As a college student, I learned a good title was essential to any piece of prose. Titles offer up a taste of what's to come. They predict content and snag the reader's attention. They also contain keywords that reflect the theme or central idea of the work.
Anthologies are often structured around a theme, as is my first book, We Wear The Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. The book is about misrepresentations of identity and we included the theme of passing in its title. Simple, right?
Wrong. Semantics are the problem. The word "passing" has other incarnations, having to do with death, card games, street traffic, and table manners. You might, for instance, “pass” the peas. Your father may have “passed,” meaning died. The word is fraught. The “pass” is a geographical setting between mountains (think El Paso, Texas). If I give you a “pass,” I’m supplying a shortcut to your destination or giving you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’re good at “passing” a football. And if you make a “pass” at me, you may be touching me in an inappropriate way.
But I didn’t consider any of this until my co-editor, Brando Skyhorse, and I began exploring titles related to our theme. Passing, for both of us, was almost exclusively tied to race and ethnicity. My great grandmother passed for white in the Jim Crow era. Germans on the white side of my family became Pennsylvania Dutch, following WWI. Brando passed for an American Indian, as did his mother. But we knew of other forms of passing and wanted to open up the idea. For example, the conversos of Spain were Jews who passed for Catholics in order to survive the Spanish Inquisition. Shakespeare wrote about gender passing in his plays, where women pass for men and vice versa. Barbara Ehrenreich explored socioeconomic passing in her book, Nickel and Dimed. Passing has been with us since the beginning of time—all of us do it, in one way or another. But the word, itself, is simplistic and problematic.
So the search for a title reflecting our theme became complicated. “Misrepresentations of race and identity” sounded too academic. We wanted to show the complexity of passing, to communicate how universal it is. But we kept bumping up against word choice.
Then we landed on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear The Mask,” which begins:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Our contributors were all wearing masks, be they racial, sexual, religious, or socioeconomic. Dunbar’s poem embodied what we were talking about in a way our subtitle 15 True Stories of Passing in America did not. What’s that rule in creative writing? To show, not tell? The poem showed the experience of passing while our subtitle explained it. Together we had theme, variation, and a strong title.
Lisa Page is co-editor of We Wear The Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, (Beacon Press). Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Playboy, Playbill, Phoebe, The Crisis,and the Washington Post Book World, and in other publications and anthologies. She has interviewed writers for television, magazines and public forums. She has also coached writers, individually, and edited a literary magazine. She directs the creative writing program at the George Washington University. She is former president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She has taught writing workshops in a Maryland correctional facility as well as in universities in Chicago, Washington, DC, Virginia, and New Haven, CT. She lives outside Washington, DC.