Cathy Park Hong discusses the insidiousness of American success narratives, white shame, and the difficulty of defining Asian America.
The poet Cathy Park Hong opens her new book of essays with the description of a facial nerve spasm, a tic she experienced in her 20s and relives at the onset of a depressive episode in her 30s. “My face was no longer my face,” she recalls, “but a mask of trembling nerves, threatening to mutiny.” The situation introduces us to a host of terrors—physical, political, private, interpersonal—that creep through Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. There’s the very real terror of living in the United States in a raced body, where, as Hong writes, “how I am perceived inheres to who I am.” There’s the terror of speaking to the “Asian American” experience, when no singular Asian American experience exists. And there’s the minor terror of writing the self at all, which is to invite a reader to mistake the text for you. In each case, one’s face is no longer quite one’s own, and maybe it never was.
Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Minor Feelings ranges across subjects including the tedium of “terribly vestigial” poetry readings, the coming-of-age story as a tool of white supremacy, and the violent murder of artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. The seven richly textured essays pay homage, too, to those artists and thinkers whose work shaped them: people like Richard Pryor, Bhanu Kapil, and Sianne Ngai, whose “ugly feelings” inspired Hong’s use of the phrase “minor feelings” to describe “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.” Such feelings arise “from lack of change,” Hong explains, and, as such, “are not often featured in contemporary American literature.”
“United,” the first of the book’s seven essays, is titled for the airline behind the assault of Asian American doctor David Dao in 2017, but also for the lie in the name of this country. In deliciously angry prose, Hong examines the difficulty of building solidarity within and between communities, especially when the dominant culture’s narratives are internalized. Here, and often as I read, I found myself thinking about the condition of being Jewish in the US: impossibly varied, though often considered singular; subject to regressive forms of “racial self-hatred” and also to the shame of our own community’s failures to confront white supremacy. When a white man tells Hong that “Asians are next in line to be white,” Hong rejects the idea (“As if we’re iPads queued up in an assembly line”) but reflects on what it might mean: “We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.” In another essay’s account of the 1992 riots’ effect on L.A.’s Koreatown, where she was born, Hong notes that even her shame about the anti-Blackness in that community is part of an “overly simplistic” narrative that attempts to pit the two communities against each other.
Minor Feelings came out in February, just as the pandemic spurred a series of violent attacks on Asian Americans, and trained our attention on the systems and ideologies already failing this country. Hong and I spoke in May, two months after the murder of Breonna Taylor and a few days before the murder of George Floyd. When I asked whether she saw any conflict between the need for clear, direct action in the face of actual violence and the introspective complexity of a book like her own, her answer was a decisive no. “Reading a book isn’t like a prescription to action,” she told me. “It’s more about changing your consciousness.” Her own book speaks to the difficulty and also the necessity of such shifts.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Helen Betya Rubinstein: A couple of years before Minor Feelings was published, I heard you describe it in a conversation with Rachel Zucker as a book “about shame.” You discuss the dread of writing about yourself, and the dread of writing about race. How does it feel to have used your life to think about these important questions?
Cathy Park Hong: I tell my students that you have to write toward your discomfort. And that was what I was trying to do with this book, to write toward my discomfort. I’m really glad I did it. For me the discomfort was getting at the core of a lot of pain, understanding that there was a stake in this pain that I was talking about. I had to show what that stake was. And I couldn’t use critical language for that. It was incredibly difficult, because I always used to hide behind persona in poetry. But I thought I needed to make both a critical argument and an emotional argument; it was important to me that the reader was able to not only think their way through it but feel their way through it. And I used my personal life to do that. That was also the advice of my editor, Victory Matsui, who was constantly asking me to be more vulnerable. Because sometimes criticism can be an armor.
HBR: Minor Feelings addresses the shame that results from white supremacy, and also the shame of whiteness. You make a distinction between shame and guilt, the latter of which, you write, “demands absolution and is therefore self-serving.” I found myself wondering about the uses of shame.
CPH: In the context of white shame, it can be a productive emotion. There’ve been more and more white people who feel ashamed of their whiteness, because they’re aware of their skin color for the first time in a way that’s acute. They’re able to see themselves in a way that someone more marginalized sees them, and to use that as a corrective to not be so clueless. Shame can make you more aware. Shame can make you more empathetic, too. What’s important, of course, is not staying in that shame, not wallowing in shame. If there are any political uses of shame, it’s that it allows you to see outside yourself. And to move, and to do something with that.
The shame I felt as a child was different. When you feel like you’re the only one who has parents like your parents, or looks the way you look, or comes from an economic background like yours, that shame is debilitating, because it has an isolating affect. You can get out of that shame by sharing it. If you are, say, a person of color, and you feel ashamed for being who you are, the process is going from estrangement to realizing that no, this is not just you, this is actually structural; other people feel this way as well. And then that can turn into a righteous rage that can hopefully lead to something productive.
HBR: You describe the need to write against certain American narratives—stories of exceptionalism, of “making it,” of coming-of-age; popular Hollywood stories—as a way of writing truthfully about race and against white supremacy. Why is the modular or episodic essay the form you land on to do that?
CPH: I’m a poet, so I look at prose differently than a journalist would. I’m not trying to make a singular argument. I want to document my thought process. And that thought process is never linear. It involves different subjects. For instance, when I was writing [the essay] “Bad English,” I didn’t begin with a question. I was just like, I want to write about being bad in English, and cultural appropriation, and this video artist [Wu Tsang], and then I worked from there, wondering: Why do I have these obsessions? Why am I thinking about these subjects so much? I start writing these different passages and then I connect them. For me, the modular form is more appropriate. It’s just the way I think. And it’s also very important to show that I’m not just writing as an Asian American, I’m also writing as a woman, as a mother, as a poet, as a former artist, as a citizen of this country. I wanted to wear all of my hats, all of my identities in writing this book.
HBR: Your book came out in a moment when, because of anti-Chinese rhetoric around Covid, there was a major shift in the visibility of anti-Asian racism. What has that been like? Do you feel like you wrote the book in a different era?
CPH: No. Racism is never new. It just changes, it adapts. I think people are louder. But when I hear Asians being called “chink” on the street, that’s not really different from what I experienced as a kid. It’s all part of a historical continuum. The issue is that people forget. My book is not offering new ideas exactly, it’s just a reminder. It’s a reminder of the history of Asian Americans in this white supremacist capitalist nation. I think sometimes we get lulled because we forget. Being a person of color, you’re either invisible or hypervisible. And when you’re hypervisible, your hypervisibility—when there’s a target on your back—is dependent entirely on what’s happening economically in this nation, or what’s happening with foreign policy. One year it’s Muslims, another year it’s undocumented Latinx people, and this year it’s East Asians. It’s like musical chairs.
HBR: There’s a line early in the book when a white woman reader suggests you read your “healing” poetry instead of an essay from this book, and you tell her, “I’m not ready to heal.” You follow the anecdote by describing your father’s experience of the Korean War, how his whole family was nearly killed by American soldiers who mistook them for Communists. As you write, the US literally “cut [your] ancestral country in two.”
CPH: A lot of us come from countries—if you’re South Asian or Southeast Asian—that have been colonized by Western powers. But that’s never talked about. It’s almost as if in immigrant stories we’re supposed to forget our past once our family comes over here. Or there is a kind of writing about the past, but it’s divorced from US foreign policy. It comes from immigrant parents as well. They say, “Oh, you’re here, it’s a rich land, and there are so many opportunities here, you should be grateful,” without actually acknowledging why we ended up here in the first place. I wanted to show how it was all interrelated. The reason my family is here has a lot to do with the devastating effects of the Korean War, the fact that South Korea was very poor afterward, and Korea’s peninsula is still at war. It never ended. We’re like the last remaining relic of the Cold War. My grandmother died without ever seeing any of her family members [in North Korea] again.
But this is all forgotten; it’s never mentioned in the US. So it was absolutely important that I write about the legacy of American foreign policy. And how when people talk about Asian American identity, they don’t talk about how these wars killed millions. There’s still so much intergenerational trauma because of that, even if a lot of people in the immigrant community want to forget it.
HBR: You write about the complexity of using the word “we” with other Asian Americans, and about the difficulty of having to emphasize that Asians are both victims and perpetrators of racism. How do you think about solidarity from that vexed position?
CPH: I think solidarity has to come from a vexed position. This book is not a totalizing definition of an Asian American experience, it’s very partial—my experience is so particular. I write so much about art, for instance. But the book is an invitation for other Asian Americans and other people of color to tell their stories, to be honest about their rage and their vulnerabilities. So that instead of Asian America being defined by a model minority myth, or by Hollywood erasure, it’s defined by all of these diverse stories. And it’s already happening—there are so many brilliant novelists and poets and scholars who’ve been writing about the Asian American condition.
I think so many Asians feel that they’re not part of the national conversation about race and class because they’re never mentioned as a group. The reason it’s been hard to define what Asian America is, is because we’ve been posited in this in-between position—we’re not exactly seen as victims, nor are we seen as the ones who possess all the power—so people have been loathe to talk about the condition because it’s not black and white. But we just have to assert ourselves.
Last year I was talking to an Asian American professor. I was telling her the subject of my book—speaking of internalized racism, even when I was writing this book, I felt a little bashful every time I said, “It’s about being Asian American.” When this woman heard this, she said, “I’d be curious to read it, because I think that time has passed. Our time has passed.”
I was a little bit confused by what she was saying, and I asked, “What do you mean by that?” And she was like, “Are Asian Americans even a minority? Is it even worth writing about Asian Americans?” This was an Asian American scholar saying this! And I said, “Of course.” It was almost as if she was saying it wasn’t worthy enough as a racial subject. So I think we need to amplify our voices, and it has to be persistent. It’s a marathon.
Helen Betya Rubinstein is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her book Feels Like Trouble: Transgressive Takes on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing is forthcoming. She teaches at The New School and works one-on-one with other writers as a coach.