Impersonation of Minorities by White People: an Abridged Literary Guide

The 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry book series was recently published by Simon and Schuster including the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” by Yi-Fen Chou.

The poem’s inclusion was the subject of immediate controversy because the author is actually a white man from Indiana named Michael Hudson, and he admits to having selected the Asian pen name to increase his chances for publication.

In an author note published with the poem Hudson explains, “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.” Hudson’s actions infuriated many readers who saw his methodology as an insult to Asian authors and an abuse of white privilege.

Pen names have a long and complicated history.

Three decades ago the author Danny Santiago received the Rosenthal Award for literary achievement for his first person account of a Chicano teenager before being revealed as a 70 year old white man.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel,Famous All Over Town. Subsequent to the award it was revealed, with some embarrassment, that the newly discovered Chicano writer was not Chicano at all: ‘Danny Santiago’ turned out to be the pseudonym of seventy-three-year-old Daniel James, author of several previously published books, and better known as a playwright and screenwriter.” Chicano authors were outraged that the book might be included in the pantheon of Chicano fiction.

Manuel Ramos describes, “The Simon & Schuster editor who bought Santiago’s book stated that the author had hidden his identity and masqueraded as a Chicano (using Chicano slang in his letters to the editor)… [and] the awards committee confessed that they might have had second thoughts about giving the novel their prize, had they known its author was ‘Anglo’ and not ‘Chicano.’”

Michael Hudson informed anthology editor Sherman Alexie of his true identity in time for the editor to pull the poem prior to its publication in Best American Poetry 2015 but Alexie decided against doing so, explaining,

“As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading… Do you see what happened? 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… I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. 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. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

Like catching a cab while black, the act of publication tends to be more difficult for minorities. Alexie’s decision to keep the poem in the anthology was a defense of the practice he calls “literary justice.”

An author may hide his or her identity for a variety of reasons, including to access publication and to increase sales. Relatively common changes include rhetorical cross-dressing (a woman adopting a name to appear male) and Anglicization (Joseph Conrad’s birth name was Józef Konrad Korzeniowski.)

After the Danny Santiago controversy Edwin McDowell wrote about the “distinguished literary tradition of women using men’s names”, which extends to this day. Matt Soniak has described how the author of the Harry Potter books became J.K. Rowling because, “Joanne Rowling’s publishers weren’t sure that the intended readers of the Harry Potter books—pre-adolescent boys—would read stories about wizards written by a woman.”

Lorrayne Carroll, author of a historical study of male appropriation of the female voice, Rhetorical Drag: Gender, Impersonation, Captivity, and the Writing of History, commented, “These impersonations create readerly expectations through what Foucault calls ‘the author function’. That is, think about how you read a work by ‘anonymous’ versus your expectation of—and disposition toward—a work by ‘Shakespeare.’”

Pen names affect the public’s perception of the published words through ‘the author function’, in the cases of Joseph Conrad and JK Rowling impacting the chances for commercial success. Washington, D.C.-based poet Regie Cabico – self-described ‘Fairy godmother of spoken word poetry’ – argues that, “impersonation has to be done with love, empathy and extreme care.” Comparing Michael Hudson to an author examined in her book Rhetorical Drag, Lorrayne Carroll agrees, arguing,

“Comparing Cotton Mather writing as a female captive in 1697 to Michael Derrick Hudson writing as Yi-fen Chou in 2015 reduces or elides the wildly different circumstances that conditioned each choice. That said, both Mather and Hudson acknowledge, through their choices, that impersonation gives their writing some kind of advantage. For each man, the advantage results from using a voice associated with situated and embodied experiences that neither apparently have had.

Hudson’s choice to write as Chou should be read within a cultural terrain shaped by identity politics; race, gender, and class inequalities; and restricted access to shrinking publication venues, particularly those with high status and pedigree, such as Best American Poetry. How we evaluate the ethics of authorial impersonation, then, is contingent on where we land in this terrain. For me, the choice to appropriate an identity distinct from one’s own must take into account the power relations within which one publishes…. We might ask whether that choice has had a positive effect for others besides Michael Hudson. This is, finally, a political question about power, individual v. social good, and the growing issue of inequalities across so many dimensions of our lives.”

Is it ok to pretend to be black, or asian, or a man, or a woman? What do you think about the impersonation of minorities by non-minorities?

This post was originally published here on Urban ScrawlDC.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.