Poetic Slaves to Ideology
It is with a mixture of amusement and disappointment that one responds to the Yi-Fen Chou fracas. To recap this new American poetic scandal is itself an exercise in satire. A white male poet, by the excessively Anglo-Germanic name of Michael Derrick Hudson, upon assuming a Chinese female pseudonym – which happens to be the real name of one of his former high school classmates – has fooled some among his nation’s literati into thinking that he’s in fact a Chinese woman. To what end? To have a poem of his published in prestigious publications, including the annual Best American Poetry anthology.
Hudson believed that the bio-ethnically challenged pseudonym would help his chances of being published in this age of dogmatic multiculturalism. And, lo and behold, the poem has been accepted for publication, resulting in a flurry of indignation from many an Asian-American commentator, including one who blogs as Angry Asian Man and berates Hudson for using ‘a shitty racist pen name’. Add to this tale of poetic identity theft and digital anger the weirdly unapologetic apologia of the anthology’s Native American editor, and we have the makings of a truly engrossing melodrama of race and gender, not out of place in something like The Bonfire of the Vanities.
But am I right to find this entertaining? Are the concerns raised by this incident not sufficiently serious, requiring an earnest appeal to either ethics – to condemn the cynical misappropriation of the identity of a subaltern by a hegemonic schemer – or aesthetics – to reject the clever poet’s critics in the interest of the inalienable quality of his art?
Well, I should know about these things. I’ve been subjected to racism – of a very real, unambiguous kind – and am more aware than most about how truly shitty it can be. I’ve also been accused, more than once, of being published solely due to the exotic quality of my name. In addition to these, I am more than dismayed by commentators who’ve seen my work as little more than expressions of a cultural or even religious minority perspective – odd, really, considering that I’m a rather staunch atheist. And, in addition to this personal dimension, I feel the Yi-Fen Chou/Michael Hudson affair has a particular resonance for someone in the Australian writing scene, an environment with more than its fair share of infamous hoaxers, identity thieves and unrepentant plagiarists.
But I am, after an initial amusement (or perhaps schadenfreude) rather disenchanted with both sides of this quarrel. Hudson’s claim – as published in the wronged and/or wrongful poetry anthology – that his use of the contested pseudonym is somehow akin to Fernando Pessoa’s advent of the heteronym, is facile. Many things can be said about the seminal Portuguese poet’s 75 or so poetic personae; but a rather desperate and undignified attempt at boosting the publishability of his work is not one of them.
The matter of intention aside, Hudson’s willingness to out himself upon the acceptance for publication of his authorially misnamed poem undermines his pseudo-Pessoan claim to forgoing his identity for an artistic purpose. Has the Chinese female name allowed him to experiment with writing in a voice other than his own? Or has it instead enabled him to resubmit a poem for publication which was rejected when submitted under his own name? The latter seems to be the case. The deception, in other words, has nothing to do with poetics, and has everything to do with careerism.
To wish to pursue a career – even as a poet – is not in itself dubious. But when the pursuit of success at all cost comes so effortlessly, when repudiating one’s name is explained away as a basic strategy for getting a poem into print, and when one can feel absolutely fine about stealing another living person’s name for the sake of getting published: then the question does not concern a banal desire for professional development. It instead denotes a delusional devotion to fantasy and fetishism.
In my opinion, the psycho-social space in which someone can become so fanatically obsessed with getting a poem published, or the mental framework dominated by the single-minded advancement of one’s material interests, is the realm of individual success, ruthless competition, anti-sociality and entitlement. It is, in short, the milieu of culture and art under the aegis of capitalist ideology.
Furthermore, Hudson’s Asian-American anti-racist activist detractors are as mired in today’s dominant ideology and false consciousness as the falsifying poet himself. Are the accusations of the white man’s bad ‘cultural appropriation’ not predicated upon an oppositional item of good cultural identification? And what would this latter, positive thing look like? In this case, an actual Chinese person using their parent-given Chinese name, one would assume.
But the subsumption of one’s being into an ethno-cultural particularity – or one’s actuality being determined by one’s tribal or national origin – is precisely one of the tenets of today’s capitalist hegemony, and there’s nothing whatsoever progressive about that. Far from challenging the proliferating injustices and inequities of a cultural system based upon and operated through ideological mystification and material exploitation, so-called identity politics prevents subjects from uniting as a people and instead divides them into competing categories of identity – along racial, sexual, professional, gender and confessional lines – in competition over resources and opportunities.
One incensed Asian-American female writer, Franny Choi, for example, has said here that ‘Michael Derrick Hudson’s pseudonym is cultural appropriation at its purest — it’s stealing from the struggle of people of color for a white man’s personal gain’. It would not take a Karl Marx to recognise that Choi’s definition of struggle is not political but racial. Hers is not a class struggle; it does not pit the producers/poets against the commodification of their works, but rather entrenches poets (of one racial group) in a regime of competition against poets (from a different racial group).
Capitalism has nothing to fear from an identity-driven struggle of any kind. As long as resentful white male poets feel entitled to assume the identities of the marginalised in a quixotic battle against political correctness, and as long as the marginalised wage their own equally quixotic battles in defence of cultural authenticity and identity fetishism, nothing will change. Frankly inconsequential Best National Poetry anthologies come and go, without anyone taking notice of them, unless they generate publicity thanks to incidents such as this weird kerfuffle.
This week we launch a new series of interviews on the Sydney Review of Books. 2015 Miles Franklin winner Sofie Laguna speaks with SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike about the forces that have shaped her as a writer.
I am meant to be a writer– but it is the actor in me who writes. What I mean by that is that I joyfully inhabit the voice of a character as if I’m playing that character. I’m not, I’m writing and the character is on the page – but it’s as if I’m improvising as the character, which comes naturally to me.
In coming months, interviews with emerging and established Australian writers will be a regular feature on the SRB.
Our first essay this week is by Rosemary Sorensen. In The Dread of Bad Blood, she reviews Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations, an historian’s reflection on the pursuit of his own family history. She writes:
It’s as though a well-dressed man has taken off his hat to pat his hair and found a bald spot he then delights in scratching. Never overplayed, and modestly developed, this interplay between the stories of the past and the historian’s self-scrutiny in recounting them is a device that is both charming and revelatory. It allows him to step out of the otherwise mundane detailing of who married whom, where they settled, what kinds of lives they led, and what they believed in, into discussions that are more personal and more general at the same time. He is asking of himself, and suggesting we also might ask of ourselves, am I who I am because of what happened to my forebears and because of who they were?
Copyright is the subject of our second essay this week. Stuart Glover takes the appearance of Copyfight!, an edited collection on copyright, as the occasion for considering the long history of trespasses against authors and publishers.
But truth be told, many writers are angry right now. It is a mode de jour—and boring because of it… Yet perhaps what is most strange about the anger, in Copyfight and elsewhere, is the community indifference to it — that is, our indifference to the damage to the working lives of writers. Mostly we are unmoved. This indifference suggests something about our conditioned relations to writers and to their anger. We are used it, barely impressed. Instead, it is likely that, from time to time, I will continue to pirate and photocopy and exploit the work of writers — despite having many publisher and writer friends — partly because I share an internalized, but often unexamined, view of the role of the writer: a view of what they are owed and what they owe me. And some part of me believes, somewhat unfairly I think, that they shouldn’t complain too much.
In From The Archive this week we turn to Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, one of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, via Emmett Stinson’s essay, Is It Fundable?:
This book about nothing – whose style would be so totalising its content dissolves – constitutes one of two ideal forms for the modernist novel. The second modernist ideal is the encyclopaedic book about everything. While the two might seem diametrically opposed, it turns out they have much in common. Both typically refrain from standard modes of narration and logical argumentation, which might make them about something. Moreover, both are incredibly hard to start writing and virtually impossible to complete… The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is an anthropologist and devotee of Claude Levi-Strauss who is desperately trying to finish a book about everything. U.’s work – the so-called ‘Great Report’, which he is assigned to produce by his boss, Peyman – is to be nothing less than the definitive anthropological account of the contemporary world, ‘the First and Last Word on our age’.