On the surface, the news that a white writer has adopted a pen name from another culture and is now copping to it is almost familiar: Something like this happened just last month, as the Caucasian poet Michael Derrick Hudson was drawn into controversy for publishing a poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou. After 40 rejections under his real name, Hudson tried a Chinese non de plume, and not only was his poem accepted by the Prairie Schooner, it was chosen for the "2015 Best American Poetry." (It didn’t make him very popular, to say the least.)
Perhaps anticipating this kind of firestorm, the caucasian author who has been writing and touring under the pen name Jesús Ángel García has come clean about his own appropriation. Here’s part of his post on Literary Hub, which he calls his “coming out.”
By coming out I mean owning up to and apologizing for cultural appropriation in the choice of my pen name Jesús Ángel García.
I’m not Latino. This name says that I am. I realize now that this is cultural appropriation, and what I’ve done has been hurtful to strangers I’ve never met and friends I know, love, and respect. To those I’ve wronged, all I can say is I’m deeply sorry, and I will do what I can to make amends, starting with this statement.
A more detailed description of how an informed, educated writer – one who’s followed the debates over cultural appropriation and identity politics and can quote Bay Area feminist Maisha Z. Johnson – comes next. “By publishing and performing under a Latino alias, I co-opted Latino identity and cultural cachet without ever having lived—in the most real, day-to-day sense—what it means to be Latino in the United States today.” Okay, that makes sense.
But in the big picture, it remains kind of baffling. The garden-variety case of Yi-Fen Chou is much easier to understand: Writer gets rejected too many times (and what writer doesn’t?), decides, however wrong-headedly, that being a white guy is the problem, so poses as a minority and then 'fesses up with a grand gesture of "got you!" in his author's note.
This one is more complicated: Here’s an author who, fully aware of the nature of identity and the academic writing around it, adopts a name from an ethnicity to which he doesn’t belong. And then, years later, says he finally realized it was wrong. We still don’t know his name. But here’s how he explains it:
A few years back, I wrote a transgressive novel. I knew I would have to use a pseudonym when it was published. If the provocative content of this book is ever associated with my birth name, I might not only lose my livelihood but harm a lot of people I care about. I think of this as classic separation of Church (creative work) and State (day job). I chose Jesús Ángel García because this is the name of the first-person narrator of the novel. I thought that adding this author name to the mix might contribute to the narrative’s confessional memoir-like tone and complicate the reader’s perception of the text’s “authenticity.” At first, I was thinking only in terms of this kind of metafictional literary construct.
Hmmn. Even with the kick that a Catholic-raised guy might get playing around with the name “Jesus,” this is hard to believe. The original publication of this novel -- “badbadbad,” which sounds like a riff on old-school hardboiled fiction -- was 2011. The author appeared at dozens of literary events, including one with then-indie lit star Roxane Gay, who often writes about issues of racial and gender identity, and it doesn’t cross his mind that he shouldn’t be borrowing someone else’s racial signifiers? “I didn’t understand that presenting myself as Jesús Ángel García was cultural appropriation until it was pointed out to me well after the novel had been published,” he writes. “By then, I felt like I was stuck.”
And the novel was apparently so out-there that he couldn’t admit that he wasn’t really Garcia without risking his safety? Then why not just tell people it’s a pseudonym and he’d rather not reveal his real name? Or something that doesn’t have him wearing the equivalent of literary brownface. It's the 21st century, after all.
This guy, whoever he is, seems honest and conscientious, so I will not hit him as hard as social media probably will as the day goes on. (Twitter mostly seems to be frustrated by the Garcia nonsense but not yet enraged or at the name-calling stage. Though someone has already called him a “clown.”) Maybe it really was an honest mistake.
The phrase that seems to sum all of this up the best comes not from the author, but from the cover line of his novel: “ROLEPLAY IS A DANGEROUS GAME WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE.” Too bad this writer didn’t keep it in mind.