Cultural inappropriation

On Monday, The Rumpus’s poetry editor, Brian Spears, wrote of ‘a storm in the poetry world’. He’d found among the contributor bios in Best American Poetry 2015, published this week, a fairly extraordinary one:

 Hudson-Bio (via The Rumpus)


Instead of the generic factoids-plus-publication-list anthologised writers might use, Yi-Fen Chou’s revealed that Chou was in fact Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man from Indiana. According to his bio, Hudson becomes Chou only when his poems are rejected several times, because apparently his poems get noticed that way. That’s cool – because as we know, Asian writers definitely get noticed and published all the time! (No, they don’t.) As blogger Angry Asian Man quipped about this ‘yellowface’: ‘The fuck?’


Hudson’s explanation for using the pseudonym is remarkable in its bare-facedness and its utilitarian slant. As he explains, representing himself as Asian has proved effective – a strategy he point-missingly calls ‘persistent’. Persistent he may be, but Asian he isn’t, and this is a giant problem: a white writer using a recognisably Asian pen name is sheer cultural appropriation. It calls to mind the time white DJ Calvin Harris (real name Adam Wiles) explained he’d selected his stage name because it sounded more racially ambiguous. Black DJs have more cred – so why not try on the disguise for a while? Such reasoning is laughably bogus: as if artists of colour are getting some kind of advantage over white artists because editors and other consumers are – and it’s been a long time coming – finally interested in their work. While there’s something shockingly gauche and memeable about Hudson’s banking the scant cultural capital of otherness, there’s also the blunt audacity of its borrowing. Demonstrably, there are few problems with being white, cis male, able-bodied, straight – and endowed with all those characteristics’ attendant privileges – but if you don’t get what you want? Just try another race on for size. High-profile celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift’s cherry-picking of jewellery and slang from other cultures have occasioned several smart critiques about why it’s not okay for white people to just pick up only the parts they like from non-dominant cultures. I can’t say it better than Tamara Winfrey Harris:

If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.

Adding another layer to the Best American Poetry incident was the response of its editor, Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian writer Sherman Alexie. In his honest, revealing post about the process that led to the inclusion of Hudson’s ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve’, Alexie wrote that he only discovered Hudson’s sleight-of-hand after he’d selected the poem for inclusion in the volume. By his report, he was furious about the deception but eventually decided to include it regardless. Alexie’s post is fascinating for the bit-by-bit account of being a selection editor, which is a mysterious and subjective process 100 per cent of the time. It’s worth reading for that alone, but I was most curious about how he accounted for ‘The Bees’’ ensuing inclusion:

But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. 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. … I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise. 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. … And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.

  With all respect to Alexie, whose writing I love, and whose predicament I don’t envy, I think the values he ascribed to his options are naïve and limited. Anthologising is an unforgivingly subjective task that involves multiple considerations. But by deciding that the deception was relevant predominantly to him, as editor, and Hudson, as writer, he narrowed the focus of his decision to the detriment of the general discourse about racial identity. I don’t agree that it would have been dishonest for Alexie not to include the poem – but I definitely think it was dishonest for Hudson to change his name for the purposes of submission. Since he thought he was being so hard done by editors’ interest in writing by non-white people, he should probably also have magically bestowed, retroactively, all the privileges of his white life upon his competitors, or taken on the systemic burdens writers of colour have sustained throughout their lives and careers. In the absence of any such miraculous field-levelling, his experiment ends up looking ugly and callous and completely self-interested.  

Alexie assumed that there were only two courses of action: include the poem, or don’t include the poem. I disagree, and for my part, I think he should have pulled it. If it truly was a Yes/No question and, as Alexie wrote, he had set ethical guidelines about whether to include close friends in his selection (no) or about being swayed by a poet’s reputation (no again), then surely a poet trying to get attention speciously through misidentifying one’s race could merit a new rule.

But in my opinion, this wasn’t actually a Yes/No decision. It was a ‘Yes, because … and … although’ or a ‘No, because … and … though’ decision, and that is not just a binary set: No, Hudson’s poem shouldn’t have been included, in spite of Alexie’s embarrassment or any sweeping generalisation about his methods that might be made, because its author’s fraud makes a mockery of the real struggle that writers of colour face.

I understand Alexie’s pain about the problem. Hudson’s poem has some vibrancy (you can read it here). But it’s not so good that it should have trumped the opportunity to discourage convenient racial appropriation. I wonder – and don’t wish to find out – whether any poem would be.

Far from being primarily a reflection on Alexie as editor, the true identity of ‘Yi-Fen Chou’ has had real effects for writers of colour as well. It may have complicated, no matter how subtly, the submissions process for Asian poets for the time being. Certainly at present, it’s overshadowing the contributions of the other selected poems. More broadly, it has angered many writers of colour, who are rightfully perturbed by the perversity of Hudson’s triumph – and in many cases exhausted from fighting various literary battles of their own.

Of course, the questioning and disgust should really be aimed at Hudson himself. As of this writing, Hudson hasn’t responded to journalists’ requests for comment, but I doubt anything could be more telling than the story of privilege his biography tells. And perhaps he’s said enough, anyway; to quote from his lauded poem: ‘My life’s spent / running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation’.

Estelle Tang

Estelle Tang is a writer and literary scout.

More by Estelle Tang ›

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