Pen names, by definition, are meant to obscure a writer’s true identity and/or embellish her/his public persona. Because names are political entities—they’re gendered, for the most part; can indicate race and class; and often act as maps in identifying a person’s ethnic origins—the pen name a writer chooses makes a very deliberate statement not only about how the writer wants to be perceived, but that the writer specifically believes presenting his/her true name is a liability.
America’s founding forefather Benjamin Franklin famously began using a pen name, after a letter he submitted for publication in his older brother James’ newspaper The New-England Courant was rejected. Perhaps because James could not read the submission without imagining his kid brother, Franklin could not get published as himself. But in the witty voice of the widower Mrs. Silence Dogood, James and, ultimately, the newspaper’s readership could receive the interrogations of Massachusetts’ education system, love, and courtship that Franklin brought forth.
Franklin went on to write under a number of aliases, “often creat[ing] an entire persona for the ‘writer,'” a post on PBS.org listing some of Franklin’s pen names explains. Playing with the monikers to indicate temperament (Alice Addertongue and Anthony Afterwit, for example), he poked fun at assumptions people held of women, men, aristocracy, and the poor; examining issues ranging from gender equality to the matrimonial mores of the 18th century.
More recently, in 2013 J.K. Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Richard Galbraith because she felt her enormous success as the writer of the Harry Potter series had colored critics’ and readers’ reception of her work. She didn’t mention gender, i.e. why she chose a male pseudonym over a woman’s name, but enduring disparities in the number of female authors reviewed and the numbers of women reviewers begs the question be asked and the answer explored.
Gender crossing pen names are not a new thing; nor are nom de plumes that mask a more famous writer’s persona, or simplify a name for easier pronunciation, or suggest the author is of a different ethnic or national identity than s/he actually is. History and the present are rife with examples of all of these instances, but a recent case of a white writer using a Chinese pen name to up his chance of getting published has many writers crying shameful appropriation of the corrective provisions made for a protected class.
Here’s what happened: Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem was submitted for publication consideration in the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology under the moniker Yi-Fen Chou (his former high school classmate’s name). Hudson believed being perceived as Asian would increase the likelihood that his poem would be published. Apparently, Hudson has admitted to “using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his has been rejected ‘several times’.”
Sherman Alexie, the Native American poet and author responsible for choosing the poems that made the anthology’s final cut, admitted he had been “more amenable to the poem” because he thought the author was Chinese American. Alexie elaborated, “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.”
He further explained his decision to keep the poem in the anthology after he discovered the writer’s “colonial theft”:
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.
And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.
But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.
The truth is, people of all colors are lumbering under a legacy that has privileged white skin and the experiences of white people over all others for the last four centuries—and we are handling this grossly unjust situation in different ways. Affirmative action and literary prizes eligible only to immigrants, people of color, or women, for example, are attempts at leveling the playing field. They exist because white privilege is so entrenched and institutionalized it directly and indirectly hampers the success of those who are not white, male, and preferably wealthy.
For so long, people who have enjoyed the benefits that come with legally recognized whiteness have not had to experience being passed over or marginalized because of their ethnic, racial, or gender identity i.e. their name. Even with attempts to correct the injustice and legacy of four hundred years of disproportionate white advantage, white people still have disproportionately better chances at success in America. Yet, still, some white people cry foul when they feel that corrective measures are taking even a sliver of their hoarded privilege away.
In the late ’70s, Allan Bakke, a white man from California who was twice denied admission to UC Davis’ medical school, sued the university for “reverse discrimination”. He charged that his grades and test scores were better than many students of color who had been admitted—ignoring the fact that he was the beneficiary of a legacy of privileges that those students of color, by and large, were not. The Supreme Court ended up ruling that the university’s admissions policy, which incorporated strict racial quotas, was unconstitutional and ordered that Bakke be admitted. But the ruling also upheld affirmative action—acknowledging the fact that a legacy of racism and discrimination continues to disadvantage people of color—contending that race could be used as one criterion to decide admission at tertiary institutions.
Similarly, in 2002 Rachel Dolezal sued historically black Howard University alleging she was denied a teaching assistant job because she is white. She lost the case. Though Dolezal says she has always felt black, at Howard she looked white. By 2015, Dolezal had altered her racial appearance to appear African-American including tanning her skin and wearing tightly coiled wigs and braided extensions. She denied changing her appearance to legitimize her position as President of Spokane’s NAACP, but she did enlist a black friend to say he was her father, and lied about her race (citing African-American, Native American, and white) on an application to chair the city’s Police Ombudsman Commission. She was forced to resign her NAACP post and ombudsman role after being outed.
By presenting himself as Yi-Fen Chou, Hudson was essentially crying foul that he was not getting all the privilege. When the legacy of his white privilege became a liability in terms of gaining visibility among selection juries, he switched his identity. In so doing, he appropriated a protection that had been psychically reserved to right a systemic injustice against people who don’t have the option of enjoying the privileges his white skin has netted him from birth.
As a Native American writer intimately familiar with the ways white male nepotism adversely impacts publication opportunities for writers of color, Sherman Alexie chose to handle this injustice by doing what white male editors, reviewers, and prize/judges consciously or consciously, but routinely do for white male writers: He gave writers he presumed to share the experience of being marginalized for their identity the privilege of a closer look, and he was duped for doing so.
That Alexie was so easily manipulated playing the game that has been used against the very writers he hoped to protect is ironic to say the least, but a reminder of how superficial many of our identity markers are. Colonialism has resulted in significant populations of Asian, Caribbean, Native, and African people with Spanish, French, and British names for example just as religious conquests are the reason many Africans have Arab names, for example. Likewise, intercultural marriage can change a person’s assumed ethnic or racial identity if one is only looking at the name on paper.
To be fair, names are still generally reliable indicators of a person’s identity, but the point is it’s foolish and dangerous to assume, or judge, anything on face value. Yet face value is the shorthand we all too often use to make judgment calls which is why categories, even ones branded as negatives, can be used to serve the categorized’s purpose.
Michael Derrick Hudson took advantage of the system that advantages him so much it has to create handicaps so others can get in, and now he’s in. On its face, his publication in Best American Poetry 2015 is a victory for Hudson, but when the anthology comes out, his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” will be attributed to an Asian woman—a signal that a system that doesn’t move past the superficial to determine substance is subject to easy and embarrassing defeat.