Yi-Fen Chou is not a real person. Yet that name appears with a poem in the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry, which came out on Tuesday. That’s also when it came out — in the book’s biographical notes — that Yi-Fen Chou is not a Chinese poet. He’s a white guy named Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson wrote in his bio that he uses the pen name as a strategy to get his poems published.
Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York, offered this commentary on All Things Considered:
A friend of mine told me a teenager she knew had told her a secret: “You know I’m really not Asian, right? I’m a normal person.” At the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, if you are a person of color, we believe you have a story only you can tell. But if you’re a person of color, you may have at one point felt that you were not normal. You aren’t white. And so when the poet Michael Derrick Hudson adopted the fake identity of Yi-Fen Chou, you have to wonder: Why would he want to be Asian? Why would anyone want to be abnormal?
When former Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal pretended to be black, it wasn’t because she was unaware of white privilege. It was because she was ashamed of it. For Michael Derrick Hudson, he was afraid he lacked that difference that would mark him not as abnormal, but as special. If Dolezal obscenely fantasized about becoming black, Hudson at first looks like a clear-eyed calculator. He wanted power, the capital of multicultural difference.
But 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.
In rebuttal to Hudson, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop asked people to tweet their #WhitePenName. We made an online white pen name generator. It spits out names like “Madison Murphy,” “Shannon St. Claire” or “Donald Trump.” The #WhitePenName hashtag went viral. Some people tweeted the whitest writers they could think of (Jonathan Franzen). Others invented over-the-top satirically white names, coded somewhere between WASPy New England and 1980s porn star.
The idea actually started when [Asian American Writer’s Workshop] staff member Jyothi Natarajan mentioned that people always whitened her name to “Dorothy.” By using a white pen name, you could dabble in being “normal” and reject it, laughing at how silly such a desire would be. And so what about the pen name Yi-Fen Chou, used by Michael Derrick Hudson? If you know Chinese, you know it actually means “a piece of stink.”
Ken Chen is the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York.