Consumed without consent

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Qian Jinghua as Lia Incognita as Yi-Fen Chou

Black and white photograph of Lia Incognita, wearing glasses
Lia Incognita

A storm blew through the poetry world last week when it was revealed that Yi-Fen Chou, one of the poets published in 'Best American Poetry 2015', was in fact the pen name of a white guy called Michael Derrick Hudson.

Despite numerous academic studies in the USA, Australia, Britain and Canada that show employers and educators discriminate against those whose names sound Asian, African or Aboriginal, Hudson began submitting his most consistently rejected poems under a Chinese woman's name, apparently on the hope that he might be able to exploit a desire for diversity or subvert political correctness. 

He probably overestimated that desire - the 2014 VIDA Women of Colour count shows how few women of colour are published, while Roxane Gay and Philip Gallagher found that even when writers of colour are published, their work receives less critical attention. According to the 2014 VIDA survey, last year only one woman published in 'The New Yorker' identified as Chinese, compared to 55 who identified as white.

In the case of 'Best American Poetry', Hudson met with a rare instance of affirmative action as the Guest Editor this year was Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene poet, novelist and filmmaker whose work often addresses Native American survival and innovation in the face of colonisation and racism.

In a blog post discussing the anthology, Alexie states that he gave Hudson/Chou's poem a closer reading as part of his mission "to pay more attention to underrepresented poets" and to writers he'd never read. When Hudson revealed himself, Alexie kept the poem in the anthology for reasons he discusses at length on the blog.

The poem in question was “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve”. The name "Yi-Fen Chou", it turns out, is a woman Hudson went to high school with, whose family have asked Hudson to stop using her name immediately. 

In her brilliant piece "They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist", Jenny Zhang says: "to be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time."

I want to emphasise that the Chinese name Hudson chose is a woman's name, the name of a real person he once knew.

The act of being consumed, without your consent, while having your own subjectivity denied is typical of the gendered dynamic of racism experienced by women of colour.

I'm an #ActualAsianPoet performing and writing under the racially ambiguous stage name Lia Incognita. Lia is a nickname based on the English name I chose when I was eight because my classmates couldn't pronounce and made fun of the name my maternal grandfather had given me, as Yi-Fen had been given hers by her paternal grandfather.

Below is a verse response I wrote to Michael Derrick Hudson, riffing off his poem, from the perspective of a fictitious Yi-Fen Chou. It doesn't speak for the real Yi-Fen but her sister has written on her behalf approving of the blog The Real Yi-Fen Chou which publishes critical literary responses to the issue and calls for Hudson to stop using the name and apologise to the Chou family.

The Sting, the Bees, and Other Yellow-Bellied Swarms

He looked ridiculous, staggering
through the blue corridor with my books,
an unruly stack behind which only
his pink elbows and forehead
were visible. I wondered how
I'd ever kissed the scraggly hillock
of that head.

I took all the furniture. He asked
if he could keep my name.
I thought it was a joke.

We'd never married but when
I penned angry letters to newspapers
I signed them Mrs Hudson.

Five years later I find my name,
his poem, another paragraph
of explanation like so many
unasked for paragraphs
littering my inbox in dark hours.

Am I supposed to say something?

This article is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.