Why a white author used an Asian pseudonym for his poem

Michael Derrick Hudson says that his poem was rejected 40 times under his given name but accepted when he used the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. 

Richard Drew/AP
Books line the shelves at the new Rizzoli flagship bookstore in New York.

The normally unassuming world of poetry was rocked by a controversy set off by the inclusion of author Yi-Fen Chou into 2015’s edition of the Best American Poetry Anthology.

Yi-Fen Chou turned out to be the pseudonym of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man who works as a genealogist for the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind.

The realization set off a firestorm in the Asian-American literary community.

Phil Yu, an Asian-American commentator who blogs as the “Angry Asian Man” equated submitting the poem under the nom de plume to “employing yellowface in poetry.”

In his author bio, Mr. Hudson writes that the poem included in the anthology, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was rejected 40 times under his given name, before being accepted and later chosen for the collection after being submitted with his Asian-sounding pseudonym attached.

“The Bees” was originally published in the Prairie Schooner, a literary journal affiliated with the University of Nebraska, which denied knowledge that Yi-Fen Chou was a pen name. 

"In principle, Prairie Schooner has no objections to the use of pseudonyms, but we require disclosure of their use to the editor before publication," blogged editor Kwarne Dawes.

"The circumstances and rationale guiding Hudson's use of a pseudonym would not warrant our publication of his future work under such a pseudonym," he added.

In a survey over the history of literature, the use of pseudonyms have often been used in order to overcome discrimination and bias in publishing. But contrary to Mr. Hudson’s example, most have been employed in order to fit the mold of a white male writer, which dominates the contemporary literary world to this day.

Nelle Harper Lee, the Brontë sisters, and Louisa May Alcott all resorted to using male-sounding pen names to get their work published. More recently, Joanne Rowling, the author of the worldwide phenomenon “Harry Potter” series, shifted to using her first two initials, J.K., under advice from her publisher to make her name more androgynous.

An article by black feminist writer Roxane Gay, noted that nearly 90 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Times are authored by white men. Additionally, a 2014 survey from Publishers Weekly revealed that 89 percent of respondents identified as white and 61 percent of respondents said there was a lack of diversity in the industry.

“There’s no evidence that Asian writers have an easier time being published in the United States, and actually it's quite the opposite,” said Timothy Yu, professor of English and Asian American Studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Yu says that, in choosing an Asian name for his pseudonym, Hudson is simply the latest in a tradition of white writers appropriating Asian-American voices that goes all the way back to the authorship controversy over the fake poet Araki Yasusada and Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry.

On a practical level, Professor Yu added “it's very easy in the mind of a non-Asian writer to assume an Asian name, because of the perception that they are obviously foreign.”

Catherine Nichols, an American author, made headlines last month when she conducted an experiment by submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym. She received eight times the number of responses from agents as she did when sending it in under her actual name.

The difference between the two cases, according to Yu, was in the intent.

“Ms. Nichols didn’t go out and publish her manuscript after sending it out,” he says. “She did what she did to prove a political point.”

Sherman Alexie, a native American poet and the guest editor for 2015’s Best American Poetry, wrote an essay explaining his reasoning in choosing the poem for the compilation, which was partially due to his goal of increasing the diversity of voices in the anthology.

“I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet‘s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American,” Mr. Alexie writes. “In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism.”

Even though he was personally “angry” about the impersonation, Alexie says that he felt justified keeping the poem in the collection. 

“If I'd pulled the poem, then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym,” he wrote. “If I'd pulled the poem, then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

Jezebel writer Jia Tolentino, chalked up the editor’s justification as a “rare instance of a man being so humble that he ends up being wrong.”

She pointed to Alexie’s use of “nepotism” in his statement as feeding into a false narrative of “reverse racism” and underlined additional value that an artist’s identity can give to a work.

The analogy used by Yu to understand that argument was of an all-white corporation who was making steps to increase its diversity by hiring employees of different races.

“We don’t call that ‘reverse nepotism,’ ” he says. “We call that affirmative action, equal opportunity, or a diversity initiative.”

While the conversation over Yi-Fen Chou has set off flame wars online, Yu thinks it has also had the benefit of opening the ears of the media to the larger cultural debate about identity and appropriation, while also making Asian-American writers more visible to the public.

“Hopefully it's drawing attention to the fact that there are a lot of real Asian-American writers and we should be paying attention to them,” Yu says. “I think that’s what Alexie was originally trying to do, and maybe in a backwards kind of way, this whole controversy has done that.”

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