My Take

Poetic licence: hats off to Yi-fen Chou, the Chinese poet who wasn't

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 1:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 1:47am

Yi-Fen Chou was, for a short moment, a Chinese-American poet who came out of nowhere to have a poem included in the prestigious Best American Poetry anthology for 2015.

His poem The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve is short, witty, bitter and cynical. It's also full of archetypal western and Christian imagery so there is nothing particularly Chinese about it, except for its author's name.

Well, it turns out Chou is actually Michael Derrick Hudson, a white guy who works as a genealogist at a public library in Indiana, the United States.

All hell breaks loose immediately upon the revelation. Many of the good, the great and the politically correct in America are up in arms, denouncing Hudson as a fraud and a racist. Chinese-American academics and writers are particularly upset because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the incident somehow hints at literary affirmative action for their work.

Poor Hudson has come out to explain his motive. When he used his real name, he says his poem was rejected 40 times. But when he switched to his Chinese nom de plume, it was turned down just nine times before it was accepted by literary publications, and made its way into the august Best American Poetry.

If, as the great George Orwell said, the purpose of being a writer is to be read, then most if not all means are justified to get published. I find Hudson's stratagem charming rather than offensive. In fact, it reminds me of another literary scandal in the 1990s when US physicist Alan Sokal deliberately wrote an essay in postmodern gobbledygook to get accepted by an academic journal called Social Text. The hilarious article was titled ""Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", which purported to develop a "liberatory science" and an "emancipatory mathematics" as a "counter-hegemonic narrative" to epistemological privilege.

We like to think prestigious journals and publications are run by authoritative people with rigorous and high standards. What both incidents exposed is that it often boils down to subjective judgment, bias and personal preference.