Let’s Be Neurotic Together: A Conversation with Cathy Park Hong
By Michelle ChiharaSeptember 12, 2023
IN APRIL, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted author, poet, and professor Cathy Park Hong as part of our Luminary Dinner series. Our executive director, Irene Yoon, thanked our community of readers and members and supporters, then introduced Park Hong with a reminder that “her words accrue their power through how they move us, not just in an affective sense—though they certainly do that—but also in the way they orient and disorient us, in turn.” Her work reveals the world to us in new and meaningful ways, and her work “can go even further in challenging us to take these revelations not as tidy conclusions but rather as the starting point for ongoing attention and care and action.”
After reading from her poetry, Hong was joined in dialogue by LARB’s editor-in-chief Michelle Chihara. Their conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, touched on the interrelations between activism and grief, how best to combat burnout, and what it meant for Hong to be designated “the liberal pundit of Asian Americans.”
MICHELLE CHIHARA: One of the things that occurred to me as I was listening to you read poetry—we have a lot of fans of Minor Feelings (2020) in the house, and I wonder if the incredible success of that book has brought new fans to your poetry?
CATHY PARK HONG: Not really.
No? I want to believe that it’s true.
Not that I go on it all the time, but when I do go on Goodreads, and there are new reviews in for Engine Empire (2012) or Dance Dance Revolution (2007), usually the consistent commentary is like: “I love Minor Feelings, but I don’t get these poems at all.”
And I write about this in the book: how my poetry was always very inaccessible because of my experimentation with the English language. It’s not the easiest poetry. In fact, I did a talk the other day where someone came up to me who said he’s a Korean immigrant. He tried reading Dance Dance Revolution over and over and over again, and he was like, “But my English is just not good enough.” And I was like, “I think there are a lot of native English speakers who don’t get the book at all.” But I think there are definitely people who have become more interested in poetry because I write about it so much in Minor Feelings.
Well, that’s a victory! On the topic of Minor Feelings, I was hoping that you would maybe tell us a story about the times when you did stand-up comedy at the poetry readings?
I don’t want to.
You don’t have to!
I did it a handful of times. The first time I did it was at the New Museum. I had invited these amazing poets—Ronaldo Wilson, Ariana Reines, and Catherine Wagner—to come and do readings; the subject was the racialized body and the abject. I did a talk about Richard Pryor and themes of abjection in his comedy, and it occurred to me that I should do stand-up. I was so crazy. So I did 10 minutes of stand-up. And I, like, read. I wasn’t actually doing stand-up; I was reading jokes from these papers. And the people in the audience were my friends, so they were laughing their heads off. And I was like, Oh my God, I’m hilarious.
At the time, I was really jaded about poetry readings. I was disappointed by how rehearsed they were, and how they felt like church. I was really interested in other conceptual artists who sort of shake things up. Usually, when I did stand-up, you could hear a pin drop. Audiences were just dumbfounded; they’d just look kind of appalled. And then they would start laughing really uncomfortably because they were never sure if they were allowed to laugh. The last time I did it was in a university setting, at Pitzer College, and it was undergrad students, and they were not having it. They were like: “Who is this old person trying to tell jokes?” That was the last time. I’m masochistic enough.
I’ve been thinking about comedy, and the work that comedy can and can’t do—what discomfort shakes loose, and what it can then circle back around to cement. I suspect that all of your comedy readings were wonderful, and I would have loved to have seen one.
I wanted to read a quote to you from Minor Feelings. The book came out in the spring of 2020, which, as we all remember, was a time of reckoning around race in the United States. But we were falling into a very polarized Black–white divide, and Minor Feelings just exploded that and got us to think about race in a different way. You write:
I began this book as a dare to myself. I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent, a defense that I had to pry open to see what throbbed beneath it. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions. Moreover, I had to contend with this we. I wished I had the confidence to bludgeon the public with we like a thousand trumpets against them. But I feared the weight of my experiences—as East Asian, professional class, cis female, atheist, contrarian—tipped the scales of a racial group that remains so nonspecific that I wondered if there was any shared language between us. And so, like a snail’s antenna that’s been touched, I retracted the first person plural.
I think, for many of us who were such fans of this book, it gave us a kind of shared language, a way of thinking about what we might mean across a wild set of differences. And it’s really helped me do what I think of as important inner work. There’s a teacher I love a lot—a writer—who says, “Without inner work, no change is possible. But without outer change, no inner work matters.” I was wondering how it feels now, a few years on, in terms of both the inner and the outer work. I love that image of the snail reaching out, looking for the we and then retracting. When has there been more of a we, and when has finding that we been more challenging?
It’s been a roller coaster. I was an obscure poet before Minor Feelings came out. When I was working on it, I really thought that no one was going to relate to it and it wasn’t going to reach the people who I thought needed to read it or would want to read it, that it was going to disappear and be invisible because it was about an invisible race. And to see the reaction that it received and the people who are connected to it was just overwhelming. I’m still overwhelmed. I don’t think I’ve really metabolized it, to tell you the truth; I still think it’s happening to an avatar, not me per se. Because I’m an introvert. I am that snail inside the shell; that’s my comfort spot.
But since 2020, I’ve had a lot of incredible conversations: with younger Asian Americans, older Asian Americans, with other BIPOC, Black, Latinx people about how to find more of a vocabulary to build solidarity. But there’s also been a lot of disagreement. A lot of people disagreed with what I have to say in Minor Feelings—which is what I wanted, because I didn’t want everyone to agree with me. I wanted to strike a conversation.
It was quite extreme for me to go from this obscure position as a poet to suddenly being thrust into the spotlight—at least a spotlight for someone who’s a poet—and then having these assumptions placed on me because of Minor Feelings. I think anyone who writes about race will feel the same way, where suddenly you are representative; you become a symbol of a sort. There was a New York magazine article where I was called the liberal pundit of Asian Americans. I’m like, What the fuck is that? I didn’t intend that, but when you’re in the spotlight, people are going to interpret or do what they will with your position. And that was very, very, very uncomfortable for me. When I would do these talks, a lot of people, especially younger Asian Americans, would say: “What do we do? How do we prevent burnout?” I was asked a lot of hard questions about mental health: “What do I do if I’m feeling suicidal? How do we get past this? How do we build solidarity?” I was being asked not just to be a writer but to take on the role of the therapist, the activist, the political scientist, and so forth. And I felt often inadequate to be in that kind of public-figure position. But overall, it’s been an incredible experience to have so many conversations with all these different people.
I’m half Japanese, and I’m the granddaughter of immigrants on both sides. My mom’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms. I’ve always identified as Asian American, but I don’t look Jewish and I don’t look Japanese. So I’m always in-between. But you had a line in Minor Feelings about wanting to get beyond the “talking points about ‘not belonging’ and ‘the sense of in-betweenness.’” And then you wrote that when you went to Seoul, you felt “cleaved, but at least it wasn’t reduced to broad American talking points. At least the ‘arsenal of complexes’ that Frantz Fanon talks about was laid bare.”
Is there a kind of solidarity to be found in just sharing the arsenal of complexes? Isn’t our neurosis the same? I don’t have to be part of the same affinity group. I think affinity groups are important, but there is another kind of affinity that maybe comes through the world of letters in a different way. Let’s just be neurotic together.
I love that. That should be a sign on a T-shirt: Let’s be neurotic together. I will say, my community are writers and artists, and a lot of the writers and artists are Asian American and BIPOC. And I think most of the time we’re being neurotic together. There’s not that sort of reductive binary of belonging and not belonging. Sara Ahmed talks about belonging a lot in a couple of her books, and I was really influenced by her and her discontentedness about the rhetoric of belonging.
Complaint!, right. But for me, if we’re talking about the public, belonging is important. I’m not disregarding belonging. I think it’s also very privileged for me to say to disregard belonging, because, especially if you’re undocumented—if the threat is to be excised from the state, to be thrown out of the circuit—all you want to do is belong. I think belonging is on the way toward freeing everyone else, so it’s just part of the journey.
As writers and artists, we’ve come a long way. I think what I love about poetry is that it gives language to feelings that aren’t semantically available to us. And that’s what I was trying to do with Minor Feelings. And that’s what I love about a lot of poetry by Asian Americans and a lot of fiction by Asian Americans: that they’re able to tune into those sorts of microtones (to nerd out and borrow a term from Schoenberg), these microtones of feelings that racialized consciousness keys into. I think we’re getting there, becoming more specific, more precise.
I love that: microtones as a response to microaggression.
My family was interned during the Japanese incarceration, and my dad died right before lockdown. And I found out about Yuri Kochiyama—I didn’t know that she existed until right after my dad died, and right before I read your book. And then I read your book, and it was this strange way that my grief got rolled up with my sense that I had missed out on a particular form of solidarity. But reading about Yuri Kochiyama, when you got to her at the end of the book, was this huge part of how I was processing grief.
Yuri Kochiyama was a Japanese American activist who lost her father in the incarceration camps, and then lived in Harlem with her family and became very close with the Black Panthers. She’s the woman cradling Malcolm X’s head in the photograph of him when he was assassinated. She worked with a lot of Black activists around getting reparations with Japanese Americans, and is part of the reason that Tsuru for Solidarity and other Japanese American organizations are very committed to reparations for slavery.
My dad was one of the many Japanese Americans who just didn’t talk about incarceration: you didn’t talk about race, and that was how it was going to get better. And so there was something about reading that that was incredibly important for me, and was part of how I moved through all of that. In writing about Yuri Kochiyama, one of the things you said was:
Ending this book, I think about what prognosis I can offer among the crowded field of experts who warn of our end times. What I can say is look back to that lost blade of history when activists like Kochiyama offered an alternate model of mutual aid and alliance. They offered an alternate model of us.
So I just wanted to say how much that meant to me.
Oh, thank you.
But tell us about your minor feelings now, a few years later. How’s it going, this “alternate model of us”?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s an ongoing project. On certain days, I am optimistic. I am cynical, but I am also optimistic, seeing the kind of intense passion and energy and activism from my generation, and from younger millennials and Gen Zers especially. But I am also concerned: there is burnout, and I hear that too. A lot of what was driving the rage, the protests, was Trump being in office; the pandemic, where everyone was inside; and obviously George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. And now—it’s still too early to tell—but it’s post-pandemic, and I think there’s this overall sense of burnout. And so I think it’s really important to have this sort of reminder, and to continue to energize.
I will say, for myself, I’ve retracted—not because I’m burned out, but because I want to return to my life as a writer, and I think that’s really important to me. I just need to kind of go back to that private life. But I still have my antennas out.
Well, the writing is also important. And I think if there’s anything that combats burnout, it is this: we go back inside, we pull our antenna in for a little, we read some poetry.
Valarie Kaur gets this question a lot. She’s an amazing South Asian writer and activist. And to that question—what do you do about burnout?—she said the best advice is from a book about midwifery. When you are in labor: You breathe, breathe, push. Breathe, breathe, push. When we are burnt out, we have to allow space and time to breathe before we push.
Amen to that.
Cathy Park Hong is the author Dance Dance Revolution (2007), Engine Empire (2012), and Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020). Hong is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Michelle Chihara is editor-in-chief at Los Angeles Review of Books.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
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