has Filipino-Australian artists’, and cited them. I wasn’t among her listed artists.

Inside the diaspora, I continue to be the outlier, the outsider. For someone with shaved hair on the sides of my head, and the remaining strands dyed in slices of magenta, red, and pink, I often swim undetected by the Filipino diaspora. And I’m not one of ‘the good, quiet and assimilated “model minority”’ (Fukui, 2018).

Instead, I continue to search for like-minded artists within the Australian arts community — a first-generation migrant, non-binary writer, who is a carer, with mental health issues and invisible disability, who advocates for inclusion in the ableist narrative, and who slowly cycles on a cargo bike. 

 


CB Mako is a nonfiction and fanfiction writer, essayist, and emerging poet. Winner of the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition, shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize, and Highly Commended in Writers Victoria’s Writeability Fellowship, cubbie has also been published in The Suburban Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Lifted Brow, Overland, The Victorian Writer, Peril Magazine, and Djed Press. You can find her @cubbieberry on Twitter and @cb.mako on Instagram.