Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

 

“I never felt comfortable writing about personal racial trauma,” Cathy Park Hong admits in Minor Feelings, a book that nonetheless expresses this very trauma in new and memorable ways. She also exclaims in a later chapter: “I sometimes still find the subject, Asian America, to be so shamefully tepid that I am eager to change it—which is why I have chosen this episodic form, with its exit routes that permit me to stray.” This can be simultaneously a justification and explanation for the book’s overall structure and almost haphazard flow of its contents.

The author grew up in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and only spoke English in public school around the age of seven. Drawing from private histories to public controversies, Hong tackles the perennial and ever-evolving matter of racism as an Asian American through episodic chapters that read by turns like autobiography, historical reportage and cultural criticism. “Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial space…distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down,” writes Hong in an aggressively honest manner that is anything but politically correct.

Whiteness threatens to come across as a monolithic and wholly essentialized entity by the end of her book. Hong proclaims as regards the ways non-whites have long internalized the effects of racism: “Whiteness has already recruited us to become their junior partners in genocidal wars…the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort, unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.” The whole book is an urgent rallying cry born from rage which, although arguably problematic, is also moving and more than persuasive. The point here is to free the Asian American consciousness that has long been corrupted, oppressed and utilized—consciously or unconsciously—by “whiteness,” as defined by Hong.

Beyond revealing revelations about a hemifacial spasm disorder to her sense of inward rejection at the hands of a Korean American therapist, Hong provides rich glimpses into her literary scene to expose the complexities of American racism. In one account of an incident between the poet Prageeta Sharma and an unnamed, male, Asian visiting professor (who reportedly stole the former’s article of clothing), Hong comments that “misogyny trumps any racial solidarity,” illustrating the hypocrisy that can manifest in situations when Asians fail to support each other. Hong can also be funny, as when she makes fun of poetry events in the States: “…the scripted banter, the breathy ‘poet’s voice,’ the mechanical titters, the lone mmm of approval.”

In a particularly memorable way, Hong discusses how the iconic comedian, Richard Pryor, inspired her both as an artist and as an Asian American. Pryor reminds the author of a general emotional condition of “bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness” shared by Koreans. The late African-American comedian possessed an unflinchingly self-deprecating performance style that later influenced Hong to begin “writing frankly about being Asian.” Hong strikingly poeticizes the comedian’s curious ability to move his audience—“Pryor unzips the muscle suit of black male machismo to expose his own shame”—through a paradoxical sense of fallibility even while trading on negative stereotypes to pull off his famously racially-charged jokes.

Hong also happened to ruin the highly aestheticized movies of Wes Anderson for this reviewer: “Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different,” asserting that Hollywood “has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia…refusing to acknowledge that America’s racial demographic has radically changed since 1965.” In another chapter, Hong poignantly discusses the writing and art of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (best known for her experimental, multi-genre, 1982 novel, Dictee) and the impact of not just her artistry but her eventual rape and murder upon Hong’s creative imagination and sense of self. 

Ultimately, Hong is most moving to me when she admits to her struggles with the English language when coming into her own as an Asian American poet: “It was once a source of shame, but now I say I proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue.”

by Cyril Wong

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