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The complicated literary history of 'Yellowface' did not start with Michael Derrick Hudson


Michael Derrick Hudson use of a Chinese name when writing was racist and latest case of ‘yellowface’ in literature, but the word has a complex backstory

My father immigrated to Montreal from China 24 years ago. At five, a first generation immigrant newly arrived in British Columbia, I was promptly placed in an ESL class when I began kindergarten because I didn’t speak any English. More than 20 years later, I’m an English PhD candidate at University College Berkeley. In my life I alternate between my English name, Jane, and my legal Chinese one, Shan-Jie.

I list these biographical details first for two reasons: one, because I believe in the truth of the cliché that we rarely match, in person, what we look like on paper. Two, because biographical facts, and their relationship to art and ideas, were at stake in last week’s controversy over the Best American Poetry 2015 anthology. And I found myself slightly confused as to howoften people resorted to the term “yellowface” to describe what happened.

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