Tuesday, September 8, 2015
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
We tend, as a species, to overcorrect.
If there is injustice directed at one, we tend to correct that injustice – to the point it turns into injustice against another. I see example after example of this.
Certainly, this is one. Behold the story of Yi-Fen Chou, a poet chosen as one of 75 to be featured in “The Best American Poetry 2015,” by guest editor Sherman Alexie.
As poems go it’s okay, if I’m any judge of poetry.
Cue the outrage: Yi-Fen Chou is not Chinese. He’s not Chinese-American. He ain’t even (whispers) yellow. Yi-Fen Chou is the pseudonym of admitted white guy (boo!) Michael Derrick Hudson, who says he uses the name Yi-Fen Chou in order to increase his chances of getting his poems published in literary journals.
Hudson proves his pseudonym works, per Buzzfeed:
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.
This, in his official Best American Poets biography.
Of course, those who scream about injustice against minorities in favor of whitey screamed loudly about this, drumming up accusations from “yellowface” to cultural appropriation, making Hudson the villain in this mess – not recognizing that the wheel of correcting injustice might have rolled a bit too far.
Alexie himself admits part of the reason he chose Yi-Fen Chou’s poem is nepotism.
[I]n putting Yi-Fen Chou in the "maybe" and "yes" piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
And, of course, I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: "Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?"
Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.
And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.
But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn't want to hear people say, "Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy." I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.
And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonym user is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I'd kicked him out of BAP 2015 then he might have tried to go public with that news.
And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised.
Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.
But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym.
If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.
We don’t fix injustices of the past by creating injustices now, folks. We could learn that lesson. Or we could learn the lesson that to correct injustices in the past, you have to base everything on race or color or gender or sexual orientation, rather than on the merits of the individual. Sheridan and MLK would, of course, be appalled.