Actual Asian poets use #WhitePenName to respond to poetry controversy – Los Angeles Times
Whatâ€™s more likely to get your poem published: a â€œwhiteâ€ name or a Chinese one?
The Asian American Writersâ€™ WorkshopÂ has responded to the controversy around â€œChineseâ€ poet â€œYi-Fen Chouâ€ (actually Michael Derrick Hudson, who is white) with satire. The organization started the #WhitePenName hashtag and encouraged fellow writers of color to imagine what benefits they could get if they used a stereotypically â€œwhiteâ€ pen name.
They even created a â€œWhite Pen Name Generator.â€ Visit the site and you will be given your very own parody name that looks and sounds “white” (mine is â€œDonald Trump Reed.â€)
The controversy started when Hudson, as Yi-Fen Chou, was included in the â€œBest American Poetry 2015â€ anthology, which was published this week and revealed the deception.
Hudson says heÂ submitted the poem to 40 publications and couldnâ€™t get accepted. But under the Chinese name â€œYi-Fen Chou,â€ his poem was published with relative ease, finding a home after nine submissions at the literary journal Prairie Schooner and then making the cut for the anthology.
â€œBest American Poetry 2015â€ guest editor Sherman Alexie, who is Native American, explained that he was more amenable to the poem because he thought the author was Chinese. But even after he realized the true identity of the author, he ultimately decided to keep the poem in the collection, as he found it to be a good one.
In response, the literature community has exploded into debate. Some praised Alexie for his honesty, and others expressed disappointment that a â€œfakeâ€ Chinese American is now part of the modern American literary canon.
Alexie, who called Hudsonâ€™s usage of a Chinese pen name â€œcolonial theft,â€ admitted that he was angry at himself for being fooled.
â€œHudson had to have been aware of who the editor was,â€ writer and Louisiana State University professor Daniel PeÃ±a said via phone interview on Thursday. â€œHe had to know that Alexie was trying to correct a years-long pattern of injustice of excluding writers of color. And he consciously tried to exploit it. Iâ€™m not sure what statement he thinks heâ€™s making about contemporary poetry, but itâ€™s coming from a really dark place.â€
And Hudson is not the first white person to dupe audiences into believing heâ€™s a person of color.
Angelenos may remember the story of Danny Santiago, the talented young Chicano writer whoÂ penned the prizewinning 1983 novel â€œFamous All Over Town,â€ a coming-of-age novel about a streetwise Chicano boy growing up in the East Los Angeles barrio. But Danny Santiago wasnâ€™t actually a young Chicano, or even a Santiago; it was later revealed that he was actually Daniel James, a 73-year-old white man who had been educated in the Ivy League and blacklisted in Hollywood.
Then thereâ€™s Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Wash., woman whose parents say she is white, although she identifies as black;Â Vice has dubbed Hudson the “Rachel Dolezal of Literature.â€
But there is an important difference between Hudson and his predecessors. â€œFamous All Over Town,â€Â despite its deception, was still, in the late 1980s, treasured in Los Angeles high schools as an inspiring book for young people of color searching for characters withÂ whom they could relate. And Dolezal, before the scandal, was known in her community of Spokane for her scholarship and work with the NAACP.
So whereas some of the anger against Dolezal and Santiago was tempered by the appreciation of their contributions, Hudson has earned no such benefit. He has not claimed to contribute to any causes in the Asian American community, nor is his poem focused on inspiring a shared Asian American experience.
Instead, his critics say, he merely took from the â€œcrumbsâ€ that minority writers have to survive on in the literary world. (He even appears to have taken the name â€œYi-Fen Chouâ€ from a woman who attended high school with him in Fort Wayne, Ind., her family tells the New York Times).
Still, Jyothi Natarajan, managing editor of the Asian American Writersâ€™ Workshop, says that the controversy has something of a silver lining.
â€œWeâ€™re really happy that #ActualAsianPoet has also taken off along with the #WhitePenName tag,â€ she said, in reference to the hashtag that started as a joke in her office. Now, social media users are promoting the work of Asian American poets.
PeÃ±a says that after years of being underrepresented, agents are finallyÂ more willing to â€œtake a risk” by investing in a writer of color.
For some, though, this may not be cause for celebration, but alarm. Ken Chen, executive director of Asian American Writersâ€™ Workshop, wroteÂ thatÂ Hudsonâ€™s actions wereÂ thoseÂ ofÂ a â€œhysterical white manâ€ who was envious of writers of color whoÂ were finally gaining recognition.
Alexie says Hudson used the synonym â€œas a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.â€
If this is the case, Hudson is not alone in his sentiments. Like those who argue against affirmative action, some seem to believe that the poetry business, as â€œThe American Conservativeâ€ suggests, is trying to â€œhave it both waysâ€Â by sacrificing merit for empty diversity.