Moments of Reawakening: Talking with Cathy Park Hong

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“Because we know we won’t be believed, we don’t quite believe it ourselves.” “It,” according to poet Cathy Park Hong, being the many insidious racist experiences Asian Americans live with that are considered too “inefficient and inadequate” to be consequential. “Most white Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle,” she writes in her monumental new collection of essays, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. So, what about those experiences that aren’t spectacular? Left unacknowledged by the outside world, they’re swallowed back into the body, and it is that process of ingestion and digestion that Hong coins as “minor feelings.”

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Throughout the book, Hong dissects the conflict Asian Americans hold between the truth of our experiences within our own bodies and the scripted roles imposed on us by American society. And “us” is, itself, a fraught pronoun that Hong cautiously deploys to speak to the incredible diversity of Asian Americans, who ourselves are not all united behind that identity.

In Minor Feelings, Hong does not solve our collective identity crisis but holds it up to the light for all to see, slowly unraveling across just over two hundred pages the many private calculations we make to survive nonexistence in a system that only sees us when it sees some use for us. Written with a deep vulnerability, which Hong admits is very new to her work, Minor Feelings moves through episodes of her life alongside larger cultural flashpoints in American history to interrogate the quiet consequences of being invisible, taking care to articulate an illegible condition that requires so much nuance and investment from the outside, and buy-in from within. Hong makes an effort to un-complicate those feelings for us, and for that, we’re indebted.

I spoke with Hong recently over the phone about the necessary work of mapping the contours of our shared experiences.

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The Rumpus: I first heard you talk about Minor Feelings on the VS podcast last October, and you told the hosts (poets Franny Choi and Danez Smith) that you were uncomfortable with this book coming out. How do you feel now that it’s out in the world?

Cathy Park Hong: That’s a great question. I feel relief, actually. I’m so gratified and humbled and honored that it’s finally out. After I turned in the book, I felt like I was holding my breath the whole time. Not only is this my first book of nonfiction, it’s also my most personal book. With poetry, I think I was less invested in that specific audience, whereas there was more urgency to this project. I really just wanted this book to find readers.

Rumpus: Can you explain that urgency for us?

Hong: Sure. I think there are a lot of incredible novels and poetry and academic works by Asian American writers, but there are very few general nonfiction books that confront the Asian American condition and explore how it relates to this country, to race, and to politics and economics—[few that] try to go into the inner psychology of being invisible in this country. I was really trying to write a book that I haven’t personally seen, that just tries to give a fresh perspective on identity and race. Part of that [required] being as honest as I could and digging into every messy nuance of how I felt growing up and how I feel as a mother, a poet, an artist at one point, a friend, and as a citizen in this country.

Rumpus: So, you were writing the book that you wanted to read to explore those messy feelings?

Hong: Yes, and one reason is that I became a mother. When I was pregnant and found out that I was going to have a girl, I was really excited, but then I was also nervous because it was really hard for me growing up as a young Asian American girl. I just felt like there was no language for it, no experiences reflected back from American culture, and there was a lot of strangeness that I felt that wasn’t explained to me. Being a mom is very triggering, in a way. I know it sounds cheesy, but I just wanted to make this world a little bit easier for her.

Rumpus: It also seems like you did a lot of self-discovery and self-reckoning in the book. Was there anything you learned about yourself in the process?

Hong: In the course of writing this book, I became much more comfortable and confident—and much more transparent—about my life and my feelings, and allowing myself to be vulnerable to others.

There’s a part in the book, in the essay “Bad English,” when I talked about how, when I was a child and my family would have a fight or something, I would get so nervous that I would rush out of the room and close all the windows so that our inside sounds wouldn’t leak outside. And I was so used to it that I didn’t know how to allow the outside in. So, I think that was a big journey for me in writing this book is allowing my inside sounds to go out; it’s a strange way of saying I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable in my writing. And when people have said that they really related to the book, I think it was because of those personal moments.

Rumpus: I really did get that sense of vulnerability from you throughout the book, where it felt like I was being invited into a deeply intimate, personal experience, but also one that was very familiar to my own. And it’s interesting how vulnerability is so skin-close to shame, and how you allow that discomfort to come through.

In “United,” you talk about racial self-hatred, and you offer us a surprising vignette to illustrate it for us: the story with the young Vietnamese boy in the nail salon. You said that you had turned that memory over in your mind, and I wonder why it stuck with you.

Hong: Yeah. I was a grad student at Iowa at the time. I went to the Coralville mall with my friend, and we went to a family-owned nail salon. There was only a boy who looked like he was fourteen, and he was my pedicurist. I was already annoyed. I thought, “Why is this teenage boy my pedicurist? Why can’t I get, like, a trained technician?” He started giving me a pedicure, and he was basically stabbing his cuticle trimmer into my big toe, and I just kept telling him to stop and he wouldn’t stop, so I got really angry, and I told the male owner that I didn’t want to do it anymore.

My friend was white, and I thought, “Was she paired with the female nail technician because she’s a white woman and I’m Asian?” I was concocting all of these crazy power relations in my head.

The essay’s on self-hatred, and what I found very interesting about that memory was that, at that time when I was a grad student, I was very self-hating, and I was projecting my self-hatred onto this boy, thinking, “You’re self-hating as well, and that’s why you’re being mean to me because you are mad that you’re stuck with me, the Asian girl,” but that was just my projection. We’re self-hating and ashamed of who we are, and then we place that shame upon others, because we want to immediately displace it from our own selves because it’s such an intolerable emotion.

I guess I kept thinking about that scene because there was no perpetrator or victim. It was very important for me to have stories in the book where I was not the victim, where I was also either implicated or, in some way, where I was a jerk. Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial role: sometimes we’re victims, and sometimes we’re the racist or classist perpetrators; we’re always somewhere kind of in between.

Rumpus: You make explicitly clear throughout the book that Asian American identity is not a monolith, because there are so many of us under this umbrella—and even more so when you say AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander). Even then, the psychological condition of being scripted as Asian in this country, I don’t want to claim is a singular experience, but there are so many commonalities between our different experiences and across ethnicities. How do you hold those two together? How do you rationalize it?

Hong: I think that’s the tightrope. It’s not a monolith, but at the same time, there has to be a thread that brings us together: common experiences, common ways that we do share.

In the past, when I read academic scholarship on Asian America, sometimes I’d get frustrated because, in order to combat the flattening of Asians, scholars would say, “Oh, Asian Americans are different. There’s nothing that binds us.” But how do you build any kind of political solidarity from that, just by saying we’re all different? I don’t really believe that. There is this commonality that we’re afraid to talk about and make legible in scholarship and ethics, [even] nonfiction, because we’re afraid of generalizing or essentializing or reifying Asian American stereotypes. But, even though we’re all so different, Asian America is shaped as a monolith in this country, and one experience we share is having to speak through that monolith and the fact that, no matter what our social standing is or where our economic standing is, we’re still invisible in this country.

Our shared experiences extend beyond [just] coming to this country [all the way back] to our countries of origin, where a lot of us came from countries that have suffered from colonization by way of imperialism or the neo-imperial adventures that America has reaped upon this world. This is where shared solidarity comes in, not just among Asian Americans but with other people of color, too.

Rumpus: Obviously, building any kind of shared solidarity depends on whether or not we acknowledge our experiences at all, let alone whether or not they’re shared. Can you remember when you first became aware of your own racial trauma?

Hong: I think I became aware of my racial identity, and empowered, when I was in college. I was reading all the right books, and I had amazing professors and friends, whom I also write about in the book, and I was in a nurturing and challenging environment. But then, I sort of regressed.

You know, I think it’s interesting. When people say they become “woke,” they think it happens at once—like, one time—and then you’re continually woke. I don’t believe that’s how being woke works.

It’s easy to fall back into that kind of default self-hating mode where you want to prove yourself so that you can be accepted by the white, European canon, because you’re just surrounded by it all time. This societal hierarchy is always working against you, so in that kind of environment, it’s easy to fall back and regress into that default mode where you just want to please, and that’s what happened to me.

In the essay “Stand Up,” I wrote about how watching Richard Pryor was a revelatory experience. The publishing world was very white back then—I mean, it still is, but it was even more white back then—and I was very depressed; I was just sick of all the microaggressions. I ended up watching Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert, and I was just astonished by how he was so hilarious and yet, through his hilarity, so honest about being Black, and I thought, oh, this is a way that I could write about race that I didn’t think about.

So that was one moment of reawakening. It goes in waves, I think. You need those reminders to be reawakened again, to sustain that alert energy.

Rumpus: You wrote that your mind has been stained by whiteness, and it makes you incessantly analogize your life to other lives. How do you see us being able to get out from under that and away from that proximity to whiteness, if we even can?

Hong: I don’t know. I think it’s important to understand and be aware of that proximity to whiteness and to kind of acknowledge whiteness as it is. But I don’t know if we can quite escape from that. You know, I say I’ve gone from wanting to be a part of what whiteness promises to, as a writer, at least taking on a more oppositional stance. But the problem is I’m still connected to whiteness and thinking about whiteness and analogizing my life to whiteness. I don’t know when I can escape that, but I think what’s really important first of all, for Asian Americans in particular, is to acknowledge how whiteness has shaped our identity and shapes our career paths and what we aspire to, and to acknowledge that and be aware of it. I wasn’t aware of it for a while because, you know, you absorb it from childhood and internalize it. I think a lot of people equate happiness and status with proximity to whiteness without even being aware.

Rumpus: I do want to talk about the form of this book, which you write is “episodic with exit routes that permit you to stray in order to inch closer to the Asian American identity.” Did you intend for it also to mimic the murkiness of the Asian American experience? Because that was my impression.

Hong: When I was writing this book, I wasn’t thinking specifically that what would tie everything together was Asian American identity. It was more general than that; I wanted to write a book based on race, art, and politics, but particularly racism in the arts and my own personal relationship with that. And then, after Trump was elected, I realized it needed to be both more personal and targeted.

I was writing these different passages and mixing and matching them together, and it was only in hindsight that I realized that this was the only way I could approach Asian American identity. I couldn’t write a linear novel about it; I couldn’t write a more traditional, chronological memoir. The only way I could write about my relationship with the Asian American consciousness was to jump around and bring in a little bit of history, a little bit of the personal, a little bit of the psychoanalytic, and a little bit of the polemic. It was really the only way I could get anywhere near it.

Rumpus: There are two essays in the book that I found really striking: “An Education” and “Portrait of an Artist,” because there weren’t any explicit ties back to, “this is Asian Americana,” there wasn’t a billboard saying what the essays argued.

Two figures in your book—Helen, your friend from Oberlin, in “An Education” and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who is the centerpiece of “Portrait of an Artist”—felt like they were kind of portals into different Asian American lives that obviously touched yours and impacted you profoundly. Was that your intention, or were you trying to illustrate your connection to these different lives within the same experience?

Hong: I love how you say [they were] portals. They definitely were, into very distinctive, singular lives that very much contradicted the single story of what an Asian American person’s life is.

When we read a lot of immigrant narratives—not all, but some—so much is focused on the individual or the individual’s relationship with their family, and by writing about my friendship and by writing about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, I was writing about communities, and artistic communities, and my coming of age as a poet as not something that I did alone; it was very much informed by my close friendships and the lineage of Asian American poets whom people don’t talk about as much. I wasn’t asking what kind of critical argument I should be trying to make here. They were both less under the lens of whiteness; I just wanted to say, “Here is this community I was in that was really inspirational, and here are these brilliant women whom we should be talking about.”

Rumpus: There are some moments in the book when you replicate the conversations you’ve had with people about including them in the book, where you also discuss your permission to write about them. I’m curious about that decision; what do those moments of reflection serve?

Hong: When I wrote the dialogue in, it really fit into the larger moral questions I was asking in this book about the ethical dilemma that you run into when you’re writing about other people.

Writers are not virtuous, you know. I certainly am not. There’s so much virtue signaling in literature. A writer can be quite mercenary and cruel if they’re being as honest as they can about writing about other people, and I thought it would be interesting to bring that up. In “An Education,” my friend was rightly apprehensive about me writing about her past family trauma because she didn’t want that trauma to overshadow her artwork. This was the same argument being made by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s scholars and curators, that they didn’t want to talk about her rape and murder and personal life because they felt that it would sensationalize her art-making, so they neglected to discuss or write about it at all.

In a way, the book poses the question of biography versus art-making. Minor Feelings is not just about these stories or narratives; it’s also how these stories are written and the mechanics of these narratives.

Rumpus: How do you envision this body of criticism growing from here?

Hong: I don’t know. I just hope that Asian Americans, and other people of color, realize when they read this book that they are definitely a part of the racial conversation in America. Some people believe that race is a black and white situation because they’ve been taught to believe that way; either they feel they can’t participate in the discourse, or they have no interest, or they believe that it doesn’t affect them. I want to open up the conversation, and I hope others will join in and further complicate the discussion.

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Photograph of Cathy Park Hong by Beowulf Sheehan.


Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege by the Women's Media Center, and a member of the editorial team for Interruptr (formerly Foreign Policy Interrupted). She covers stories on gender, migration, identity, othering, and the American Dream. More from this author →