What’s in a Name? The Controversy of Yi-Fen Chou

This article was written collaboratively by Amaris Feland Ketcham and Jaime R. Wood. After exchanging a week’s worth of Facebook comments on Michael Derrick Hudson/“Yi-Fen Chou” we realized we had a lot of questions on the matter.

 

  1. Michael Derrick Hudson/“Yi-Fen Chou”

In case you missed the controversial Best American Poetry news that’s been lighting up social media like Vegas, here’s what you need to know to understand the debacle we’re trying to make sense of:

A white man from Fort Wayne, Indiana, named Michael Derrick Hudson published several poems under the female, Chinese pen name Yi-Fen Chou, and one of those poems, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was selected by guest editor Sherman Alexie for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, which holds only seventy-five of the year’s poems.

When Hudson’s poems were originally published by Prairie Schooner in Fall 2014 (Vol 88.3) his bio only listed his pen name, allowing readers and the journal’s editors to believe that Yi-Fen Chou was the author’s real name:

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However, the acknowledgement entry in BAP 2015 notes both names:

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In his BAP bio, Hudson said that he considered making the nom de plume into a persona, “but nothing ever came of it.” The one thing he did notice was that poems sent out under Yi-Fen’s name seemed more likely to be accepted:

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In all literary magazines, space is limited and competition is high. It’s under these circumstances when cheating — if one can “cheat” at poetry other than outright  committing plagiarism — becomes incentivized because the “game” of getting one’s work published is difficult to say the least. No one knows exactly why Mr. Hudson specifically chose Yi-Fen Chou as his nom de plume, but we do know that the name belongs to a woman who went to his high school the same time he was there. Ultimately, it’s not the use of a pseudonym that’s got everyone upset, because writers do this all the time, so what exactly is in this name that is causing such an uproar?

 

  1. What’s in a name?

Our names are our first revelation of ourselves in an introduction, our first point of contact in a social world, and our first impression from the upper left hand corner of a manuscript. According to the sociologist Dr. Erving Goffman in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, we are always seeking extra information about an individual to know how to interact with him or her better and how to understand our social interactions. We are interested in one another’s “socio-economic status, conception of self, attitude toward others, competence, trustworthiness, etc.” Goffman writes, “If unacquainted with the individual, observers can glean clues from his conduct and appearance which allow them to apply their previous experience with individuals roughly similar to the one before them or, more important, to apply untested stereotypes to him. They can assume from past experience that only individuals of a particular kind are likely to be found in a given social setting.” Much of this we glean simply from reading a person’s name. With that said, allow us to introduce ourselves and our names:

When I, Jaime, was five and entering kindergarten my mother had already taught me to read and write, so when she was asked to fill out an ID card, she had me do it. And when I was five, everyone I knew called me James. That’s the name I preferred, so that’s what I wrote on the card: James Wood. Our teacher used that card to call role that first day, and was surprised to find, upon connecting the name with the child in the room, that I wasn’t, in fact, a little boy at all, but a girl whose real was Jaime.

The spelling and pronunciation of my name causes confusion all the time, but especially for those who know that it’s a masculine Hispanic name often pronounced Hi-may. When I was married to my first husband, who’s Mexican American, my last name was Morales. Jaime Morales is surely a Latino’s name. At least that’s what all my junk mail told me. Still to this day, fourteen years after divorcing and going back to my maiden name, my verizon bill still says “Mr. Jaime Morales.” And when I visit Mexico, where my father’s lived for about twenty years, it becomes a running joke with the locals. If I decided to live near my dad, my neighbors would have no trouble pronouncing my name, but they’d still giggle at a girl carrying such a masculine moniker.  

I, Amaris, have been told repeatedly that I must announce my ethnicity and gender in the first sentence of any essay. I use an alias whenever I have to make a dinner reservation, have Starbucks call out my coffee, order pizza, or anything else that requires temporarily holding something under a name. People have such a hard time spelling my name and then trying to repeat it phonetically that I developed a generic alias to save time and to blend in. My fake name in these cases is “Mary Wood.” Mary Wood sounds so common that it could have been assembled by the #WhitePenName generator created by the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Names are tricky business. They’re imbued with the weight of a person’s whole identity. Sometimes that identity includes clues to their family’s history, their ethnicity, gender, or generation. For instance, you can determine someone’s age according to the popularity of their name: most Gladyses or Murrays weren’t born after 1950, and Jennifer was the most common baby girl’s name from 1970-1984. The suffix -ez in a Spanish last name means “son of,” so if your last name is Martinez, you had a Martín in your family, Gonzalez, a Gonzalo, etc.

But sometimes names are meant to slough all that baggage off, to claim a new, intentional identity, which is why some writers choose to publish under a pen name. Samuel Clemens used “Mark Twain” as a nod to riverboat culture: it means “to measure two fathoms,” which was a safe depth for riverboats back in those days. Stephen King used the name “Richard Bachman” to publish more than one book per year without “oversaturating the market for the ‘King’ brand.”   There are other famous nom de plumes: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), Pablo Neruda (Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). But none of these names caused their writers much trouble, probably because their chosen names didn’t imply a major cultural chess move in the way Hudson’s does.

 

  1. On Cultural Appropriation

Using the name “Yi-Fen Chou” in an attempt to be published at first glance may not look like cultural appropriation. Hudson’s is a different case than Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Spokane, who says she is African American, even though she is of Caucasian descent. Hudson doesn’t think he’s Chinese. His poems have nothing to do with Eastern history, culture, or politics. For instance, “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” looks nothing like the following exotic Updike poem (Americana and Other Poems. Knopf: New York, NY. 2001):

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Hudson’s case looks more like the appropriation of our expectation of ethnicity than a textbook scenario of cultural appropriation. In Sherman Alexie’s announcement about the poem, he says he was expecting a poem by a Chinese author to talk more about Chinese identity, which was a conceptual contradiction and therefore interesting and enticing:

 

I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.

Of course, I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.

So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn’t been fooled by anything obvious. I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you’ll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I’d only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.”

 

Are cultural appropriation and the appropriation of expectation of culture the same thing? To make certain that we were clear on the terms, we looked it up and spoke with an anthropologist.

According to your everyday introduction to cultural anthropology textbook (Welsh, R. and Vivanco, L. Cultural Anthropology: Asking Questions about Humanity. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. 2015.), to understand an act of appropriation, you must first understand the act of consumption. “Consumption” in anthropology is to use and assign meaning to a good, service, or relationship. The textbook says, “Through consumption people create cultural meaning, build social relationships, and create identities.” Consumption is the cornerstone of capitalism. Publishing poetry, of course, does not pay. It might, however, be a sign of prestige, which is a form of social capital, an equally important kind of wealth. And consumption begins by taking possession of something, thereby “appropriating” it.

American Studies scholar George Liptsitz discussed how cultural appropriation might be viewed as “strategic anti-essentialism,” the calculated use of a cultural form (such as clothing and adornment, music and art, religion, language, or other behaviors) from a culture other than your native one to define yourself and by doing so communicate that identity of any kind is fluid. Strategic anti-essentialism might look like an image of the Union Jack safety-pinned to a punk rocker’s leather jacket or “peace” tattooed on your lower back in Hanzi.

“Americans try to set themselves apart and be unique, because in our culture, ‘we are all supposed to be unique.’ American culture demands us to be our own bright, shining star, right? A snowflake like no other,” says anthropologist Andy Carey. “Choosing a nom de plume that is Chinese is a reaction to the reaction of white male dominance in our society. White male poets are a dime a dozen. He’s trying to get around the reaction to get himself published. But it is not cultural appropriation. It is minority appropriation, appropriation of the status of minorities to get into the publishing world, in the small area reserved for women and minorities to get published. It’s just like people claiming to be descended from an Indian princess because they can’t claim nobility through their white, European ancestors.”

  1. On Chinese Names in American Poetry

There seems to be something calculated about Hudson’s appropriation of a Chinese name. One of the questions that hasn’t been asked yet is: why choose an Asian name? Does an Asian name have more capital and more history with American poetry than a name with a different ethnic background?

The fascination that white American poets have had with Asian poetry has been intense for the past sixty years. Take, for instance, the bromance between Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder in Dharma Bums (1958). When Kerouac meets Snyder, Snyder is living an ascetic life in a little hut, while translating Han Shan’s poetry from 9th century Chinese to 1950s American English and convincing girls that if they want to be Bodhisattvas, they must have orgies on his tatami mats. It’s a great life. Kerouac falls hard.

Kerouac describes Snyder: “he wore a little goatee, strangely oriental-looking.” He had “the eyes of old giggling sages of China.” Snyder was “exactly like the vision I had of the old Zen Masters of China out in the wilderness.” When Kerouac falls out of fraternal love with Snyder, suddenly Snyder is Teutonic in appearance, all angles and forehead and not the least bit Chinese. He’s lost his enigmatic, “Asian” hold over Kerouac.

Snyder’s own poetry reflects his passion for the Far East. Reading his poetry, a stanza will  leap off the page as something that could have been pulled directly from an ancient Eastern text, such as the 10th century Kokinshū from Japan. For example, in “A Berry Feast,” the following stanza appears:

 

When

Snow melts back

        from the trees

Bare branches           knobbed pine twigs

          hot sun on wet flowers

Green shoots of huckleberry

Breaking through snow.

 

The imagery instantly recalls the Kokinshū. Aside from the specificity of the huckleberry, which suggests some mid-alpine region in the Pacific Northwest, all of the images seem to pull from the ancient Japanese text. Those shoots through the snow bring forth the same image as Poem 478 in the Kokinshū:

 

  I merely glimpsed your

beauty barely visible—

  like the blades of grass

sprouting through the deep blanket

of snow on Kasuga Fields

 

Observant, simple, beautiful–these are some of the qualities that have have transcended time and cultures with their appeal. In “Finding Wang Wei in Knoxville, Tennessee,” Judy Loest enumerates other American poets whose love affairs with Asian poetry has influenced their work. Judy, from Appalachia, appreciates the “melancholy, introspective early Chinese poetry […which is] grounded in its geography, a geography which imposed isolation and resultant poverty on its early inhabitants and a dark stain of indefinable longing in the hearts of their descendants. A geography much like east Tennessee.” Jeff Daniel Marion wrote in the voice of his Chinese persona. Charles Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize, had a style of “direct, understated lyrics and ambling meditations are reminiscent of Wang Wei and Tu Fu.” Wright was, Loest thinks, influenced by Ezra Pound’s translations (or appropriations?) of Chinese poetry. And then there was George Scarborough, who took on “the poetic alter ego Han Shan”:

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In 1981, poet Christopher Howell published a collection called Though Silence: The Ling Wei Texts in which all the poems were written through the lens of the persona Ling Wei. In the introduction, Howell tells the peculiar story of how Ling Wei came to be:

“In a New England town where I used to live there is an exceptionally peaceful

wood. A small, bright stream runs through it, lending a light song to the general

contentment of the place. Once in a while I would sneak away from work and spend a meditative quarter-hour on a mulchy embankment over looking that stream (which we called Mill River), right above the prettiest S-curve a river ever made.

Fall was a particularly engaging season in that spot because then the stream was a moving patchwork of sparkling reds, yellows, oranges, and various greens. I would sit and watch the raucous assortment negotiate the turns of the S, some of the leaves gliding over the surface like cups of light, some of them weaving smoothly underwater like the voices of seven-foot alpine horns.

In that quiet place on a Fall day, as I sat listening to the things Mill River and the leaves were saying to each other, I met Ling Wei; or rather, we encountered one another  — for he said nothing on that occasion. He just came out of a thicket below me, on the far side of the stream, and sat down on the bank, relaxed but intent on the beautiful water.

When he looked up and saw me sitting there above him, he was somewhat embarrassed because he knew that I had made him up. And I got a little shy myself then, seeing that he was only a step behind making me up, too. So we watched each other and the moving chorus of things. When I got up to leave, Ling Wei (as I immediately thought of him) got up too. He made a little broom-like bow and I tipped my hat and we walked off in opposite directions. I saw him again three times before the leaves were gone.

When Winter stuck in the branches, I would walk miles in the dark hours, smoking cigars and saying complimentary things to the snow with my eyes. It was one of these little journeys that Ling Wei first spoke. I remember quite clearly his words: ‘Isn’t snow a moonlight caught in the skull?’

It was a rhetorical question, of course, and it was exactly right: everything looked like the moon made me feel. I said, ‘Thank you.’ And Ling Wei replied, essentially, ‘Don’t mention it.’ And I never did. In fact I never spoke a word to my strange friend after that; it seemed enough to listen to him muse and babble on in Chinese (with English subtitles), and later to record the poems which tell of Ling Wei’s exile and of his long journey — more or less as told to me.

He’s gone now, back into the trailing edge of the 14th century. And I am gone too, I guess. This little book, though, keeps on — like Mill River and the leaves — , a thing we make together.”

 

In Howell’s channeling of the character Ling Wei, he attempts to build a bridge, a lifeline from one cultural experience to another. In this way, his experiment feels empathetic in that he seems to be trying to listen closely for a poetry that lives beyond himself, to reach into another life. However, the use of historically Chinese imagery and voice can also be interpreted as romanticizing or exoticizing the other, which is a form of caricature that has the potential to dehumanize the very character meant to be embodied.   

There have been stranger appropriations of Asian poetics. In the 1990s, notebooks surfaced from a Japanese poet who had survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This man, Araki Yasusada, died of cancer in 1972 and his notebooks were discovered by his son in 1991, and translated and edited by Kent Johnson. Johnson included some of the work in his doctoral dissertation. Some poems were published in the American Poetry Review, Grandstreet, and Conjunctions. A collection was picked up by Wesleyan University Press.

There was something off about the poems: In Lingua Franca, John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College is quoted as saying, “‘It plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture–Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic–and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony.’ As an example, Solt cites the line, ‘obediently bowing the white flowers.’ ‘Bowing is not seen as subservient in Japan,’ he points out. ‘It’s a form of greeting.’” People started to notice anachronistic references to poets that Yasusada probably wouldn’t have known and oddly enough, scuba divers. Years earlier, Johnson had published poetry of a similar nature under the pseudonym Ogiwara Miyamori. The poetry world was caught in the middle of a poetry hoax and Johnson wasn’t speaking out. What was Johnson’s intent and would his intent have mattered?

  1. How Much Does Intent Matter?

It’s difficult to parse out the intention of many of these writers when they choose to use pen names or take on personas belonging to subjugated groups, but we can say something about the effect. In some cases it feels like a great ruse while in others it seems to be a perfectly acceptable creative decision. Michael Derrick Hudson, like Kent Johnson, deceived editors into believing he was someone he wasn’t, and his work was judged based on that deception. This isn’t the case for the Howell book or George Scarbrough’s alter ego because, while they may be problematic cases for having oversimplified a culture in their appropriation of it, their names were clearly stated on the work, giving readers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they approve of the culture bending exercise or not.  

When a writer named JT Leroy came on the scene in the mid ‘90s, no such transparency was provided. As a matter of fact, the story of JT Leroy could be called an elaborate hoax since the person who was supposed to be a sixteen-year-old boy who had overcome “prostitution, drug addiction, and vagrancy” to become an accomplished writer was really thirty-something-year-old Laura Albert who had also endured these experiences but felt that she had to write about them under a pen name in order for her to heal. Some members of the literary community at the time felt like they’d been lied to because many believed, rightfully, that LeRoy’s stories were autobiographical. However, Albert has a different view:

“It had nothing to do with fooling anybody about anything. In most of the important ways, JT was more real to me then than I was: I understood him better and loved him more readily and forgave him more easily than I did myself.

And no audience for any work of art needs to worry about being fooled. Art is the opportunity to change the way you think, which means you can never be fooled — you either have that experience or you don’t, and you can always tell too! Everything else is just packaging, and packaging is the first thing people throw away.”

“Everything else is just packaging…” The notion that our names, genders, races, sexualities are merely packaging echoes the anti-essentialist sentiment that we humans have the potential to be anything and shouldn’t be boxed into one identity. Albert seems to be arguing that art must stand on its own, divorced from its makers. At first this idealism is attractive and seems logical, but it ignores an important reality: throwing out our packaging is a privilege, one that women and people of color generally don’t have access to. For Albert, as a female writer taking on a male persona, her intention of using JT LeRoy as an avatar, a mouthpiece who could tell stories she couldn’t bare to share, is understandable in the same way that we understand why the Wizard of Oz felt more powerful and protected behind his curtain. Albert and the Wizard aren’t appropriating the experiences of others through this performance; they’re world building. Albert claims that she wasn’t code switching for the purpose of gaining access. She was merely packaging her own experiences with a different label.

The same goes for Catherine Nichols who wrote in Jezebel recently about her experiment sending her novel to agents under a male name. Like George Eliot who chose her male pen name in order to be taken seriously, Nichols suspected that she might get a different reaction using this new name, and she was right:

“I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called ‘Mr.’ and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.”

Nichols’s intention was never to publish under a male pseudonym. She just wanted to see how she might be treated if agents thought her book was written by a man. Once she found out, she withdrew her queries and resumed her life as Catherine, improving her manuscript based on the generous feedback agents gave her male persona. Because women have been marginalized for so long and because Nichols didn’t overstep the line of honesty that we’ve drawn in the literary sand, her story is held up as a brave attempt to uncover the conspiratorial agenda of the writing industry: men are preferred over women.

Michael Derrick Hudson happens to be writing at a time when American culture is attempting to shift away from white hetero patriarchy into a more multicultural, democratic meritocracy. For those who have benefited from the status quo, this desire to hear a diversity of voices, to publish and promote literature that represents the world as it really is, may feel like a loss, but that feeling is an illusion. According to the Women’s Media Center, men still hold about two-thirds of the newspaper and magazine positions in America, and in 2012 Roxane Gay noted that 90% of book reviews were of white authors while the country’s population is only 72% white.
White men may feel like they have a harder time standing out, but the numbers show that their voices and experiences are much more widely published, reviewed, and read than any other population. So when Hudson chose Yi-Fen Chou as his nom de plume and accepted publication credits under that name without revealing his true identity, his publication in literary journals became something more than a social experiment. Whether he intended it to or not, Hudson’s choice to take on the identity of a Chinese woman came across to many as him cutting in line, taking something that may not have belonged to him: a page in The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology, a limited and coveted space.

 

 

Jaime R. Wood is the author of Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom (NCTE 2006). Her poems have appeared in Dislocate, Matter, Juked, ZYZZYVA, DIAGRAM, Phantom Drift, among others. She currently teaches literature, composition, and business writing at Clackamas Community College and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and their family of cats. When she’s not knee deep in academia, she can be found practicing the violin in her 120-year-old house. She hopes to someday be great.

 

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