I first saw poet and critic Cathy Park Hong read at a staged performance of the late Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s cross-genre memoir Dictee in 2011, on what would have been that poet’s sixtieth birthday. A few years later in her 2014 essay, “Delusions of Whiteness and the Avant-Garde,” Hong declared, “To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.” Noting that the reputations of many poets of color, including Cha, “have long been battened under the banner of ethnic studies but are rarely regarded as core figures in experimental poetry,” Hong embarked on a vibrant and righteous campaign to correct the record and rebuke the poetic tradition that had long ignored, erased, and marginalized these writers and their contributions. Among others, she credited poet and scholar Evie Shockley’s work on writers of the Black Arts Movement, contemporary poets of color including the Black Took Collective and Bhanu Kapil, and the late visionary artist, Cha. Hong’s essay concludes: “Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.”
In Hong’s most recent book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020), she has accomplished just that. Following three poetry books and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Hong’s first book of essays ranks as an essential text for this cultural and political moment.
Hong’s notion of “minor feelings” complicates the trope of “grateful immigrant” and the myth of the “model minority” before dismantling them entirely. Hong defines minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” In seven sharp, expansive, and thoughtfully digressive essays, she explores Richard Pryor’s comedy and the problematics of internalizing a white audience (“Stand Up”); she reflects on discrimination in academia and describes the news coverage of Asian American United passenger David Dao (“United”); she muses on her important friendships with other Asian American artists at Oberlin (“An Education”) and details the search for a culturally competent therapist (also in “United”). The exacting brilliance and forceful truth on display here will earn Minor Feelings a place alongside the work of Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Claudia Rankine, and Adrienne Rich. In the book’s penultimate essay, “Portrait of the Artist,” Hong writes in greater depth about Cha’s life, death, and work. Hong’s words read as vital, prophetic, and corrective, calling forth the writers of color who have been excised from artistic lineages and the Asian Americans and BIPOC who were omitted from the history books: “We were always here.”
I knew Hong from the years I taught creative writing in New York City. As Asian American writers of the same generation in the same city, our circles overlapped. Hanging Loose Press, which published Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’um, also published my first poems in their journal. In 2013, I ran into Hong on the F Train in Brooklyn. We struck up a conversation that included the strangeness of talking about (and around) race in western Massachusetts, where we had both spent time. Our conversation stayed with me, because I had never seen that attitude and environment acknowledged by another writer. In Minor Feelings, Hong articulates the racism we and others experienced, first in graduate school during the early aughts and later in other, larger literary circles.
Hong is currently a professor in the MFA program at Rutgers University in Newark and lives in Brooklyn, New York. During a wide-ranging phone conversation, we spoke about the visibility and legibility of Asian Americans; the essay as a coalitional form; the films of Wes Anderson and Mira Nair; harassment in academia; the problematics and potential of the term, “Asian American,” and the story behind Minor Feelings’ subtitle.
—Sejal Shah for Guernica
Guernica: How did you conceive of the term “minor feelings”? It captures something about how the perspectives of Asian Americans are dismissed, undervalued, and underdiscussed, because of all of the entitlement and privilege that we’re assumed as having.
Cathy Park Hong: I was reading a lot of affect theory—Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and Lauren Berlant—but really the seed of that idea came from this Korean national feeling, “han” which is a mix of anger, melancholy, envy, and shame generated from Korea’s history of colonialism and late capitalism. I was thinking that han could also translate to living in the US. The immigrant narratives I grew up with were always about individuals overcoming hardship and finding a kind of reclamation of self, these sort of Oprah narratives that never rang true to me. I wanted to try to define this kind of other feeling that was closer to me being an Asian American growing up in this country.
Guernica: Your book opens with, “My depression began with an imaginary tic.” This line suggests experiences may be discounted because others can’t see them. As a writer, how did you create space for those experiences?
Hong: It’s like trying to give a language to these internalized feelings that are not in the lexicon of American experiences. As someone of color, the only time you’re justified to express your indignation is if it’s trauma as spectacle where pain is put on a pedestal—
Guernica: It’s performed, right?
Hong: It’s dramatized in a way that white people can understand it whereas what I wanted to talk about is more the everyday experience of being someone of color; you could even say it’s banal. There’s so much literature and film and art out there about the day in the life of someone who’s white. Well, look: Here’s a day in the life of someone who’s an Asian American woman. And what we have to deal with, and how all of these racialized experiences become sedimented inside you that you’re not allowed to verbalize, because you’re constantly gaslit. This is a problem in this country: How our different realities are not acknowledged and taken seriously.
With Asian Americans, this model minority myth has been so pervasive. This idea that Asian Americans [are predominantly] successful discounts the Asian Americans who are struggling. There’s the first wave of Asian Americans [post-Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965] who were doctors and engineers. Those who came after that were from more working-class backgrounds—they don’t have these success stories where kids are going to Harvard and Yale. A lot of these Asian Americans are not living the American Dream, but they’re not acknowledged at all, because they’re not part of that success model.
Guernica: The essays in Minor Feelings are a combination of theory, cultural criticism, personal history, autobiography, art criticism—what you call the modular essay. How did you choose this form?
Hong: I have—as a poet—always been very omnivorous with genres. I’ve never been satisfied with writing in just one form or one discipline. Even as a poet I wrote in the lyric and prose form, I incorporated sci-fi and nineteenth century romantic rhetoric. My approach to the essay was the same. There have been a lot of people who have written in this mode beforehand, so it wasn’t like I was in uncharted territory. Hilton Als writes in that way, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine. I wanted to layer different disciplines of knowledge to support my point, including the memoiristic sections which were used strategically to support a point I was making, so that people were not only thinking through my argument, but feeling through my argument as well.
You can say this about any form, but I feel this especially with the essay: It is a very flexible form. It’s a form that can fit a coalition of genres. I feel a kinship to [Theresa Hak Kyung] Cha who was writing in these hybrid forms before it was a trend. Cha’s professor told me that there was no one discipline that could come close to capturing her consciousness, so she had to use them all. When we think about “coalition,” we think about it sociologically, but I was also wondering how writing itself can be coalitional. For me, writing critically about other poets’ and artists’ works was a way of amplifying other people’s experiences—especially other people from other races and other socioeconomic backgrounds. I’m writing about my background and my perspectives, but I also want to amplify this African American writer or this white queer writer or this Latinx writer.
Guernica: “Coalition” makes me think about your subtitle, “An Asian American Reckoning.” Could you talk about your decision to use the term “Asian American”?
Hong: My editor, Victory Matsui, thought that the book needed a subtitle and that it was important to have Asian American in there. I was ambivalent. Because of course it was about being Asian American, but I was afraid that people would just think that this book would be about the Asian American experience in an insular and apolitical way. [Victory] said that it was important to have that subtitle, because there hasn’t been a trade non-fiction book that writes from the Asian American perspective. I was just so sick of Asian Americans being ostracized from any national conversation of race, so I came around to the idea. It was also important that it had that indefinite article: “An Asian American Reckoning.” It was my own personal subjective perspective on Asian America and not this totalizing description of what Asian American is.
Guernica: When we ran into each other on the F train in 2013, we talked about the whiteness of MFA programs, and my experience at UMass and yours at Iowa. In the 2014 Kundiman panel at AWP that grew out of our conversation on the experience of writers of color in MFA programs I moderated a discussion [with poets Eduardo C. Corral, Jon Pineda, Tim Seibles, and Crystal Williams] and I realized that it wasn’t just me; it was that time. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on that.
Hong: At Iowa, there was an implicit demand that poetry be apolitical and any discussion of race was discouraged. My experience of UMass was limited to readings and festivals there. From my limited observations, UMass had more this kind of New England gentility to its approach to race, which is that you don’t talk about it and also there was no interest in it. If you did talk about race, people just seemed bored or indifferent. The poetry that was trendy back then was writing about the world, or your childhood, with this kind of wonder-like surrealism, which was being written by uniformly white poets. At the time, there wasn’t any kind of self-interrogation as to what it means to write about childhood in that way.
Guernica: I agree. I underlined this in Minor Feelings:
“I remember the wall of condescension whenever I brought up racial politics in workshop… It was made clear to me that the subject of Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate unless it was paired with a meatier subject like capitalism.”
All of that rang true for me, but I found it difficult to articulate why one couldn’t write about race.
Hong: I would say that it wasn’t even the professors [at Iowa], it was the attitude that students had—and not just white students, students of color, Asian American students in particular—where it was considered anti-intellectual. If you wrote poems about your personal racial experience, it was immediately dismissed as sentimental or reductive. Anything that was written that had racial content in it was not considered formally rigorous and just ethnographic. Even when I took a seminar on Ezra Pound’s Cantos, his anti-Semitism was not discussed. One time I did bring it up, and there was just this silence. They just thought, oh my god of course he was a fascist, of course, he was an anti-Semite, that’s such an obvious thing to say. Can’t we get past it. It was just uncouth to bring up someone racist’s past, because it was anti-intellectual. That was the general attitude in Iowa. And of course, that has changed quite a lot. I was in school during the early aughts, which was a very different time, even after 9/11. Now in the era of Trump, MFA programs are very, very different.
Guernica: I was interested in the way that you used humor and history in your book. I laughed, I cringed, I underlined, and I wrote— here’s something with humor where you are also educating the reader:
“When the 1965 immigration ban was lifted by the United States, my father saw an opportunity. Back then, only select professionals from Asia were granted visas to the United States: doctors, engineers, and mechanics. This screening process, by the way, is how the whole model minority quackery began: the US government only allowed the most educated and highly trained Asians in and then took all of the credit for the success. See! Anyone can live the American Dream! They’d say about a doctor who came into the country already a doctor.”
And I just loved that, and I should say my father is a doctor, and he was already a doctor before he came into this country [laughter].
Hong: They’re like, look at these Asian immigrants, they’re so successful and I’m like, well, you have to understand that the people who were allowed into this country were already professionals.
Guernica: I actually don’t think that the Immigration Act is widely known.
Guernica: I wonder how you navigated that. You gave quite a lot of information while also saying, do I have to give an effing history lesson?
Hong: It was tricky to go back and give these broader Asian American history lessons which are so obvious to anyone who has taken an Ethnic Studies 101 or Asian American studies class. But even for an Asian American this could be news, because it’s still not taught in general history courses. Once I started getting into Asian American history, that was where I struggled—how do I write about this history in a way that’s still interesting and also part of my voice? There have been a lot of articles about how Asian Americans are discriminated against, and then midway through the article there’s always this little summary of Asian American history.
Guernica: The sidebar!
Hong: The sidebar, oh you know, about the Chinese rail workers. I always get a little bit bored and am like, yes, yes, I know that already. So, I thought, “How do I incorporate these historical nuggets without boring the reader, in a way that will pull them in and really understand the context that we’re coming from?” And that was difficult. That’s where humor was useful, tone was useful. Humor is a very important rhetorical device for me. Tommy Pico does it as a Trojan horse—use humor to lure the reader to keep reading, and then you release the unsavory contents that a reader might not get into otherwise. It’s a trapdoor; humor is a trapdoor. So that was one way.
The 1965 legislation is not emphasized enough when we talk about this country and where we’re at now. It really changed the face of this country. Before 1965, this country was [over] 80 percent white, and there was this stable African American minority along with a few other minorities. And now, as is often cited, by 2050 minorities will be a majority. Culturally, legislatively, this country really hasn’t dealt with that yet. When [Americans] think about race, they think about it as a black and white issue. No one is really grappling with what will happen if minorities become the majority. Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic, Latinx people are already the majority in California. What is going to happen to the country? Are some of us going to become white? Is there going to be an even further polarization where fascism will be even more on the rise? So, when I was thinking about being Asian American, I was also thinking of being part of this demographic since 1965 and how we’re not recognized. The immigrants who have come since 1965—we haven’t been recognized. Because we are the majority, it should be our consciousness that’s the national consciousness; [the] national consciousness has to change. It can’t continue being a national consciousness that’s white and male.
Guernica: I think you got into this so well when you write about Moonrise Kingdom. The filmmaker with the weird South Asian characters—
Hong: Wes Anderson.
Guernica: Yes, I mean everyone is crazy about him, but what is it like to be an Asian person watching his films?
Hong: I know! South Asians are just so weirdly fetishized and Orientalized. They’re portrayed as ornaments.
Guernica: I remember thinking this in the films of [Anderson’s] I’ve seen, and I remember that was just ignored. No one talked about it.
Hong: No, no one did. No one did. And I don’t think they still really do. It was just, Wes Anderson was just considered this genius—
Hong: Yeah, wonderboy.
Guernica: It’s so tiring. You address in your book the consequences of writing Asian American history and experience out of the general curriculum when you write:
“Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining all of your powers about persuasion, because it is more than a chat about race, it’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist or why you feel pain or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s trickier than that because the person has all of western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side proving that you don’t exist.”
Hong:. It’s an uphill battle. You have to explain yourself over and over again and they still don’t get it. There was a period in my life as a poet when I ceased to explain it. [I said,] I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to explain Asian American history to you, I’m not going to talk about why I’m writing in this weird pidgin language. I’m just going to do it. And either you get it, or you don’t get it.
It’s 2017, 2018, 2019, and Asian Americans are still invisible. We’re still being reduced and dismissed. As I get older, and especially since I had Meret, my daughter, I felt that I had to finally just write this book and explain, but not to white people. To people of color. It was my way of setting the record straight. Orwell said that in times of peace his writing could have been descriptive and ornamental, but because he’s writing in a time of war, he has to be a pamphleteer. The racism in this country and the inequities brought on by capitalism have always been bad. I’m so sick of the fact that it’s not changing that I have to write in this practical way.
Guernica: Do you see your book as an intervention?
Hong: Yes. I do see it as an intervention. That’s a very good way to put it.
Guernica: You explain this in Minor Feelings, that the terms and categories themselves aren’t widely understood. You wrote:
“Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues, they don’t understand that we’re this tenuous alliance of many nationalities. There are so many qualifications weighing the ‘we’ in Asian America.”
Hong: No, and they keep changing. Asian American is also a fraught term, because usually when there are conversations about Asian America, it’s focused on East Asians rather than Southeast or South Asians, or Pacific Islanders, and people just don’t understand the diversity of ethnicities when we’re talking about Asian America. But also, the moniker is always changing. When I was in college, South Asians were not calling themselves brown in the way that they identify as brown now. Asian America might become something [else] twenty years from now, ten years from now. In a way it feels very transitional, but since we’re still being defined as [Asian American], I felt the need to complicate that term and really write about it. For instance, no one knows where “Asian America,” comes from. I always thought that “Asian American” was a moniker the US census bureau invented, and not this radical group of Asian American activists at UC Berkeley.
Guernica: In your opening essay, “United,” you write about dealing with depression, searching for a Korean American therapist in 2011, and also write about your experience of being a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2002. The essay also covers the 1965 immigration ban; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the largest mass lynching in US history, of eighteen Chinese men and boys in 1871 in Los Angeles; the harassment of a former director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana who is a friend of both of ours; and David Dao, the Asian American passenger dragged off a United Airlines flight in April of 2017.
I was amazed at the different stories, elements, tonal registers, and kind of information you included and balanced in just one essay. But perhaps what surprised me most, in the midst of all this, was your inclusion of poet Prageeta Sharma’s story [about sexual harassment and a discrimination lawsuit in academia]. And I thought to myself, “Why is this surprising to me that Prageeta’s story is in this essay?”
Hong: It was really important for me to have Prageeta’s poem, “A Situation for Mrs. Biswas,” in the essay, because she writes about just witnessing your own parents be humiliated or treated like a child or a fool or dismissed. It’s a very painful experience to see your parents in that way, because your parents are supposed to protect you. They’re supposed to be the authoritative figures; they’re supposed to be invincible. But growing up Asian or someone who is marginalized in some way, there are so many ways when you witness your family members being belittled. I really identified with Prageeta’s poem, and what happened to her father [a former president of a small college who was forced to resign] and I thought it paralleled my own feelings about my own father. I was thinking about how her experience was so typical of what some Asians go through. It was important for me not to just get my own experience in there, but to get other people’s experiences in there.
Guernica: What was your writing process like in “United”?
Hong: In the first draft, I just wrote about her poem. Then I started thinking more about how I felt this kinship with what Prageeta went through, and afterwards, I incorporated her story into the rest of the essay. I thought that if I were just to write about my experience without the historical context and without giving examples of other people’s experiences, then a reader may come away with reading my story and think Oh, what a terrible experience, and not think about it systemically. I was trying to prove that these “exceptionally” racist experiences are really quite common and it’s structural. Therefore, it was really important to retell stories from my friends and families, people I know.
Guernica: What are your hopes and goals for Minor Feelings?
Hong: I hope that Asian Americans read it and feel recognized, acknowledged. I hope that it validates whatever Asians are thinking, but at the same time it brings some self-interrogation. I hope other people of color will read it. Really, I also hope that everyone will read it.
Guernica: Partially as a result of reading your book, I took the South off of “South Asian American” and just left Asian American as one of the descriptors on my own book’s back cover. I know that people may not get it, but it’s a coalitional identity I believe in. It doesn’t cover everything and it’s also transitional. As you said, our books are coming out of a particular time, out of this upheaval, and documenting it.
Hong: I’m really glad that you changed it to [Asian American]. That term still needs to be defined by us—if you refuse to define something, then they continue defining it for you. It’s interesting that even from a marketing perspective, there’s a separation between South Asian and Asian American.
Guernica: I know, I know!
Hong: It’s so weird how “South Asian novel” means one thing to a white reader, and “Asian American novel” means [something else].
Guernica: I had written “Gujarati immigrants from India and Kenya” and then “from India and Kenya” got cut; one of my editors emailed me and said, “Is it okay not to have [the word] ‘India’ on the back? Are they going to know what ‘Gujarati’ is?” You can start to go a little crazy if you’re always anticipating or trying to guess what other people might think or know.
Hong: We inhabit so many roles. You know I could say for myself, yes, I’m Asian American, but I’m also Korean. That [sometimes] seems more accurate than this kind of vague—
Guernica: —Asian American.
Hong: Asian American is sort of unwieldy as a term, but I understand the need to use it politically to make ourselves more public, more centralized, in this country. I think it should be whatever you’re in the mood for. Sometimes you’re Korean, sometimes you’re Asian American. It depends.