In case you missed the freshest drama in this particular genre, here's what you need to know: Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man from Fort Wayne, Indiana, published several poems under the female, Chinese pen name Yi-Fen Chou. One of those poems, The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve, was selected by guest editor Sherman Alexie for the prestigious Best American Poetry anthology, which holds only seventy-five of the year's poems.
When Hudson's poems were originally published by Prairie Schooner in Fall 2014 (Vol 88.3) his bio only listed his pen name, allowing readers and the journal's editors to believe that Yi-Fen Chou was the author's real name:
However, the acknowledgement entry in BAP 2015 notes both names:
In his BAP bio, Hudson said that he considered making the nom de plume into a persona, "but nothing ever came of it." The one thing he did notice was that poems sent out under Yi-Fen's name seemed more likely to be accepted:
In all literary magazines, space is limited and competition is high. It's under these circumstances when cheating – if one can "cheat" at poetry other than outright committing plagiarism – becomes incentivized because the "game" of getting one's work published is difficult to say the least.
No one knows exactly why Mr. Hudson specifically chose Yi-Fen Chou as his nom de plume, but we do know that the name belongs to a woman who went to his high school the same time he was there. Ultimately, it's not the use of a pseudonym that's got everyone upset, because writers do this all the time, so what exactly is in this name that is causing such an uproar?
Aside: What's in a name, any way?
Our names are our first revelation of ourselves in an introduction, our first point of contact in a social world, and our first impression from the upper left hand corner of a manuscript. According to the sociologist Dr. Erving Goffman in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, we are always seeking extra information about an individual to know how to interact with him or her better and how to understand our social interactions.
We are interested in one another's "socio-economic status, conception of self, attitude toward others, competence, trustworthiness, etc." Goffman writes, "If unacquainted with the individual, observers can glean clues from his conduct and appearance which allow them to apply their previous experience with individuals roughly similar to the one before them or, more important, to apply untested stereotypes to him. They can assume from past experience that only individuals of a particular kind are likely to be found in a given social setting."
Names are tricky business. They're imbued with the weight of a person's whole identity. Sometimes that identity includes clues to their family's history, their ethnicity, gender, or generation. For instance, you can determine someone's age according to the popularity of their name: most Gladyses or Murrays weren't born after 1950, and Jennifer was the most common baby girl's name from 1970-1984. The suffix -ez in a Spanish last name means "son of," so if your last name is Martinez, you had a Martín in your family, Gonzalez, a Gonzalo, etc.
But sometimes names are meant to slough all that baggage off, to claim a new, intentional identity, which is why some writers choose to publish under a pen name. Samuel Clemens used "Mark Twain" as a nod to riverboat culture: it means "to measure two fathoms," which was a safe depth for riverboats back in those days. Stephen King used the name "Richard Bachman" to publish more than one book per year without "oversaturating the market for the ‘King' brand."
There are other famous nom de plumes: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), Pablo Neruda (Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). But none of these names caused their writers much trouble, probably because their chosen names didn't imply a major cultural chess move in the way Hudson's does.
Is a white writer using an ethnic name cultural appropriation?
Using the name "Yi-Fen Chou" in an attempt to be published at first glance may not look like cultural appropriation. Hudson's is a different case than transracial Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Spokane, who is of Caucasian descent but decided to transition to Black.
But Hudson hasn't transitioned into a Chinese person. In fact, his poems have nothing to do with Eastern history, culture, or politics. For instance, The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve looks nothing like the following exotic Updike poem (Americana and Other Poems):
Hudson's case looks more like the appropriation of our expectation of ethnicity than a textbook scenario of cultural appropriation. In Sherman Alexie's announcement about the poem, he says he was expecting a poem by a Chinese author to talk more about Chinese identity, which was a conceptual contradiction and therefore interesting and enticing:
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.
Are cultural appropriation and the appropriation of expectation of culture the same thing? To make certain that we were clear on the terms, we looked it up and spoke with an anthropologist.
According to your everyday introduction to cultural anthropology textbook (Cultural Anthropology: Asking Questions about Humanity), to understand an act of appropriation, you must first understand the act of consumption. "Consumption" in anthropology is to use and assign meaning to a good, service, or relationship.
The textbook says, "Through consumption people create cultural meaning, build social relationships, and create identities." Consumption is the cornerstone of capitalism. Publishing poetry, of course, does not pay. It might, however, be a sign of prestige, which is a form of social capital, an equally important kind of wealth. And consumption begins by taking possession of something, thereby "appropriating" it.
American Studies scholar George Liptsitz discussed how cultural appropriation might be viewed as "strategic anti-essentialism," the calculated use of a cultural form (such as clothing and adornment, music and art, religion, language, or other behaviors) from a culture other than your native one to define yourself and by doing so communicate that identity of any kind is fluid. Strategic anti-essentialism might look like an image of the Union Jack safety-pinned to a punk rocker's leather jacket or "peace" tattooed on your lower back in Hanzi.
"Americans try to set themselves apart and be unique, because in our culture, ‘we are all supposed to be unique.' American culture demands us to be our own bright, shining star, right? A snowflake like no other," says anthropologist Andy Carey. "Choosing a nom de plume that is Chinese is a reaction to the reaction of white male dominance in our society. White male poets are a dime a dozen. He's trying to get around the reaction to get himself published. But it is not cultural appropriation. It is minority appropriation, appropriation of the status of minorities to get into the publishing world, in the small area reserved for women and minorities to get published. It's just like people claiming to be descended from an Indian princess because they can't claim nobility through their white, European ancestors."
Have white poets appropriated Asian names before?
There have been stranger appropriations of Asian-ness in the world of poetry, for example the Hiroshima Poetry Hoax. In the 1990s, notebooks surfaced from a Japanese poet who had survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This man, Araki Yasusada, died of cancer in 1972 and his notebooks were discovered by his son in 1991, and translated and edited by Kent Johnson. Johnson included some of the work in his doctoral dissertation. Some poems were published in the American Poetry Review, Grandstreet, and Conjunctions. A collection was picked up by Wesleyan University Press.
But there was something off about the poems: In Lingua Franca, John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College is quoted as saying, "It plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture – Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic – and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony."
As an example, Solt cites the line, "obediently bowing the white flowers." "Bowing is not seen as subservient in Japan," he points out. "It's a form of greeting." People started to notice anachronistic references to poets that Yasusada probably wouldn't have known and oddly enough, scuba divers.
Years earlier, Johnson had published poetry of a similar nature under the pseudonym Ogiwara Miyamori. The poetry world was caught in the middle of a poetry hoax and Johnson wasn't speaking out. What was Johnson's intent and would his intent have mattered?
How much does intent matter when writers use pseudonyms?
It's difficult to parse out the intention of white writers when they choose to use pen names or take on personas belonging to subjugated groups, but we can say something about the effect. In some cases it feels like a great ruse while in others it seems to be a perfectly acceptable creative decision.
Michael Derrick Hudson, like Kent Johnson, deceived editors into believing he was someone he wasn't, and his work was judged based on that deception. This isn't the case for the Howell book or George Scarbrough's alter ego because, while they may be problematic cases for having oversimplified a culture in their appropriation of it, their names were clearly stated on the work, giving readers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they approve of the culture bending exercise or not.
When a writer named JT Leroy came on the scene in the mid ‘90s, no such transparency was provided. As a matter of fact, the story of JT Leroy could be called an elaborate hoax since the person who was supposed to be a sixteen-year-old boy who had overcome "prostitution, drug addiction, and vagrancy" to become an accomplished writer was really thirty-something-year-old Laura Albert who had also endured these experiences but felt that she had to write about them under a pen name in order for her to heal.
Some members of the literary community at the time felt like they'd been lied to by Albert because many believed, rightfully, that LeRoy's stories were autobiographical.
However, Albert has a different view:
It had nothing to do with fooling anybody about anything. In most of the important ways, JT was more real to me then than I was: I understood him better and loved him more readily and forgave him more easily than I did myself.
And no audience for any work of art needs to worry about being fooled. Art is the opportunity to change the way you think, which means you can never be fooled – you either have that experience or you don't, and you can always tell too! Everything else is just packaging, and packaging is the first thing people throw away.
The notion that our names, genders, races, sexualities are merely packaging echoes the anti-essentialist sentiment that we humans have the potential to be anything and shouldn't be boxed into one identity.
Albert seems to be arguing that art must stand on its own, divorced from its makers. At first this idealism is attractive and seems logical, but it ignores an important reality: throwing out our packaging is a privilege, one that women and people of color generally don't have access to.
So what to make of all this?
Michael Derrick Hudson happens to be writing at a time when American culture is attempting to shift away from white hetero patriarchy into a more multicultural, democratic meritocracy. For those who have benefited from the status quo, this desire to hear a diversity of voices, to publish and promote literature that represents the world as it really is, may feel like a loss, but that feeling is an illusion.
According to the Women's Media Center, men still hold about two-thirds of the newspaper and magazine positions in America, and in 2012 Roxane Gay noted that 90% of book reviews were of white authors while the country's population is only 72% white (thankfully less now).
Also, the wider intellectual world agrees that the "PoC name subterfuge" is further proof of the white male's revolting privilege:
In a roundtable discussion sponsored by the PEN American Center, Korean-American poet, author and editor Alexander Chee stated that Hudson has not been asked to offer proof to support his claim that the poem had been rejected 40 times under his own name. Chee said "the only reason I can think no one has made him prove it is that he is a white man, and when white men in America say they are discriminated against, people just say 'oh, ok', and do not ask them to prove it.
Writing for Rumpus, Brian Spears characterized Hudson's use of a Chinese pen name to be "yellowface," and said "even in the creative world, for all our reputation as an open liberal stronghold, straight white male is the default against which all other writing is contrasted." Further, Spears opined that a white male adopting the name of a marginalized minority is an act that is both crass and offensive.
Slate writer Katy Waldman described Hudson's submission as an unethical "attempt to game the poetry submission system" that "reap(ed) the benefits of affirmative action".
Further, Chinese DeviantArt artist Li-flower writes that "Co-opting another race reeks of falsehood and furthers a history of oppression. Michael Derrick Hudson and Sherman Alexie have hurt of all of us who struggle to be heard with their selfishness. They need to start looking at the bigger picture beyond their privileged literary bubble."
So when Hudson chose Yi-Fen Chou as his nom de plume and accepted publication credits under that name without revealing his true identity, his publication in literary journals became something more than a social experiment. Whether he intended it to or not, Hudson's choice to take on the identity of a Chinese woman was an act of cutting in line, taking something that did not belong to him: a page in The Best American Poetry anthology, a limited and coveted space that doesn't need white male sneaks.