To be clear, right from the start, the point of this week’s episode is not to call Robert Olen Butler a fraud. In fact we both quite enjoyed his story, “Mid-Autumn,” from his 1992 collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. But it occurred to us that if this book were published today, it might get a few more sideways glances, since it’s a white American author telling the first-person stories of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees. So we thought it could be a good jumping-off point for a discussion of where those lines are. Should writers be able to tell whatever stories they want, as Lionel Shriver famously argued last year? At what point should we be concerned about issues of cultural appropriation?
In the second half of the show, we talk about the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, who in 2015 set off a lit-world firestorm when he admitted that he’d submitted a poem to a bunch of journals using a fake Chinese name. One of those poems was eventually selected by Sherman Alexie to be part of the Best American Poetry anthology for that year, at which point Hudson came clean, and Alexie did some soul-searching.
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