How NOT to Choose a Pseudonym

With every fiber of my being, I planned for a much more uplifting post for this week, after previously giving reading material and my thoughts about the piece. However, after hearing about a particular schmuck of a poet who, despite his actions, still has work featured in this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, I knew I had to give my input on this subject matter.

This week saw the release of the annual Best American Poetry anthology, and as discovered quickly from a not so subtle reveal in the bio section, it turns out that poet Yi-Fen Chou is not who he says he is. Chou is actually a pseudonym for a man named Michael Derrick Hudson. Regardless of Hudson’s explanation regarding his choice in publishing under the name- which would do you wonders to check out here– as well as the anthology’s editor’s rather lengthy explanation for why his work remained to be included- there is something very wrong with this picture.

Let me say first and foremost that I- nor do most people for that matter- have nothing against pseudonyms. Authors use pseudonyms all the time when publishing works- whether it’s their decision or not- and the reasons why vary. For some people, it’s in the matter of pulling a- shall I say- “Hannah Montana effect;” where the individual is known for their profession under a name that’s not their real one, while still being able to live a normal life under their real name. For some people, it’s in the matter of alluding mystery, because sometimes mystery is important. Sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, like in J.K. Rowling’s case where she was asked to come up with a pseudonym, for her publishers originally thought that perhaps the originally targeted demographic of young boys wouldn’t want to read a book with a male protagonist if the author is a woman (and that quickly proved to be not the case at all, but it didn’t matter because the name stuck).

Anyone who has been following this story knows that the fact that Hudson used a pseudonym is not the issue here. I just wanted to make that very clear. The issue is the pseudonym he wound up choosing. Hudson, a white man, had poetry published under a Chinese name. You put two and two together and the white elephant in the room is revealed in all of its not-so glory. This was an act of yellowface.

Normally such a racist action would apply to when non-Asian actors portray Asian characters in movies or on television (an event that, believe it or not, still goes on even to this day). However, in this case, this was out of a man’s desire to stand out amongst numerous submissions after having his poem rejected 40 times under his real name.

His argument for such a pseudonym has flaws that can be seen from miles away. No one should ever have their work be chosen just because the author has an interesting name. I’m very sure there are cases where that does happen, and in those instances, they need to cease immediately. Also, this pseudonym of his didn’t even help in his favor right away either, for it took another nine rejections before his poem finally got accepted. What I wonder is, would the pseudonym really have made a difference in the long run? Perhaps he was destined to get nine more rejections, but the choice of using the pseudonym made for coincidental timing.

All writers get rejected. In fact, just yesterday, I myself got a rejection letter for a short story I submitted to an online publication, and I have a Spanish-sounding surname that’s normally a first name. But I’m not going to go and write under a pseudonym that’s very clearly from a different heritage than mine, just to stand out more. Perhaps his poem, or at least possible previous drafts of it anyway, weren’t as good as they could be, quality-speaking. I wouldn’t know for sure, for I haven’t read it. However, that could have been a reason why it was rejected so many times prior to switching over to his pseudonym.

Going back to the core of it all- the fact that this was an act of yellowface in a form apart from what we’ve been previously exposed to- is something that was already bluntly put on the Angry Asian Man blog. Out of all the holes of Hudson’s argument, this is the biggest one of them all. Already there have been countless thought pieces- as well as a poem– written and published within the past few days over why this is wrong on so many levels. One has to be wise when deciding to go with writing and publishing under a pseudonym, and choosing one where its origins are of the same or similar racial/ethnic background as your real name is a good place to start. Otherwise, if exposed- as Hudson did so all on his own account- it’s going to look bad on you and will haunt you for the rest of your life.

One might have arguments in defense of his actions; maybe going so far as to where there are people whose pseudonyms are of the opposite gender of their real ones (again going back to Rowling a.k.a. Robert Galbraith). That is a completely different situation. Race has roots that trace far back into time; gender is fluid (though I don’t know if that’s necessarily the reason why Rowling chose a male name as a pseudonym for her detective series). Hudson is not Chinese and therefore will never truly know what it’s like- let alone what it means– to be Chinese. That’s what makes his pseudonym problematic- and the fact that the editor went ahead with including his poem in the anthology anyway sends a really bad message. However, the fact that the name is actually the name of a former high school classmate of Hudson’s makes it all the more worse for him.

Pseudonyms are a unique tool when it comes to publishing written work, but it’s wise to be smart about the name that’s in use. Hudson’s pseudonym is definitely not going to work in the future, seeing that he went out of his way to use yellowface in hopes of helping himself stand out, and the editor didn’t do anyone any favors by leaving his submission in the final product. I may have been an author for a little over a year now and while that isn’t a long time to know everything about writing and submitting work to be published, what I can and will say is this: If you are a writer who wants to stand out, rather than debating over whether or not to write under a name that’s clearly from a different heritage than yours, perhaps work on improving your craft!

This was my take on this subject matter, and like I said before, there are many other takes out there online about it as well. For instance, here’s Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed post about how Hudson’s actions continue an ongoing streak of writers of color are getting drowned out by white writers.


2 Replies to “How NOT to Choose a Pseudonym”

  1. After reading this, I was curious about how I could come up with a pen-name should the need arise and I managed to come up with a pretty cool (and not appropriative!) one using the names of my four grandparents. 🙂

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