THE YI-FEN CHOU PROBLEM

In less than two hours after my arrival at Newark Airport, awakened from a complementary wine induced nap across the Atlantic Ocean, I was alerted by several bookmarked news sources on my phone about some radical upheaval in the United States of America. After living two months in the 11th arrondissement of Paris and attending several protests in the Place De La Republique, my civic manner demanded I had to learn the cause of this fiery rhetoric.

It didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trumps’ infantilized sermons of bigotry (not this time, at least). It had nothing to do with the thousands of Syrian refugees storming into Europe. Twitter didn’t have any chilling reports of unarmed African Americans being harassed, assaulted, or gunned down by an authoritarian police force.

No, the rhetoric was born from a 20-lined poem entitled: “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” recently published in Best American Poetry 2015’s anthology. The target of such distain was the author of the title, Yi-Fen Chou.

Or should we say: Michael Derrick Hudson.

This happened. A white male author from the fading middle class adopted a pseudonym of Asiatic descent to increase his chances of publication. Whether the use of Yi-Fen Chou directly contributed toward the publication in the autumn release of 2014’s Prairie Schooner, we’ll never know (Prairie Schooner, a University of Nebraska-affiliated literary journal, was not aware of Hudson’s true identity upon publication). However, it was this publication that garnered the attention of Sherman Alexie, the chosen guest editor of Best American Poetry 2015’s anthology.

Alexie, an award winning writer and filmmaker, was intrigued by “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve”. He mentioned that he enjoyed long titles of works and was interested “because of the poet’s Chinese name.”

Much to Alexie’s surprise and eventual dismay, he had received notice that the true authors’ name was Michael Derrick Hudson, an employee of the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Mr. Hudson, upfront about his decision to adopt a pseudonym, best exemplified the reasons for his decision in the contributors’ section of Best American Poetry 2015:

“The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name 40 times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. 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. I realize that this isn’t a very ‘artistic’ explanation of using a pseudonym.

Sherman Alexie stuck by his decision to publish the poem and the critics of this literary subterfuge responded in turn. Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, wrote for NPR that Hudson “wanted power [and] the capital of multicultural difference.” In Chen’s words, Hudson was “a hysterical white man, envious of the few people of color who’ve breached their quarantine.”

The website Jezebel also ran the gluttonous taunt: “If You’re a White Man Who Can’t Get Published Under Your Own Name, Take A Hint”. Scores of Twitter users employed vitriolic stabs at the pseudonym-wielding author. Cringingly enough, the quality of the poem was never discussed. Only the merits of its path to the printing press were addressed.

Sherman Alexie responded on BAP’s blog days later, explaining his reluctance and honor to be the guest editor for BAP, sharing his “list of established rules” he promised to adhere before embarking on reading anything for BAP 2015.

Alexie defended the publication of the poem despite Hudson’s “colonial theft” using his “deceitful pseudonym.” Alexie also confessed to breaking the same rules he wished to follow.

“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. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American,” Alexie explained.

As if to clear the air of any wrongdoing, he stated:

“Nepotism is as common as oxygen,” Alexie said, and wished us readers “to continue to debate the Yi-Fen Chou Problem.”

No assertions to talent, style, or subject were addressed, yet the attacks continued. Stephan Kuusisto in his blog for The Huffington Post sided with Sherman Alexie as being “victimized by a white poet” with actions that “insult all artists who hail from historically marginalized positions.”

Wild comparisons to the defamed NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal were strewn across the Web. The whole time Michael Derrick Hudson remained silent and still published.

2015 was a year of literary experiments. Another associated author tale was that of Catherine Nichols (not to be confused with another Catherine Nichols, author of over 60 books on varying subjects). Ms. Nichols published an explorative essay on Jezebel’s website about inequalities in the publishing world.

“I was spending more time crying on the phone than writing and I had no idea how to get back to work,” she wrote in her piece. Ms. Nichols devised her own strategy out of frustration and curiosity.

“The plan made me feel dishonest and creepy, so it took me a long time to send my novel out under a man’s name,” Nichols confessed. But she did, yielding, purportedly, eight times more responses under her assumed name “George” than her own name “Catherine”. The tones of the agents varied upon which gender specific name she submitted.

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” Nichols explained, wrought with the frustration of the bias she found in the publishing world.

Reading her essay, I couldn’t avoid the nexus between Michael Derrick Hudson and Catherine Nichols. Especially when I read these lines by Nichols in her essay:

“I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence. My name — Catherine — sounds as white and as relatively authoritative as any distinctly feminine name could, so I can only assume that changing other ethnic and class markers would have even more striking effects.”

What compelled these writers to change their names in hope their work would reach an audience? Where would writers be without subverting societal ground to make their voices heard?

Pseudonyms have always been used to make an authors name more distinctive, or to disguise ones gender, or to avoid retribution from ones works.

Take the obvious examples of women publishing under a male or otherwise androgenized names to maneuver publication: The Bronte Sisters (The Bells), Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (George Sand), and Joanne Rowling (user of both the ambiguously initialed J.K. and the much more masculine, Robert Galbraith). These women saw that in a male-dominated field the only way to succeed was through subterfuge. Certainly we wouldn’t say these women wanted to insult men by assuming a false character. They choose a pseudonym to subvert a cancerous system that prevented the literature of an individual to be read by the masses.

Writers for centuries have been using pseudonyms to suit their own personal, economical, and societal needs. The pseudonym is a tool of the author, a respected weapon in the armory of their work. To arbitrarily attack or laude one writer over another for their methods reeks of the worst type of literary fanaticism, and like most fanatical beliefs, they should be shunned and ignored.

What did Michael Derrick Hudson really win by his gambit? Certainly not monetary gain; he ousted himself with full disclosure the moment of his acceptance. There would be no Yi-Fen Chou public readings without one or two raised eyebrows. Hudson’s decision was an act of literary terrorism, selflessly attacking a system, by any means necessary. Terrorism is the last resort wielded by the powerless. It is obvious Hudson used this tactic as a form of protest.

The use of the pseudonym says more about the status quo than the character of the writer. Publishing is a sick bastion of glad-handing and favoritism, and perhaps, has always been that way. Catherine Nichols spoke of the “ridiculous little cage” where, as Alexie noted, “nepotism is as common as oxygen”. What are writers to do if talent is no longer the yardstick of success and remains solely a barometer of their identity?

All writers are the victims here, forced to adapt to a prejudiced, ever evolving adversarial landscape. Michael Derrick Hudson is no hero of the publishing world; he merely became the desperate result of its environment.

(Note: This article was written in 2015).

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Matthew D’Abate

Matthew D’Abate

Matthew D'Abate is a writer and host of @KILLTHECATRADIO. He is the founder of @LITERATESUNDAY and the bartender @THEBARTENDERKNOWS.