Have you heard about the craziness involving prominent writer Sherman Alexie, his editorship of Best American Poetry and the poet Yi-Fen Chou? If not, then buckle up, because this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Okay, so if you’re a follower of the poetry world, you’ll know about Best American Poetry, which is an anthology that highlights, as the title suggests, the best in American poetry. But like a lot of poetry anthologies, it generally contains mostly white writers. The fact that Sherman Alexie was guest-editing this edition of Best American Poetry seemed, at the outset, like a god-send. The poetry book would have a better chance of being a book filled with multicultural writing since Alexie himself is a prominent Native American writer. One of those multicultural writers was Yi-Fen Chou. Or so people were led to believe.
Yi-Fen Chou was actually Michael Derrick Hudson, a white writer who used the name, as Alexie himself writes in his long explanation of the situation on the Best American Poetry site, “as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.” Alexie wrote that he had figured out the deception after he’d picked the poem. I’ll turn to him now to let him explain himself (per his written explanation linked to above):
I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.
Of course, I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.
So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn’t been fooled by anything obvious. I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you’ll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I’d only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.
Do you see what happened?
I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.
The kicker is that Alexie didn’t do what many would expect for someone in his position to do: throw out the poem and, if you really wanted to be thorough about it, admonish the writer in a private response. What Alexie did do, however, is publish the poem anyway, saying he realized he liked the poem despite the pseudonym. Alexie writes in his explanation that he felt he was practicing the same kind of “nepotism” that writers of color complain about when it comes to white editors picking white writers:
Here, I could offer you many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community. I could detail entire writing careers that have been one long series of handshakes and hugs among white friends and colleagues. I could list the white poets who have been selected by their white friends for each of the previous editions of Best American Poetry. But that would be just grandstanding. It’s also grandstanding for me to accuse white folks of nepotism without offering any real evidence. This whole damn essay is grandstanding.
So what’s the real reason why I’m not naming names? It’s because most white writers who benefit from white nepotism are good writers. That feels like a contradiction. But it’s not.
And, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.
Nepotism is as common as oxygen.
But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the “maybe” and “yes” piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
This is a very pretzel-logicky way of trying to make your weird decision sound right, with all due respect to Alexie. At the very least, he does admit that he knows people are going to be angry with him, as they are. So much so that many articles have come out about it as well as a very ingenious “white writer” name generator.
Ken Chen, the director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, wrote for NPR that Hudson was clearly trying to gain access to what Hudson considered preferential treatment, which Chen sailently called “the capital of multicultural difference.”
But American literature isn’t just an art form — it’s a segregated labor market. In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent of writers reviewed in The New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren’t his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he’s another hysterical white man, envious of the few people of color who’ve breached their quarantine.
Jenny Zhang also wrote a post for Buzzfeed detailing her experiences with racism and discrimination in the writing world. Her first sentence, “To be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time,” encapsulates what is a lifetime of cultural and social irritation. What’s particularly jarring about her piece isn’t the clear-eyed way in which she writes about America’s micro and macrogressions against people of color (including pitting them against each other, as shown in how blacks and Asians are often used as the buttresses for white supremacist views). What’s jarring is how she writes about the envy her white male counterparts had at her being part of America’s minority and thus, in their minds, able to enjoy a special privilege only minorities get to use when it comes to access to school and work opportunities.
When I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction writing, I felt both coveted and hated. My white classmates never failed to remind me that I was more fortunate than they were at this particular juncture in American literature. “No one is going to pay attention to a name like mine,” a white dude who exclusively wrote stories about white dudes said to me one time when I was feeling particularly low about my writing. I couldn’t enjoy a scrap of validation or wallow in a sliver of self-doubt without someone interjecting some version of “You’re so lucky. You’re going to have an easier time than any of us getting published.” They were shameless about their envy, not shy or coy at all about their certainty that my race and gender were an undeniable asset, which, in turn, implied that I could be as mediocre and shitty as I wanted and still succeed. This was how some of my white classmates imagined the wild spoils of my literary trajectory. This was how they managed to turn themselves into the victims.
Of course they’re wrong, since they were born with the racial privilege whiteness allows in Western society.
Chen’s Asian American Writers’ Workshop took their anger with Hudson to another level by creating their white pen name generator. Just like what it sounds like, the website mocks racial privilege and the criminally naive viewpoint of a minority privilege by allowing anyone to have a white pen name bestowed upon them.
Twitter also took Alexie and Hudson to task with the hashtag #ActualAsianPoet, giving shine to real Asian poets who are showing that making it as a person of color in a stark writing landscape can be done.
— thaoworra (@thaoworra) September 11, 2015
— Taiyo Na (@taiyona) September 10, 2015
Kahlil Gibran, Suheir Hammad, Jesus of Nazareth, Lao Tzu, Bruce Lee #ActualAsianPoet & I’m out ✌
— Taiyo Na (@taiyona) September 10, 2015
— Raymond Hsia (@RayHsia) September 10, 2015
— Cherisse (@ConsentHousecat) September 10, 2015
— Amy Hirotaka (@amyhirotaka) September 10, 2015
— Alec Michod (@alecmichod) September 15, 2015
— Sahtu Press, Inc. (@SahtuPress) September 11, 2015
— Sahtu Press, Inc. (@SahtuPress) September 11, 2015
19 Asian writers also gave their opinions in the matter in this amazing post by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which you can read here.
It also turns out that Yi-Fen Chou is a real person. The woman it belongs to, claiming to have gone to high school with Hudson, has demanded that Hudson stop using it. Her sister Ellen told the New York Times, “I’m just aghast.” She also said that Hudson has shown a “lack of honesty” in using her sister’s name and a “careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians.”
Hudson has said, according to the New York Times, that his work was rejected by the publication 40 times under his own name, and that he used the fake name for “placing purposes,” as in, to get published finally. What he was doing was gaming the system, a broken system that believes “filling quotas” (i.e. picking one or two people of color to join a sea of white writers for an anthology) is the right way to solve the lack of diversity in the writing field instead of editors thinking outside of themselves and their worldview to seek out and find talent from all walks of life to have a truly diverse writing landscape. I’ve never read his writing, but if you get rejected 40 times under your own name, doesn’t that just mean your writing needs work? Maybe if he’d entered the 41st time under his own name, after doing serious edits or something, he would have gotten in. Instead, he took the easy way, which is using a system that was broken in the first place by supremacist views, and breaking it even more with more supremacy.
Anjali Enjeti sums up everything quite well in her article for the Guardian:
The position that a racist deception should be met with honesty and due diligence in return is nothing short of baffling. The perpetuation of the lie – in the form of permanent, printed words on a page in a celebratory issue of poetry – is a continued cultural theft. Moreover, Alexie has gone beyond simply supporting Hudson’s pseudonym as Chou, he has afforded the poet several sentences in his bio, in the form of personal, unverifiable statistics regarding his rate of acceptances and rejections to publications, to justify Hudson’s choice of a Chinese pseudonym.
Alexie maintains he found Hudson’s poem so “compelling,” he had no choice but to include it in the anthology. But as an editor, Alexie could have required Hudson to publish it under his real name. After all, if the purpose of Hudson’s use of a Chinese pseudonym was to increase his rate of publication (as he maintains in his bio), surely once he achieved this goal, he could have relinquished the pseudonym.
What do you make of this debacle? Give your opinions in the comments section below!