Why a poet’s pen name sparked a national conversation about white privilege

Earlier this week, the 2015 edition of the “Best American Poetry” anthology came under fire for including a poem by a white poet writing under a Chinese pseudonym.

“The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was originally submitted for consideration under the name Yi-Fen Chou; but was actually written by poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who only revealed his identity after it was accepted. Ultimately, “The Bees” was still included in the anthology, along with a note from Hudson explaining his decision to write under the pseudonym.

“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 send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me,” he writes. “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.”

The poem’s inclusion received an immediate backlash, in particular towards Sherman Alexie, the editor who accepted the piece in the first place. In a lengthy blog post for The Best American Poetry, Alexie responded to the criticism and launched a difficult, complicated conversation about race and nepotism in the writing industry.

“I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I’d already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself,” he writes. “I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity.”

“In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism,” he continues. “I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.”

Let’s get this out of the way: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing under a pseudonym, but there is something incredibly problematic in Hudson’s reason for taking one. Historically, people have written under pseudonyms out of necessity; out of a desire for anonymity. I, too, write under a Chinese “pen name”: a combination of my English first name and full Chinese name, 黄美役 (Huang Mei Yi). Hudson’s privilege is that he chose a Chinese pseudonym to “beat the system” and to make a point. There is a difference.

One glance at the New York Times‘ best seller list proves that the publishing industry is largely still a white man’s game. Earlier this year, in fact, the NYT summer reading list received criticism because it consisted entirely of white authors. This isn’t to discount the immense talent included, but it does raise some questions about diversity in the writing world — and shows why Alexie might view a poem from a non-white writer in a different light.

So what’s in a name? As a biracial woman, a lot. Each part of my name — real and pen — holds added weight and meaning. My writing under Gina Mei is a conscious choice. It is a way for me to honor who I am while fostering a new identity. It is a pen name in the same way that, say, J.K. Rowling is a pen name. All the parts were already there; I just moved things around.

“Mei means beautiful; Yi means kind, generous,” my mom says when I call and ask her to explain my name in her own words. (For those curious, my mom’s surname, Huang/Wong, means yellow.) I ask her why gung gung, my grandfather, picked it for me.

“Because that’s how he feels is your personality,” she says. “I think it’s a very good fit.”

Obviously, my “pseudonym” has a lot of personal significance — Gina Mei Yi is a nickname I’ve had since I was a toddler — but there are many other reasons why a writer might take a nom de plume. Women have used male or gender-ambiguous pen names as a means of anonymity and self-protection since the beginning of time. More recently, women might choose to write under male or gender-ambiguous pen names in order to have their work taken seriously. There’s a reason Catherine Nichols’ piece for Jezebel went viral last month: Homme de Plume revealed the very real unconscious gender bias that still exists in publishing today, with data to match. In her own words, her male pseudonym was “eight and a half times better than [her] at writing the same book” — and that’s a big problem. (Or, as Twitter user @Emmy_Golightley joked, “When I need the benefits of white male privilege, I send work out with the nom de plume Michael Derrick Hudson.”)

The choice to use a different name isn’t strictly a gender issue, either — which brings us back to why Hudson’s choice of a Chinese pseudonym is so problematic. POC often opt to choose “less ethnic” names, in life as well as in writing, as a means of survival. It’s not uncommon for non-European immigrants to adopt European names in order to assimilate — my family included. We do what we must in order to survive; in order to fit in. In 2014, Buzzfeed posted a video about a man who started sending out his resume with the name “Joe” instead of “José.” He immediately started receiving responses and was hired within a week.

As someone who is mixed, I often find myself grasping for a more definitive self. I think about my nom de plume. I debate changing it. I wonder what it implies about me; if I should further anonymize or define myself. Race, of course, is a social construct — so what I appear to be often has more meaning than what I actually am. I am neither particularly white-passing nor Chinese-passing, and my name is one of the only ways I’m able to prove my “legitimacy” and show who I am. Unlike Hudson, my Chinese “pen name” has meaning. The fact that I don’t write under Gina Wong or Huang Mei Yi, therefore, is also a conscious choice: I feel I’m not allowed to use either — the result of constantly being denied my Asian heritage because I am mixed.

It’s important we remember that what happened with Hudson may be an isolated incident, but it is indicative of a bigger problem. POC editors are still very much in the minority in the publishing world, and this kind of non-white nepotism is comparatively rare. (If it does exist, it is only to counter the fact that the industry remains largely and overwhelmingly in favor of white men.) Asian writers are probably the least represented racial minority in the Western cannon; and that Hudson successfully took advantage of that fact is very disheartening and, honestly, incredibly frustrating.

Acknowledging privilege is never a comfortable conversation to have — but it is nonetheless an increasingly necessary one. We all carry a certain level of privilege, whether because of our ability or gender identity or class or any number of factors. Hopefully, rather than imply that marginalized writers have it “better,” this controversy fosters a dialogue about the small ways that privilege affects us every day, and why Alexie unconsciously felt he needed to give Yi-Fen Chou a chance.

(Image via Simon & Schuster)

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