They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist
White poet Michael Derrick Hudson's use of the Chinese pen name Yi-Fen Chou was an act of yellowface that is part of a long tradition of white voices drowning out those of color in the literary world.
To be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time. It’s never been enough to know that I feel it, but I know I am often asked to prove it before I am allowed to speak on it. When I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction writing, I felt both coveted and hated. My white classmates never failed to remind me that I was more fortunate than they were at this particular juncture in American literature. “No one is going to pay attention to a name like mine,” a white dude who exclusively wrote stories about white dudes said to me one time when I was feeling particularly low about my writing. I couldn’t enjoy a scrap of validation or wallow in a sliver of self-doubt without someone interjecting some version of “You’re so lucky. You’re going to have an easier time than any of us getting published.” 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.
“I’m writing something for the first time that’s a little bit autobiographical,” this one extremely serious white woman once said to me after workshop. “I wanted to get your advice. You write about yourself all the time. How do you do it?” My characters were always young Asian American women or girls, but I hadn’t written anything autobiographical. Just like her, I had imagined my stories. I made them up. They were fiction. But to her, they were so obviously just an unimaginative extension of my already-limited self. I was just tracing my life and my identity artlessly into my stories. Another white writer talked openly about searching for some kind of obscure “ethnicity” that she could write into her stories to give them an extra edge. “Like what you have in your writing,” she added, meaning well, of course. She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks.
In the intro to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, the editors Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write, “A lot of us here when asked to talk about race are most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, talking about it in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers. The undeserving. The shady. The good intentions and the cynical manipulations. The righteous side talking, the head shaking. Scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.” I won’t be scandalized by Michael Derrick Hudson pretending to be a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou after his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was rejected 40 times under his real name. In Hudson’s bio for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, edited by Sherman Alexie, he writes, “There is a very short answer for my use of a non de plume: after a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen-Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen, the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.” 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.
Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.
I won’t be scandalized because what Hudson is doing isn’t anything that white male writers haven’t already been doing since the first recorded instance of our culture embracing any kind of excellence that did not include them: scramble to come up with ways to keep the playing field uneven, to keep the odds stacked in their favor. The scandal of Hudson performing the laziest act of yellowface (co-opting a Chinese name) to get his poem published and accepted into the Best American Poetry anthology is lurid fodder for our cultural conversation because of its explicitness, but it should not be strange or unbelievable. White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it. After all, 50 years ago, when black voices were fighting to be heard, when their stories of trauma and abuse were struggling for legitimacy, it took John Howard Griffin, a white man who dyed his skin black and wrote about his experiences as a “black” man in his book, Black Like Me, for white Americans to believe that yes, black people were telling the truth about their lived experiences in the Jim Crow South. He was hailed a singular hero. Studs Terkel once said, “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” It may seem totally nuts now, but as far as who gets credit for simply being affected by black pain, it doesn’t seem very removed from our current world where we heap lavish praise on someone like Jon Stewart for announcing on the Daily Show that he was too heartbroken to make jokes after the Charleston church shooting, as if all throughout this country’s present and past, black people and people of color have not been so heartbroken and so violated that we were left humorless, or worse, dead. To praise Stewart as excessively as he was praised is to say to black people: Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.
I won’t be scandalized because the pathologizing of black failure has always coincided and worked closely with the pathologizing and reasoning away of Asian American success. Asian American success is often presented as something of a horror — robotic, unfeeling machines psychotically hellbent on excelling, products of abusive tiger parenting who care only about test scores and perfection, driven to succeed without even knowing why. When I was graduating from Stanford in 2005, a place that was very much a showcase for Asian excellence, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal on the “New White Flight” in Silicon Valley, a cruelly ironic but unsurprising update to the old “white flight,” a term coined in the 1960s when white families were fleeing cities with growing black populations for the lily-white suburbs. These fleeing white families believed the presence of black people in their communities caused violence to rise and schools to fail. In the new white flight, white families were now fleeing neighborhoods with growing Asian American populations because… wait for it… the schools were becoming TOO EXCELLENT thanks to these wily Asians who insisted on raising the academic standards with their exceptional grades and schoolwork. The article reported, “Cathy Gatley, co-president of Monta Vista High School’s parent-teacher association, recently dissuaded a family with a young child from moving to Cupertino because there are so few young white kids left in the public schools. ‘This may not sound good,’ she confides, ‘but their child may be the only Caucasian kid in the class.’ But unlike the panic of fifty years ago, when these families would have worried that being the only Caucasian kid in a predominantly black meant being exposed to a lower standard of academic excellence, it was precisely the opposite. Monta Vista's Academic Performance Index, which compares the academic performance of California's schools, reached an all-time high of 924 out of 1,000 this year, making it one of the highest-scoring high schools in Northern California. Grades are so high that a ‘B’ average puts a student in the bottom third of a class.” The article went on to say, “Some whites fear that by avoiding schools with large Asian populations parents are short-changing their own children, giving them the idea that they can’t compete with Asian kids. ‘My parents never let me think that because I’m Caucasian, I’m not going to succeed,’ says Jessie Hogin, a white Monta Vista graduate.”
The explicitness is almost refreshing if I can forget for a moment how disturbing it is. One of the founding tenets of racism: a society that will never allow white people to think that because they are white, they won’t succeed.
White people don’t like it when we don’t do well and they don’t like it when we do. But most of all, they don’t like it when they don’t do well.
I’m not surprised Hudson chose a Chinese name instead of a name that might read as Latino or black. It’s been well documented in studies that a resume with a white-sounding name is 50% more likely to receive a callback for an interview than an identical resume with a black-sounding name. A white name like Emily “yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience” for the same resume with a name like Lakisha. Names do a lot, and Hudson did what any white man who could not bear the thought that his whiteness might keep him from success would do: take on the name of the ultimate model minority! Put another way: Everything people of color must endure, our sensational pain and our sensational brilliance, must be accessible to white people; they must have it in their quest to be rewarded. Put one more way: white people don’t like it when we don’t do well and they don’t like it when we do. But most of all, they don’t like it when they don’t do well.
My first year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there was one poet of color in the poetry program. Out of 50. Someone like Hudson would have likely seen that and thought, Lucky her, she’ll probably get special treatment and I won’t. But I looked at it and thought, Why the fuck is everyone here white, relatively wealthy, and college educated? That can’t possibly be the only type of person who can write good poetry. And it’s not. But anyone with even a shred of sense can see why that is precisely the kind of person who pursues poetry, a profession that almost all but guarantees a lifetime of not being paid for writing poetry no matter how “good” one gets. Anyone willing to put some effort into it can see why those are the kinds of people who apply to poetry MFA programs, who even know about poetry MFA programs, who can even imagine a future as a poet.
My white cohorts at Iowa who blatantly coveted my Otherness went on to sign with agents and publish their books. None of them have followed up with me and my “luck.” None of them speak about the reality of what the literary publishing world looks like for writers of color (short answer: very shitty.) And for all his (40!) rejections as Michael Derrick Hudson, being a white guy didn’t seem to stop him from publishing widely under his real name before he became Yi-Fen Chou.
I don’t think Hudson wants to be a chink though. (I don’t know any white person who does, but if you find me one, I’m happy to try to trade privileges.) I don’t think Hudson ever wanted the things a chink poet like me gets to have because what I get to have is certainly not money, and certainly not the kind of glory he’s after. I don’t know if he’s interested in interrogating how whiteness has helped his poetry career because so far he hasn’t made a public statement, but I’m happy to speak on how my Chinese American name and writing about my Chinese American identity has helped me in the literary world. For one, I get asked frequently to donate my intellectual emotional and psychic labor to educate white audiences and comment on issues of race because I am often the only or one of few people of color that many white writers/poets/editors/organizers of panels and readings know. I have been published many times without any compensation for my work in publications that frequently have few to zero other writers of color other than me. I am often put in the position of having to occupy higher moral ground when publications I am in are called out for being racist/misogynist/transphobic or whatever injustice they may have openly committed, and have felt pressure to pull my piece, even though as a woman of color who occupies many identities, I really would not have very many places to publish and share my work if I am to only publish in places that have never violated any aspect of my identity. It means publications run by mostly white editors specifically reach out to me when something horrific happens in the news to black or Muslim people, even though I am not black or of Muslim faith and the experience of being an Asian person of color is so very different from being a black person of color or a person of color who is Muslim (which, even though it is a religion rather than an ethnicity, is very often racialized to mean any brown-skinned Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian person), and yet I am often solicited to write something nuanced and educated on any news item affecting people of color because when these publications don’t have any black or Muslim writers on staff, I suppose I’m the next best thing, which I could take as a compliment, but more often it feels like a burden.
What I want is to get paid for my labor and be credited for my excellence. What I want is to not have to be made aware that because most publications only ever make room for one or two writers of color when those publications publish me it means another excellent writer of color does not get to have that spot, and yes, we internalize that scarcity and it makes us act wild and violent toward each other sometimes instead of kind.
What I usually get is a white editor soliciting me because they have failed to broaden their social circles and reading tastes to include more writers of color. What I get is publications that mostly publish white writers using me to prove that they are “trying” and “improving.” What I get is people criticizing these publications and erasing my work or dismissing me as just another co-opted writer of color. No wonder a white writer who doesn’t have to take ANY of this on could succeed using an Asian American pseudonym. Because that’s what my cohorts at Iowa wanted too, to have the right to a name that gave them an “edge” without having to endure racism, erasure, tokenization, self-devaluation, and the constant requests for free intellectual labor.
White supremacy tries to reduce people of color to our traumas. Resisting white supremacy means insisting that we are more than our traumas. One quick perusal through the shelves of world literature in any bookstore confirms just what the literary world wants to see from writers of color and writers from developing nations: trauma. Why, for example, is the English-speaking literary world mostly interested in fiction or poetry from China if the writer can be labeled as a “political dissident”? Even better if the writer has been tortured, imprisoned, or sentenced to hard labor by the Chinese government at one point. Surely there are amazing Chinese writers who don’t just identify as political dissidents just as there are many amazing white American writers who don’t identify, or rather, are not identified as one thing. Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers? Where are my carefree writers of color at? Seriously, where?
I have no doubt that as a successful writer of color, Sherman Alexie is deeply aware of this. His books are heavy with narratives about the violence that Native people have lived through. I love so many of his books and I’m not the only one, seeing as how he’s the one Native writer most white people seem to know about. In a letter by Alexie explaining his decision to not pull Hudson’s poem from the anthology and why the poem appealed to him in the first place, he writes, “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.”
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.
In the early '90s, well-respected poetry journals became enrapt with the work of Araki Yasusada, a Japanese poet who had survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The avant-garde was greedy to consume his work, which was formally experimental but also weighted with the trauma of living through nuclear war. It was exposed, although never fully confirmed, that Yasusada was the fictional creation of Kent Johnson, a white poet who taught at an university in Illinois. In a wonderfully comprehensive essay about the minstrel theatre of the American poetic avant-garde, Ken Chen writes, “what Yasusada created was a way for avant-garde white writers to give themselves emotional permission to enjoy lyric poems of suffering.”
In 2013, the Chinese American writer Bill Cheng published a novel Southern Cross the Dog, which was set in Mississippi and didn’t contain any “Chinese-ness.” The aesthetic value of the writing itself was almost universally praised, but the subject matter was questioned. Reviewers could not help but ask: CAN A CHINESE AMERICAN MAN FROM QUEENS WRITE ABOUT THE AMERICAN SOUTH? FOR ANSWERS LET’S TURN TO THESE WHITE CRITICS AND PROFESSORS.
I don’t envy Alexie’s position, and I don’t think he should shoulder the burden of responsibility (that goes to Hudson and the society that permitted him) but he’s continuing the long American tradition of praising white authors who appropriate racial identity and trauma for their art, while writers of color are told to essentially stay in their lane — an entirely unpaved, shitty, little lane.
Because I don’t have a bio in the Best American Poetry anthology I’ll give you mine now, less briefly. I was born in Shanghai. My father studied English on his own when the schools were shut down for much of the years when he should have been receiving a primary school education in China because of the Cultural Revolution. He studied English literature in college in Shanghai. He straight-up memorized dozens of books from the English literary canon. The dude could quote chapters of Moby-Dick from memory. He came to the United States on scholarship to study linguistics at NYU. My mom followed six months later. I followed two and a half years later. We were poor for many years. My father, despite his excellence and his brilliance had an accent that preceded any amount of dazzling intelligence he could ever demonstrate, and so his excellence was accented, and considered to be broken. He quit his Ph.D. program in linguistics a month before he was to defend his dissertation. He started all over and went to community college when he was in his late thirties to get his associate degree in computer science. He sure as hell was not jumping with joy and support when I said I wanted to be a writer. My mother cried for weeks and threatened to tell Stanford I was a convicted criminal so they would revoke my admission if I didn’t promise that I would not try to be a writer. I didn’t promise and my mother never made good on hers. They were scared for me and told me no one with a face like mine could ever hope to be anything more than ordinary in America. I hated them for saying it, but I really should have hated the racism that taught them to think like that, that threatened to prove them right again and again and again.
At Stanford, a white girl (well-meaning, of course) wrote a story about a Chinese American woman living in modern-day San Francisco (this was the early 2000s) who wanted to marry a white guy but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Chinese man and it was called The Dim Sum of All Things. (Laugh now, cry later!) I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say the reality of that story was fucked and so was the fantasy. She got into a highly coveted advanced fiction writing class taught by a famous writer and I didn’t. The story I submitted was also about Chinese Americans living in modern-day America, but it didn’t involve arranged marriage or dim sum or sensuous descriptions of chopsticks. This didn’t mean the teacher made a wrong choice. He made a subjective choice. As Alexie writes in his response to how he chose the poems for the anthology, “So did I pick the best 75 poems published last year? Of course not. I picked 75 poems that survived a literary ordeal that happened only in my brain.” I get that and I respect that. Whatever injury I perceived or imagined in not being picked for this class, I did not organize into a strategy as calculated as Michael Derrick Hudson did.
My parents were probably right. I was being a fool. My white teachers and my white classmates told me over and over again they simply didn’t believe a Chinese person would ever talk the way my characters did when workshopping my stories, but heaped lavish praise anytime my white peers wrote stories set in countries they’ve never lived in, narrated by people whose experiences of racism they never personally experienced. I was told to stop writing about myself and write things with more a universal theme. I had a white teacher in college who published some of his stories under an ambiguously “Asian”-sounding name (and also ambiguously gendered) in an anthology he edited so that people would not accuse him of not having enough diverse writers in the anthology. Was that shitty? Yeah. It was. But so was not soliciting or finding actual writers of color to include in the book. So was recruiting me, an Asian American writer, to be an assistant editor (for free of course) for the anthology. So was not acknowledging that I was also a fiction writer, that I might have at one point written something that he could give consideration to instead of choosing to include himself, under an Asian pseudonym that, in the end, I could have never used to get anything at all.
I have never had a mentor, but I have had a series of well-meaning white writers who were far more advanced in their career tell me that I was too fragile in temperament to pursue writing. I have had well-meaning white tenure-track professors and established writers discourage me, neg me, derail me, and at one point, even suggest that I take a remedial English class to improve my grammar — a move, I later realized, many writers of color were familiar with. My imagination and my talents were framed again and again as too limited, too provincial, too tethered to my identity.
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.
This is my bio as an immigrant, as a subaltern, as a Chinese American woman who was educated through various institutions that were supposed to teach me to succeed but instead turned me away and deprived me. This is not extraordinary as much as it is common. And when I haven’t failed, when I have insisted on exhibiting pride, when I don’t disappear, when I reveal myself as someone who still believes in my worth and my capacity to imagine and invent, and when I am rewarded with anything at all, I always have to account for it. When I gave up on fiction and wrote a book of poetry that I blind-submitted to a contest and won and started being invited to readings and panels, it wasn’t long before I heard through various backchannels that there were some poets and editors who thought I was overexposed, overpublished, overpraised. These are the same people who are in the room with me when I am the only person of color at the reading. These are the same people who are reading and being published in the publications where I am the only person of color in the table of contents. 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.
But I’m here and I’m not the only one. When Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler, the host of the evening made a joke about Woodson being allergic to watermelon, and people on social media immediately clapped back. He apologized. I’m sure there were many who were more enraged that Handler had to apologize than they were enraged by the racist joke. When earlier this year, the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the very few poets in America who regularly gets paid to write and perform his poetry, read from the autopsy report of Michael Brown during a poetry conference at Brown University, with the graduation photo of the murdered teen projected behind him, and concluded the reading with a description of Brown’s genitalia, poets of color and their allies and the anonymous group The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo clapped back. Another much-revered conceptual poet, Vanessa Place, was called out for one of her Twitter accounts where she posted lines, mostly racist dialogue, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, using Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-award winning actress who played the character of Mammy in the 1939 film, as her profile picture and a gross caricature of a Mammy character as her background. Again, poets online clapped back and started a campaign to remove Place from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs' selection committee on panels for its annual writing conference. I am positive in both instances, there were many people who were more outraged that these poets were asked to apologize than they were outraged by the hurt they caused and the mediocrity they exhibited. When the poet Jim Behrle posted on his Tumblr the story of Michael Derrick Hudson in BAP admitting that he used a Chinese-sounding pen name to help him get published, poets of color, many of whom were also included in BAP, took to Facebook and Twitter to say that the actions of this white man do not override or negate the work of poets of color who do exist. Jane Wong, whose poem “Thaw” was included in the BAP anthology wrote:
“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 disgusting and 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 initially 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.”
The long con of white mediocrity may never be exposed because there are too many people invested in making sure not a single instance of white excellence is overlooked but quickly drop the vigilance when it comes to the excellence of those of us who were never afforded such protection. But for those of us who didn’t grow up entitled, those of us who grew up underestimated, underinvited, undersolicited, underacknowledged, underloved, I say let’s expose each other’s excellence. Be greedy and indulgent when you read the work of the poets of color in this year’s BAP like Saeed Jones, Claudia Rankine, Chen Chen, Rajiv Mohabir, Monica Youn, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Evie Shockley, and Airea D. Matthews. And beyond this book, beyond this moment, I encourage everyone to seek out the work of Asian American poets who weren’t included in the anthology but whose poetry we ought remember long after we forget this white guy in yellowname: Cathy Hong Park, Ken Chen, Tan Lin, Hoa Nguyen, Jason Koo, Jackie Wang, Wendy Xu, Trisha Low, Patrick Rosal, Brandon Shimoda, Bhanu Kapil, Wo Chan, Sally Mao, Ginger Ko, Muriel Leung, Jennifer Nelson, and Geraldine Kim. If that’s not enough, you can find more on Twitter under the hashtag #ActualAsianPoet.
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 will not be colonized by white injuries scabbing over our words. The reparations white people claw for the minute they feel excluded from this world is not our problem. 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.
Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and the nonfiction chapbook Hags. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Lenny Letter, Poetry, The Hairpin, Dazed, Jezebel, The Guardian, The Iowa Review, Glimmertrain, and elsewhere. She writes for teen girls at Rookie magazine and tweets @jennybagel.