As a writer, have I ever benefited from being Chinese?
By now, every wordsmith with wi-fi has heard about the Best American Poetry scandal. When Native American writer and editor Sherman Alexie selected a poem by “Yi-Fen Chou” for that venerable anthology, he didn’t know that Chou was really Michael Derrick Hudson, a Caucasian writer who felt his verse was better received whenever it was submitted under a pseudonym. Even after he learned of Hudson’s yellowface deceit, Alexie decided to go ahead with publishing the poem under that nom de guerre as a corrective to his admittedly non-color-blind editorial process. The literary community was appalled.
I was doubly appalled. I am a writer of Chinese descent, and Alexie himself chose my work for an anthology many years ago.
When he included my short story “Judas Kiss” in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, I was thrilled. Alexie had anointed just 19 out of 230 submissions, and being handpicked by a prominent author was confirmation that devoting two years of my life to an MFA program was not a quixotic brain waste. Since then, other honors have followed, but that first validation was crucial to a young writer.
Addressing the controversy in a blog post, Alexie wrote, “In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.”
A white man in my MFA program once told me I’d have a better chance of getting published because I was Asian. Never mind that I have an excellent collection of rejection letters that attest to the universal difficulty of getting your words out there, or that close to 90 percent of the books reviewed in the New York Times in 2011 were authored by whites. Yet as I read Alexie’s admission, the tiniest wave of doubt broke. Did he give my story a better read all those years ago because I had an unconventional name? Did I get a literary leg-up by not being Mary Smith?
First off, unless you live in Vancouver or Berkeley, my family name isn’t obviously Chinese (I can’t tell you the number of times customer-service reps have tacked a phantom “b” onto the end of “Lam”). Second, though everyone who meets me in person assumes that “Dika” has Sino-roots, the truth is that I was named after the Greek goddess of justice. It’s an odd name—but not an immediately recognizable one.
In the spirit of my eponymous deity, I went back to Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999. How fitting that Alexie prefaced the book with a note that “the person on the page and the person behind the page are very rarely the same person.”
In my examination of contributor demographics, I made an interesting discovery: Of the 19 authors, a mere four names, not including mine—Bich Minh Nguyen, Saher Alam, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Muñoz—are visibly “ethnic.” (I put “ethnic” in quotes because I wasn’t sure how to classify writers like Nicholas Montemarano or Julia Tonkovich; in the nineteenth century, Old Guard WASPs would have shot down any pretensions to “whiteness” for names like these, revealing the inherent flaws of a vague classification that treats Europe like the monolithic society that it isn’t.) Moreover, in today’s polyglot world, names can mask a mixed-race background (I have several cousins with European surnames).
I like to believe that while my byline may have stood out initially, if the story behind it hadn’t spoken to Alexie, he wouldn’t have picked it. My first job out of college consisted of wading through the slush pile at a women’s magazine. After seven hours of perusing unsolicited manuscripts, anything unusual would have caught my eye: If most of the envelopes hailed from Brooklyn, I would grab the one from Arizona; if the majority of writers were called Jennifer, I would gravitate to Ted. Still, all mail was opened eventually, and I never forwarded a pitch to the higher-ups unless it was outstanding. Any house-hunter knows that curb appeal means nothing when you don’t like the interior.
Most telling, my contribution to the anthology, an un-fairy tale about a Caucasian woman who swallows her French lover’s tongue and finds herself subsumed by his tastes and personality, was not spun from the viewpoint of a person of color, though like much minority fiction, it examines the fluidity of identity. Wrote Alexie in the intro, “There are stories…I’d have no prayer of ever imagining, stories that might as well have been written by Martians for all I know about their worlds.” In short, I think my fiction appealed to him not because I had an alien name, but because I wrote an alien narrative.
I take issue with Alexie’s use of the word “nepotism” in his mea culpa. There is nothing wrong with curating a diverse representation of voices for a title that purports to be a cross-section of the finest poetry in the country. Alexie stated in Best of the Fiction Workshops that he did not encounter a book by a minority author until he was 19. “I remember scouring the list of required reading for an English degree at my university and finding that only two of the required texts were written by non-white people.” Because of his commitment to overlooked poets, 40 percent of the contributors to this year’s Best American Poetry are writers of color. Does that mean the poems lack merit? Unlikely. In fact, merit is the factor that ultimately led Alexie to keep Hudson’s entry, despite the subterfuge. “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.”
The disingenuous Washington Post headline, “A white guy named Michael couldn’t get his poem published. Then he became Yi-Fen Chou,” overlooks the fact that Michael Derrick Hudson, publishing under his own byline, has won at least five poetry contests, appeared in lit-mag stalwarts like Iowa Review and Georgia Review, and even has a profile on the Poetry Foundation website. How ironic that the link at the bottom of the page reads, “Report a problem with this biography.” That’s not the biography I have a problem with.
Lest Alexie continue to be tormented by his perceived bias, let us note that the BOTFW anthology led off with a story by one Adam Johnson, who, 14 years later, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. His pièce de résistance? The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea. Johnson may not be Korean, but he researched the subject for six years, even going so far as to travel to that famously closed country. Unlike Michael Derrick Hudson, he had the grace to employ his literary ventriloquism in the service of art—not artfulness.