New anthology includes poem by white man using Chinese name
Sep. 09, 2015
NEW YORK (AP) — Facing sharp criticism in the literary world and beyond, Sherman Alexie is defending his decision to include a poem by a white man writing under a Chinese pen name in "The Best American Poetry 2015."
Alexie, an award-winning poet and fiction writer, wrote a long blog post over the weekend in which he acknowledged his anger and embarrassment upon learning that Yi-Fen Chou's "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve" was in fact composed by Michael Derrick Hudson. Alexie was guest editor for the anthology, published Tuesday, and news of Hudson's ruse set off a lengthy online debate.
Many called Hudson a racist, and a reminder of times when actors ranging from Katharine Hepburn to Mickey Rooney played Asian characters.
"Folks, if there is such a thing as employing yellowface in poetry, this has to be it," Phil Yu wrote on his blog Angry Asian Man.
Alexie, alerted to Yi-Fen's real identity by Hudson himself, wrote on blog.bestamericanpoetry.com that personal embarrassment would have been the only reason for removing the poem.
"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," he wrote. "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."
Alexie's acceptance of the "The Bees," one of just 75 poems chosen from hundreds of submissions, seemed to justify Hudson's reason for pretending he was Chinese. He acknowledges in the book's biographical notes that he called himself Yi-Fen Chou because the poem had been rejected 40 times under his own name.
"I realize that this isn't a very 'artistic' explanation of using a pseudonym," wrote Hudson, a resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose work has also appeared in numerous publications under his own name.
Last fall, "The Bees" and three other poems under the name Yi-Fen Chou appeared in Prairie Schooner, a quarterly based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "The Bees" is a 20-line poem, with philosophical asides and sexual and bathroom humor, in which the poet confesses: "My life's spent/running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation/until every goddamned thing's reduced to botched captions/ and dabs of misinformation in fractured/not-quite-right English."