Written by Rebecca Nichloson
In the latest edition of The Best in American Poetry; a widely known anthology of poems, a dynamic poem titled, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was published; supposedly written by an Asian American poet named Yi-Fen Chou, according to The New Yorker. Except the poet in question is not Asian American at all, he’s a middle-aged Caucasian man by the name of Michael Derrick Hudson, a former teacher in Illinois masquerading as a fictional Chinese American writer. Hudson cited multiple rejections of poems written under his own name as motivation for developing the borderline offensive, if not entirely offensive, persona. Upon using the name “Yi-Fen Chou,” Hudson’s poetry submissions gained more favorable responses from publishers, with the aforementioned poem appearing in a well-respected anthology.
As news of this case of purposefully mistaken identity spread, criticism has been directed towards Sherman Alexie, editor of the 2015 Best in American Poetry series, for his decision to allow the poem (which he says was published prior to knowing the author’s true identity) to remain in the anthology. On a blog for the series, Mr. Alexie makes an attempt to explain his reasons for keeping Hudson’s poem, stating that it was Mr. Hudson’s “Chinese name,” and his own desire to expand the literary canon to include more women and poets of color, that motivated him to give the poem deeper consideration.
“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,” Alexie told The New Yorker. Adding, “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.”
Hudson’s decision to use an ‘Asian-sounding’ pen name, for the sole purpose of getting published, and Alexie; a Native American editor with a desire to publish works by women and minorities, raises it’s own questions concerning culture, race, and the kinds of literature supported by publishing firms. However, it also gives rise to questions about the responsibilities of editors in this ever-changing industry.
Many of the arguments against Alexie’s decision to keep the poem in the anthology, lay in the fact that there are numerous Asian and Asian American poets writing, sincerely, about their cultural experiences in this country and beyond, who are not simply assuming supposedly ‘ethnic-sounding’ names for personal gain. The decision to publish work by an author such as Hudson devalues; not only Asian American poets, but the other writers in the anthology who earned their place in the publication without resorting to dishonesty.
Still the question remains: what is the role of the editor when it comes to ensuring cultural and artistic integrity of written works? In today’s publishing arena, both publishers and writers are faced with unique challenges, and although self-publishing options have decreased the number of ‘gate keepers,’ most writers still look to publishing companies and editors to bring their poems, novels, and nonfiction to the reading public. The ‘editor,’ is then faced with the daunting task of reading hundreds of pages of literature written by creative hopefuls—many of them toiling away in adjunct positions, working as bartenders and waitresses, or making a living by other, arguably, uninspired means— all with the knowledge that only a select few will be chosen for publication, and even then the road ahead is arduous at best.
As our society grows more culturally diverse, how we read and what we read will change, and when that occurs the demand for diverse artists and writers with the ability to look at facets of life from more than a westernized lens, will continue to grow and evolve. What’s deserving of, perhaps, more examination with regard to Hudson’s deception, isn’t just that he wrote a poem under a faux name—which some are calling an example of “yellow face”—but that his poem was still published, even after the fact. In other words, Hudson achieved what he set out to do.
What precedence does this set for other non-writers of color? Will other writers also take on faux personas, names they deem ‘African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian,’ under the assumption that doing so will increase their chances of getting published? Only time will tell. But let’s hope that, in end, truthfulness of expression reigns; not just ‘displays’ of truth.
Rebecca Nichloson, M.F.A Columbia University School of the Arts, M.A English Literature, Mercy College, M.S Publishing Studies (Distance), George Washington University (Candidate). B.A Liberal Arts/Business Administration. Editor/Writer at Black Enterprise magazine. Freelance journalist, editor, and creative writer. www.rebeccanichloson.com.