Thursday, September 17, 2015

I'm Lying to You

Remember the old days? Before the internet—I used to read physical books. Read poems that shook me to the core. I’d go to the back of the anthology and read the 2 – 3 line bio and if possible there might be an entry for them in the World Book Encyclopedia. Maybe not, if they weren’t white or mainstream.

Of course I didn’t need to know someone’s gender (Evelyn Waugh is a guy? S.E. Hinton is a woman?), or their orientation (hello! Go Tell It On the Mountain James Baldwin), or if they were black or white. Countee Cullen was REALLY confusing. I got the work though.

Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
    His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
    That's all that I remember.
-"Incident" by Countee Cullen

Growing up I often felt like an outsider, so these words resonated with me regardless if Countee was a boy and not a girl, regardless if he was black, which he was, or gay, yup. I read blind.

Which brings me to this headline: Sherman Alexie picks White Man’s Poem for Best

Actually it’s more complicated than that. More like: White man uses pen name Yi-Fen Chou to get published.

I love the idea of persona, embracing an alter ego to write or adopting a pen name. Deceit is another story. Further complicated by this: Family Protests White Poet’s Use of Chinese Pen Name

The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using it. “I’m just aghast,”  Ellen Y. Chou, the sister of Yi-Fen Chou, said in an interview. Mr. Hudson’s use of the name, she added, showed a “lack of honesty” and “careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians.”
So . . . some white dude ripped off a woman’s name, a woman of Chinese descent, appropriated her name for a contest which won him best of the best in the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry.

This reminds me of a story I wrote, no, really, I wrote it, that appeared a few years ago in Greensilk Journal called I’m Lying to You by Najeeb Asim-Wolfe.

At first I did it just to see. Not really a prank, more of a lark. What could it hurt? Certainly not my reputation already swimming in a sea of uncertainty. I mean who would really know. And, anyway, does it matter?
Call it frustration, the hard knocks of life bowling me over, utter rejection. Desperation. Or maybe I did want to transform myself, be someone other than the miserable person I was. The liar I turned out to be. After a year of submitting stories to various journals I was ready to call it quits. I sat in front of my monitor and rubbed my hands vigorously over my face, maybe hoping to pull my eyes out. What was I thinking—that I could make it as a writer? I hadn’t exactly gone out on a limb i.e. quit my job or taken out an additional loan—Thank God! I was already in hock, debt up to my ears—though I did cut back on my hours at work in order to write every morning. What was I thinking! I stupidly told my friends that I was doing it, the BIG PUSH, come hell or high water (Aren’t these clichés?). I’d either make it or not. Not.

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