I want to mourn Yi-Fen Chou, the Chinese American woman poet who doesn’t exist. Her recent achievement, notable for the fact that she is not real, is snagging one of the 75 highly competitive slots in The Best American Poetry 2015. Ingeniously, she was formulated as the Stepford edition of the modern writer of color: a version of us who is white in all but name, who will never know the pain of having her name “bungled or half-bungled” by a well-meaning literary editor MCing her reading; who will never find any reason to celebrate spotting another Asian woman writer from across the vast AWP Bookfair complex; who will never be inconvenient or angry or vocal. Instead of being a real person—which is always so messy, so loaded with the things that make good poetry!—she is a mask, her name peeled off by someone who probably can’t pronounce it at all.
In his bio/confession, the man who wears Yi-Fen like a pair of boxer briefs writes, “There is a very short answer for my use of a nom de plume: after a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy of ‘placing poems this has been quite successful for me.”
So Yi-Fen, how does it feel to have a name that is so carefully calculated in its foreignness? To be chosen for the slight spiciness you add to your bearer’s tongue, the dash of Sriracha in his turkey sandwich? Your Chinese-ness is deliberate in its weaponization. (Set phasers to submit!) We know there’s a reason why you weren’t allowed to choose for yourself an Americanized nickname like Eve or Elaine, like so many of us do in order to lubricate social interaction in the West. You had to stay visibly Other so you could remain a racialized fetish-object; the more assimilated you seem at first glance, the less reason he would have to use you to garnish his work.
(An aside: how many of us Asian women writers have been mistaken for each other at literary events? Raise your hand if you didn’t point out the mistake just to save the dignity of the other person/thrust yourself into denial over this event occuring at all! Raise your other hand if you made a beeline for the wine right after!)
I suppose it could be that easy to wear one of us like a mask, as long as all the tedious aspects of our identities and politics were stripped away. Cut out the background, the body, the pain, and the pleasure that all come with being human and you have the perfect cipher. Yi-Fen’s captor has achieved the ultimate in separating the political from the personal, which happens to be the poetic endgame that he professed in a letter to Poetry in 2010. In reducing a racialized identity to a mere alias, he seems to be making a subtextual argument for racial colorblindness: we are all humans under our cultural baggage, right? But if that were true, why would he even think to use Yi-Fen to bolster his career? How cynical can you get?
Yi-Fen’s appearance and unmasking in the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry purportedly puts the lie to the curatorial model that champions diversity: a not-very-good poem was ostensibly published because its writer appeared to be Chinese. The esteemed editor of this year’s edition, Sherman Alexie, says as much in his defense of her inclusion: “In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou’s poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.” And maybe this new “brown nepotism” is a system that could be taken advantage of for ill-gotten gains—by disingenuous white people. I don’t buy the argument that being transparent about trying to tip the scales ever so slightly toward racial and gender justice in publishing is at all equivalent to the systemic and unquestioned white male Affirmative Action that rules the literary world and modern literature education to this day. I don’t buy the completely self-deprecating argument that our writing is only as good as our skill at branding ourselves.
But within all of this outrage, I still end up feeling the most sorry for Yi-Fen. What I want to know the most is this: what kind of poetry would she write, if she were real and not just a white man’s fantasy?