19 writers respond to Michael Derrick Hudson’s yellowface
September 15, 2015
Early last week, news broke that Yi-Fen Chou, whose poem is included in The Best American Poetry 2015, is not a Chinese poet, but in fact is a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson. After little success submitting poems under his real name, Hudson decided to take on the Chinese name Yi-Fen Chou—a name, it turns out, is shared by a high school classmate of his. His poem was accepted by the journal Prairie Schooner and later chosen by Sherman Alexie for this year’s anthology of Best American Poetry.
As AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen wrote for NPR, “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.”
We asked writers within in the AAWW community to send us their responses to Michael Derrick Hudson’s yellowface. Please read, share, and continue the conversation.
1. Muriel Leung | 2. Jenna Le | 3. Kenji Liu | 4. Timothy Yu | 5. Bao Phi | 6. Craig Santos Perez | 7. Kavita Das | 8. Sueyeun Juliette Lee | 9. Dan S. Wang | 10. Jerika Marchan | 11. Amy King | 12. Jane Wong | 13. Monica Youn | 14. Justine el-Khazen | 15. Sejal Shah | 16. Yanyi | 17. Minal Hajratwala | 18. Wendy Xu | 19. Franny Choi
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1. Muriel Leung
How It Works: One Way But Not in Reverse
The formula for appropriation is not at all a difficult one, or as Michael Derrick Hudson has it figured, it only consists of two steps. First, strip an identity of all its history. Second, wear the hide to your convenience. Such is the case with Hudson’s publication in Best New American Poetry through the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. He admits there is no “artistic” reason behind his actions, only an irritating curiosity to see if wearing the identity of a Chinese writer by paper would lead to more publication success… and it has! Not by any merit of the work itself, or as co-editor of the anthology, Sherman Alexie admits, the poem lingered in the “Maybe” pile for some time before consideration of the Chinese-sounding name shifted the “Maybe” to a “Yes.” So there are multiple failures here. One is the man who dons yellowface for literary success. Another is the institution that acknowledges this appropriation and welcomes the imposter into its pages anyway.
What does this mean except that Chinese identity is not legible to you or you or you? Alexie writes that he didn’t see anything “inherently Chinese or Asian” in the poem as if I am genetically predestined to ringing gongs while contemplating calligraphy. I think of my father who was elated to hear after ten years of working in a French kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen that he was no longer “Wai Mo” to co-workers but “Oliver.” Or “one of us” as he was ushered into a type of belonging. “Oliver Bon Dinant,” my father named the French restaurant he opened in Long Island a year before his death. “Oliver” he introduced himself to patrons, mostly white and upper middle class. “Chef Oliver,” said ladies in white spring dresses while I sat on a crate in the back of the kitchen, snapping my gum with working class Queens girl affectation. Walking past a table of well-dressed men one day, I overheard, “Something so strange about a Chinese guy cooking French food… I don’t know… Feels wrong, doesn’t it?” And that was all I heard for all my days pouring and spilling ice cubes at every table.
So the ability to wear a name that is not yours works only one way and not in reverse. You must, like Michael Derrick Hudson, have something that the world keeps imbuing with power—to be a white man, to do very little, and to move with such wide steps, flattening everyone on the way.
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2. Jenna Le
As an Asian-American poet based in New York City, my experiences have differed significantly from those of my white counterparts. Once, following a poetry reading in which I performed many poems alluding explicitly to my Vietnamese heritage, a white man in the audience came up to me and told me, apropos of nothing, that he thought I should start writing poems about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At most readings I’ve attended in this city, which is supposedly one of those most diverse cities in the U.S., I have been the only Asian-American in the room, often the only person of color in the room. At one reading I went to, a white poet performed a poem describing an old Chinese-American woman she had met once on the subway in broad-brushed stereotypical terms (martial-arts metaphors, etc.), and at the end the whole room except me and my friend stood up and gave her a standing ovation. My friend and I just gaped at each other in disbelief. On occasions when I have attended local readings in the company of Asian-American friends or relatives, at least one person in my party is bound to be mistaken for the Japanese-American or Filipino-American poet who is performing that night, to our humiliation. It matters not what clothes they are wearing, if their hair is curly or straight, or whether they have glasses. I have personally been mixed up with other Asian-American woman poets on three separate occasions in recent memory. Suffice it to say that Asian-Americans are far from being overrepresented in the poetry scene. Anyone who thinks otherwise and thereby concludes that masquerading as an Asian-American poet is an act whose consequences are so diffuse as to virtually constitute a victimless crime is mistaken.
Because Asian-American people’s names are often the first indicator of our ethnic “otherness” that people encounter, they have great meaning to us. Although as a young child in a majority-white community I hated my name for making me stand out when I longed to fit in, I am now inextricably bound to it and will never voluntarily change it, for marriage or any other reason. In the spring of my senior year of high school, I received an official letter from my school district stating that I would be required to pass a basic English-language proficiency test before before allowed to graduate. I could scarcely believe what I was reading: I was American-born; I had been fluent in English since age 3; I had earned straight A’s in honors English classes every year running and aced the verbal section of the SAT. Why, then, had some stranger in my school district’s administration singled me out to inform me that my English-language proficiency was in question? The only possible reason was because I had an “ethnic” surname. My name has been an inconvenience to me at least as often as it has been a blessing. When I spell my name for people I have just met, I have gotten reactions ranging from “Wait, what?” to “That’s how it’s spelled? Are you sure?” (The latter especially tickles me, implying as it does that someone I met five seconds ago could possibly be a greater expert on the spelling of my name than I am myself.) I have lived with my name longer than many people I know have lived with their spouses, and we have weathered all manner of prejudice and embarrassment together. If someone wants to steal my name and append it to their own poems, all I can say is: we are not giving up our names without a fight.
Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers.
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3. Kenji Liu
Please find attached an invoice for $500. You recently admitted to using my name to submit a poem 10 times. This $500 is to cover all the submission fees you paid in my name, plus any others you have not yet declared.
Please be advised that you are to cease and desist using my name in any way. Any future use of my name will result in further invoices.
In the unlikely event that you win a prize or get a book published, you are to immediately redirect all income (after taxes) to an Asian Pacific American organization of my choice.
Please note that if you refuse, I have access to ninjas.
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4. Timothy Yu
Most of you know me as Timothy Yu, a mild-mannered Chinese American poet from Madison, Wisconsin. However, for several years I have been leading a poetic double life.
Like every poet, from time to time I write poems by which I am somewhat embarrassed. Once these poems have been rejected a multitude of times, I send them out again under the name of Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana. As a strategy for “placing” poems, this nom de plume has been quite successful for me (I keep detailed submission records). Some might ask why I would impersonate a white man born in Wabash, Indiana in 1963 simply to increase my acceptance rates, but I am nothing if not persistent.
I realize that this isn’t a very “artistic” or “plausible” explanation for using a pseudonym. Years ago I did consider trying to make Michael into a “person,” but nothing ever came of it.
However, a strange thing has happened. My alter ego, apparently unaware that he is fictional, has adopted a pseudonym of his own, publishing his own most unloved poems under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. I can only speculate that Michael, unconsciously and perhaps resentfully aware that he is nothing more than a figment of a Chinese American imagination, cannot help but wrap up his poetic detritus, his most despised and rejected works, in a package with a Chinese name.
It has come to my attention that Michael’s Asian masquerade has caused some offense within the Asian American literary community. For this I must apologize, and reassure my readers that it’s okay: Michael really is Asian, even if he doesn’t know it.
Now that the mask behind the mask has been removed, I feel compelled, in the interests of full disclosure, to begin releasing a project I had hoped to keep secret from the public: The Collected Poems of Yi-Fen Chou. These poems, the worst of the worst of which my poetic imagination is capable, will appear in installments in the near future.
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5. Bao Phi
To Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man who named himself Yi-Fen Chou because he thought it would get him published: I am going to change my name to Chadbrad Dessentry Stevenson and see if that helps me get published. Whoops, I already am published. Just worked my ass off at poetry and performance for more than two decades, is all. Worked at it even though this kid in my creative writing class said what I wrote wasn’t poetry, was just street talk, is all. Past that one professor who said real poetry doesn’t ever happen at open mics, is all. Past my parents who wanted me to support myself out of our poverty and poetry is not the way to do it, is all. Past the people who *still* see my Asian face and are surprised when I tell them I’m a poet, not making their pork fried rice or their iPhone, is all. Past the white hipsters talking out the side of their mouth saying my success was some type of affirmative action, is all. Past my own people who think I’m an embarrassment because I don’t conform to ivory tower gatekeeper tastes, is all. Kept working past it even as I wonder what good poetry is when toddlers are getting washed up onto shores. Past my own self doubt, the two jobs at once, the single coparenting, the everyday wish that I learned a trade or could fix things simply with my own two hands, the self-hate, the survivor’s guilt, wondering if this borrowed language is turning me inside out as I seek to master it, is all. Your people, you plant flags and name things after yourselves and you own the world this way. You get mad when we try to do the same, you get mad when we don’t. Every day I wonder if I want my name attached to this burning, hell-spinning thing called poetry. What a wonder it must be, to decide you want to put on any name you please, unburdened by chinks in your armor, the blank flag in front of you, ready for you to scratch your words across its skin, not a breeze in sight.
So I read Sherman Alexie’s letter, rationalizing that he is standing by his selection of Yi-Fen Chou aka Michael Derrick Hudson for Best American Poetry, and while I completely disagree with his position, and *especially* find his rationale that subverting white nepotism is the same as white nepotism deeply problematic (smarter people than me have pointed out how this disregards power imbalance among many other things), I respect him and don’t want to make this into people of color fighting against one another*. All the same, I see (mostly white) people posting on Mr. Alexie’s response letter page and elsewhere, treating his word and his position as the end of this discussion. I kinda want to post that it’d be nice if people listened to and valued Asian American people’s opinions on this matter, you know, like, if it’s not too much trouble and shit. But mostly I’m very tired of these shenanigans. I don’t want to get into these weird internet SCREAMING MATCHES, even as Asian American voices and opinions are once again pushed aside even when some shit is done literally in our name, so I think I am going to just start sending out the poems of Walt Whitman to literary magazines and publishers under the pen name David Lo Pan. If you want to publish me, here’s my bio photo.
*Also, if anyone thinks that I’m one of the young superstars of color poets that Mr. Alexie rejected and are ‘calling for his head,’ 1) I’m not young or a superstar, 2) I’m not calling for his head, and 3) none of my poems were published last year, which means I wasn’t even in consideration to be in BAP, so I have no bitterness or jealousy in this regard. Also, fuck you.
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6. Craig Santos Perez
Dear David Lehman,
Because of your shameful decision to publish Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem of ethnic fraud, I will not purchase a copy of this year’s anthology. You should pulp the current version, withdraw the poem, and reprint the anthology with an apology.
p.s. If by some nepotistic miracle a future poem of mine is selected for your anthology series, I will not give you permission to re-publish it.
Dear Sherman Alexie,
I am disappointed in you. You spent so much time creating inane editorial rules that you forgot the most important rule of being an editor of color:
Do Not Allow Acts of Literary Racism to Occur on Your Watch.
The reason why we advocate for people of color in positions of editorial power is not about nepotism, it is about protecting against institutional racism, which has shaped the literary world for too long.
Institutional racism is as common as oxygen.
In the past, you have critiqued Asa Earl Carter, Barbara Kingsolver, and mascots. While you couldn’t stop those acts, you could have stopped Hudson’s offensive “yellowface” and prevented the harm that it has caused. Instead, you were more concerned about your embarrassment. Your honesty does not hide your lack of integrity.
You state that you take the publication of Best American Poetry “very f*cking seriously.” You should have taken the golden rule of being an editor of color very f*cking seriously instead.
Dear Michael Derrick Hudson,
Shame on you. You are not entitled to publication credits. Ethnic minority identities are not submission strategies for white poets.
You have probably realized by now that you have ruined any chance of publishing under your own name. If you feel any remorse, you should publicly apologize and withdraw your poem.
If you don’t feel remorse, I imagine that you are likely coming up with new pseudonyms to use for your future, mediocre poems. Let me help. Below are some ethnic sounding pseudonyms you can use that fit your personality:
Ipu Pala?ole (Hawaiian), Juan Pendejo (Spanish), Bèn Dàn (Mandarin), Lo Dit (Vietnamese), Uso Tsuki (Japanese), Anakka Nangputa (Tagalog), Writes With Privilege (Native)
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7. Kavita Das
A few years ago when I was working at a racial justice organization, I felt like every week there was a new race story that would illustrate how far we had yet to go as a society when it comes to racial equity; from fending off stereotypes, to calling for systemic changes not quick fixes, to explaining the key distinction between diversity and equity.
And then I transitioned to writing full time. It’s been more than 2 years since I’ve immersed myself into the literary world. And once again it feels like every week there is a new race story. But this time it involves individuals who use sentences to illuminate the world, who use words to plumb the depths of human existence. One week it’s an author who uses an offensive stereotype to introduce a fellow author at an awards ceremony; the next week it’s an editor who feels the need to go on the offensive to defend the failure of their “colorblind” submissions policy as a commitment to excellence over diversity; then there is the white female publisher who writes offensive dribble in the Huffpost defending the mothership of writers against opposition from marginalized writers; and now a white male poet who feels the need to let us know that he took on an Asian pen name because as he suggests, it makes it easier to get published.
On a personal level, as someone who’s writing about a woman of color not fully remembered by history, I’ve been told to take out all her quotes but leave in the one by James Joyce. I’ve sat through classes where people have written about their experiences, at home and abroad, with people of color who remain either nameless and faceless or over-exotified.
All I can say is that it is equally exhausting to be the person who brings these issues up, (especially if you’re the only person of color in the room as is often the case) as it is to remain silent. Remaining silent doesn’t make it go away. It’s not like water off a duck’s back. Instead, it’s like run off water polluting the already treacherous waters you are trying to navigate – and let’s at least acknowledge that some people have sturdy vessels while others are left to swim. But worst of all is the experience of leaning in and raising race and being muted or silenced, something I’ve witnessed and experienced.
I believe the conversation on race is an incredibly crucial one, one that requires our society to walk through the eye of the fire of history. And one that requires writers who believe themselves to be free thinkers, who are above patriarchical, racial, and other biases, to acknowledge that the literary field and their own views have been shaped by these forces. And furthermore, it requires a shift to understanding that a commitment to all voices IS a commitment to excellence—they are not mutually exclusive, but symbiotic. Ultimately, I’m hopeful not just because I’ve made my new home in the literary community but because I want to believe that there is more that unites us as writers than there is that divides. But make no mistake, there is much much work to be done when it comes to race, on and off the page.
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8. Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Racial Resentment, or YOU PEOPLE Need to Quit Succeeding
A few days ago, before I was going to go on a Sunday bike ride in sunny Denver, I got the news via my friend Timothy Yu’s Facebook feed that an older white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson had published a poem in yellowface in the new Best American Poetry collection. I rolled my eyes and questioned if I really wanted to engage, but took the plunge and read his bio statement as published in the anthology. What a wreck.
His statement implied some kind of faulty affirmative action at work in the editorial selection process that finally published his poem after nearly 50 submissions: 40 submissions as himself, and 9 under the Asian mask of “Yi-Fen Chou.” He described this as a successful strategy for “placing” his poems. Cue epic eye roll.
I can only surmise he felt discriminated against as an older white man from Fort Wayne, Indiana who writes poems that include culturally Western European and biblical references. Oh, and that make use of the lyric “I.”
If he’s upset that editors are seeking out diverse voices, I have to ask him, well, what is it that hasn’t been said or written yet by someone like you that only you are saying or writing? I get that art should be a space of freedom and expression and experimentation, and I want us all to access that. But editors get to have their own notions of what they are seeking out, and if a different voice and some diversity is one of those qualities that shines with “merit” to them, than that is their happy prerogative. And frankly, THAT is the literary universe I would rather live in.
When I look at the gesture that Michael Derrick Hudson employed to get printed, I see a central attitude at work that disgusts me and which, sadly, I have encountered many times before. It’s, YOU PEOPLE HAVE TAKEN UP ENOUGH. YOU PEOPLE DON’T GET TO HAVE ANY MORE. And ultimately, YOU PEOPLE DON’T DESERVE IT.
Yes. YOU PEOPLE. Folks say “you people” when they don’t want to say whatever nasty slur is hiding in the back of their throat. They may not say it, but they’re feeling that exact same thing towards the person they are addressing.
I roll my eyes over this because it illustrates how even the smallest gains—like having work selected for publication in a poetry journal, which perhaps has the same cultural cache of being the number one a capella group in Portugal for a week—are met with deep White Racial Resentment.
I know much has been made of White Fragility, which is what blows up in our faces when we talk to white folks about racial issues and try to have them address some prejudicial attitudes they have expressed. White Fragility freaks out and then runs off to lick its perceived wounds or bury its head back in some “post-race” sand. I can deal with that in small doses.
What I see in Michael Derrick Hudson isn’t White Fragility. It’s straight up racial resentment trying to operate as a “gotcha” moment that purportedly demonstrates to White America that they are fucked and, hey, while we’re at it “NO MORE CHINESE.”
Racial Resentment is primarily directed at Asian/Americans; as a racial category, we’ve become the face of racial success due to our perceived diligence, sense of self-sacrifice, strong family values, and most notably our perceived ability to shut up, play by the rules, and take it.
Racial Resentment moves in several directions. Asian/Americans get it from all sectors. From white folks who think we’re “unfairly” getting ahead, and from other racialized subjects who face different opportunities and perils based on their racial formations.
Racial Resentment is an intensely violent phenomenon. I know better than to engage it. In Michael Derrick Hudson’s case, I mostly laugh because it is so ridiculous and is, strangely enough, a sign of how far we have come. But honestly? I get nervous. Why? Well, right now, Racial Resentment just publishes. But when it comes to its head, Racial Resentment kills. It grabs Annie Le from her desk. It rapes and kills her, stuffing her corpse behind the wall. It pushes Wai Kuen Kwok into an oncoming train. It clubs Vincent Chin at the bar.
I’m not calling Michael Derrick Hudson a murderer. What I am saying is that his attitude betrays a deeply violent resentment at how Asian voices matter. And if you follow that line of logic to its conclusion, than what’s his solution? To diminish, to invalidate, and to erase us. Which he attempted to do. Petulant hand claps for him, I guess.
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9. Dan S. Wang
Or Was It Only the Chinese People Who Were Supposed to Take Offense?
The Hudson-“Chou” affair broke into my social media feeds, as it probably did yours, in the register of anger and offense. And there it pretty much stayed, predictably but still to me disappointingly. At times it’s been enjoyable, that I am not denying. Comrade Tim Yu’s rejoinder was the most entertaining take-down I have read this year. And that’s saying something, because Tim and I live in the state where the bashing of our governor Scott Walker has become a high art form.
But I am wishing for a deeper reflection on exactly what is the rule, boundary, custom, courtesy, definition, or line of distinction that is being violated. We could be lazy and say, well, all of them. Fine. But what are they? And why do they exist? And what kinds of power do they serve? Do they serve us well under today’s political conditions?
I can dismiss the boneheaded Hudson as just another entitled crybaby white guy. Based on this episode, he himself certainly does not warrant much more attention than Doctor Yu’s verbal bodyslam. But the act does, and so does the outraged response.
That is because like the Rachel Dolezal affair, the Andrea Smith affair, and the conservative attack on Shaun King, the Hudson affair depends for its essential traction, so to speak, on the intractability of an elusive essentialism. This is the problem not widely discussed, but revealed by the depth of feeling I and others have experienced in responding to Hudson’s admission.
For those of us who identify as Asian and Asian-American, what was it that Hudson stole from us but a presumed essence? That it could be so easily stolen as via an assumption of a pseudonym speaks to the insubstantiality of that essence, whatever it is. On the other hand, the fact that Hudson had to admit to the lie, probably sooner than later, signals the certainty of being found out. His confession is evidence of Hudson’s absolute distance from the racial and ethnic identity he projected, that is to say, the higher the profile, the less viable the masquerade. And that, again, implies an essence in relation to which Hudson will always be alien.
I suggest that we take these controversies for what they prove about race and ethnicity as categories of people. What is clear to me is that categories of racial/ethnic identity are held in tension by opposing vectors of inclusion and exclusion. Race and ethnicity as categories are porous around their edges but maintain stability through different configurations of social densities within the category. The factors that govern the operations of inclusion and exclusion are fraught with notions of authenticity, identification both tactical and compulsory, performed identities (including the grand performance of language), and biology—each criterion of belonging is not totally fluid but not unchangingly static, either. None are supreme, and at some level of detail all run into irrational or arbitrary lines of demarcation.
What is notable about the Hudson case is precisely the Asian American context. What I mean is, compared to other categories of non-white race or non-European ethnicity, as a category and an identity “Asian American” is comparatively new and wholly political in its evolution. More “Asian” in emphasis as the term came into usage in the late 1960s, in an age of revolutionary pan-nationalisms, by the 1980s the “American” tag grew in importance as claims were made on the US justice system that failed Vincent Chin. These turning points were crises of injustice that demanded a political response: struggles of national liberation across the world in the 1960s and a struggle for equal treatment under the law within the US in the 1980s. Given this political history, those of us who have made the category “Asian American” our own—and maybe even partly installed it with some indescribable essence—might want to ask, What are the crises creating new conditions now, in our time? Given the way we and our elders
historically have dealt with political crises in the then-present by authoring our own future through subscribing to a single (but hardly monolithic) grouping, what is the future we want to author now? My hope is for the Hudson affair to open for us this deeper conversation.
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10. Jerika Marchan
My name, a token. My name, a talisman.
My first name is a made-up name. My last name Marchan is possibly (my family likes to say) Spanish or French from generations ago—there’s a story that a handsome European officer fell in love with your something great grand-lola—as though this tie to a mythical blood-whiteness makes mine more desirable than those Pinoy families with native-sounding last names: Dalogdog (thunder) Dimaguiba (impenetrable) Macabuac (to break).
My father is an immigration attorney. Not too long ago, he would advise his clients to shorten their names as best they could, so that each of the letters could fit in the limited number of little boxes allowed for full names on government forms. This is your official American name. What is on my birth certificate is not precisely what is on my U.S. passport, my diplomas, my social security card. I am used to minute little erasures of my identity. At times I’ve welcomed them. When I moved schools, my last name changed from “Mar-chan” (an almost-roll to the r) to “Mar-shaan” (smoother, Frenchier). It felt easier, especially during roll call. I am used to tying myself to whatever particulate whiteness—like a life-preserver—is available to me.
Yi-Fen Chou – you obliterated obliterator. I’m so tickled by your (non)existence—Yi-Fen Chou—is that even your real name? Is that the name you’ve been given at birth? And why? For what reason? Is your name like the sound of thunder? Is it pressed into you from hundreds of years of colonial rule? Do you hate it and wish you had a white girl’s Anna or Margaret or Sarah? What does your mother call you when she’s angry? I think about all the names that are my names, and how my parents never call me my birth name unless they’re mad. I’m Kikay, Jikay-kay, Jik jik, Jika, like soft little breaths out of my parents’ mouths, like I am their talisman against fading away.
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11. Amy King
Back in 2012, the U.S. Census revealed fewer than half the babies born are white. Jay Smooth (Ill Doctrine) humorously addresses white people concerned with losing a majority footing, which is surely coming, in “Don’t Freak Out About the White Babies.” Cue the anxiety.
1.) Increased visibility of racist acts has inspired outrage, lament and louder calls for justice on our national stage. Of course, justice demands misuses of power be challenged and held accountable.
Justice suggests power be redistributed evenly to prevent misuse; thus nepotistic networks begin to rail at remote or even imaginary threats to having the upper hand. So just as George Bush called for a costly, bloody war on the basis of ghost weapons of mass destruction, so are those who now fear exposure of and challenges to their positions beginning to point at imaginary threats and preemptively strike to maintain their right to power.
2.) People are beginning to identify and name such motivating forces and aggressions: White supremacy. White fragility. Microaggresions. Entitlement. Privilege. Systems of oppression. Intersectionality.
The increase of palpable anxiety among white people can also be seen in the poetry world by stark assertions of power at the limits of racism—tests, if you will—by writers like Kate Gale, Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and now Michael Derrick Hudson.
3.) Michael Derrick Hudson may have consciously appropriated a Chinese name as a challenge and reassertion of his privileged position as a white man. He may have done so only as a casual lark. Doesn’t matter. He boasts in his bio that he did the deed on purpose and implies that the poem was picked up due to the name change. The latter is a blatant attempt to dirty any editor’s efforts to be more inclusive in his selections. Hudson’s sense of entitlement, one he learned through his experiences as a white man, inspired him to throw down, seemingly nonchalantly, the proverbial gauntlet. He illuminates a cynicism for acting towards literary desegregation. His explanation implies that reading with an eye towards inclusivity is inauthentic; he is fake-falling on his sword in the name of reading for merit—and demands a white man’s due for gaming what he implicates is a change in the system, one that historically favors whiten voices but now seems to be opening up, however incrementally, towards conscious inclusion of the voices of POC.
4.) But as many in this forum note, it is not easier to be published as a POC. The system is still very much stacked for white supremacy. As Jay Smooth suggests in the link above: Relax, anxious white people. We conducted our first annual 2014 VIDA WOC Count this year, revealing a girth of white writers in mainstream career-making publications.
5.) We must keep things predominantly white, Donald Trump stomps. Trump wants immigrants contained so that they may work for us and remain isolated, apart from the culture-at-large, except as stereotypes to fear monger with. Hudson’s move suggests a parallel ghettoization in the literary. Hudson’s fakery implies that Asian Americans’ work should not be favored because of their ethnicity. As if white supremacy hasn’t actually mastered the inclusion of white voices on that basis. As if writers of color don’t write meritorious work. Hudson’s cynical and privileged move seeks to shame and erase conscious consideration of any markers of non-white status and efforts to read with an inclusive eye (something Camille Rankine deftly addresses at Nat. Brut) and relegate those writers who do let their ethnicities be visible to what? Sent off to venues that allow for such visible markers (I.e. journals specific to “identity politics”). Perhaps in Hudson’s ideal world all writers should be appropriating white identities now? Luckily AAWW has created a #WhitePenName Generator to accommodate Hudson’s cynicism!
6.) Racism. You break people down. Turn them into stereotypes. Assert lies and force them to defend against overt acts of harm and subtle insinuations about their characters. Suggest there are more POC in prisons because they are inherently a bad race. Lean back and watch them deal with the fallout of your wizardry. Be consistent so that the stress wears them down daily. Tina Vasquez in The Guardian details the fallout of new daily microaggressions she’s facing now that Trump has politicized the stereotypes of Latinos for his own political gain.
Michael Derrick Hudson denigrates the experiences of Asian and Asian American writers by appropriating one of their names for his own gain. He abstracts their realities and experiences—including all of the aggressions and stereotypes they’ve been forced to face with a frequency white people don’t have to imagine nor want to— by reducing bodies of work into a one-issue claim, defined by Hudson, and insinuates that these experiences are just “identity politics”, which he implies gives them an advantage in publishing. The irony drips from a bio that does not reveal a lifetime of white male privileges he’s enjoyed and one that makes him proud to have pulled the ruse by playing yellowface.
Power already knows it has a built-in option to be used for personal gain, regardless of who such misuse harms, is proud and bears no shame: That is privilege.
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12. Jane Wong
My poem “Thaw” will be in Best American Poetry 2015 with many amazing POC writers, including REAL Asian American poets: Chen Chen, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Monica Youn.
When I taught Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” to my Asian American Poetry class, my students summed it up pretty quickly: “that’s fucked up.” When I asked why it was fucked up, we talked about the privilege of persona, of orientalism, of yellowface, of white supremacy.
That angry roar carries over when reading Michael Derrick Hudson’s bio in BAP, who thinks that he can shift in and out of being Yi-Fen Chou without consequence. Hudson is upset that he – a poor, underrepresented, unpublished white man – is being beaten out by POC poets. Oh no! POC poets are gaining visibility! Hudson’s world is threatened!
A part of Hudson’s goal, in revealing himself as white, is to say that POC poets do not deserve their successes. That line in parentheticals “(I keep detailed submission records)” is threatening, is saying: “believe me, it’s hard being a white writer. I have the facts to prove it.” Am I surprised asshole poets like this exist? No. I have been told by many white writers that I should be thankful for being a POC, that I need to take a moratorium on submitting because “you have to save room for the rest of us [white people].” I almost want to laugh and cry in exhaustion. Hudson and people defending Hudson have NO IDEA what POC writers have to work against and through to even do what we love to do. I came to poetry not to be bullied, but because it was a refuge. And here, in this state of constant emergency, I have to continue to work against poets like Hudson while also writing what I love.
Am I sickened that this will be in my issue of BAP? Yes. Mostly because this person does not get to take away my accomplishments and my work. And he does not get to threaten the POC in the anthology who are anti-racists. He does not get to mar my pride or question the validity of my work. And he does not get to quietly head back into the convenience of being a white man in this world after putting on yellowface. I am proud to be in the company of badass poets who continue to push back with stingers on.
When I was at Thinking Its Presence in Montana last March, Bhanu Kapil spoke about self-care and racism (she handed out anti-racist spa masks during her talk). I have to remember self-care and I spent some time last night reading to strengthen myself (Lucille Clifton’s Mercy). I don’t think most people know how much energy it takes to constantly defend one’s worth. Threats from people like Hudson are exhausting and draining – mentally and physically. The body falls into shock. I have to remember to take care of myself and the poets I care about.
Now, I’d like to turn the attention toward poets like Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Chen Chen, Evie Shockley, Saeed Jones, Airea D. Matthews, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and many other beautiful poets in this upcoming anthology. Congratulate them! My post also lets Hudson know that he can’t take away the pride I have in my work and the work of the community around me. My poem “Thaw” is below and is also the last poem in my book, Overpour, which is coming out next year from Action Books. Here’s a link and also my BAP bio note:
“Thaw” is a poem for the New Year – a proclamation of warmth and messiness. H.D.’s early work feels tied to this poem; she writes in “Oread”: “Hurl your green over us-/Cover us with your pools of fir.” I wanted that feeling of impossible warmth and potential, hurling us into each new day.
With Hudson trending on social media and featured in numerous news outlets, I can’t help but wonder: is this what he wants? Doesn’t he want this attention? And where will we be after Hudson’s fame dissipates? By turning the attention away from the poems by POC in the anthology, could he be marginalizing us even further?
Surely, on a larger level, Hudson’s actions are horrendous. In some ways, it’s easy to be angry. But what does it mean when Hudson makes you cry? The scariest part of this all, where it hits deep/personal, is that I haven’t talked to my mother about it. I don’t know if I should tell her what happened. The thing is: my mother is proud of me. I’m from Jersey and my mother, brother, and stepfather will be at the Best American Poetry reading in NYC in a few weeks. They haven’t seen me read before. Most of my family doesn’t even know that I am a poet. And she took time off work at the postal service. She has worked night shift for years and years. Does Hudson know how hard that is – to take time off?
I know that if I tell my mother that she would be angry, sad, and proud at the same time. She would stand by me, undoubtedly. But I want to give her that moment to be simply and utterly proud of me. I owe that to her. And Hudson can’t possibly take that away. I won’t let it happen. I won’t let scandal take away the fact that I belong in that anthology. It wasn’t easy getting here –into this anthology, into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, into journals, etc. My entire life is having to prove myself. That I am talented, am smart, am worthy. On a daily basis, people talk to me (read: lecture) as if I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Let me make this clear. I know exactly what I’m talking about. Read my work and watch me teach. And never question me or any badass writers of color again.
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13. Monica Youn
This was my first time being published in Best American Poetry after over 15 years of publishing poems in journals—and, yes, I realize all of the problematics of an anthology calling itself the “Best,” especially one that follows such a partial and subjective selection process—but I will admit to having felt a dorky thrill at being included in a volume—hardcover, no less!—that includes so many amazing poets, including two of my career-long idols, Claudia Rankine and Louise Glück. So when the book came in the mail, I showed it to my husband, who put it on the coffee table. Well, suffice it to say, it’s off the coffee table now.
What surprised me, though, was that what replaced the little thrill wasn’t anger or righteousness, but a little twinge I eventually identified as a vestigial feeling of shame. And I know that the only bright spot of this whole revolting mess is that it gives us an opportunity to focus the spotlight on larger questions of the construction and commodification of Asian-American identity (and I thank Cathy Park Hong and Kazim Ali, among others, for pointing the conversation in that direction). But I wanted to explore my vestigial shame twinge—to get to the roots of it—because a reaction I recognize as pathological ends up being relevant to these larger structural questions.
The shame twinge I recognize from one of my most vivid childhood memories, from when I was just entering the second grade at a new school—I must have been 8. I don’t remember the exact event that made me go crying to my mother after school one day, but I remember the conversation, and particularly my frustration with the conversation, very vividly. I said that the kids at school had been calling me “Chinese eyes” (it was a public school in Houston, Texas, and I was one of the only Asian kids in school, and this sort of thing would happen pretty much daily through long stretches of elementary and middle school). My mother, a Korean immigrant, said, “Well, you should call them ‘American eyes!’” And what is most vivid to me—the reason the memory sticks with me—is my frustration at not being able to explain to her that it wouldn’t be the same, that “American eyes” wasn’t an insult the way “Chinese eyes” was. If I had the vocabulary then, I would have said that the two were not commensurable. And the reason they were not commensurable, I now understand, was that both the white kids and I held a shared assumption of a racial hierarchy—a hierarchy in which ‘American eyes’ were automatically, incontestably better than ‘Chinese eyes.’ And it startles me now to recognize how early that sense of racial inferiority must have rooted itself in me. And, kids being kids, over the next few years, I was taunted for being nerdy, ugly, dressed wrong, the full gamut of adolescent insults and, for the most part, I gave as good as I got. But none of these taunts had the power of the racial epithets to generate that specific sick feeling of shame, a mutual acknowledgment of insurmountable inferiority.
I left the South for college, and, other than a couple of years abroad, have spent my adult life in the Northeast and in San Francisco, regions where I don’t often encounter overt manifestations of racism directed at me as an Asian American (a privilege that I’m all too aware is not shared by other people of color, including other Asian Americans). And I now have the luxury of being comfortable enough that such occasional racist incidents, as well as more frequent microaggressions, tend to roll off of my back, eliciting some annoyance, sporadic righteous anger, but no lingering malaise.
Which is why my vestigial shame twinge surprised me—a twinge brought on by the very suggestion that my poem was included in Best American Poetry in part because I’m Asian-American. Don’t get me wrong—I’m quite aware that I often get a leg-up in publication for reasons that have nothing to do with the so-called “merit” of my work. I live in New York and attended elite educational institutions, and I often benefit from personal connections that enable me to bypass the slush pile—an uncomfortable admission. But preferences based on social or professional networks or even in socioeconomic class don’t elicit the same shame twinge as the specter of racial preference. They are not commensurable; they don’t tap into that same deep-rooted vein of racial hierarchy—the whispering insinuation that the work of persons-of-color is included as a gesture of noblesse oblige, but doesn’t meet the same standards. (All the post hoc reassurances that really your poems are just as good tend to reinforce this insinuation rather than alleviate it—it would never occur to me that my poems weren’t just as good if people didn’t seem to feel the need to reassure me that they were.) I’m certainly secure enough at this point to brush away such insinuations, but a lingering ickiness remains.
But if I can still hear these insinuations, albeit faintly, with the benefit of 15 years of publications, 3 books, and a CV’s worth of plum teaching gigs, I hardly imagine how loud it must be for writers just starting out. I can’t imagine that an actual Yi-Fen Chou would have the self-confidence to keep submitting the same rejected poem 9 times, much less 49 times. (I don’t want this to be mistaken for an argument against inclusivity—inclusivity is the only way to keep from perpetuating this hierarchy, but, like all benefits, it comes at a cost, even for its purported beneficiaries.)
My vestigial shame twinge is also relevant to a certain embarrassment that surrounds the concept of Asian-American identity. As Kazim Ali notes, “being Asian/Pacific does not help you that much when programs are looking to diversify their faculties because for the majority of them, there is a hierarchy of inclusion.” There is a hierarchy of racial inclusion because there is, generally speaking, a hierarchy of racial disadvantage—it is only right to recognize that being Asian American is not the same as being black or being Latina(o) or being Native American (or being queer or trans). We’re not being shot in the streets, we’re not being regarded with suspicion in shops and neighborhoods, our children aren’t treated as presumptively incorrigible in school, with rare exceptions. I have a baby son, and I have the unspeakable privilege of not having to teach him to fear the police whose job it is to protect him and us. In the wake of Ferguson and the ongoing cavalcade of racist tragedies, there is an understandable hesitancy among many Asian Americans to actively claim the status of people of color—it seems like an assertion of victimhood.
But it’s dangerous to take this logic too far—to treat race itself as merely a question of relative advantage or disadvantage, and to treat “person of color” as a category that adds no value in and of itself. Under such a logic, Asian Americans, who are relatively privileged as compared to other racial minorities, cease to exist as a racial category, become indistinguishable from “white guys with pseudonyms,” as Ken insightfully puts it. And I’ve been in numerous discussions with white colleagues in the academy that take the form, “Why does [X person-of-color] get to reap [Y benefit] that I don’t receive? I’ve suffered more than X, I’ve struggled with economic and educational disadvantages more than X, I’ve been persecuted more than X.”
And this, I think, is where Michael Derrick Hudson becomes relevant to this discussion. I am merely speculating about motives here, but I think that it’s not a coincidence that Hudson selected an Asian name (rather than a traditionally black name, for example) for his racist masquerade. (I also wonder whether David Lehman would have so airily dismissed the impersonation of other racial minorities as “part of a long history of pen-names in literature” and “a metaphysical conundrum perfect for the age of virtual reality.”) I can imagine Hudson thinking that Asian Americans don’t have it so bad, that they are somehow fair game, and if they are receiving racially based benefits, then he—as a pure question of relative disadvantage—“deserves” such benefits as much as they do. I can readily admit he could consider himself at a relative disadvantage in the publication process compared to, well, someone like me—he doesn’t live in New York, so he isn’t constantly rubbing elbows with literary gatekeepers, he doesn’t work in the academy, so he doesn’t get same benefits of professional networks, etc. (And I’m happy to see that Alexie included, among his “rules” for considering underrepresented poets, a category for poets outside the academy, and I’d totally support adding a category for underrepresented geographic regions as well).
But racial inclusiveness isn’t ultimately about redressing questions of disadvantage at the level of the individual—it’s not meant to work that kind of justice. It is about countering, and, ultimately, hopefully starting to dismantle racial hierarchy and its effects—effects that for me manifest themselves as fleeting, vestigial twinges of shame but that for other persons of color (including other Asian Americans) take on more destructive, inescapable, and all-encompassing forms. Race isn’t reducible to relative privilege. To treat the effects of racism as if they were the same in kind as other forms of disadvantage is to deny the continued existence of racial hierarchy, and is why we can’t afford to dismiss the “Yi-Fen Chou” affair as an isolated act of racist appropriation.
Find Monica Youn at The Poetry Foundation.
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14. Justine el-Khazen
Much was made a few months ago of the fact that Rattle magazine put together an issue devoted to New York poets, all of them white. Editor Tim Green’s initial defense was that the issue was judged blindly. Of course there’s no such thing as judging blindly. We gravitate towards work we need, work that speaks to us, usually because it’s addressing something in our personal experience, the things we need to hear or have been unable to say. We’re vulnerable to language for reasons that are deeply complicated and unpredictable but always personal, always constitutive of our beings. My own personal experiences don’t hew to a straightforward intersection of race, class and gender (more on that later), but many people’s do, which is why it’s necessary for judges, editors and curators to give up pretending to judge blindly, to recognize that our predispositions condition what we find great and to attempt actively to move past those predispositions. How our predispositions are formed (not to mention what jobs we hold) is a study in privilege or the lack thereof, the texture of our worlds. What Sherman Alexie calls “racial nepotism” is necessary and shouldn’t have the stigma of ‘nepotism’ attached to it. What Michael Derrick Hudson did in posing as Yi-Fen Chou was patently cynical and opportunistic. I suspect there’s some racial anxiety tied up in his choice: why else would he defend the right of Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson to “noodle around” their imaginations unencumbered by the petty details of historical crimes like the Holocaust and slavery—a right that belongs only to those whose races and genders and sexualities aren’t marked as a limiting condition by the society in which they operate (and which is also usually used as an excuse for bad poetry). However, Hudson’s choice presents a problem beyond its blatant attempt to subvert efforts by the publishing industry to correct the preference given to white men. Of political necessity, many people find themselves needing to translate something as complex and painful as their life into something as apparently simple as a signifier of a group identity. I write this as someone who comes from a mixed background. When I asked a friend of mine, half Puerto Rican, half Italian, whether he looked forward to the day when Hispanics become a demographic majority, he said: “no, I’ll never be accepted by any group.” That about sums it up if you’re caught between two races. My guess is, though, that those of us on the margins of an identity group aren’t unique in feeling uncomfortable in our skin: playing one role in one situation, needing to transition seamlessly into other roles depending on the context, being forced to let things that catch us completely off guard go because we don’t have the words to respond in the moment, responding to other things, risking confrontation, being hurt emotionally, even physically, feeling bound to enter into dialogues, histories that overwhelm us because our bodies are at the heart of them—and not, maybe feeling guilty for having the freedom and comfort that our ancestors didn’t or that others like us around the world don’t. Our experiences must be reduced to something as simple as a name an editor or judge reads if our voices are to be heard. But our names reveal and conceal so much more than where we or our parents or our grandparents came from. What Hudson did in assuming an Asian pen name is exploit the lived vulnerability of everyone who isn’t free to “noodle around” his or her imagination unencumbered by history. It’s a violation that transcends the politics of publishing, a point the many Hudson apologists, reverse racism claimers and even Sherman Alexie seem to have missed.
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15. Sejal Shah
There Is No Mike Here
In 1970-something, my older brother changed his name to Mike. Some kid from the neighborhood came knocking at the door. Can Mike come out to play? Mike? My mom asked? There’s no Mike here. And then my brother pushed out from behind her. I’m Mike, he said. And went out to play. I was too young to actually remember this. But it is a story I know in the re-telling. When my mother tells the story, though she laughs, I can hear the small shock and dismay, the register of hurt and bewilderment in her voice—that he would even have thought to change his name. Samir. She had to leave him in India with my grandparents when she and my father came to the US to work in 1967. My parents weren’t told that once they start the green card application process, they wouldn’t be able to leave the US, and my brother wouldn’t be able to join them. They didn’t see him for three years as they waited for their green cards and then applied for his. Samir’s name means wind—and this name was something my mother gave him.
I attended an elementary school outside Rochester, NY called Council Rock, referring to a treaty made by the white settlers with the Seneca Indians. The white folks broke the treaty and named a school instead. These are the Indians we studied. The Iroquois Confederacy—that was our nation. These are the Indians I grew up thinking about. I did not set foot in India until I was 19. I have never visited Uganda, where my mom was born, nor Kenya, where she grew up. As is true of any writer, I wrote poems then about what I thought about: how people locate, claim, or create what or who is home—how you learn where and to whom you belong. It is still what I think about obsessively.
Names carry, influence, and even define one’s identity. Or sometimes we work in opposition to our names. I named one of my nephews “Anand.” I insisted on it—the maiden aunt’s customary right to name—and I wanted a recognizably Indian name. My brother resisted—Americans will mispronounce it and call him An-And. Not Ah-Nund. I don’t want him to be made fun of. He’s right—some mispronounce it, but I wanted that name. Anand means joy, and I had no greater wish for my nephew than to be full of joy, to be happy.
My mother spells out the name of our street. (She has to do it. She has an accent.) P as in Pineapple, E as in Elephant, L as in Larry, H as in Harry, A as in America, M as in Mary.
I was married this year and the nearly universal assumption that I would change my name startled and then irritated me. I love my husband, but his name is not my name. His name is South Indian, as he is. Singaravelu is far more unusual than my surname—would this make me seem more unique, and therefore more valuable, to an editor? Would it give me better Google search results? (The answer to the last question is yes.) Google my name and you will find a gaggle of doctors—a dermatologist I was once mistaken for when an editor wrote to me with skin care questions; the actor / dentist in NY; the (male) cinematographer in Bombay; the radiologist in Boston, who also owns a yoga studio, and whom I met in college.
In India or Edison, my name might as well have been Sarah Smith—it’s that common a Gujarati name for women of my generation. But in Western New York, it was always a topic of conversation—What an unusual name!? What does it mean? I love it! Or That’s stupid. It sounds like Bagel. Or Rachel. Or Angel. Why is it spelled that way? I knew what they meant when they said unusual. I understood I was “unusual” because of the person asking me the question, not because I am unusual—every person is.
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“Through the Eyes of the Dark-Eyed Americans” is the title of the first poem I published, when I was sixteen. My high school literary magazine, edited by other serious, long-haired students who loved 10,000 Maniacs and gathered in the windowless office next to our cafeteria, chose it. Our magazine, called Galaxy, seemed to me to be just that—we were out there away from the cheerleaders, the future business leaders, and the rest of the East Coast even, but for me, it was everything, this world of words. I was not an editor, but I was on staff; we called ourselves “Galactites.” We looked at poems blind, and the discussion was not unlike workshops I would later encounter in graduate school, but people were kinder, the stakes lower. I was one of two or three non-white kids at the meeting. Years after, I wondered if everyone assumed “Through the Eyes of the Dark-Eyed Americans” was mine. I knew it was a good poem.
This same poem was republished in Hanging Loose, a Brooklyn-based literary magazine that devotes a special section to poets of high school age. Later, the poem was selected for an anthology of high school poetry called Bullseye and published by Hanging Loose Press—the same press that published Sherman Alexie’s first book. My poem had legs! “Through the Eyes of the Dark-Eyed Americans” placed in a county-wide literary contest (130 submissions, six winners) run by the downtown public library in Rochester. (I got $50, my name in the local paper, and taken out to lunch at a fancy restaurant). Even my parents’ friends, other Indian Americans, knew I was a poet—everyone read the paper. My name was in the paper. I existed! The poem placed in six other literary competitions. I have never again won so many awards for one piece of writing. My poem was good—and not because of its title alone or because of my name. (I’ve kept these records for all these years, as though I needed evidence to say the above, to make the claim I am a writer.)
I want to tell you about my poem. I’m cringing, but here are the first two verses:
I would like to see the world
Through your eyes.
Is it a different place
With green or blue irises
Are perceptions different?
Can you see me—
—me as i see myself?
Yes, I used the ee cummings “i.” Remember, I was in high school. Someone told me (a friend? an editor? a teacher? all of the above?) he /she had assumed that the speaker in the poem was me. Why? If you have a recognizably Indian name and brown skin does it automatically disqualify you from writing a persona poem? My college professor, Frank Bidart (white, male, American), published a now well-known poem in the voice of Ellen West, an anorexic woman living in Europe who died at 33 from her illness. That did not seem to be a problem.
I remember writing “Through the Eyes of the Dark-Eyed Americans.” It appeared in nearly-finished form—an easy labor that for me almost never happens. I didn’t know then that poem was a gift. (I am still laboring over this essay.) I was sixteen. But I was also thinking back to when I was seven and spent second grade in California. I loved our textbook so much that my teacher gave me a copy before I moved back to New York. I’m holding it now. Paths to Follow was published in 1956. My (Indian) father landed in the US in 1967. My Ugandan-born mother followed him later that same year. I read this book while growing up in the early 1980s. Like any kid, I was trying to make sense of my world. One of the stories was about a Native American boy named “Morning Bird” and his encounter with a white girl with blue eyes. “Morning Bird had never seen hair like the hair of this girl. It was like the touch of sunlight on a golden-feathered bird….”
The white-blonde hair of two of my first grade classmates fascinated me; my classmates, in turn, were drawn to my hair, which my mother plaited into two long braids every morning. Apparently, I allowed a friend to hold both braids and we would gallop away, two kids chasing each other, horsing around, with my hair as the reigns, the other kid holding these reigns. This image embarrasses me now.
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I cannot imagine trying to publish under a name that is not mine—or changing my name when convenient to help my writing be seen. Perhaps I lack imagination. Or arrogance. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Would Michael Derrick Hudson still stink?
Sherman Alexie’s mesmerizing story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”—about history and intergenerational memory, ancestry, anti-story, homelessness, despair, redemption, time—slays me. I have taught this story often—often ending in tears when a student reads the last paragraph aloud or when I read it aloud myself. The characters are Jackson Jackson; the pawnbroker; the grandmother; Rose of Sharon; Junior; Agnes; Irene Muse; Honey Boy; Big Boss; Mary; the bartender; Officer Williams; Mr. Grief; and three nameless Aleut cousins. Names matter.
Some of us are not able to change our names. Some of us don’t want to. Some of us will have to spell out the name no matter what that name is. These things matter—language is not separate from power. All poets know this.
One of my all-time favorite poems, “The Love of Travelers,” was written by Angela Jackson. The last lines have stayed with me for over 20 years. “I have died for the smallest things. / Nothing washes off.” That’s basically how I feel about childhood and really, all of life—some experiences do not fade. I found Jackson’s poem, originally published in Callaloo, because it was included in a Pushcart Prize Anthology from the early 90s. Anthologies matter—they help circulate a poem, extending the life of a poem. While The New Yorker originally published Alexie’s story, I only encountered it when it was republished in the Best American Short Stories anthology for that year.
I texted my brother this morning (now 48, a gastroenterologist in Rhode Island). I wanted to know how old he was when he decided to change his name and why. He wrote back:
I think the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. Was tired of people mispronouncing my name, making fun of the name, and not being able to get the bicycle license plate with samir. So that was the summer of mike
If you are going to call yourself Yi-Fen Chou, survive an American childhood with that name. Make it through a Midwestern childhood. Name your first-born child Yi-Fen. Maybe it will help him get into Yale or keep her out of Brown (they had quotas, you know, for South Asians). Spell out the name for your health insurance company representative over the phone. Y is for Yellowface. I is for Ignorant. F is for F*cking Ignorant. E is for English, N is for No. N is for Nom de plume. N is for Name. C is for Coward. H is for Hater. O is for Outrage. O is for Ousted. U is for Uranus.
Here is a fact: if my poem were rejected 40 times, I would have believed that I was not a (good) writer. Five years ago, I had a story rejected a few times. I put it aside for two years before summoning the ovaries to send it out again. My cousin, a well-known writer, read the story and liked it, and he suggested I send it to Granta. Granta? Although he had never made the suggestion before and is not one for faint praise, I still believed he was just being nice. Who was I to submit to Granta? I will always regret that I never even tried. Finally, I sent the story out one more time; happily, it found a terrific home at The Literary Review. My story, “The Half King,” is about my usual obsessions—Rochester, Native Americans, ethnicity, South Asian-ness, imaginary homelands, the past, growing older, being young in NYC. Evoking of a sense of place. How to make a life as an artist, what it means to live in the rust belt, in a city whose best days may be behind it. A place that’s maybe not unlike Michael Derrick Hudson’s Indiana.
There’s a quote by writer Sarah Hagi I saw posted all over Facebook some time ago that has stayed in my head: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” When I read about Hudson and read responses of friends on social media, and started formulating my own response, these words returned to me. Any writer needs confidence and resilience to persist in the face of inevitable rejections—a woman of color needs more. I have persisted for many years. I believe in the written word, and I believed in my writing; still, I did not have the confidence to risk widely and repeatedly; to risk enough. I doubted about whether to send this essay out, about whether to even write this essay. I did it anyway. Maybe I learned something from MDH and all my writer friends who responded. Feel the fear and write anyway. Write because of it.
Lord, give me the confidence to submit anything 40 times and then 9 more! I want to believe my words are worth listening to, worth reading, worth the time and agony of writing, and that what I have to say matters. Any writer does. S as in Sufficient, E as in Enormous, J as in Jealous, A as in Anyone, L as in Loophole. S as in Samir, H as in Happiness, A as in Anand, S as in Sejal.
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I’m exhausted by the Best American Poetry mess but, wow, how cool that so many people are crazy-passionate about poems. —@Sherman_Alexie, 10:03 PM – 7 Sep 2015
So many people are crazy-passionate about poems.
We have been fighting these poems all our lives
with our lives. This poem has a name and it is
the color of my skin. Come and read my skin
which is all text and aesthetic; where
what is imagined has been portrayed as real.
This poem is what will happen to me:
Where are you from originally?,
the line after that and the line after that.
It is Knee-how, Coney-chee-wah, Ann-young—
one of those has to be right, beautiful,
because what you say as me is made as me.
You imagine this poem with the text of my name.
Where is this poem from originally? It comes
from where a name is just a strategy. A will
to domination is nothing if not persistent.
The function of racism is distraction.
I am distracted by persistence, exhausted by a poem
that I recite as my life. I am fighting this poem
just to live my life. I am protecting this poem
that’s been imagined because it is
the only way I have been allowed to exist.
A will to domination destroys what’s real
in order to preserve what is imagined. A will
to domination would rather have the name
than the person; the echo than the voice;
the silence than the controversy. The poems
of domination are only concepts and words
(even if they come from somewhere, originally).
When this poem can go away from you,
my life is just a way for you.
How cool that so many people
are crazy-passionate about poems.
Notes for a particular audience
It is not whether something exists, but how we allow it to exist, that gives it power. It works both ways. Even if you are powerless, what is invisible or imagined can be given existence insofar as you exist. You are moving in yourself and through a world made in someone else’?s likeness. There is power in both places. The dominant imagination is so tightly wound that even those who dominate are unaware of what we give up for their wills and desires.
Sherman Alexie’s failure to remove Michael Derrick Hudson from Best American Poetry 2015 was a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes allyship. His response was a defense of his numbers, his procedures, and his reasonings, not an apology. It was a response that constructed allyship as an identity, his identity, rather than constant, everyday actions learned to help another community in the face of domination. Even grosser was what he believed to excuse himself: that a Chinese name does not affect the reading of a poem; that a poem can be read objectively outside of aesthetic hegemony; that blatantly supporting marginalized voices is a wrong to be rectified.
What do we give up when we do nothing against an abuse of power? And who? The calculated and persistent dehumanization of a race begins by transforming people into the convenience of ideas until those ideas are formed and can be preferred to the people.
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17. Minal Hajratwala
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18. Wendy Xu
Michael Derrick Hudson created an amalgamation of us, erased our nuances and our rich (distinct) cultural identities. He made a faceless Chinese person “Yi-Fen Chou” speak his words and write his ideas—not that long ago we were doing the same thing on the Transcontinental railroad. It is so familiar to us, laboring at a white man’s bidding. And then when the goal is met, “Yi-Fen Chou” doesn’t get any credit because Yi-Fen Chou doesn’t exist. They think it’s a game, and they legislate us out of their country (see: Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). The plan to profit off our backs is the same, though the medium continuously changes. What never changes is the trauma Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans feel. I want to say that this whole thing only made me angry, that I’m fired up and etc. etc., other powerful feelings. And I am angry, but the worst part is that overwhelmingly I’m just in a lot of pain. I’m pained that my mother just read in the news from Iowa that racism is alive and well in “the arts.” I think she might’ve had a beautiful fantasy that this wasn’t true. I’m pained that my pessimism and the pessimism of my Chinese friends and family were proven right, again, that this is “the state of things.”
Sherman Alexie did the right thing by “pa[ying] more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception about the poets identity.” An editor does not edit outside of time, space, history. Asian-Americans are consistently underrepresented in literature and publishing, and to address this disparity within editing practices is both fair and necessary. Michael Derrick Hudson capitalized off of a practice intended to give marginalized voices some semblance of equality in a publishing landscape (also, a whole country) stacked against them. He should’ve pulled the poem.
When you are the default setting for “person” in this country, you might think it sounds interesting to try on other identities. But the rest of us are Asian all the time. We wish we could put on a white man costume and get paid the same as you at work! We wish we could be taken seriously despite speaking with an accent. We wish our ethnicity box on the application form wasn’t all the way at the bottom, that our name was pronounced correctly even half of the time. Thus is a white man’s privilege, and our ongoing trauma.
In the current landscape, Asian-Americans (and others people of color) are almost ritualistically tokenized. We are invited to be sole reader of color at a reading, so that the curators can feel good about themselves. We are consistently made to worry that we are a prop, included as a gesture of guilty charity. We doubt ourselves in ways unimaginable to white writers. We are praised for writing about our “identity” and then faced with accusations of not being able to write about anything else. Or, we do not address “identity” explicitly, and are accused of being assimilationist and lacking introspection. We win awards with so many clauses following the description of the award, the extra categories which describe our alienness. The self-doubt we experience is unimaginable to a white writer.
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19. Franny Choi
choi jeong min
for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun
in the first grade i asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school. at seven years old,
i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name
butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew
to let my salty gook name drag behind me
in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade
i wanted to be a writer & worried
about how to escape my surname – choi
is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath,
if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps
during the lean years – could i go by f.j.c.? could i be
paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,
boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain
& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?
my father ran through all his possible rechristenings –
ian, issac, ivan – and we laughed at each one,
knowing his accent would always give him away.
you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice
when she answers the phone this is grace, & it is
some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,
some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not
her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.
these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark
to remember our darkness. savage death rites
we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper
to each other to keep warm. my korean name
is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae
to follow home when i am lost, which is always
in this gray country, this violent foster home
whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard
riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin
& sell it back to your mother for profit,
land where they stuff our throats with soil
& accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it.
i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen
for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.
a stone house. i confess: if someone has looked
at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,
i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more
for my gook name, for my saint name,
for my good vocabulary & bad joints,
i’ve welcomed them into this house.
i’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing
at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient
to follow home when we are lost:
sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name
given by your dead grandfather who eventually
forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:
i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine.
i promise: i won’t forget again.
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