In her new memoir, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong, the award-winning writer and poetry editor of the New Republic, offers a fierce excavation of her experience as an Asian American woman living and working as a poet and artist. Historical traumas and cultural criticism combine and are woven through this erudite essay collection of family, art history, female relationships and racial awareness.
The child of Korean immigrants, Hong grew up in Los Angeles in a melancholic haze of shame, discord and repressed feelings. Through these essays, we learn that these repressed feelings are “minor feelings,” or the particular sensation of rejecting the forced optimism of white America because it doesn’t reflect your own reality. It’s hard to share in America’s optimism when your background and present life are filled with racism, vulnerability and trauma.
In her essay “United,” she says, “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replace the word ‘white’ with the word ‘disappear.’ Asians are next in line to disappear.” To her, the flattened perceptions of Asian identity do not match up with the real-life experience of living it. The racial animus she experiences from others, through a lifetime of overt racism and microaggressions, produces a precarious tug-of-war between the dangerous mythology of the law-abiding “model minority” and the myth of the untrustworthy “suspicious” Asian. This tension leads her to a state of self-hatred, but also to liberation as she faces these contradictions by writing through them.
In “Stand Up,” Hong watches and dissects the practiced art of Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy routines and recognizes the power of discomfort. While he makes fun of white people in the audience squirming in their chairs, he also obliquely makes fun of himself. While studying Pryor, Hong has a revelation in this simple question: Who am I writing for? As a writer writing for the sensibilities of the mainstream—what Hong calls the “tired ethnic narratives”—the desire to please white audiences is a hard habit to break. But meeting and living with uncompromising artists in college leads Hong to find her own uncompromising spirit through art and then poetry, which feeds her passion to raise her voice and continue.
The unyielding fervor of this eminently quotable book is sure to raise the visibility of the very textured and diverse Asian identity at a time when our fullness of reality is called for.