Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What's in a Name?

About a year ago I read an article about a reporter who had an impressive resume drawn up and sent to a couple hundred employers. The name at the top was something very generically white, like Jeff O'Leary. Then he sent the exact same resume out bearing a generically black name, like Jamal Lewis. The resume with the white sounding name got several positive responses. The one with the black name at the top...not a single one. It was a disturbing story and illustrated the very real obstacles still standing in the way of minorities in this country.

But now...this:

Michael Derrick Hudson is an aspiring poet from Indiana. He wrote a poem that he thought was his best work and submitted it to 40 different publishers for their consideration. He got 40 rejection letters. But then he got the idea that he might have a better chance of getting published if he used a more ethnic pseudonym. He changed the name on the work to Yi-Fen Chou, and after only 9 rejections, got it published in the Prairie Schooner. Now, the poem..."The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve," has appeared in the American Anthology of Best Poems of 2015, and the literary crap has hit the fan.

Chinese poets are furious, reasoning that now any poems submitted in the future by poets with Asian-sounding names will be more skeptically scrutinized. An angry blogger who goes by the name Angry Asain Man accused Hudson of committing poetry using yellowface. Oh dear.

Of course, none of this is new when it comes to art, especially literature. How many women authors two hundred years ago used male nom  de plumes (George Eliot, B. A. Evans)?  Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of race-cheating going on in our super-charged grievance culture. A few months ago, we discovered that NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal was actually a white woman. And who can forget the advantages that accrued to Senator Elizabeth Warren during her academic career by her ingenious usurpation of favored status as a Native American?

But, I suppose that we will see more and more of this sort of thing in the future. When a society tries to right past racial sins with a regime of set-asides, quotas, and nose counting throughout all of society, hucksters will arise to take advantage. Any system can be gamed by the cunning and industrious, including a well meaning system trying to level the playing field. The trouble is, at what point do we all get cheated by such a system? In an era of social promotion, grade inflation and affirmative action hires, how will we ever know who the best people are? 

When confronted with Mr. Hudson's treachery, the editor of the American Poetry Anthology of 2015, admitted, "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."

I'll say! As for Mr. Hudson, he admits that this isn't the first time he has employed the Chinese nom de plume strategy. He uses it whenever he is having trouble getting something published as a boring white guy from Indiana, and it has been successful in the past on several occasions.

Well....so much for artistic integrity! 

Despite the hubbub, the literary-Justice-dispensing editor of the American Poetry Anthology of 2015 has no plans to remove the offending poem. "When I reread the poem after learning of the deception, I still loved it."

What a concept, publishing a poem because it's a great poem!?