When white Indiana-based poet Michael Derrick Hudson used an Asian pen name to submit a poem to “Best American Poetry 2015,” he perhaps didn’t expect the amount of backlash that he’d get. After all, he defended his decision as one motivated by ongoing rejections when he used his actual name.
Regardless of his intentions, the controversy has galvanized many across social media and the literary world, prompting the noted Asian American Writers’ Workshop (whose executive director, poet Ken Chen, is in the picture above) to respond across platforms. Chen appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss the systemic issues at the heart of the controversy. He spoke at length about how Hudson’s deceit overshadowed the contributions of Asian writers:
…American literature isn’t just an art form — it’s a segregated labor market. In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent of writers reviewed in The New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren’t his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he’s another hysterical white man, envious of the few people of color who’ve breached their quarantine.
My white teachers and my white classmates told me over and over again they simply didn’t believe a Chinese person would ever talk the way my characters did when workshopping my stories, but heaped lavish praise anytime my white peers wrote stories set in countries they’ve never lived in, narrated by people whose experiences of racism they never personally experienced. I was told to stop writing about myself and write things with more a universal theme. I had a white teacher in college who published some of his stories under an ambiguously “Asian”-sounding name (and also ambiguously gendered) in an anthology he edited so that people would not accuse him of not having enough diverse writers in the anthology. Was that shitty? Yeah. It was. But so was not soliciting or finding actual writers of color to include in the book.
— AAWW (@aaww) September 11, 2015
— Jenny Yang (@jennyyangtv) September 9, 2015
Meanwhile, the sister of a woman actually named Yi-Fen Chou offered public criticism of Hudson. In a statement to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Ellen Chou (who works as a communications director with the U.S. Department of Defense) described that Derrick used the name of his sister as a pseudonymn—a revelation made all the more bizarre because she went to the same set of schools as Hudson:
It’s possible her sister could have crossed paths with Hudson while in high school. Yi-Fen Chou attended middle school and high school here from 1977 to the early 1980s, Ellen Chou said. That included two years at Wayne High School before she transferred to finish her final two years at Bishop Dwenger High School. Hudson said in a November interview with The News-Sentinel that he graduated from Wayne in 1982.
“Regardless how and where he got her name, he should still be made accountable,” Chou said. …”Mr. Hudson made a conscientious decision to lie about his identity in order to be published,” she said. “He has been unapologetic and should not be recognized or applauded for his deception.”