To be Other in America is to be coveted and hated at the same time. It’s never been enough to know that I feel it, but I know I am often asked to prove it before I am allowed to speak on it. When I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction writing, I felt both coveted and hated. My white classmates never failed to remind me that I was more fortunate than they were at this particular juncture in American literature. “No one is going to pay attention to a name like mine,” a white dude who exclusively wrote stories about white dudes said to me one time when I was feeling particularly low about my writing. I couldn’t enjoy a scrap of validation or wallow in a sliver of self-doubt without someone interjecting some version of “You’re so lucky. You’re going to have an easier time than any of us getting published.” They were shameless about their envy, not shy or coy at all about their certainty that my race and gender were an undeniable asset, which, in turn, implied that I could be as mediocre and shitty as I wanted and still succeed. This was how some of my white classmates imagined the wild spoils of my literary trajectory. This was how they managed to turn themselves into the victims.
“I’m writing something for the first time that’s a little bit autobiographical,” this one extremely serious white woman once said to me after workshop. “I wanted to get your advice. You write about yourself all the time. How do you do it?” My characters were always young Asian American women or girls, but I hadn’t written anything autobiographical. Just like her, I had imagined my stories. I made them up. They were fiction. But to her, they were so obviously just an unimaginative extension of my already-limited self. I was just tracing my life and my identity artlessly into my stories. Another white writer talked openly about searching for some kind of obscure “ethnicity” that she could write into her stories to give them an extra edge. “Like what you have in your writing,” she added, meaning well, of course. She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks.
In the intro to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, the editors Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write, “A lot of us here when asked to talk about race are most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, talking about it in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers. The undeserving. The shady. The good intentions and the cynical manipulations. The righteous side talking, the head shaking. Scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.” I won’t be scandalized by Michael Derrick Hudson pretending to be a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou after his poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was rejected 40 times under his real name. In Hudson’s bio for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology, edited by Sherman Alexie, he writes, “There is a very short answer for my use of a non 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 send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen-Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen, the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.” 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.
I won’t be scandalized because what Hudson is doing isn’t anything that white male writers haven’t already been doing since the first recorded instance of our culture embracing any kind of excellence that did not include them: scramble to come up with ways to keep the playing field uneven, to keep the odds stacked in their favor. The scandal of Hudson performing the laziest act of yellowface (co-opting a Chinese name) to get his poem published and accepted into the Best American Poetry anthology is lurid fodder for our cultural conversation because of its explicitness, but it should not be strange or unbelievable. White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it. After all, 50 years ago, when black voices were fighting to be heard, when their stories of trauma and abuse were struggling for legitimacy, it took John Howard Griffin, a white man who dyed his skin black and wrote about his experiences as a “black” man in his book, Black Like Me, for white Americans to believe that yes, black people were telling the truth about their lived experiences in the Jim Crow South. He was hailed a singular hero. Studs Terkel once said, “Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” It may seem totally nuts now, but as far as who gets credit for simply being affected by black pain, it doesn’t seem very removed from our current world where we heap lavish praise on someone like Jon Stewart for announcing on the Daily Show that he was too heartbroken to make jokes after the Charleston church shooting, as if all throughout this country’s present and past, black people and people of color have not been so heartbroken and so violated that we were left humorless, or worse, dead. To praise Stewart as excessively as he was praised is to say to black people: Your pain is unexceptional and does not matter until a white man feels it too.
I won’t be scandalized because the pathologizing of black failure has always coincided and worked closely with the pathologizing and reasoning away of Asian American success. Asian American success is often presented as something of a horror — robotic, unfeeling machines psychotically hellbent on excelling, products of abusive tiger parenting who care only about test scores and perfection, driven to succeed without even knowing why. When I was graduating from Stanford in 2005, a place that was very much a showcase for Asian excellence, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal on the “New White Flight” in Silicon Valley, a cruelly ironic but unsurprising update to the old “white flight,” a term coined in the 1960s when white families were fleeing cities with growing black populations for the lily-white suburbs. These fleeing white families believed the presence of black people in their communities caused violence to rise and schools to fail. In the new white flight, white families were now fleeing neighborhoods with growing Asian American populations because… wait for it… the schools were becoming TOO EXCELLENT thanks to these wily Asians who insisted on raising the academic standards with their exceptional grades and schoolwork. The article reported, “Cathy Gatley, co-president of Monta Vista High School’s parent-teacher association, recently dissuaded a family with a young child from moving to Cupertino because there are so few young white kids left in the public schools. ‘This may not sound good,’ she confides, ‘but their child may be the only Caucasian kid in the class.’ But unlike the panic of fifty years ago, when these families would have worried that being the only Caucasian kid in a predominantly black meant being exposed to a lower standard of academic excellence, it was precisely the opposite. Monta Vista's Academic Performance Index, which compares the academic performance of California's schools, reached an all-time high of 924 out of 1,000 this year, making it one of the highest-scoring high schools in Northern California. Grades are so high that a ‘B’ average puts a student in the bottom third of a class.” The article went on to say, “Some whites fear that by avoiding schools with large Asian populations parents are short-changing their own children, giving them the idea that they can’t compete with Asian kids. ‘My parents never let me think that because I’m Caucasian, I’m not going to succeed,’ says Jessie Hogin, a white Monta Vista graduate.”
The explicitness is almost refreshing if I can forget for a moment how disturbing it is. One of the founding tenets of racism: a society that will never allow white people to think that because they are white, they won’t succeed.
I’m not surprised Hudson chose a Chinese name instead of a name that might read as Latino or black. It’s been well documented in studies that a resume with a white-sounding name is 50% more likely to receive a callback for an interview than an identical resume with a black-sounding name. A white name like Emily “yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience” for the same resume with a name like Lakisha. Names do a lot, and Hudson did what any white man who could not bear the thought that his whiteness might keep him from success would do: take on the name of the ultimate model minority! Put another way: Everything people of color must endure, our sensational pain and our sensational brilliance, must be accessible to white people; they must have it in their quest to be rewarded. Put one more way: white people don’t like it when we don’t do well and they don’t like it when we do. But most of all, they don’t like it when they don’t do well.
My first year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, there was one poet of color in the poetry program. Out of 50. Someone like Hudson would have likely seen that and thought, Lucky her, she’ll probably get special treatment and I won’t. But I looked at it and thought, Why the fuck is everyone here white, relatively wealthy, and college educated? That can’t possibly be the only type of person who can write good poetry. And it’s not. But anyone with even a shred of sense can see why that is precisely the kind of person who pursues poetry, a profession that almost all but guarantees a lifetime of not being paid for writing poetry no matter how “good” one gets. Anyone willing to put some effort into it can see why those are the kinds of people who apply to poetry MFA programs, who even know about poetry MFA programs, who can even imagine a future as a poet.
My white cohorts at Iowa who blatantly coveted my Otherness went on to sign with agents and publish their books. None of them have followed up with me and my “luck.” None of them speak about the reality of what the literary publishing world looks like for writers of color (short answer: veryshitty.) And for all his (40!) rejections as Michael Derrick Hudson, being a white guy didn’t seem to stop him from publishing widely under his real name before he became Yi-Fen Chou.
I don’t think Hudson wants to be a chink though. (I don’t know any white person who does, but if you find me one, I’m happy to try to trade privileges.) I don’t think Hudson ever wanted the things a chink poet like me gets to have because what I get to have is certainly not money, and certainly not the kind of glory he’s after. I don’t know if he’s interested in interrogating how whiteness has helped his poetry career because so far he hasn’t made a public statement, but I’m happy to speak on how my Chinese American name and writing about my Chinese American identity has helped me in the literary world. For one, I get asked frequently to donate my intellectual emotional and psychic labor to educate white audiences and comment on issues of race because I am often the only or one of few people of color that many white writers/poets/editors/organizers of panels and readings know. I have been published many times without any compensation for my work in publications that frequently have few to zero other writers of color other than me. I am often put in the position of having to occupy higher moral ground when publications I am in are called out for being racist/misogynist/transphobic or whatever injustice they may have openly committed, and have felt pressure to pull my piece, even though as a woman of color who occupies many identities, I really would not have very many places to publish and share my work if I am to only publish in places that have never violated any aspect of my identity. It means publications run by mostly white editors specifically reach out to me when something horrific happens in the news to black or Muslim people, even though I am not black or of Muslim faith and the experience of being an Asian person of color is so very different from being a black person of color or a person of color who is Muslim (which, even though it is a religion rather than an ethnicity, is very often racialized to mean any brown-skinned Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian person), and yet I am often solicited to write something nuanced and educated on any news item affecting people of color because when these publications don’t have any black or Muslim writers on staff, I suppose I’m the next best thing, which I could take as a compliment, but more often it feels like a burden.
What I want is to get paid for my labor and be credited for my excellence. What I want is to not have to be made aware that because most publications only ever make room for one or two writers of color when those publications publish me it means another excellent writer of color does not get to have that spot, and yes, we internalize that scarcity and it makes us act wild and violent toward each other sometimes instead of kind.
What I usually get is a white editor soliciting me because they have failed to broaden their social circles and reading tastes to include more writers of color. What I get is publications that mostly publish white writers using me to prove that they are “trying” and “improving.” What I get is people criticizing these publications and erasing my work or dismissing me as just another co-opted writer of color. No wonder a white writer who doesn’t have to take ANY of this on could succeed using an Asian American pseudonym. Because that’s what my cohorts at Iowa wanted too, to have the right to a name that gave them an “edge” without having to endure racism, erasure, tokenization, self-devaluation, and the constant requests for free intellectual labor.
White supremacy tries to reduce people of color to our traumas. Resisting white supremacy means insisting that we are more than our traumas. One quick perusal through the shelves of world literature in any bookstore confirms just what the literary world wants to see from writers of color and writers from developing nations: trauma. Why, for example, is the English-speaking literary world mostly interested in fiction or poetry from China if the writer can be labeled as a “political dissident”? Even better if the writer has been tortured, imprisoned, or sentenced to hard labor by the Chinese government at one point. Surely there are amazing Chinese writers who don’t just identify as political dissidents just as there are many amazing white American writers who don’t identify, or rather, are not identified as one thing. Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers? Where are my carefree writers of color at? Seriously, where?
I have no doubt that as a successful writer of color, Sherman Alexie is deeply aware of this. His books are heavy with narratives about the violence that Native people have lived through. I love so many of his books and I’m not the only one, seeing as how he’s the one Native writer most white people seem to know about. In a letter by Alexie explaining his decision to not pull Hudson’s poem from the anthology and why the poem appealed to him in the first place, he writes, “It didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its ‘Chinese-ness’ because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the 'maybe' pile that eventually became a 'yes' pile.”
When I read the statement, I thought, Of course the lack of “Chinese-ness” would be seductive! It’s seductive to me too. I want to read more books by Chinese Americans that are not bound by the trauma of white supremacy, immigration, and imperialism. I want to write books like that. Perhaps one day I will, but I don’t think using a white pseudonym would help. A white guy, on the other hand, who doesn’t need my name to be shielded from those same traumas (he only needs to be white) can certainly slap a Chinese name on his poetry and pass it off as something to be marveled.
In the early '90s, well-respected poetry journals became enrapt with the work of Araki Yasusada, a Japanese poet who had survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The avant-garde was greedy to consume his work, which was formally experimental but also weighted with the trauma of living through nuclear war. It was exposed, although never fully confirmed, that Yasusada was the fictional creation of Kent Johnson, a white poet who taught at an university in Illinois. In a wonderfully comprehensive essay about the minstrel theatre of the American poetic avant-garde, Ken Chen writes, “what Yasusada created was a way for avant-garde white writers to give themselves emotional permission to enjoy lyric poems of suffering.”
In 2013, the Chinese American writer Bill Cheng published a novel Southern Cross the Dog, which was set in Mississippi and didn’t contain any “Chinese-ness.” The aesthetic value of the writing itself was almost universally praised, but the subject matter was questioned. Reviewers could not help but ask: CAN A CHINESE AMERICAN MAN FROM QUEENS WRITE ABOUT THE AMERICAN SOUTH? FOR ANSWERS LET’S TURN TO THESE WHITE CRITICS AND PROFESSORS.
I don’t envy Alexie’s position, and I don’t think he should shoulder the burden of responsibility (that goes to Hudson and the society that permitted him) but he’s continuing the long American tradition of praising white authors who appropriate racial identity and trauma for their art, while writers of color are told to essentially stay in their lane — an entirely unpaved, shitty, little lane.
First, don’t be boring. Your college essays need to be memorable—but in a positive way. That will help you stand out from other applicants.
Choose a topic you are passionate about. If it is interesting to you, it is likely to be interesting to others. Tell a story, since people are hard-wired to listen to stories. Give specific examples instead of general statements unsupported by evidence.
Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion, because the reader may react more to your position on the topic than your writing, even if you try to be balanced. Also avoid humor, because what is funny to you may not be funny to others.
But even these rules are meant to be broken.
My own college application essays were risky because they were risqué. I wrote my essays about depositing checks from Playboy at the bank. When I was a child, I wrote puzzles for Games Magazine, which was owned by Playboy Enterprises at the time. My checks came from Playboy Enterprises, Magazine Division, with no further identification.
Imagine a young boy, not yet a teenager, depositing such a check at a small, hometown bank where everybody knows his mother on a first-name basis. The teller looked at the check and then at me, with a strange expression on her face. I winked and said, “Oh, didn’t you see it? It was in the March issue.”
I closed each essay with a puzzle I custom-wrote for that college. The puzzles were laddergrams, also known as doublets and change-the-word puzzles, where the word on the top rung is changed one letter at a time into a new word, eventually reaching the word on the bottom rung. For example, you can change LEAD into GOLD in three steps: LEAD, LOAD, GOAD, GOLD. Visit www.laddergrams.com for more examples and some of my puzzle books.
My essays could easily have backfired. But they worked. I applied to only four colleges and was accepted by all of them. I found out that I had been admitted to Brown University on a campus tour. The tour ended in front of the admissions office, which displayed some of the more unusual essays the university had received. The tour guide pointed to my essay and said it took admissions staff members several hours to solve the puzzle and “needless to say, we admitted him.” That laddergram was THINK-BROWN, a particularly challenging puzzle.
Here’s another tip that can yield a powerful essay. It also works for people who suffer from writer’s block. Instead of writing or typing your essay, answer the essay question out loud, while recording your answer. Then transcribe the recording and create an outline to add structure and organization. This tip works well because people write or type at 30 to 60 words per minute but speak at about 200 words per minute. Thus, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Answering the question orally also yields a more fluid and passionate essay.
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A similar tip can help with proofreading your essays. Print out a copy of your essay, so that it looks different than it appears on your computer screen. It is often easier to edit your writing if you can pretend someone else wrote it. Read it out loud, marking a red X wherever you stumble. The disfluencies are signs of a problem with the essay, such as spelling or grammar errors, the wrong word choice, or poor logic. Fix these errors and print out a new copy. Repeat the process until you can read the essay from start to finish without stumbling.
Mark Kantrowitz is one of the nation’s leading student financial aid experts. He is the author of several books about paying for college, including Filing the FAFSA, Twisdoms about Paying for College, and Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and has served as publisher of the FinAid, Fastweb, and Edvisors websites.