She’s helped Asian-Americans be angry: Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings has a fan in Ali Wong and has made the poet an accidental spokeswoman
- Published in 2020, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning contains essays that explore Cathy Park Hong’s experience as a Korean-American and a poet
- Anti-Asian violence during the pandemic helped spur her book to greater heights than she expected, and she has gained fans in people like Ali Wong and Greta Lee
Here is a sample of the questions Cathy Park Hong has been asked in the past two years.
Asian people want to know what they should do when they are microaggressed: “What should I say to someone who says, ‘Where do you come from?’”
Hong, 46, is a poet by trade. Since 2002, she has published three collections themed around empire, civilisations and invented languages, which have earned her a small, dedicated fandom in the world of avant-garde poetry. But in 2020, her career changed radically with the release of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a collection of essays that explore her experience as a Korean-American and a poet.
The book, Hong says, was an attempt to “articulate Asian-American interiority” as well as a broader effort to recast and refine conversations about Asian-Americanness.
In one essay, about her relationships with other Asian women, Hong tries to show Asian friendships that are messy and flawed, while another, about the rape and murder of writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, becomes an exploration of the erasure of Asian-American women artists.
The book’s title was borrowed from the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s “ugly feelings”; in Hong’s essay about stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, she defines “minor feelings” as “the racialised range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic”.
The collection came out in late February 2020, four days before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in New York. Hong’s planned tour went to Zoom, and she anticipated that her book would get buried like so many others.
“It’s a book that is angry about all the things we should be angry about. The affect fit,” says Min Hyoung Song, the director of Asian-American studies at Boston College, in the US state of Massachusetts. Universities and publications put the book on their anti-Asian-racism resource lists.
“Self-education is a great first step to combat internalised and institutionalised anti-Asian paradigms,” starts a 2021 Bustle reading list on which Minor Feelings is No 1. “And infinitely better than placing the responsibility on an Asian friend to educate you.”
It made its way into Good Morning America’s book club and The New York Times bestseller list and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. At a vigil against anti-Asian hate this past spring, an Asian woman held up a sign with a passage from Hong’s book – “For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence,” the quotation began.
When celebrity chef Alison Roman was asked on Ziwe’s Instagram Live show to list five Asian people, Hong was one of two writers she named. And in the spring of 2020, the actress Greta Lee messaged Hong over Instagram because she was interested in optioning her book and playing Hong for an A24 television series.
“She thought she had to beat out all this other competition,” Hong tells me. “I was like, ‘There’s no competition. It’s a book of essays.’” Minor Feelings is now in its 19th print run with 175,000 copies in circulation. Two years after its publication, it has become Covid-19 canon.
At the time, there were a handful of prominent Asian-American writers but no one who served the function of a catchall representative for the idea of Asian-America. Hong found herself being asked to give talks at museums, corporations, schools and psychoanalytic institutes, often from the perspective not of a writer but of an anti-racist public intellectual.
“I was like, What? I’m not even one of the most influential people in Carroll Gardens,” Hong says. “It felt like it was happening to an avatar, another person named Cathy Park Hong.”
For the past decade, Hong lived in a two-bedroom flat in the Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn in New York City, before moving out this summer. On a June afternoon, when I meet her there, the living room is meticulously clean for a household with a seven-year-old child.
She speaks with muted intensity; when I ask her a question, she looks directly at me the entire time before responding, and it is clear she is paying attention – to not only every word of our conversation but also the syntax and grammar. “Is that the right metaphor?” she murmurs to herself after answering a question.
Hong was born in Los Angeles’ Koreatown; her parents had immigrated to the US from Korea in the wake of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act. Her father, who runs a successful business distributing dry-cleaning supplies, made enough to send her to Oberlin College in Ohio to study English, and eventually, Hong got her master of fine arts degree in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
She now teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Her work dealt broadly with colonisation and globalisation – “One Chinaman gets knifed fer being what he is / Another strikes it rich and apes us,” a line in Engine Empire reads – but when Trump was elected, Hong realised that she wanted to find a way to focus on the Asian-American condition specifically, which she felt was missing from the racial discourse.
For several years, she had been watching Pryor’s stand-up and was inspired by his “brutal honesty and vulnerability” about his racialised experience. Chris Jackson, the publisher of One World, says that when Hong first came to him and her then-editor, Victory Matsui, with the idea for Minor Feelings, she brought up the inspiration of another book One World had published: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015).
When I ask Hong about this, she wants to make clear to me that she wasn’t trying to emulate Coates. “I deeply admire him,” Hong says. “I don’t really see my book as a parallel.”
Originally, she explains, she did not want the subtitle for her book, An Asian American Reckoning – it was suggested by her editor. She tells me that she now likes what they ended up with because it could be read two ways. “Asian-American is a modifier, so it’s a reckoning that’s Asian-American,” she says. “But you could also read Asian-American as a noun. An Asian-American – me – doing some reckoning. You know?” The subtitle, one could also imagine, helped to sell more copies.
When she began drafting what would become Minor Feelings, Hong imagined her audience as primarily artists of colour; the first essay she wrote was “An Education”, which explores her friendships with two other Asian women during her time at school.
Then her circle of readers widened to “Asian-Americans, men and women, who have had experiences similar to mine but haven’t found a narrative that captures that”, Hong says. “Then I thought, but the book is also for the Asian-Americans who are totally not woke and need to be woke. Then it was for Black and Latinx people to highlight where our struggles were similar. Then I thought, it’s also for white people and for them to understand.
“But it was never written with white people in mind, to educate white people.”
“I never had any goals to be a public intellectual. It’s not a position that I feel natural or comfortable in. However, especially because of everything that’s been happening in the last two years, I also feel like it’s my responsibility to speak out.”
During the early days of the pandemic, after the release of Minor Feelings, Hong was stuck at home. She would write fragments of poems to try to pass the hours but often found herself, like so many others, scrolling on social media. She began tweeting about the pandemic.
One of the first causes she took up was to critique the way mainstream media was reporting on anti-Asian racism. In earnest tweets, she called out journalists for a lull in covering acts of violence against Asian people, “leading us to believe that it’s subsided but it HAS GONE UP”, she wrote in August.
The pundit’s seat, of course, comes with its own set of expectations. On Twitter, she would often speak out about Hollywood’s “perpetual foreigner” stereotype – which in turn invited eye rolls from young left-leaning Asians who were more concerned with addressing material inequalities.
A few months later: “rewatched Christmas Story this weekend with 7 year old and was relieved that Asians were not the punchline until – surprise! – the last scene. Like what Hollywood film before 2019 has NOT been anti-Asian?”
I ask Hong why she felt compelled to step into a more public role at all. She tells me that early in the pandemic, she felt concerned about the rise of hate crimes against Asian-Americans and the ways in which the reporting on the topic felt anonymous. As a writer, Hong felt she could “bring blood and feelings and emotions and intellect” into what was happening.
“But if you’re a little bit public, people are going to make a representative out of you no matter what,” she says. “It’s not just white people. People from your own community are hungry for visibility.”
Asian-America, whatever that might mean, is in a state of transition. The term burst onto the political scene in the 1960s as part of the Third World Liberation Front, then lay dormant for decades as it became a demographic tick box. Now, suddenly, it feels as if the conversation around Asian-American race and identity is making up for lost time.
Rereading Minor Feelings two years after its debut, it can seem as though the discourse has already outpaced parts of the book in expected and unexpected ways. Much of the collection, for example, centres on the imperative for Asian-Americans to be visible – as Hong writes, “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replace the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear’.”
Yet now we are seeing Asians thrust into a state of hypervisibility; the danger is less that we will not be seen and more how those in power will abuse our new visibility. There are moments in Minor Feelings, too, that feel of a very specific time or ethos, such as when Hong talks about Asian self-hatred, which even she acknowledges in the book may be “on its way out with my generation”.
Looking back, Hong says she might have focused the book more on the history of Black-Asian conflict and the colonial history of Asian female sexuality. Overall, “I think my essential thinking about Asians is still the same,” she says. “I think I’ve said all that I have.”
Now, Hong says, she is deep into her next projects, a book of poetry and a “nonfiction-fiction” book, which has made her more protective of her creative time. She has a much wider readership, and her status as a writer has transformed over the past two years. She is glad it has made other Asians feel less isolated. But she is still grappling with the territory.
“Younger people expect me to be a therapist, or a diversity coach, or a political organiser, or a poli-scientist, or an urban planner,” Hong says. “And I have to constantly tell them that I am none of those things.”