What's In A Name

I always knew that, if and when I got married, I would never change my name.

Even when I was little, playing pretend games, it was strange to imagine myself as Mrs. x-y-z. I’ve never wanted to be known as anything other than my name. I didn’t want to get used to responding to anything other than the sing-songy rhythm of Katie Li.

Even though telemarketers butchered it.

Even though I always have to spell it out.

Even though websites have said that it’s too short to complete registration.

It is my name, a name that can span the distance between different parts of my self: the 6th generation Boston girl and the 2nd generation Chinese American. My given name was my grandmother’s and my aunt’s and my cousin’s. My family name means plumtree, and when I was really, really little–I thought that I was distantly related to Bruce Lee (I mean, my parents did kung fu and we had the same last name, could you really blame me?). It’s a name that I sign with pride when someone holds out their copy of Somewhere In Between.

When I found out that a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson used an Chinese pen name to submit his poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” and that this poem was selected to be part of this year’s Best American Poetry collection, I was dumbfounded.

Since the announcement was made last week, there’s been a scathing response from the Asian-American literary community: the Asian American Writers Workshop compiled a forum of 19 responses from writers, and Jenny Zhang wrote a brilliant article for Buzzfeed that pierces through the many layers of this debacle. This portion of her response in particular stuck with me:

I won’t be scandalized by a white man who hasn’t considered that perhaps what helped his poem finally get published was less the fake Chinese woman he pretended to be, and more the robust, unflappable confidence bordering on delusion that he and many privileged white men possess: the capacity to be rejected forty (40) times and not give up, to be told, “no we don’t want you” again and again and think, I got this. I know what will get me in. What may be persistence to him is unfathomable to me.

What is unfathomable to me is that Michael Derrick Hudson chose to do this, while I–a writer and woman of Chinese descent–have spent hours at my keyboard, fretting over the choices I make over the racial identity of my characters. I have wondered what kind of impact it will have on my career, if I choose to write about mixed-race issues, or Asian-American identity: Will I get stuck in a census-style check-box, obligated to become that Asian-American writer writing about Asian-American issues? Will people think that I only got published because the publisher needed a diverse book on their list?

Or, because I am multi-racial, will my authenticity as an Asian-American be called into question? Because there have been many times in my life that I have been told I’m not really Asian–from Asian and white people alike. This issue of authenticity–of what Asian or half-Asian really means–is something that stretches beyond my work as a writer, and chewed into my very sense of self, my feeling of belonging in my own skin.

When I was writing my memoir, Running In Circles, I dodged the issue as long as I could, running around my own experiences and coming of age because I didn’t want to deal with the Pandora’s Box of mixed-race identity politics. I held off from including that part of my story until I realized that my book–a memoir–wouldn’t be complete if my own character wasn’t honest with herself.

With my current book, Somewhere In Between, I purposefully avoided the issue of race entirely. I mention Magnolia’s curly hair that’s dyed different colors, or Rom’s glasses, or how they are the same height. Otherwise, I left it up to the reader to decide the race, ethnicity, or cultural identity of the characters.

I did that on purpose.

I wanted to turn all of my internalized questions about race and cultural identity, and put it on the reader. The literary world is white-washed and for many readers, without a direct cue from the author, they assume a character is white. I crafted Rom and Magnolia this way so, if a reader came up to me with a certain assumption, I could ask–Why do you think that?

Michael Derrick Hudson’s choice to use a former high school classmate’s name swept past my own history in a way I can only describe as audacious. I asked myself, How could he temporarily don a Chinese name and presume that identity when I–with half of my history from China and Taiwan–have struggled to claim that part of my self?

Cultural appropriation aside, when any piece of writing is rejected as many times as his was, it is time to take that feedback into consideration, or start on a new project. Or, if he was so determined to have it read, he could have shared it on any number of blogs or forums online. He could have used an initialized pen name, like so many women authors who have to do that for their work to be taken seriously. He had many options–like all of us writers do–but he didn’t care to put the work in, like the rest of us have to, to make a name for ourselves.