Cathy Park Hong’s latest book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, asks readers to be open to nuance and hold two sometimes contradictory notions simultaneously. The Los Angeles-born writer details the peculiarities of identifying as Asian American—a term stretched to encompass a broad swath of people whose ancestors emigrated from the same continent. As Hong makes clear, religion, creed, custom, and even privilege in the United States aren’t binding factors among this group of people.
Whereas many personal narratives present a singular perspective, Hong’s approach is more expansive. She writes explicitly about structural inequities: how internal racism has caused masses of people to work counter to their own interests and wage war against people who look like them. Hong’s work is an intellectual demonstration of how deeply rooted race relations in America are and how their manifestation differs across generations: her grandmother struggled to assimilate, for example, while Hong wore a Playboy shirt to elementary school because her mother didn’t know what the white bunny symbolized.
The at-times funny, often deeply thought-provoking work is part memoir, part cultural critique, and part rumination on creative processes. Hong is a poet first, previously having published three poetry collections, among other projects for The New York Times and The Paris Review. Some lines in Minor Feelings flow just as a lyric would while others rail against the English language and reject literary forms long cemented within canonical texts. As Hong writes, “illegibility is a political act.”
Some of Hong’s dialogue, especially in “The Education,” feels forced and more rigid than the rest of her writing. She describes how her relationships with college friends Erin and Helen are undeniably complicated and at times abusive. Their lives are also an understated look at the beginning stages of creative lives. Hong’s envy of her friends who find more success with their visual art than she does, and her subsequent turn to writing and poetry while attending Oberlin, form a meditation on the ways inspiration and mediums are interconnected. The chapter is also an important lesson in artistic exploration, examining how a break from a certain trajectory can lead to more rewarding discoveries.
While Oberlin offered Hong an environment for creative exploration and practice, it also fostered what she describes as the arrogance, which subsequently was obliterated after graduation. Even with a prestigious education, Hong’s experience confirms the burden faced by many people of color who attempt to break into an artistic and literary scene primarily dominated by the very privileged. They need to prove themselves repeatedly as being a worthy artist, writer, and human. It’s a heartbreaking and anger-producing ending to a chapter that evidences the inextricability of race, privilege, life, and art.
A particularly weighty chapter, “Portrait of an Artist,” details the life of artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who in 1982, was raped and murdered by a security guard in New York City. The chapter is centered on Cha’s Dictee, a genre-bending work about her life that Hong first picked up in 1996 as a sophomore at Oberlin. Now teaching the text to her own students, Hong includes in her instructional practice the direction to “approach the book as if they’re learning a new language.” Using this reading method seems like a valuable practice even beyond Dictee. In a world that values personal experience so heavily, perhaps readers can benefit from coming to a text with the intention of being enveloped in a whole new set of speech patterns, vocabulary, values, and ideologies.
This is not to say that readers and viewers can’t have a shared capacity for experiencing art. But perhaps there needs to be further conversation around digging into challenging and unusual works. What Hong provides in Minor Feelings is a sort of groundwork for asking questions about projects that defy convention, form, and content and that look very different from canonized texts and lauded works found in museums. What can we learn from letting art stand on its own without situating it within the context of our own experience or comparing it to other pieces with which we’ve connected? Hong suggests that there’s something to be gained from reveling in aesthetics and from contemplating what’s left unsaid.
Ultimately, Minor Feelings is an urgent consideration of identity, social structures, and artistic practice. It’s a necessary intervention in a world burgeoning with creativity but stymied by a lack of language and ability to grapple with nuance. Hong takes a step in remedying that.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
By Cathy Park Hong”
Published February 25, 2020
Grace Ebert is a Chicago-based writer and editor. Her most recent work is with Colossal. Find more at graceebert.com.