The Real and the Fake and the Real Fake: Yi-Fen Chou, Poetry, and the Issue of Who We Are

A white male American poet pretends to be an Asian poet and gets work accepted that has been rejected when submitted under his American identity. This behavior says something about culture that is painfully clear despite well meaning attempts to deconstruct it.

As I have done before, I will begin with an anecdote:

Yi-Fen Chou, a.k.a. Michael Derrick Hudson (image courtesy Poetry Foundation)

In the middle of the last decade of the last century I applied for a number of college and university teaching jobs. I kept getting to “semi- finalist” or “finalist” status without getting offers. Finally one department chair agreed to talk to me OTR. The problem, he explained in a series of private emails, was that the push for diversity made a white male candidate like me, even though well qualified, Plan C (usually, for college teaching posts, there are three finalists). If the other candidates who met diversity needs for the department/university turned the post down, I  might get an offer. Since no one in his/her right mind would turn down a decent college teaching post offer, I should expect not to receive offers if qualifications were remotely even. In fact, for the post I’d applied for for HIS department, the university had hit the jackpot: a bi-racial (black/Asian) candidate who was also a Buddhist nun. As the department chair explained in a wryly humorous tone, “we achieved a kind of hiring Nirvana.” I must admit that I myself achieved a kind of enlightenment. I didn’t apply for jobs again for a couple of years. (Before neoliberal trolls get exercised about the lazy bum living off the fruits of their “I made this” labors, allow me to say that I had a good teaching post – I just wanted a better one, a different one, a new challenge. That’s free market behavior, n’est-ce pas?)

The recent controversy that emerged last week concerning the selection of a poem by Yi-Fen Chou for the collection Best American Poetry of 2015 reveals a lot about how our culture works now. It also reveals a great deal about what we’re trying to get right and how well – and poorly – we’re doing at the trying to “get it right” in our quest for that elusive ideal of a  post-racial society.

Any discussion of the motives Hudson had for choosing an an Asian nom de plume lead – well, not anywhere useful and likely somewhere uncomfortable. I can only speculate, and so I will.

Like most Americans, my ancestry is something of a mixed bag. In that bag is a great (or great great, I forget) grandmother who was Cherokee. After the disappointment of failing yet again in my quest for a new post – and becoming enlightened about the “problem” I faced as a white male (in that my life long privileged status was being reduced slightly to allow disadvantaged persons a slightly more level field of competition), an ugly thought occurred. I had a Cherokee great (or great great) grandmother. That, using the enlightened genealogical thinking of “one drop” jurisprudence, since I was one-sixteenth (or one-thirty-second) Native American, then I could apply for posts as a “person of color” and fight that awful, dreadful “reverse discrimination” that was being practiced against me. I am ashamed to say that it took me possibly a good 60 seconds of considering this strategy before I rejected it as the petty. selfish, buffoonish jackassery it is. I am proud to say, though, that I made pretty merciless fun of myself for my mean-spiritedness to my friends for a while afterward. We make our atonements as we can, I have learned. Laughing at myself when my thinking is benighted is one of mine.

Hudson has been attacked, often rather viciously, by Asian writers since his ploy came to light. I can’t say whether their attacks are “over the top,” “beyond the pale,” or any of the other dismissive cliches used by some to condemn outrage at what can be perceived as racist behavior. I am a privileged white guy not named Clinton; I can’t say whether I can feel the pain a person of color feels when he/she sees his/her culture appropriated by the dominant culture. In the America I grew up in, I was the standard, not the deviation.

What is interesting, curious, and worth considering further to me in this controversy is the behavior of judge Sherman Alexie who chose Hudson’s poem and who elected to keep the poem in the anthology even after Hudson admitted (the tone of his admission has been described as “unabashed“) that he was a white male American, not a Chinese American. In one view, Alexie’s stance is commendable; he read Hudson’s poem “blind” (there’s this perception that judges don’t know whose work they’re reading in lit contests, but given the nature of the literary culture, perception and reality have a gap between them, though in this case there’s no evidence of such a gap), selected it as one of the “best American poems of 2015” and stood by his decision on artistic principles. This seems commendable, even admirable, especially since Alexie himself is a person of color (he’s Native American). It is pleasant to think that Mr. Alexie saw an opportunity to begin moving our perceptions forward and that he envisioned that revising our thinking about art/artists could lead the way to post-racial thinking in the larger culture.

But Professor Hua Hsu of Vassar notes in The New Yorker that Alexie has admitted that he gave Hudson’s poem a closer reading “because of the poet’s Chinese name.” So there goes the “use art to foster post-racial thinking” scenario, right?

Interestingly, Hua Hsu doesn’t think so. He commends Sherman Alexie for sticking with his selection even after Hudson admitted that Yi-Fen Chou was a pen name. Alexie’s argument, that work should be judged on its merits not on the author’s name, rings true for Professor Hsu.

It rings true for me, too. I’m with Sherman Alexie and Hua Hsu – it’s the work that counts.

But that doesn’t clear up a big, big problem. I’m a writer myself. I’ve had plenty of work accepted, plenty rejected. All under my name – no pen names – certainly no pen names that might suggest that I’m someone I’m not, like, say, Jim Trail of Tears or Jim Mountain Hider. Such behavior should give one the willies worse than closed doors.

That Michael Derrick Hudson didn’t get the willies when he typed “Yi-Fen Chou” onto his manuscript instead of “Michael Derrick Hudson” tells me that despite the anger of some commentators and the thoughtfulness of people like Sherman Alexie and Professor Hua Hsu, we’re still a long, long way from a culture where race isn’t part of our consideration of art, of work, of human worth.

About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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4 Responses to The Real and the Fake and the Real Fake: Yi-Fen Chou, Poetry, and the Issue of Who We Are

  1. Thanks for offering the 1/32 Cherokee perspective about this. I’ve been turning this thing over in my mind ever since I heard about it, and I still can’t really decide what I think. Assuming another ethnic or gender identity is always an admission that that “other” has something one lacks, or feels one lacks. But there is a fundamental imbalance in how these acts of passing are judged. The Brontes or Mary Ann Evans writing as men, or countless instances in earlier times of light-skinned black people living as white, is regarded as regrettable but understandable — a deceptive response to an unfair system. When it goes the other way — a white woman passes as black, a white poet assumes a Chinese name — the response is different and much harsher. How dare the privileged, who already have so much, take more? is one implied question. What kind of crazy person would assume that “lesser” status? is another. Yet the fundamental motive is the same, whichever way the person goes, “lower” or “higher.” Something is felt to be missing, wrong, out of balance. Perhaps calling less for contempt than compassion. Or at least, an effort to understand.

    A female novelist who starting querying as a man offers an interesting take on this issue. Have you seen it?

    • Jim Booth says:

      Thanks for sharing the Jezebel piece. Nichols gets at the clear gender bias issue that plagues our culture. She seems to feel ambivalent about what she felt driven to do, but satisfied that she gained something from it – and reclaimed her own identity in the process. Good for her.

      Maybe Hudson feels that way. My crap detector dings, though, about him for some reason. Maybe that’s me projecting my own neuroses on him. Still, his self-righteous self-justification about submitting as himself and submitting at Chou gives me pause. That, I think, is what I react to in this essay.

      Maybe white males take it on the chin some now. Well, lots of other people been taking it on the chin a whole lot longer. Pendulum got to swing back and forth before it finds a golden mean, perhaps…?

  2. Pingback: Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman: The Power of a Great Story | Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

  3. Pingback: Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman: The Power of a Great Story | The New Southern Gentleman

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