Included in this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry, edited by Sherman Alexie, is a poem worthy of significant controversy. It is a poem by one Yi-Fen Chou, the Chinese pen name of a white writer named Michael Derrick Hudson. Yi-Fen Chou is in fact the name of a woman Hudson attended high school with in Indiana.
There has been a lot written about the whole debacle, from the New York Times to Asian American Writers Workshop. (Debacle being only one of many applicable words to describe this infuriating if sadly unsurprising additional episode in the long saga of a problematic publishing world that is somehow well-acknowledged, and yet simultaneously discounted and in perpetual need of reiteration).
But the best thing so far (in my opinion) is from Jenny Zhang, “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” for Buzzfeed. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety, but here are some excerpts, because THIS:
I won’t be scandalized by a white man who hasn’t considered that perhaps what helped his poem finally get published was less the fake Chinese woman he pretended to be, and more the robust, unflappable confidence bordering on delusion that he and many privileged white men possess: the capacity to be rejected forty (40) times and not give up, to be told, “no we don’t want you” again and again and think, I got this. I know what will get me in. What may be persistence to him is unfathomable to me.
On white writers and the supposed perks of being a POC writer:
They were shameless about their envy, not shy or coy at all about their certainty that my race and gender were an undeniable asset, which, in turn, implied that I could be as mediocre and shitty as I wanted and still succeed. This was how some of my white classmates imagined the wild spoils of my literary trajectory. This was how they managed to turn themselves into the victims.
On expectations and assumptions:
When I read the statement, I thought, Of course the lack of “Chinese-ness” would be seductive! It’s seductive to me too. I want to read more books by Chinese Americans that are not bound by the trauma of white supremacy, immigration, and imperialism. I want to write books like that. Perhaps one day I will, but I don’t think using a white pseudonym would help. A white guy, on the other hand, who doesn’t need my name to be shielded from those same traumas (he only needs to be white) can certainly slap a Chinese name on his poetry and pass it off as something to be marveled.
(I think about this line constantly reading books by and about Asian Americans. I want more books period, so invariably most new text is welcome, but I also want books like the one Jenny may someday write and I want the day when that kind of book is par for the course, not a groundbreaking phenomenon to be questioned a la Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog.)
On being the only one in the room:
When they wonder why I am still here I can’t help but suspect it’s very different from when I wonder why I am still here. I can’t help but suspect they are enraged there even has to be anyone like me here at all.
And finally, on how to use a literary device:
We are all here, and we are trying to tell you something: Our pride is our survival and the white wounded ego does not get to ooze over our excellence anymore…We shine bright like a diamond, and for once the blinding light from our gemstones is not white, but goddamn it is so, so divine.