MAY 15, 2020
CATHY PARK HONG, the poetry editor at The New Republic, has published three critically acclaimed books of poetry, the second of which was awarded the Barnard Women Poets Prize by Adrienne Rich. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is the Korean-American writer’s first essay collection. At once memoir, cultural criticism, and social criticism, the book intersperses personal experience and family history with tracts on art and literature and historical and current events. An encounter with a book of poems becomes a commentary on the dearth of biographies on Asian-American artists and writers; a story about escaping to a municipal pool to avoid mothering duties transforms into a rumination about pools as theaters of segregation.
What are minor feelings? Hong explains that her neologism is indebted to the critical theorist Sianne Ngai, who wrote about “ugly feelings” in 2005. Seemingly trivial affects like irritation, boredom, and anxiety, ugly feelings are often eclipsed by more baroque emotions in the collective consciousness but can in fact provide important insight into social and material inequalities. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are sustained undesirable emotions. Minor feelings, however, are also explicitly racialized, described by Hong as “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.”
For Hong, who is American-born with Korean immigrant parents, minor feelings proliferate in the friction between her lived, racialized reality and the reality that the tenacious dogma of American optimism insists that she is inhabiting. She compares her experience with the claim that Asian Americans are not real racial minorities, a presupposition that erases not only a racialized existence but also the possibility of racism. The “model minority” — a role in which Asian Americans such as Hong’s father, a financially successful vendor of dry-cleaning supplies, are often cast — is wielded as proof that social mobility is attainable for anyone in America’s capitalist infrastructure, provided they adhere to certain behaviors. The notion that mobility is individual rather than structural is the backbone of the bildungsroman, the personal development novel that has been a staple in American literature since the mid-19th century. However, “[u]nlike the organizing principles of a bildungsroman,” Hong writes, “minor feelings are not generated from major change but from lack of change, in particular, structural racial and economic change.”
Indeed, a recurrent theme in Hong’s essays is the excruciatingly slow pace of change of racial politics, as racism toward Asian Americans is often deemed to be inconsequential or nonexistent. Outside of a gallery in Crown Heights where she had just done a reading, Hong was approached by a bearded, tattooed white man who probably considered himself woke. The stranger proudly tells her that he is enrolled in a “racial awareness seminar.” His racial awareness mediator, he informs her, says that “Asians are next in line to be white.” Exhibiting l’esprit de l’escalier familiar to many writers, Hong dedicates several subsequent pages to her imagined response. “We were here since 1587! […] So what’s the hold-up? Where’s our white Groupon?” She relays a painful slice of the history of Asian immigration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, from the staggering numbers of Chinese laborers who died laying the track for the transcontinental railroad to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from coming to the United States — famously, the first immigration law to exclude an ethnic group. (The ban would be expanded to apply to all of Asia in 1917. It ended in 1943.) Hong’s clipped language makes her rage palpable. “Why are you pissed! You’re next in line to be white! As if we’re iPads queued up in an assembly line.”
Dry and delightfully off-key, Hong’s sense of humor is anchored in self-mockery, if not self-flagellation. At one point, she describes falling into a deep depression. She obsessively asks her husband whether a facial tic that she had in her 20s has returned (it hasn’t); she mixes whiskey, Ambien, Xanax, and weed but still can’t fall asleep. Eventually, she seeks out a therapist — specifically, a Korean-American therapist with whom she might have jeong, an untranslatable word that denotes an instantaneous deep connection between Koreans. When they meet, Hong notes that the therapist has an “enormous face.” After the appointment, the therapist informs Hong that she is not accepting her health insurance. But Hong staunchly refuses to be rejected by, of all people, a therapist. Begging her to reconsider, the jilted patient obsesses over reasons why the therapist might not want to see her. “Is it because I left too many voicemails? […] Are you seeing someone I know? […] Then it’s because I’m too fucked up for you, isn’t it?” “I have another patient waiting,” the therapist says. “Don’t fuck her up too,” Hong replies. Later, she writes a garbled rant on RateMyTherapist.com. “I started taking my resentment out not only on her, but on Koreans as a whole. ‘Koreans are repressed! Rigid! Cold! They should not be allowed to work in the mental health care profession!’”
Hong uses humor self-reflexively as a rhetorical device to communicate, and cope with, thorny topics like internalized racism, shame, guilt, and bitterness. In the depths of her depression, she encounters Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy, which ignites her interest in humor’s subversive potential. Pryor, who rose to prominence as a comedian in the early 1970s, was relentlessly self-mocking. He was also, for his time, shockingly frank about racism, with sardonic digs levied at white people and African Americans alike — jokes that presented racism as not only a spectacle of oppression and rage but also as a landscape of microaggressions and minor feelings. Through humor, Pryor at once performed his trauma; wedged psychic space between himself and that trauma; created a platform to discuss black trauma more generally; and folded his audience, which was often predominantly white, into the traumatic reality of being a black man in America. Joking about the fear that he was dying during a beating he received as a child, Pryor rolls around on the floor clutching his heart. “We helplessly laugh,” says Hong reflecting on Pryor’s captive audience.
Around the time that she encounters Pryor’s stand-up, Hong was frustrated with the poetry world. She saw the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry and feared that she would inevitably cater to white audiences and seek white approval. She dreaded feeling humiliated at her poetry readings when audiences found that she didn’t fit their image of a poet and proceeded to either dismiss her or view her as an Asian proxy. Attracted to the emotionally messy masochism in Pryor’s comedy, she began to use her poetry readings as occasions to perform confessional stand-up comedy — a stark contrast to her non-autobiographical poetry. Stand-up pushes Hong to confront the convoluted relationship that she has with her audience as a writer and female ethnic minority. It also provides her with an opportunity to feel that she is owning her humiliation, rather than apprehensively awaiting humiliation by others: “If people didn’t find my jokes funny, I wanted to bomb spectacularly while telling jokes about my life. I wanted to fall flat on my face doing it.”
Throughout Minor Feelings, Hong returns to that squirming “minor” feeling of shame. Sometimes she abandons the protective carapace of humor as she narrates difficult memories of racialized humiliation. She witnesses her immigrant parents being infantilized and condescended to by white adults. She finds herself feeling embarrassed when she is one of multiple Asian Americans in any given situation, worried that they will be judged as a group. She is mocked when her mother, not knowing what the logo means, sends her to school in a Playboy shirt. Hong finds herself ashamed of her own shame — and resentful of “white innocence,” which she describes as the “flip side” of shame. Many white Americans, she notes, refuse to engage with shame surrounding their white identities and their complicity in structural racism. They elect to exist in segregated communities that “insulate them from race-based stress”; when they are forced to encounter race, they go on the defensive, spreading the gospel of American optimism.
Hong, however, takes a subversive approach to shame. The writer uses what was once a source of shame — her parents’ broken English — to innovate new literary forms. She incorporates text from “Engrish” memes, which mock Asian mistranslations of English, into her poems; she comes up with “Desert Creole,” an invented pidgin English that drops the reader into the frustrating, embodied experience of wading through a language that they only half-understand. “Shame gives me the ability to split myself into the first and third person,” Hong writes. In Minor Feelings, shame’s dissociative effects encourages scrutiny and self-reckoning, allowing Hong to skillfully navigate gaps and affinities between her own Asian-American experience and the Asian-American position more generally. When Hong doesn’t see her experience of race reflected in existing literary frameworks, she uses her racialized experience to make her own. Writing about her wishes for Asian-American writing, she turns her hope into a command:
I also hope that we can seize this opportunity and change American literature completely. Overhaul the tired ethnic narratives that have automated our identities; that have made our lives palatable to a white audience but removed them from our own lived realities — and stop spelling ourselves out in the alphabet given to us.
Cassie Packard is a writer and cultural critic with particular interest in the relationship between visual culture and labor, sexuality, and the internet. She has bylines at publications including Artforum, frieze, and VICE, and is a regular contributing writer at Hyperallergic with a weekly market column.