Authenticity and Experience: The Problem of Identity Politics in Literature

Authenticity and Experience: The Problem of Identity Politics in Literature

James Walker
James Walker
9 min read

In a seemingly shrinking poetry community, increasingly quarantined to the academe, a small maelstrom, barely visible upon the cultural radar, appeared, dissipated and vanished. Our culture, dominated by the 140 character limit, is particularly apt at creating tempests in teacups, each evoking an explosion of drama that exhausts itself in a mere matter of days (or in some cases a matter of hours). This particular incident might never have developed the cultural momentum to even garner the attention of even a few hundred people had it not involved a world renowned writer and the cultural bête noire of our time.

After submitting his poem “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” forty times and each time receiving rejection, Michael Derrick Hudson, a 51 year old white poet, submitted his work under a new name: Yi-Fen Chou. Under Hudson’s new pen name, the poem was published by The Prairie Schooner and then later selected by the esteemed Native American writer Sherman Alexie for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the anthology Best of American Poetry.

The reactions following the revelation of Hudson’s true identity were predictable. There were the accusations of “Yellow Face,” questions raised toward Alexie’s fairness and judgement, and of course, soul searching as to what extent the identity of an author can or should influence the reception of his or her work. Each point on the political spectrum brought forth its own lense through which to witness the phenomena — the Left, its outrage toward Hudson’s ethical transgression, the Right, its charge that Alexie, and those of a similar mind, are willing to sacrifice artistic merit and aesthetic value for the appearance of inclusion. As disparate as these reactions may have been, one could sense beneath the calumny of apologetics and condemnations a sort collective raising of the eyebrow and dropping of the jaws. Once is an anomaly, twice a true a source of astonishment and amazement.

It had happened again.

Only months after Rachel Dolezal, the one time president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP had been passing as a black throughout her career as an educator and activist, another white person had willingly adopted a minority identity for the purpose of their own personal gain, in the current epoch of identity politics, a sin so grave in its disregard for the sanctity that cultural elites confer upon identity and authenticity that Hudson may as well have defiled a corpse.

If our current stable of progressive commentators and self-styled intellectuals were to cast a villain in the ongoing melodrama of inclusion and exclusion that has come to define the think-pieces and the sparring sessions across the internet, he would almost certainly look something like Michael Derrick Hudson — white, male, middle aged, and probably worst of all, Midwestern — a soul composed of one part malevolent imposter, another part clueless buffoon.

Why did Dolezal and Hudson’s respective deceits require such public opprobrium? What was the crime that they had committed? The short answer is theft — theft of identity, theft of history, theft of one’s “voice,” one’s authenticity. But what accounts for “authenticity” in the present age? There are, of course, no shortage of academics and media figures who would leap with widened eyes and clenched teeth at the opportunity to denounce anything that might be construed as “essentialism.” And if Hudson is not guilty of the theft, or attempted theft, of something as fleeting and vague as the essence or the very “being” of “Asianness” then what is his crime?

The responses to Hudson’s actions by other writers on the website of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) may provide some clarity as to the cultural crime that he had committed. One writer, addressing the problems and pitfalls that a name might signify, not simply for minority writers, but particularly for writers of mixed or “hyphenated” identities writes:

Our experiences must be reduced to something as simple as a name an editor or judge reads if our voices are to be heard… What Hudson did in assuming an Asian pen name is exploit the lived vulnerability of everyone who isn’t free to ‘noodle around’ his or her imagination unencumbered by history. (emphasis added)

From this statement, we might dare to ascertain one aspect of the offense committed by Hudson. It was, indeed, theft, but not theft of identity, or of essence, but a theft of wages — a taking of what has not been earned, the products of a labor which he, as a white man, could not possibly have endured. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a theft of the fruits of a conscript labor, for which the suffering of the impressed hand, “encumbered by history” as she might put it, is an integral part.

Another writer commenting on the AAWW’s website, presses a separate but related charge against Hudson, claiming that the hapless poet “denigrates the experiences of Asian and Asian American writers by appropriating one of their names for his own gain” in addition to “abstracting” the “realities and experiences” of Asians and Asian Americans, including “the aggressions and stereotypes” faced by members of these two respective groups. (emphasis added)

The accusation shifts from theft to fraud. By taking an Asian pen name, Hudson had attempted to pass Cubic Zarconia for Diamonds. His act of Yellow Face did not lie in the content of his verse, which most commentators agreed did not attempt to convey an Asian identity, but rather in the difference in reception that is entailed with an Asian pseudonym. The fraud was found not in the craftsmanship, but in the counterfeit of the raw materials of the soul from which literature is forged; his work was not made from the real, legitimate substance that the label implied. The ersatz was born of the thoughts and volitions of a mundane white man, not the authenticity of the Asian or Asian American experience.

We see in these remarks that, above all else, it’s experience that is “abstracted” or “reified” or “exploited.” Experience itself, rather than anyone person (save possibly for Alexie), seems to be the victim of Hudson’s deception. Anyone dwelling in the contemporary ether of journalistic and academic discourse will recognize the usage of this word “experience.” We live in constant danger of “invalidating” the experiences of women as well as racial and gender minorities. Professors even inform their students that in order to do well in their courses, they ought to “defer to the experiences” of their minority classmates. The word seems to carry gravity beyond its mundane usage. It’s employment in battle frequently silences the opposition as it carries with it the weight of a dressing down. “Experience” confers authority upon its possessor. In the present age, “experience” is both what is beyond reproach and the embodiment of the sacred, defined succinctly by the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus as “that which cannot be laughed at.”

Rationally and epistemologically speaking, this elevation of “lived experience” to a sort of untouchable status makes little sense. At the most basic level, personal experience is unreliable at best, outright misleading at worst. If we go a step further, and take experience to mean something more personal, beyond mere dispassionate observation, referring not simply to an observed phenomenon but its emotional effects upon its observer, we leave ourselves open to the fallacious thinking of emotional reasoning, a process through which we take our emotional reactions as evidence of a particular claim (“I felt offended by the comment, therefore the comment itself was malicious.”)  It would be a mistake to believe that this appeal to experience attains its rhetorical force from the rational. Rather, its resonance finds its source in something more intimate.

We all, to some extent, intuitively believe a considerable — perhaps even the greater — part of who we are to be comprised of our memories, our experiences. Experience, the impressions the world inflicts upon us, as well as our understanding of them, is often taken by us to be the passive side of self-hood, and it is in our current epoch — the age of the beatified victim — that it has achieved absolute primacy in our imaginations.

It is a bit misleading to claim, as some commentators do, that the melanin content of one’s skin or the presence or absence of genitalia is what grants one authority and authenticity (the authority that Dolezal sought, the authenticity that Hudson was accused of co-opting) in discourse. It is not these attributes alone from which these discursive privileges arise, but from the attendant belief that with them comes traumas, hardships, and susceptibility to harm. In this sense experience of something is always experience as a particular identity. It is often said that identity-politics emphasizes “what you are” instead of “what you do,” but what you are, the gravity your identity holds, is more than the reality of your physical appearance, your gender, or your sexual desire. What you are is what has been done to you. In our age, authenticity is passivity, it is the manner in which the malleable material of the self is cruelly hammered by the world.

Literature, of course, has not been exempt from this cultural phenomenon. At a time when authenticity is granted in accordance to what has been inflicted upon a given individual, rather than products of her own effort, the writer has been transformed from a creator of phrases, sentences, experiences, worlds into a sort of repository of experience, whose task is to communicate what is already there — impressions, memories, reflections — to her readers. Her responsibility is to convey the experiences she has endured, perhaps to edify — her skill as a writer to be judged upon whether she does this well or poorly. There is a sense in which artistic creation itself becomes estranged from the creative process itself, insofar as it is in large part conceived as the transmission of, rather than invention of, experience. Hudson becomes the literary criminal of our time not through an act of plagiarism, the theft of the products of imagination, but as a forger of experience.

But the authority, the authenticity that we grant the one we take to be the voice of the different, the marginalized, the simply unheard comes at a cost. Addressing the audience at a 2010 TED Talk, the celebrated Turkish writer Elif Șafak stated:

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure,but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me,then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues… Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

Writers are taken to be storehouses of the collective experience of their nations or their genders, burdened with the responsibility of passing on lamentations or narratives calamity and despair to their Western readers. Since experience is always experience as an identity, literature always comes with an adjective — writing by African writers is always “African literature,” writing by Asian writers “Asian literature” and so on.

Writing is treated less as art and more as a sort of cultural artifact. In academia this often means that literature by minority writers in the West and non-Western writers is segregated and ghettoized into the literary Bantustans of Ethnic Studies departments.

But of course, this sort of lens deprives literature of one if its essential, animating features. What is sacrificed in the elevation and recognition of the self that experiences, that understands what the world has done to it, is the self that wills, invents, and acts — the self that remakes itself by entering into an intimate relationship with its creation. As Șafak puts it: “When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger.”

Our present age is one of hyper-awareness of how we are affected by — or how we are even the products of — history, culture, and “social structures.” We spend our days seeking understanding of the manner in which we are either privileged or oppressed, and this knowledge is considered to be the virtue of our time. We now find authenticity, the weight our words carry, not in our achievements, but in our experiences, what the world has done to us. It seems as if everything about ourselves has been externalized — who we are is beyond our power.

What has been forgotten in this consciousness of how we are shaped, misshaped, and battered by the world is our own ability to shape it: Freedom. And it’s this forgetting that has perverted our understanding of authenticity. We take how the world has acted upon us as definitive of who we are. We rarely consider that authenticity might not lie in what has been done to you, not in the mere situation in which you find yourself, but in the manner in which you conduct yourself toward it. Writers are not merely receptacles of experience just as they are not the sum of their influences. As much as authors draw from their own experiences or other authors, they seek to define themselves from them, to set their own work apart. When we admire a beautiful work of art, we do so not as if it is a sort of serendipitous accident, the fortunate convergence of historical and social determinacy, but because it bears the mark of a particular will, imagination, and creativity. It is what is active that renders art art, defines the artist as an artist. Authenticity is activity.

Our contemporary culture, with its fetishization of experience, its obsession with what has been inflicted upon, would do well to remember the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.

Art and Culture

James Walker

James Walker is an American writer and critic.