Culture Vulture

Bias, she wrote

A white poet's use of an Asian- sounding pseudonym to get his work published sparked fierce debate in the literary world

Last month, a white American man earned the ire of many in the literary community when it came to light that he had adopted a female Chinese pen name in order to get his poetry published.

After his poem The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam And Eve was rejected for publication 40 times, he claimed, Michael Derrick Hudson began submitting it under the name of "Yi-Fen Chou". Appended to an Asian-sounding pseudonym, the poem was rejected a further nine times, before the reputable literary journal Prairie Schooner (past contributors included Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty) accepted it.

Subsequently, the poem was picked for inclusion in the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology. In his contributor note, Hudson wrote that, "as a strategy for 'placing' poems", his nom de plume had been "quite successful for me". Eagle-eyed readers took umbrage. The New York Times picked up the story. Relatives of the real Yi-Fen Chou - a former classmate of Hudson's from Fort Wayne, Indiana - said she was furious and wanted him to stop using her name.

The Yi-Fen Chou controversy sparked reactions ranging from outrage to perverse respect. Writing in Guernica magazine, Asian-American writer Jennifer S. Cheng called Hudson's act "a yellowface, an Orientalist lie" and "a dangerous appropriation of identity". Jane Hu, daughter of Chinese immigrants to Montreal and now a PhD English student at the University of California, Berkeley, traced in a piece for The Guardian how Western modern poetry has exoticised Chinese-ness as far back as Ezra Pound's translations of Chinese poetry, dismissing Hudson as both racist and unoriginal; "something white American poets have been doing a long time".

And Chinese-American writer Jenny Zhang's essay for Buzzfeed. com, They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist, criticised Hudson's desire for "the right to a name that gave them an 'edge' without having to endure racism, erasure, tokenisation, self- devaluation".

The controversy has convinced me of one thing at least: that we never read innocently – that is, without consuming the writer’s identity in someway.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, features director and former slushpile reader Theodore Ross expressed in the New Republic something akin to commiseration with Hudson. Under the headline of Cheat! It's The Only Way To Get Published, he wrote: "If, as Hudson implies, race wins out then win the race race, I guess… The submission process is a rigged casino game, though, and all is fair in love and literary magazines". Closer to home, South China Morning Post journalist Alex Lo opined that he found Hudson's stratagem "charming rather than offensive", given that "most if not all means are justified to get published".

Now that the dust has settled a little, the controversy can become a point around which debates about what is acceptable in literary appropriation, as well as the power relations enmeshed with such acts, can crystallise.

My own feelings about the controversy - barely a blip in the lives of most people here, such is the scale of poetry firestorms - have ranged from anger and post- colonial Asian solidarity, to confusion, and finally to a sombre wish that the world was not such a flawed, unequal place. In an era of postmodern pastiche, should such literary ventriloquism or meta- textual rebranding count as transgression?

Perhaps the issue boils down to the flow of power and privilege among socio-cultural groups. Would the whole episode matter if writers of Asian origin or from the periphery of literary production centres did not find it such an uphill slog to be noticed or published, amid a perception that white Western (male) voices were the norm? If the roles were reversed, and a Chinese female poet took a Caucasian man's name, it would probably constitute less of a scandal.

According to the Asian American Writers' Workshop's sarcastic online White Pen Name generator, artistic legitimacy awaits me if I publish as "Paul Parker" instead. Singaporean poet Kirpal Singh revealed at a literary talk with Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang last month that, as a young man, he had submitted a poem to a Western journal under a Caucasian name - and then promptly withdrawn it when it was accepted. Taking a pseudonym to reveal prejudice or circumvent unspoken barriers to entry is understandable; taking one to "game the system" and mislead others in order to get ahead of others who already struggle to get their voices heard, as Hudson did, less so.

For a while, I thought, too, about Hudson/Yi-Fen Chou in relation to cross-cultural literary imaginings, such as American writer Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2012 novel The Orphan Master's Son, written in the voice of a North Korean model citizen.

Could Yi-Fen Chou be considered a kind of fictional frame for an imaginary moment, albeit clumsily executed by her creator's blatantly self-serving statement? How does attempting the voice of a Hermit Kingdom subject - a voice that is silenced by the country's regime - however well-researched and intentioned, compare to a fraudulent voice added to the available Asian voices out there?

I have no answer to those questions, nor am I sure if this comparison is fair. But the controversy has convinced me of one thing at least: that we never read innocently - that is, without consuming the writer's identity in some way. As Andrew Gallix wrote in his introduction to the satirical Biographical Dictionary Of Literary Failure: "Literary biography is a by-product of literature: the writer's life is read, a rebours, in the light of her works."

Conversely, one might read a writer's work differently, after finding out something particularly intriguing or unsavoury about her life. We are always reading with or against the grain of who we think the writer is. In submitting my own fiction to international journals, I always state in the first line of my cover letter that I am a writer from Singapore. The off-chance that an overseas editor might find my nationality interesting, I admit, factors in that decision.

But, in the grand scheme of things, I think Hudson has gotten it all wrong. We, writers, write in a bid for some kind of immortality; for our names to go down in history. What he has done is briefly monumentalise the name of "Yi-Fen Chou" as a symbol - while his own fades into obscurity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Bias, she wrote'. Print Edition | Subscribe