Cathy Park Hong And The Complexities Of Asian American Consciousness

Warping English Into a Fugitive Tongue with the Poet and Author of Minor Feelings

  • Interview: Thessaly La Force

I was nervous to speak with Cathy Park Hong. On a recent winter morning, I met the poet and writer at her Brooklyn apartment to discuss her new book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World). In it, Hong attempts to tackle the complexity around what it means to be Asian American today, as well as her own relationship to her race. It is a radically important book that vibrates with intelligence and emotion. But Hong’s book had also touched a deep part of me—I am half Chinese and have often felt that the Asian side of me is something that can be hidden or diminished not just by myself, but by white people and Asian Americans as well. Reading Minor Feelings felt like exposing this side of myself. How, I worried, do you speak to someone who has articulated something very meaningful and true to you?

In her book, Hong moves between concepts of invisibility and erasure, dissecting moments in the culture, shifting between art, language, history and personal memory with a deft sensitivity, touching on events such as the disturbing 2017 video of a United Airlines passenger named David Dao being forcibly removed from an airplane to her education at Oberlin College to her own childhood growing up in a Korean family in Los Angeles. Hong is also the author of three acclaimed books of poetry: Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance Dance Revolution (2007), and Engine Empire (2012), and she also writes about her work as a poet and her preoccupation with what she calls “bad English.” As she writes in Minor Feelings: “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.” One hopes that Minor Feelings will be a necessary reading experience for many and that what Hong describes as “minor feelings”—that is, the feelings one has that are all too easily dismissed, denied or silenced—will have found a strong and passionate voice to articulate them.

Thessaly La Force

Cathy Park Hong

As a poet, did the essay allow you to say something you couldn’t exactly say in poetry?

It was a roundabout journey. I wasn’t just mainly a poet. I did journalism in my twenties and I always wanted to return to nonfiction. But at one point, I was deciding between journalism or poetry. Journalism seemed even more untenable. All of my friends were getting laid off and I thought, I better choose poetry.

When was this?

This was the early 2000s. I went to grad school, to Iowa, and I fell into poetry. But a number of things changed when it came to writing this book: I became a mother. I suddenly had a lot less time. The way I write poetry is a little bit arduous. I almost need to be bored writing poetry. With each book, I have to reinvent the wheel. I'm trying to create a language, a world.

I was also—this was one of the seeds for this book—watching Richard Pryor. I became obsessed with him. I have never been able to directly and honestly write about race. And I wanted to do that as an Asian American because there’s so many circulated Asian American narratives that didn’t feel true to me. I thought, how can I write honestly about race that feels as immediate and urgent and real as what Richard Pryor was doing with stand-up comedy? I didn’t arrive at the essay right away. I tried to write poetry and it wasn’t working. I tried it with fiction, and that was not working. For me, the essay is a very capacious form that allows for different systems of knowledge, different genres. I hate the term “lyric essay,” but an essay can be poetic, it can be journalistic, it can be memoiristic, it can be theoretical.

How does comedy succeed as a narrative device?

With comedy, you’re making an argument, right? Not all comedy is like this, but the kind of comedy that, say, Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce or Ali Wong does—they’re trying to make a point. There is a kernel truth they’re trying to get at, but they also know if they throw the truth at you, you’re not going to listen. Tommy Pico says he uses comedy like a Trojan horse. The punchline has this element of surprise. Comedy, as an argument, is trying to convince you of some unpleasant truth that you wouldn’t otherwise face.

You write about how you began to perform stand-up at poetry readings. Was that act a resistance to poetry?

I’m a masochist but I’m not this masochistic. Eight to ten years ago, poetry readings were very different, there was such a piety to poetry. It was still very white. [The poet] Juliana Spahr wrote about this. It was very sanctimonious. There was this culture where you didn’t acknowledge race, but at the same time, I was experiencing these micro-aggressions and I wanted to blow that apart. Instead of feeling inspired or a sense of community, I felt alienated. So I started doing stand-up comedy. I also wrote an essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” that was another seed to this book.

One of the bigger themes in your book is about how invisible Asian Americans are in this country. You write: “Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities.” When did you first start to sense this invisibility? What helped you articulate it?

Since I was a little kid. It was a profoundly lonely experience. When I talk about minor feelings, what I mean is when no one is acknowledging your experience or they’re gaslighting the reality that you’re experiencing. You feel that there’s something ineffably wrong with you. I don’t think white people can really understand that—never seeing your face in mass culture. But I didn’t want to talk just about representation. I wanted to talk about it from a more psychological perspective. How we are not considered part of this country, not part of the national conversation?
At Oberlin, I had friends who were politically and artistically engaged. That community gave me the vocabulary to articulate this invisibility. I also had fantastic teachers, professors of color such as Myung Mi Kim, Anu Needham, and Johnny Coleman. When people think about “woke being broke,” they think it’s this singular revelation. But it’s something that you need to be reminded of constantly. It’s easy to fall back to the default way of being, to say that race doesn’t really matter. You need reminders that it does. Before I had my daughter, I saw myself as an outsider. I came from experimental poetry; I was very happy being the one on the periphery, looking in. My thoughts on racial consciousness became more urgent after I became a mother. You’re a role model, you’re in a position of power within the family. How are you going to wield that? And what is race going to be like for my child when she gets older? Is she going to consider herself white? Asian Americans are still invisible. We still haven’t had our reckoning.
And then of course I read writers such as James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, and bell hooks who gave me a way to think about being Asian American. It was harder to find Asian American examples. I had to grab inspiration where I could, which wasn’t easy. That said, there is an amazing lineage of Asian American novelists and poets and there’s also a lot of really amazing scholarship—or how would you define it?

Like the canon building by people such as Shawn Wong, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Frank Chin? There was also such a strong and radical Asian American magazine culture in the late 70s and 80s.

Yes. Or the work of [the Sansei poet and activist] Janice Mirikitani.

You bring up a point mentioning Baldwin and other writers. The Japanese American writer Hisaye Yamamoto described going to work at the Los Angeles Tribune, a newspaper intended for black readers, after the war where she says she was able to understand the injustices of the black experience against the injustices she experienced at the Japanese American incarceration camps. It reminds me of how you reference Baldwin and bell hooks and the literature around black identity and how it can be useful to understanding Asian American experience. Though that brings us to another, opposite, issue, which is that Asian Americans are often used in racial conflict in America. Take the Harvard Affirmative Action case.

It’s still the same tired racial narratives again and again and again. The book was an intervention. I needed to set the record straight. I think black intellectual thought has been foundational to the way that writers of color who are not black think about race. It always has been. And in the civil rights movement, from W. E. B. Dubois on, it’s been foundational, not just within America, but globally. It’s been foundational to the way marginalized people think about their socioeconomic status. Frantz Fanon has influenced so many non-black diasporic people. He was instrumental in the way I was trying to formulate what an Asian American consciousness is or if there even is one. That being said, I don't want to collapse the Asian American experience with the black experience, but it’s very important to acknowledge the tradition of black thought.

One of the hardest issues for me to address—and I don’t know if I was completely successful—was that we are allocated to our minority positions differently. In the way that Asians are used, as a model minority, to make African Americans look bad or how, when it’s convenient, we are praised for being white adjacent. But the only time you hear Asian Americans protesting, for example, is when they’re anti-Affirmative Action, when, in fact, the majority of Asians are actually pro. I do think that it’s also important to raise the interracial conflicts between African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinx that has to do with class, anti-blackness, and colorism. If, in 2050, minorities are in fact going to be the majority, what does that mean? That was another thing that I was thinking about in writing this book. Will some Asian Americans identify as white?

You write about a celebratory photograph by A. J. Russell from 1869 supposedly of the people who built the transcontinental railroad. You point out that there are no Chinese immigrant workers in the picture, even though this infrastructure couldn’t have been built without them. It’s not part of the narrative.

No, it’s not. There are a lot of really basic facts about Asian American history that, even at my age and having taught for so long, I didn’t even know about. It’s not accessible knowledge. I didn’t know that the first Asian Americans were Filipino soldiers in the 1500s. It’s very obscure.

One of my favorite essays you wrote was about the Korean American artist Theresa Ha Kyung Cha in “Portrait of An Artist.” Cha was brutally raped and murdered when she was 31 years old in 1982, a week after her novel “Dictee” was published.

She was an early influence for me. I discovered Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in college. She was the kind of writer and artist that I wanted to be. I was really inspired by how she was both formally innovative, but at the same time, the subject of her work was so politically radical. One of her mentors said—I’m butchering his quote—there was not one medium that could capture her experience, so she had to use them all. She was working with film and performance and she was doing poetry and memoir—all of it. Before cross-genre work became trendy. I was also inspired by how she approached the English language. Have you read “Dictee”?

I want to. I bought “Dictee” right after I read your book.

She was very unapologetic in explaining herself to a white audience. A lot of people have complained that “Dictee” is inaccessible. It’s intentionally unmusical and difficult. She also writes about Korean history and colonial history in such a way that she doesn’t footnote everything. Either you know it or you don’t.

Her story reminds me of something the art critic Barbara Rose said, where she explains why we mourn the young female artist who dies too soon. It's a metaphor for this lost potential that never gets to be actualized. The Sylvia Plaths and the Francesca Woodmans become a metaphor for what a lot of women feel they are never able to do, either because of systemic sexism or marriage or motherhood. Of course, most of these examples are of white women artists. But, as Rose says, we don't celebrate the Marianne Moore's of the world for having a very full, long career.

It’s true.

I wondered if Cha fits that mold for you, as this person who was on the cusp of being a more recognized and successful artist and writer? Of having some potential that was lost?

There is this fetishization of people like Sylvia Plath and a lot of other young women. I also think of Ana Mendieta. Young women who died violent deaths. Sometimes their tragedy overshadows their work. But I agree, a lot of it is this lost potential. It’s also our obsession with youth and beauty. But Theresa Ha Kyung Cha doesn't quite fit into that mold. First of all, she's not usually included among these women who are kind of glorified or fetishized for their tragedies, because she’s Asian.

You express a lot of conflict in writing about how she died.

I wanted to respect her oeuvre, and make sure that her writing takes precedence. But at the same time, there was this very troubling erasure occurring; none of her critics were talking about her rape and murder. Why is that? I also felt uncomfortable writing about her because it seemed to echo the way that a lot of sexual violence is written about women of color. It’s not as public as what happens to white women. This event happened in the 80s, and New York City was very violent, but as her friend Sandy Flitterman said, if Cha was a white woman from the Upper West Side, her story would have been all over the news. Two years later, the Central Park Jogger was assaulted. I wanted to explore the different silences. But, I hope, more than that, I was able to write about her life and who she was. Her growth as an artist and her trying to make it in New York City. As well as how she came from this very hard life, and about her own violent Korean history. It was a portrait of an artist and a portrait of an artist who’s been erased.

Thessaly La Force is a writer and the features director of T: The New York Styles Magazine.

  • Interview: Thessaly La Force
  • Date: Mars 11, 2020