How the United States Gaslights Asian Americans
Cathy Park Hong's "Minor Feelings" grapples with what it means to experience racism and have your experience dismissed
Having already established herself as a formidable poet, Cathy Park Hong turns her sharp, unflinching gaze on racialized consciousness in America. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, part historical survey, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning examines, as its title suggests, not unimportant feelings but ones that come with being “a minority”: “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.” With humor and brutal honesty, Hong maps out a nuanced understanding of her relationship to the English language, shame and depression, and art-making, to reveal how people of color are conditioned to believe the lies we are told about our own racial identity.
During my interview with Hong, we delved into such topics as the pitfalls of autobiographical writing, researching Asian American history, navigating friendships with female artists of color, and hope.
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: You mention early in the book that you never felt comfortable writing about personal experience through poetry because of the conventions of the forms. How did nonfiction help open that up for you?
Cathy Park Hong: That was key. In poetry, I use a lot of persona. The lyric is more a form for me to throw my voice. I guess I was a little bit both wary and scared of autobiographical writing. When I was done with my third book of poetry, it was a dare to myself to write personally, because I hadn’t done it before. What would it be like if I did? I think that was also why the poetry form was not working for me. I know a lot of poets write autobiographically, but for me, when I was trying to write autobiographically through the lyric form, it felt more like I was putting on a persona and I didn’t want to do that. Nonfiction was a more down-to-earth, inviting form for me to stretch out and be autobiographical. It was also lovely to be tonally wide-ranging. With the lyric form, there’s this kind of intensity and pitch to it, like singing a song, whereas nonfiction felt more comfortable for talking.
MCCB: You’ve established your career as a poet long before this book came out. What is it like to switch to writing nonfiction?
CPH: I basically learned how to write nonfiction from writing this book. Before this I published three books of poetry. I had some experience as a journalist in my 20s, and I also wrote occasional essays. So it wasn’t this completely new genre for me, but I wanted to write about race. I wanted to work on a poetry book that directly tackles the Asian American condition in a kind of blunt and satirical way that I’d never done before, and I realized that it wasn’t working. I even tried writing it as a novel. And then eventually it turned to nonfiction. I think the reason why nonfiction prose worked was that I just needed room to stretch my thoughts. For me, it was more about asking a question, and then following that question to its end. It just seemed to work better for prose rather than poetry. Even though I was writing nonfiction, I still wanted to encompass multiple disciplines: history and theory and memoir and cultural criticism. It was also important to me that it had poetic elements too, that not a word was wasted.
MCCB: You wrote: “In the past, I was encouraged to write about my Asian experience but I still had to write it the way a white poet would write it—so instead of copying a white poet, I was copying a white poet copying their idea of an Asian poet.” You also mention the turning point: “Myung Mi Kim was the first poet who said I didn’t need to sound like a white poet, nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that it had to sound accessible to a white audience.”
CPH: With poetry, it was more like using artifice to point out artifice, a performance with form using different voices, whereas with prose, it was easier for me to access my own interior thoughts because I didn’t have to worry so much about things like the line break. I could just focus on what I was thinking, writing a memory, unpacking it, and then analyzing it to death, which is harder for me to do with poetry. In that way it felt more personal.
MCCB: Minor Feelings includes so much history about Asians in America, such as the origins of immigration policies, the “model minority” myth, and even how the term “Asian American” developed. Can you talk about the research component?
CPH: I wasn’t planning on doing a survey of Asian American history. I knew it was going to be about race, politics, and art, particularly institutional racism in the arts. I wasn’t thinking I was going to write a book that was about where Asian America is now. But then, after Trump got elected, I began thinking that there’s a lot of brilliant poetry and fiction and critical scholarship on the subject of Asian America, but there isn’t general nonfiction on Asian Americans. I thought I would just do it in my own weird way and give it my strange singular, very subjective perspective on the Asian American condition. But then I realized that I also have to give some context. A lot of people don’t know about the history of Asian America. There are so many historical moments that even I didn’t know about because it’s just not taught in classes. For example, I did not know about the lynching in Chinatown, Los Angeles until I started researching—these young Chinese boys and men were tortured and hung in the largest mass lynching in American history. I knew that it was necessary for me to put that in the book.
All of this information is out there, especially the history of Chinese American railroads workers, but the problem is that it’s in dry sociological language. I wanted to make it accessible for readers, and also to show that it’s so relevant to politics and race and capitalism in America now. When people think about Asian American history, there’s not much discourse about the history of racism and exploitation and indentured labor that a lot of Asians have to go through. It’s so essential to write about that.
MCCB: You give absolutely no quarter to anyone about how Asians have been situated to be both disappeared and pitted against other minorities. We’re both perpetrated against and perpetrators of through “stay-in-your-lane” politics. You also make a distinction between “speaking nearby” and “speaking about” certain racialized experiences.
CPH: Yes. It’s weird the kind of zero-sum game that we kind of get into, which is very capitalist. We’re vying for that spotlight, vying for that attention. In this age we’re living in, attention is a currency. I think there’s even more pressure to say, “This is my territory. Don’t come into my territory.” Why are we referring to ourselves in terms of real estate? It troubles me that a lot of it is generated from media and social media, which divides and polarizes us.
It is important for writers to write about their own experience, but I think there needs to be a deeper, more nuanced discussion around writing about other people, and writing about other people’s experiences. It’s fraught just to write about your own experience. My Asian American experience has been told for me. There are expectations of how I should frame that experience, how I should highlight traumas in my life, and so forth. How then do I push back against those expectations and find a way to write about my experience that feels truer to me? These are the bigger questions that I’m asking.
MCCB: Speaking of other people’s experiences, I appreciate that you wrote about your craving for friendships with other women of color, and artists of color. You mention checking in with those friends to say you’re writing about them, and how you navigate their opinions about what you do or don’t include.
CPH: I was a rookie, because this is kind of treacherous territory when you’re writing autobiographically. You’re not just writing about yourself. You’re also going to talk about other people—family members, friends, people you encounter. That is an ethically thorny issue that I didn’t really think about until I collided with when I was writing the friendship essay. There was this constant negotiation with the friends I was still in contact with. One friend didn’t want to read the essay at all because she knew that her memories were going to be different from mine. I was writing about a very personal part of her life that I had to ask her about. She seemed to accept that it was time for me to write about her past, and then at the last minute she changed her mind. I panicked because I was about to turn this book in, and thought, “What am I going to do?” And then I decided I would just have a conversation instead, and actually I kind of prefer that.
It shows you the problems with writing memoir and taking from other people’s lives, and also highlights the current conflict between art-making and autobiography that I think a lot of women of color, people of color, have more difficult relationships with. I try to bring it up in the book that a lot of times your life is used to define your artwork, and my friend was really sensitive about that not happening to her. I’m kind of glad she told me that I wasn’t allowed to use it.
MCCB: There’s a very short line where you mention that your father wanted to be a poet also. Did that feel like added pressure to you as a poet?
CPH: For me? No. He had given up that dream a long time ago. He was very happy for me…well, it wasn’t that he was happy for me so much that he thought it was funny that I chose writing without him prompting me. I didn’t know anything about his dream to be a writer or a poet until I started taking poetry classes. And he liked to say, “Oh, it’s in the Hong blood.” Sometimes he would give me advice that was a bit of a head-scratcher. Like, “You need to practice every day.” And “It’s all in your hands.” And I’d be like, “How is it all in my hands?” But he’s very proud of what I’ve achieved, and I’m very grateful to him, and grateful to my mother for giving me the space to do what I want, trusting me that I’ll find my way, and I think that the reason they gave me that trust was that they understood, or at least my dad understood, that kind of yearning in me to be a poet.
MCCB: At the end of Minor Feelings you quote Tom Ikeda, a Japanese internment camp survivor who protests the Japanese internment camp in Oklahoma that re-opened to fill up with Latin American children. He said, “We need to be the allies for vulnerable communities today that Japanese Americans didn’t have in 1942.” What do you hope as we move toward?
CPH: I really hope that we’re able to think about race in America, and America itself in a more nuanced and complicated way. It’s so important for me that Asian Americans read this book, but I also hope that other people of color, and white Americans read this book as well. I hope we really try to understand the common historical threads that tie us together while acknowledging the differences in conflict between us. I don’t want this book to be a multicultural kumbaya like “we’re all one.” We are not that. I think that we also have to acknowledge the divisions between us. It’s important that we recognize our struggles and other people’s struggles, and I hope that we can move forward in this pressure-cooker political time that we’re living in. For Asian Americans, I hope that they feel seen and recognized, and that this will open up more discussions and more alliances among people of color who are so often left out of racial discourse.