poetry, publishing, writers, writing

On the Color of Names

Asian-sounding Pen Name Gets White Guy in Trouble

So, I read the story linked to above from the Washington Post. Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth:

As a plainly named, semi-average white guy, I too have considered using a name that sounds “less Caucasian.” In today’s literary marketplace, it sometimes feels like people with humdrum, plain-Jane names get overshadowed by those without them, no matter what the ethnicity, gender, or background in question may be.

“Oh, to be a Li-Young Lee, a Marina Tsvetaeva, or a Yusef Komunyakaa!” say the Joe Smiths of the writing world. Of course, poets’ names are not their strength (although the aforementioned ones, especially, are impressive and beautiful sounding). It is the authors’ fine work that has earned them their spot in the literary marketplace. Their awards are many, and rightfully so. It is not a matter of name alliteration, length, or origin that has raised them to prominence; it is the quality of their writing, and a strong history of artistic contribution.

Statistics from a number of sources show us that writers from historically underrepresented communities still struggle to get their work in front of readers, and the good folks at Vida: Women in Literary Arts have demonstrated the imbalance between published male writers and their female counterparts. Nonetheless, when one opens a copy of Poets and Writers, AWP Chronicle, and other trade pubs that scribblers like me regularly receive, the most highly publicized writers can seem to be comprised of those with extraordinary and uniquely identifiable names, no matter what their color or creed.

Consider if you will the glossy back cover of the September 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle: There, in a full-color ad for Grand Valley State University’s Poetry Night 2015, are Kwame Dawes and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I wish I could be at the advertised event, not because I want an excuse to form such lovely names more often, but because these are exceptional writers. Inside the back cover, a full-page ad for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (another event I wish I could attend this year) proclaims the presence of Edwidge Danticat, another brand-name poet whose work is as striking as her name, if not moreso. A quick flip through the magazine reveals Nikki Giovanni, Ravi Shankar, Minal Hajratwala, Luisa Igloria, and Natasha Trethewey, among other names like poems.

Admittedly, my name has sometimes raised an editor’s eyebrow or two because “John Davis Jr.” could belong to someone of any number of races. Sure, it’s a white guy’s name, but it could belong to someone of African-American descent, Native American descent, or any one of many other races, I’ve found. A quick run of my name through Google reveals a rainbow of people from all walks of life. Some are realtors, some are doctors, and one even ran for president in 2012. I’ve had editors presume I was African-American because my name reminded them of another famous “Davis Jr.” — Sammy Davis Jr. No joke. I didn’t mind the confusion, nor did I take offense. But then, I’m a member of this country’s majority. My people are not disenfranchised, nor have they faced excessive hurdles in society. And maybe that’s why Michael Derrick Hudson’s decision irks me.

It irks me for the same reasons that dialect-discrimination irks me, actually. I’ve had plenty of people assume over the years (based upon my size, appearance, and Floridian accent) that I am ignorant. “Dumb Southerner” is the label some have attached without knowing my full story. They hear my use of the colloquial “y’all” and jump to their conclusions, which are, ultimately, dead wrong. Yes, my family has farmed for three generations (at least). But we’ve also been educators, doctors, lawyers, professors, and Air Force pilots, just to name a few other roles. I don’t appreciate others assuming we’re hillbillies any more than writers of Asian descent appreciate “Yi-Fen Chou.”

So what’ll it be, Mr. Hudson? You think your name sounds too Anglo-Saxon? Oh, gosh. Better fix that right up. You’ll never get published now. It’s not like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, C.K. Williams, or — let’s go back a ways — Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, or W.B. Yeats have had any luck. I can see your quandary, what with all the illogical repression of white male names and voices, It’s clearly a wonder that your work has managed to see the light of day.

But I get it. I really do. All those delicious-sounding syllables from diverse cultures are out there, just waiting to be exhaled. And they’re tempting. I know they are. That, however, doesn’t make them yours to appropriate. Might I be so bold as to suggest Mr. Hudson read an excellent essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. entitled “What’s In a Name?” I assign it to my students regularly. When you read it, consider yourself Mr. Wilson, Michael. For in essence, you have called Asian and Asian-American writers everywhere “George.” And that’s not okay.

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Uncategorized

On Slow Progress

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photo credit: NCSU

Once when I was fifteen years old, I climbed a waterfall. To be precise, I climbed the rock facing underneath the waterfall. My family and I were in north Georgia at the time, and the trail leading to the falls had ended at a wooden deck-style overlook some distance back, but I was not to be restrained by man-made barriers. As a young man full of vigor and adventure, I knew I could get closer. I had no idea how close I would get…to dying.

At the base of the falls well off the path, I began my steep ascent. The hard rock underbelly of the falls was covered in algae and ferns, and my fingernails dug up green with each new handhold. My hiking boots were not designed for this type of climbing, but they held fast to the slick and treacherous surface. Their cleats, too, ripped into the carpet of greenery. Each move was a calculated, deliberate decision. My pulse was racing, my stomach flooded with adrenaline. Still, I was too deep into the task to go back, and had I wanted to, I probably couldn’t have. I decided to see this venture through with discernment and strength. Even with caution, though, bad things happen.

As I neared the top of the falls, the gush and roar of the waters above me became near-deafening. I knew I’d have to veer to one side of the overflow or the other. The problem I now faced was inexperience — as an untrained and unfamiliar climber, I knew how to go up, but beyond that one direction, my movement was limited. I’d have to go straight through the water to reach the top. I summoned my most courageous breath, and felt the current strike the crest of my scalp. I pushed upward, caught a face full of water, and fell backward.

It was a surprisingly short fall — unlike those dreams where one seems to descend for eternity before waking with a jolt, this fall scraped my chin and chest on the rock outcropping, and in the midst of the peril, my fingers and boot-treads made one last grasp to the surface. I had enough purchase to shove my way up the right side of the falls, and eventually, I found myself standing at their apex, looking back down the long trail of white and the brutal path beneath it. Around me, mountain laurel were in bloom, and I could see our campsite in the distance. The victory at last was mine, and a hard lesson was learned. My chin was still bleeding. I covered it with my bare hand, and walked in the direction of camp.

I thought of this experience recently as I was growing impatient with other life circumstances. As regular readers know, I have a book forthcoming this summer, and my career is in a state of flux as I attempt to transition from secondary to post-secondary teaching. The end of the school year is upon us, and I’m generally discontent with waiting. The waterfall climb of my youth was one made with persistence, care, decisiveness, and bravery. As I think back on it, I recognize traits that I now need as the next chapter of my biography is only a few pages away. And while I may experience a “slip” or two along the way, I understand that, like surmounting any great obstacle, judicious patience remains key.   

poetry, Uncategorized

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.

Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?

Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.

As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.

Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.

Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.

poetry, Uncategorized

Lawful and Profitable?

thinkingboy_outlineRecently, my mind has been consumed by choices. As many of my readers know, I just had my paperback transformed into a Kindle edition, and I’ve also been interviewing for various higher education positions in my area. In addition, my financial situation has recently encountered some modification as well. In all of these matters, however, some words of advice from the apostle Paul keep popping to mind:

I Corinthians 10:23: “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.”

In other words, I can do anything, but that doesn’t mean I should do everything. With the pleasure of increased choices comes the burden of amplified responsibility. I can choose to market my Kindle edition through any number of means, but only a few of those are actually going to work. It becomes my job to decipher which methods are not only permissible, but will result in the greatest outcome. Likewise, I can pursue any number of jobs within academia, but only that job that best fits my abilities and life calling should earn the “brass ring” of my acceptance.

Now before my friends judge my limited interpretation of Paul’s words above, allow me to elaborate a bit. In my current workplace, we’ve recently been exploring the notion of “getting to yes.” In a nutshell, that idea states that businesses should inform customers that “we can do anything, but we can’t necessarily do everything.” So when I encountered Paul’s echo of this sentiment (only in a more spiritually minded fashion), the correlation between my “worldly” situation and a more supernatural piece of wisdom organically began to bridge with one another. I’m not advocating a “prosperity gospel;” instead, I’m simply tying two areas of my life together with a common thread of philosophy.

As I’ve gone along life’s path lately, this little scripture has returned again and again, rearing its head everywhere from the boardroom to the dining room table. It has influenced my decisions daily, and caused me to cast new light on old issues. Paul’s test of worthiness causes one to pause and analyze, examining each set of options with a magnifying lens of overall benefit: Which choice is not only going to be allowable, but will also provide the biggest or best return? Please don’t think I see this from a strictly monetary perspective — “returns” come in both intrinsic and extrinsic forms, and research time and again has shown us that the most intrinsic rewards are the best for us as humans.

And certainly, there are other religious tomes out there that equally advocate balanced decision-making. However, for my purposes in my daily life, Paul continues to speak truth into my everyday practices. Something as simple as flipping a light switch can become a moment for reflection, and something as complex as intelligent investing can be critically viewed equally well using this tiny phrase of ancient proverbage. Give it a try yourself — who knows what great decisions wait right around the corner?