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Appropriated Pseudonyms: The Ethics of Literary Hoaxes

In 2015, one of the selected poems in “The Best American Poetry” included Yi-Fen Chou’s “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve”. Yi-Fen Chou is actually a middle-aged man from Indiana named Michael Derrick Hudson. Following the poem’s acceptance, Hudson wrote in a contributor’s note, “After a poem of mine had been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again.” He noted that “The Bees” was rejected forty times under Michael Derrick Hudson but only nine times under Yi-Fen Chou before Prairie Schooner accepted the poem. According to Hudson, there was no artistic reason for deceiving the public–it was merely because Yi-Fen’s name would result in better sales. Even after this revealing incident, Sherman Alexie, the editor of “The Best American Poetry” and author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, kept Hudson’s poem in the collection. In what was seen as a perverse act of white privilege, Hudson appropriated a Chinese name, rather rare in the writing community, to elicit more attention to his poem. This incident raises important questions about the ethics of pseudonyms and whether authorship matters in literature today.

The question of diversity in the publishing community lies at the center of the debate. Traditionally, writers of color and women have been excluded from the field: J.K. Rowling’s publishers believed she would sell more books if her name remained gender-neutral, while Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. In the broader movement of empowering authors who are not the traditional, white-male cohort, the publishing industry’s treatment of Yi-Fen Chou’s case is particularly thought-provoking. In a blog defending his decision to keep the poem, Alexie revealed that he was attracted to “The Bees” because it did not seem obviously “Chinese”; the poem referenced “Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus.” Alexie, a self-aware Native American writer and filmmaker, thought that Yi-Fen was “inherently obsessed with European culture” and wondered about the Chinese poet who wrote about European imagery so affectionately, and how cross-cultural lives manifest in literature.

Essentially, Alexie paid more attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem because Chinese poets do not traditionally write about European subjects. In an act of “racial nepotism,” Alexie wrote that he is “a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.” On one hand, Alexie’s action seems like legitimate literary justice to right past wrongs. From a different angle, however, Alexie committed literary injustice by subjecting art’s aesthetic value to different standards depending on authorship. In mainstream debates of authorship, a work includes the person’s identity, equating to a sum of one’s race, gender, ability, and sexuality. In cultural industries, personal experiences and histories of artists are no longer bracketed. Such is the case with Woody Allen and Louis C.K.’s troubled histories, and critics worry it is no longer ethical to admire their work. Yet, Hudon’s art did not contain anything central to the Chinese-American experience, and differs from cases where a white author not only appropriates a name, but an entire culture.

Whereas Hudson’s work detracted from the Chinese-American experience, there are other cases that actually add value to the appropriated culture. Danny Santiago’s Famous All Over Town (1983) used to be a well-regarded contribution to Chicano literature. The book won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award for fiction in 1984 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the PEN President’s Award a year later. It was praised for its authentic, first-person accounts of the minority experience in the streets of East LA. Yet, when John Gregory Dunne revealed that Santiago was actually Daniel Lewis James (1911–1988), a seventy-something white man who attended Andover and Yale, reception turned negative and critics were outraged. James was not young, Chicano, or uneducated. Was his appropriation of a minority experience legitimate, even if he did so authentically and artfully? Latino writers were split over this question, as none had suspected the book was written by anyone but a Chicano. Unlike Hudson, James chose the pseudonym for artistic reasons. Dunne, in his exposé, revealed James was experiencing writer’s block and assuming a new identity was creatively liberating.

With this revelation, there are a few responses to consider. First, there is the usual defense for misleading memoirs. Even if some events were not strictly truthful, they still have occurred in some shape and form, and are still representative of an experience. Thus, the author should be considered as a voice expressing a common experience. Second, fictitious events should be seen as a means to the end of conveying the “higher-truth” of real people’s experiences, whether it be about imprisonment, addiction recovery, or navigating a certain identity. As such, insofar as the greater truth of an experience is able to get across, fabrications or exaggerations are legitimate. Lastly, the purpose of reading should be considered. How should we weigh the line between fact and fiction? In recent years, reading and writing have prioritized the idea of “authenticity;” perhaps craving authenticity has transposed social anxiety due to the lack of truth and transparency in political society, and perhaps authenticity enables our minority identities to be factored into cultural works as a sign of triumph. With this considered, if an author can so accurately capture the experiences and details that contribute positively to a body of growing minority literature, then so be it.

Ultimately, literary hoaxes force us to consider why we read and what purpose literature should serve. Despite Hudson’s literary dishonesty, Alexie did the right thing to keep the poem in the collection, as the aesthetic merit of a piece should not change depending on the author’s identity. Upon revelation, what changed for readers was not the poem, but rather, our rationale for how and why we read. Perhaps it is impossible to set aside biases from our different identities, backgrounds, or politics, but we should consider looking for something different in art other than the critical cues we have subconsciously taught ourselves to seek–whether as important meaning in belonging or justification of our beliefs. As art transcends individual experiences, it is expected to contain values that resonate differently.

However, Hudson’s hoax points to a separate issue: a willingness to accept the mockery of minorities as cultures easily tokenized and stereotyped. In adopting Chou, Hudson trivialized the cultural backlash, entry barriers, and self-doubt that linger for minorities entering a field from which they have been traditionally excluded. Whereas a well-intentioned analysis of a particular culture that contributes to the group’s growing place in literature is acceptable, choosing an “Oriental” name with a blasé attitude seems to intellectualize racism in a society that emphasizes “diversity.” Perhaps Hudson felt less empowered as a literary agent than his privileged white male identity entails, but to invent a Chinese name that could deliver what his own name could not is a perverse fantasy, and frankly, racially belittling.

Photo: “Writing”