When A Pseudonym Is Not Just A Pseudonym: The Case Of Yi-Fen Chou

Why is this pen name different from other pen names? Well, let's talk about systematic oppression and cultural appropriation for a sec.
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This week, Yi-Fen Chou, author of a poem entitled “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” which appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, was revealed to be a nom de plume -- for Michael Derrick Hudson.

The shocking nom de plume reveal has a long, storied position in the annals of literary gossip. Think Robert Galbraith’s unmasking as J.K. Rowling -- in turn a pen name for Joanne Rowling (the “K” is a phantom; she has no middle name). Surprise, a mild flutter of irritation from a few curmudgeons who don’t like to be “tricked,” the glee of the literary media at having some interesting news to chew over. These are fairly standard responses.

Michael Derrick Hudson’s reveal occasioned a less typical reaction. In short, the literary Internet exploded, with the backlash reaching well beyond the niche of “Poetry Twitter” to incorporate the ire of general “Book Twitter” and Asian-American activists.

This maelstrom has left many white writers and defenders of Hudson wondering, perhaps a bit disingenuously: What makes a nom de plume… a not de plume? (Sorry.)

To start, what is the history of the pen name in literary history? Even fairly recent history abounds with them ... and there are a few common varietals.

George Eliot became one of the most celebrated Victorian novelists while using a male pseudonym. As Marian Evans, she had observed that “lady novelists” carried the reputation for writing fluff. The Brontë sisters became the Bell brothers for similar reasons. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin wrote as George Sand and Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen. J.K. Rowling added the phantom “K” to her pen name when her publisher suggested a woman’s name on Harry Potter might be off-putting to young boys.

Some male writers, of course, have used pen names with similar identity-camouflaging elements: Joseph Conrad, for example, abbreviated (and anglicized) his birth name, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, when he embarked on his English-language writing career. Woody Allen may be the most iconic Jewish writer and director currently working, but he went with a more anglicized name rather than work under his birth name, Allan Stewart Konigsberg.

Many men, as well as women, have used pseudonyms to write in another genre without confusing readers. Agatha Christie, the grande dame of mystery, also wrote romance as Mary Westmacott. Irish novelist William John Banville writes literary fiction as just John Banville and crime fiction as Benjamin Black.

In this context, Hudson’s ploy may seem unexceptional, another obfuscating false identity among many. But it’s not irrelevant to note that the above examples of standard literary pseudonyms were either identity-neutral, intended only to allow a writer to establish themselves in new genres, or were deployed to circumvent deeply rooted cultural bias against marginalized groups.

“Making a grab for the small portion of literary attention given to Asian-American writers smacks of obliviousness to the broader racial context in which Hudson is writing.”

So here's the most irredeemable problem with the Yi-Fen Chou affair: Hudson, a white man, has no dearth of privilege in the publishing realm, and using a pen name from a marginalized group only serves to also earn him those few opportunities specifically given to Asian-American writers -- at the cost of undermining actual Asian-American authors, who had far less opportunity than Hudson to start with. "The difference between J.K. Rowling and Yi-Fen Chou is the difference between theater and yellowface," explained poet Franny Choi. "Hudson exploited one of the few moments in which an editor of color was in a position to give a tiny bit of space to historically marginalized voices -- so that one more white man's voice could be heard."

Making a grab for the small portion of literary attention given to Asian-American writers smacks of obliviousness to the broader racial context in which Hudson is writing. “He puppeted and exploited an entire continent's history (which is not homogenous, by the way) for the sake of getting a poem published,” poet Wendy Xu told The Huffington Post via email.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hudson seemed uninterested in the identity of his alter-ego, which, writer and editor Soleil Ho pointed out, would be that of a Chinese woman. (In fact, the family of a real Yi-Fen Chou who attended high school with Hudson has come forward, raising warranted speculation that he used an acquaintance's name without permission.) In his author note, Hudson describes his "strategy" of using the pen name flippantly, without making any reference to the cultural heritage behind it: "After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen's name on it and sent it out again. As a strategy for 'placing' poems this has been quite successful for me." Yi-Fen Chou is merely a convenient subterfuge.

What’s more, his use of the name erases the real struggle many Asian-American writers face: to be taken seriously as mainstream literary voices while submitting under their own names, which are often perceived as “other.” Unsurprisingly, Asian-American writers typically face a steeper climb to publication and critical attention than white writers. Author Mike Jung, who writes children’s books, recalls numerous examples of blatant bias: “An author I know parted with an agent when the agent wouldn't stop asking why the characters in a manuscript ‘had to be’ Japanese,” he said. A bookseller once told him, as he held a book by writer and illustrator Grace Lin, “The Chinese books just don't sell.” (The book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was a bestseller.)

“A white man swimming in privilege (compared to POC in this country) wanted more, and made the calculated and systematic decision to get it at our expense.”

- Wendy Xu

Hudson’s pose as “Yi-Fen Chou” intrigued Best American Poetry guest editor Sherman Alexie, who has been open about his desire to compile a more diverse anthology for 2015. (Best American Poetry 2015 ultimately included 60 percent women writers and 40 percent writers of color, an unusually representative sample of the actual population of the U.S.) In this case, an editor was actively seeking to combat the subconscious bias that leads many to pay less close attention to writers with names that sound “ethnic” or with author photos that show them to be non-white.

Hudson’s pseudonym happened to strike the right chord with Alexie, who admitted, “Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American ... In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism.”

But there’s no denying that presenting as a white man is almost universally better for a writer’s career. In 2012, writer Roxane Gay published a breakdown of the diversity of The New York Times Book Review, which showed an enormous overrepresentation of white writers reviewed. Asian and Asian American writers represented 4.4 percent, compared to the 5.6 percent Asian Americans constituted of the American population, according to the 2010 census. This deficit may not be shocking, but consider the context -- that's roughly a 20 percent gap in representation. Then consider the disproportionate representation of white writers: 89.6 percent of the writers reviewed were non-Hispanic whites, while 63 percent of Americans are. The Michael Derrick Hudsons of the world, statistically, have an enormous overall advantage compared to the Yi-Fen Chous.

“Hudson didn't use an Asian pseudonym in order to escape racially fueled bias,” argued Jung. “He used it as a submission strategy designed to fool editors who actively work to combat such bias.” Basically, when Hudson couldn’t get a poem published in an industry that heavily favors white, male writers, he threw a thoughtlessly chosen Chinese pen name on it to capture the eye of those few editors who do attempt to give due attention to writers of color. “A white man swimming in privilege (compared to POC in this country) wanted more, and made the calculated and systematic decision to get it at our expense,” summed up Xu.

Nor, she and Choi pointed out, is this a new strategy -- privileged white men frequently use the labor and cultural markers of the less privileged to accrue marginal benefits to themselves while the original group remains oppressed.

In a poem posted "in response to m.d.h., white poet who used a Chinese pseudonym," Choi laid bare the secret youthful fears of an aspiring Asian-American writer:

[...] in fourth grade

i wanted to be a writer & worried
about how to escape my surname -- choi

is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath,
if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps

during the lean years -- could i go by f.j.c.? could i be
paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,

boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain
& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?

For Choi, her Korean name felt like a liability; camouflaging it -- at least by taking the name "Frances" instead of going by her full Korean name -- might allow acceptance in the American publishing world.

For a white man to skip the pain and obstruction of anti-Asian prejudice, then appropriate a Chinese name to exploit attempts to give those Asian-American poets a fair shake -- that's an insult."Yellowface is old news, and it's always painful," explained Choi. Xu agreed: “The wound gets picked freshly open each time a white man thinks he's the first one to give the plan a try."

Just recently, a white woman, Catherine Nichols, drew a far more positive reaction when she revealed on Jezebel that she’d conducted an experiment by sending her novel out to agents under her own name and under a male name. (Spoiler: the male name drew far more interest from agents.) There’s at least one crucial difference, however: She actually sent her manuscript out to a large number of agents under each name and gathered a representative sample of responses. What’s more, her experience bore out broader, documented biases in the industry -- see the VIDA Count -- while Hudson’s trick was geared to undercut the efforts of marginalized writers to gain an equal playing field.

Though he stopped at his first positive response, Hudson seems to infer that it was the pen name, not a fluke, that led the journal Prairie Schooner, and then Best American Poetry, to accept his poem, attempting to suggest, on slim evidence, that Asian-American writers have an advantage over white writers.

Though Alexie eloquently explained his reasoning for keeping the poem in Best American Poetry 2015 after discovering Hudson's deception, many continue to take issue with his choice -- and some of his reasoning behind it. Pulling the poem, said Xu, "Would have said 'we acknowledge the actual Asian-American life behind the poem.'" Both Xu and Jung echo others who've called Alexie's response too apologetic for his original consideration of the poem. "What he calls 'racial nepotism' is nothing like actual nepotism," said Jung. "Asian-American authors do not wield disproportionate power in the world of publishing."

Xu was more blunt: "If you think editing with an eye toward including people who have been erased, discriminated against, exploited, deported, and exterminated throughout history is 'injustice,' your cup must runneth over with privilege."

Now that the deed has been done, Hudson's use of the name Yi-Fen Chou could very easily exacerbate those challenges for the real Yi-Fen Chous of the literary world, who already struggle for recognition. "I hope people know the names Cathy Linh Che, Wang Ping, Tarfia Faizullah, Kazim Ali, and Barbara Jane Reyes as well as they now know Yi-Fen Chou," said Choi, expressing a wish that this kerfuffle will spur readers to pay greater attention to real Asian-American writers.

The predominant expectation, however, is bleaker. “How many submissions will be read with an extra dollop of suspicion or doubt because they arrive with an obviously Asian name on them?” pointed out Jung. “How many opponents of diversity will use this incident to inaccurately discredit diversity advocates, or wrongfully argue that Asian Americans are not subject to subtle bias or outright racism? I'm sure there'll be some. I worry there'll be many.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated J.K. Rowling's pseudonym as Richard Galbraith. The pseudonym is Robert Galbraith.

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