By Jennifer S. Cheng
By now the literary world is wide awake in anger or silence regarding the inclusion of a poem by “Yi-Fen Chou” in Best American Poetry 2015, edited by Sherman Alexie, where the contributor notes reveal “Yi-Fen Chou” to be the pen name of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white male. Hudson explains in his note:
Through his actions and in his note, Hudson implies the following: 1) It is not unethical to present oneself as another’s race; 2) There is something unfair in the “preference” given to poets of color over white people; 3) If a work is found to be valuable, it should remain valuable regardless of the author’s identity.
Fairness—true fairness—is informed by the structures of privilege and power that surround and shape our lives.
In response to the first claim, it is true that pseudonyms have a long history and are not inherently sinister in nature; however, in matters of race where structures of power are at play, the issue goes deeper than simply the ethics of misrepresentation. Many writers have been in rightful uproar, calling out the immense privilege and colonialism in Hudson’s actions: to dress himself as a person of color when he thinks it may benefit him, and then to shed it at his convenience; to claim ownership of an Other’s identity for exploitative purposes; to treat Chineseness as if it were mere costume and personal tool. His yellowface is as dangerous and insulting as it is privileged: to impersonate as he does is to don only the most superficial layer, without any of the meaningful depth and experience that constitute selfhood and identity.
Addressing the second claim requires broadening the contextual lens to examine the role and impact of privilege and power relations throughout history. At its core, the question being asked is: Do poets of color have an advantage in the pursuit of diversity, and if so, isn’t that advantage unfair? On the BAP blog, Sherman Alexie states candidly that he gave more attention to Hudson’s poem because he believed the author to be of Chinese descent. Is this unfair? Yes and no. It seems unfair if one is examining the moment in isolation, without the greater context of society and history. But fairness—true fairness—is informed here by the structures of privilege and power that surround and shape our lives. By this I mean: Perhaps the fact that Alexie found himself in a position of power is precisely what allowed him to do for marginalized people what the system has done for white people for hundreds of years in hundreds of ways. I mean: In discussions of fairness, it depends on whether one is talking about equality (equal treatment) versus equity (equal access), where the latter takes into account the larger inequalities and inequities in the system. For every moment where a writer of color is given extra weight in the pursuit of diversity, there are countless other obstacles and hurdles that disadvantage this writer. Just look at our canon, our major institutions, our leading publications. To actively seek greater visibility for underrepresented people may not be strictly equal, but it is equitable.
The dangerous subtext embedded in Hudson’s note is that poems written by writers of color are valued higher than what is deserved. But this is a nefarious misunderstanding of how affirmative action works. Affirmative action functions on the notion that as an editor, if I am presented with two equally compelling and deserving poems, I may consider the poem of a marginalized writer not only in light of aspirations for diversity, but also believing that the poem endured more obstacles to arrive here, believing that the poem will make slightly more visible what has been invisible, believing that the voice and life behind the poem need to be amplified to add complexity to the limited body of marginalized voices in literature and society today. This is what makes Hudson’s actions that much more dangerous, and it also suggests a particular way that poems written by people of color may actually be valued differently, that is, an avenue in which they can carry additional meaning.
Under a Chinese name, the poem unsettled common Orientalist stereotypes of who a Chinese person can be, what a Chinese writer can write about. All of this disappears when the author is white.
For the most part, the third claim is agreeable on a general level—good writing is good writing. But even putting aside that the racism of Hudson’s actions cannot be negotiated, the third claim invokes an interesting side question regarding the role of authorship in meaning-making, which is tricky to discuss. Does the poem change in meaning and value when it is written by a person of color versus a white person? In addressing this question, I am interested in exploring some complexity, to consider if and how a reader in our society might legitimately find the content of a poem to be more valuable when written by a person of color. If it is true that an author’s identity can have a meaningful impact on a poem, then this complicates the third claim as it bears on the second claim, indeed it complicates the implied accusation of tokenism and demonstrates how the poem might objectively diminish under Hudson’s name.
While many of us were raised on New Criticism, focusing exclusively on close textual analysis, we also instinctively observed how authorship affects the interpretation of a work of literature. For instance: A book set in North Korea written in the voice of a North Korean character might express different significance to readers depending on if the author is a white American versus a South Korean versus a North Korean. Or: When the author of Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood was believed to be a Holocaust survivor, it carried deep personal meaning especially for the Jewish community; but when its author was revealed to be a fraud, some kind of value was lost for many readers. Or: Cunt Norton would be a very different project if its creator were male.
In these examples, the underlying text does not change between authorship, but what shifts is something related to the framework in which it is read. Perhaps the sort of meaning that changes is similar to the way in which genre shapes interpretation: how the label of “memoir” or “novel” or “poetry” establishes a framework for reading the work. Let me go further still: Experimental writers often subvert the rules of a genre by playing with its socially constructed boundaries. This subversion usually functions in two parts: first, a genre is signaled (explicitly or implicitly through conventions of form, structure, language, etc.), which sets up expectations for the reader; then, these rules and expectations are disrupted or torn down. Some kind of meaning is carried in this meta layer that is separate from the literary quality of the underlying sentences or lines; instead, it hinges on the rules and expectations that the writer is thwarting—rules and expectations that are social constructions. I am not commenting on how we assign value to these layers, which likely differs from reader to reader; just that, on some level, as a reader, an angle has shifted.
So what Hudson did is additionally dangerous in this way: That these stereotypes weren’t actually being subverted at all, and instead colonialism and structural racism were being reinforced in terrifying ways.
Alexie wrote that he was intrigued by Hudson’s poem, under the name “Yi-Fen Chou,” particularly because the poem’s subject matter was overtly European-focused. Under a Chinese name, the poem carried a strain of resistance or tension, which read as subversive, whether intentional or incidental. Like: A person of Chinese descent might also be European or A Chinese writer is allowed to be interested in non-Chinese things. Under a Chinese name, the poem unsettled common Orientalist stereotypes of who a Chinese person can be, what a Chinese writer can write about.
All of this disappears when the author is white.
Of course diversity is more complicated than simply a name. But is it possible that in this case, the perceived author “Yi-Fen Chou” added a dimensionality of meaning, even value, to the poem? That it made it more interesting, however slightly or greatly, because some restrictive expectation or stereotype was being destabilized? And isn’t that the whole point of seeking diversity and equitable representation? That we see all the complexities of Chineseness, all the layers of “ethnic identity” and anything else? Maybe one day when it is no longer interesting that a Chinese poet writes about western things, then it will mean some kind of progress has been made. But right now, against the wider context and history of privilege and power, authorship matters and authorship affects meaning in subtle but significant ways.
So what Hudson did is additionally dangerous in this way: That these stereotypes weren’t actually being subverted at all, and instead colonialism and structural racism were being reinforced in terrifying ways. That instead of a voice to complicate the status quo, we got an excavation of this, a yellowface, an Orientalist lie. That what was thwarted was the pursuit of greater diversity and equity, and any desire within the system to give a voice to the marginalized was used, taken advantaged of, by this person. Rather than the amplification of underrepresented voices, what Hudson did was amplify his own privileged, colonialist, white male voice.
Indeed, those who would defend Hudson, who think that what he did should not matter, fail to recognize how white people in general have always had a right to their voices and lives, how even this is a matter of privilege and power. What Hudson did was not an innocent borrowing of name; it was a dangerous appropriation of identity.