Interview: Cathy Park Hong

On the routine trauma of being told there is equality while feeling there isn't

Meghan O'Rourke

 

 

This winter, The Yale Review celebrated the 200th anniversary of its earliest history in a three-­day festival at Yale University. The following conversation with contributor Cathy Park Hong about her new book of nonfiction, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, took place in front of students and our community of readers. The book blends memoir and cultural criticism to examine racial consciousness in America, asking along the way what it means to be Asian American and making a case for the importance of what Hong calls “minor feelings,” or the dissonance that occurs “when American optimism…contradicts your own racialized reality.” During the period that Cathy was writing the book, she and I used to meet and exchange chapters of our works in process, and I watched as the book evolved to bring the personal into conversation with the theoretical. Here, we talk about that process; about the myth of white innocence; and about the question of whether there is an “Asian American consciousness.” The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meghan O’Rourke: Why did you feel it was important to write about minor feelings? In your book, you write, “my term ‘minor feelings’ is deeply indebted to Sianne Ngai, who wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-­capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are ‘non-­cathartic states of emotion’ with ‘a remarkable capacity for duration.’” Can you say more about them?

Cathy Park Hong: Sure, maybe I can read a little more from that passage: “Minor feelings occur when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.…When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.”

MO: Tell us more about framing the book around this idea of the major weight of “minor” feelings? 

CPH: I was trying to get at the existential core of just living in this country, and having your lived reality constantly gaslit by the American public—what it does to you, and how there is no outlet for it. I also was trying to puncture the myths that have harmed vulnerable communities. Another definition of minor feelings is that so much of culture is framed around stories of the individual overcoming obstacles that are racial—or structural—in origin. The racial trauma is framed as something to overcome personally, after which the individual experiences some kind of self-­affirmation and release. Minor feelings by contrast, are ongoing, stuck; they are more true to the trauma of living in a racist, capitalist society. When you’re stuck where you are, there isn’t an overcoming. My book is about that kind of stuckness, that ongoing-­ness. I see a movie like Parasite, and I think the reason that movie really struck a chord with Americans is because it reflects an ongoing structural inequity that is so omnipresent the individual is powerless; something about this day and age in America was really captured there. That movie is about the minor feelings that I write about in this book. 

I talk about “affect theory,” which is the theoretical and psychoanalytic study of moods or feelings like joy or disgust but really, I was thinking about my inner feelings. I was thinking of this Korean national emotion, han, which is a mixture of shame, paranoia, rage, and melancholy that has to do with a small country living under colonialism, American war, and neo-­imperialism. These non-­cathartic emotions are ongoing. This is not just Korean. This is something that translates to how people live here. So it was also my way of reassessing what han is in an American context, where han is supposed to not exist, you know. 

MO: You’ve turned to prose after a long time of writing poetry. What led to this shift in genre?

CPH: Race was always a subject in my poetry collections, but at a certain point in my life, I wanted to write directly about racial consciousness, especially Asian American consciousness. Actually, I was depressed and watching Richard Pryor standup, and I had this kind of revelation: Why is it that I hadn’t seen or read Asian American narratives that were as incendiary and honest and provocative as Richard Pryor’s? Because even though his standup is comedic, it also reveals these brutal truths about race. It really got to me. So I started writing this book as poems—satirical poems. But the poems were not working. For some reason, the satire wasn’t lending itself to the lyric. I tried writing a novel. That was one unfortunate summer I wasted. 

I even experimented with standup because I was hating poetry. Just to humiliate myself, I decided I would do standup instead of doing poetry readings, which took a lot of the curators by surprise. They all were like, “What is going on?” 

MO: Did people realize it was standup? 

CPH: No. It took them a while to catch on. When it first started, people laughed uproariously. But in comedy, it’s all about the room. And there were other spaces where people were just like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Eventually, it led to this nonfiction. You know, I would say that our one-­on-­one meetings also were instrumental in shaping this book. You taught me how to write nonfiction, and writing this book taught me how to write nonfiction. 

At first, the book was just about institutional racism in the arts. But after Trump’s election, I thought the subject had to be broader, that it had to speak directly to U.S. race relations now. And as much as it’s about Asian American reckoning and Asian American identity, it’s also about this country from the perspective of an Asian American woman. There is a distinction there. I also became a mom, and that was an important factor too. 

MO: You quote from Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination: “America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live together.” Can we talk about that?

CPH: Look, this book is also about whiteness and the white innocence that has defined American consciousness. I think right now people are seeing white innocence for what it is. The dominant literary mode has been the white experience, and that has been considered the universal experience. Most books and movies are filtered through the white imagination, and, as a result, they project a reality nowhere close to the reality I have lived or the reality most people have lived. In turn, that has allowed writers, artists, and cultural producers not to write or make art about other people’s experiences, while non-­white people who wrote about their experiences were pigeonholed. So, this book is about trying to destabilize that myth of universality and to see it as whiteness. And also, this book is about trying to centralize the experiences of people of color, because we are the majority globally, and we will be the majority in this country in 2050. 

The racial discourse in this country has been very binary, very black and white—for good reason. But at the same time, we also have to reckon with the fact that, by 2050, the majority is going to be immigrants. Brown immigrants, East Asian immigrants, along with indigenous peoples are going to make up a bulk of it. What does that mean? How do we fit into this country? Some of us are going to become white, and that’s something I also talk about in this book. 

MO: In one essay, you write about the fact that there was initially something very freeing about writing poems when you were young, and about being swept up in the dominant white literary discourse’s affirmation that the writer is bodyless, identity-­less. You quote John Keats saying the poet “has no identity—he is continually in for, and filling, some other body,” only to find, when you went to graduate school and began publishing, that your identity shaped the reception to your work. I wonder if you might talk about the moment of coming to realize how much of a role identity would play in your work’s reception? 

CPH: I think this is the insidiousness of living in America. The root of minor feelings is an entrenched racial hierarchy, but there is this pretense that we’re all free, we are all equal, and there is a meritocracy. There’s this fucked up cognitive dissonance that happens if you are someone of color in a marginalized position that people are not addressing in any way. That is minor feelings, that cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance was there for me throughout my time being a poet. 

I was born here, but because I grew up in Koreatown, in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by other Koreans and didn’t speak English until I started school. That was very formative. I just didn’t feel I had any real permission to write. Then I randomly started writing in high school, and I loved it. It was freeing because I grew up feeling very invisible. Most writing I read expressed my absence, but now, I could articulate my presence.

At the same time, something about invisibility seemed empowering. Because I was writing, I could be whoever I wanted. I could take on any character I wanted. I could write any kind of story I wanted. I found that liberating—to invent stories and characters and be these people who I couldn’t be. I thought I could use this invisibility. So this was an asset. Keats affirms that idea in the quote above; a lot of writers and thinkers have expressed aversion of this idea about writing. Roland Barthes, too, says that the author is dead and perfectly neutral. Some critical theory holds that it’s all about what’s on the page, and the identity of the author is absolutely irrelevant to what’s on the page. That is patently untrue. Maybe it is the case if you’re a white male, not if you’re someone of color. 

It’s kind of screwed up when you think about it. Because of accidents of birth, your voice is fixed to not have the same reach as other people’s voices. If you think about it that way, it’s bizarre, right? Just because of how you look, you don’t have the same bandwidth other people do. 

MO: Your testimony is not taken as seriously. 

CPH: Right. But there’s this persistent belief in meritocracy—that it’s about talent; that it’s about hard work. And it’s just—the arts is the least meritocratic field there is. 

MO: —Even though it’s supposedly all about talent. 

CPH: Yes. It was always this ongoing struggle, and this book was my reckoning with it. I write about global capitalism and inter­racial relations and the 1992 LA riots. But also, in a way, this book is a portrait of an artist, a very personal portrait of an artist. But it’s a portrait of an artist that also takes into account the frame the artist is in, and the museum that has excluded this artist for a very long time. 

MO: One of my favorite essays in the book is called “An Education.” It’s about the education of you as an artist and about female friendship. These essays can be quite personal, yet your poetry has not been. In your poems, you often adopt a persona; you are definitely not autobiographical. Does it feel vulnerable to write this personally? And what led you to bring yourself into these pieces so much? 

CPH: It was the hardest thing to write myself into this book. I kept hitting a wall. It involved me being very vulnerable. My editor Victory Matsui was absolutely instrumental in making me reveal more of myself. Any time that I was getting too academic or jargony, they were like, “No, no, no, no, no. This is a defense mechanism, and you need to not do that.” That was very hard. But I didn’t want this to be a critical theory book. I didn’t want people to just think through my argument; I wanted people to feel through my argument. The only way you can get people to feel through an argument, I realized, was to use my own experiences. This is where my craft as a poet came in, where I tried to make my experiences as specific and tactile as possible so that people were really able to inhabit what I was trying to say. It wasn’t like I was using my experience to reach out for empathy, you know. It’s not a book about “This is my life, and look how much I suffered.” It’s more about using my life to support the argument for each essay. 

It’s almost easier to write theoretically because it’s more distant. But to transform it to a language that is felt is so much harder. I think this book takes a lot of risks, and it’s those risks that make it good. 

MO: The book begins with a description of an involuntary tic that you experienced in your twenties. Can you talk about its significance and why you started there?

CPH: I had a hemifacial spasm for two years when I was in my twenties. It started as a little twitch in my eye that I thought had something to do with drinking too much coffee. Well, it increased to these occasional spasms. I went to the neurologist, and I was diagnosed as having a hemifacial spasm—two nerves behind my ear had gotten twisted up. [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m so neurotic that my nerves got twisted. So, I got brain surgery, which sounds more serious than it was—well, it was serious. This doctor in Pittsburgh took a sponge and inserted it between the two nerves so that they would no longer be twisted. 

The book begins a few years later, when I was thirty-­two, and fell into a random depression. One of my symptoms was that I was convinced my hemifacial spasm had recurred. I would spend hours looking in the mirror looking for a phantom tic that wasn’t there. It’s supposed to be bleakly funny. 

I started with that because, in the book, the face keeps coming up again and again. My hallucination of a spasm was my own fear of showing my face to the public, that I couldn’t control my public face anymore. I thought it made sense to begin with the hemifacial spasm because a lot of this book is about the roiling psychological effects of being either invisible or hypervisible as an Asian American and the public projection of the self.

MO: You talk a lot about your parents, too; they’re important to the book, not least for all the ways that you describe the differences between their experience and your experience. 

CPH: It’s really hard for immigrant writers, perhaps especially Asian American writers, to write about their parents in a way that’s honest, because there’s so much shame about exposing the real pain of living in a family with parents who are survivors of war, who are immigrants to this country. I didn’t want this book to be, “My Asian parents are so fucked up.” But Asian American narratives tend to be kind of flattened or tend to treat the relationship with kid gloves, and I wanted to be more direct. I talk about a New York Times Op-­Ed by Nicholas Kristof from 2015, where he says the secret to Asian American success is that we have great families, supportive families, and how we’re just, striving Tiger Moms, yay. And that is just so patently a lie. So, I write about that, too.

One of the hardest conflicts to untangle was the racism in Asian American communities. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking about other Asian groups, but I speak directly, specifically, about Korean Americans. And the way I wrote about anti-­Blackness is through revisiting the LA riots and the Black-­Korean conflict there. There’s just such a striving under this rubric of the American Dream to be white, adjacent to white. And the symptom of that is to be ­racist, to be anti-­Black. Why? What does it mean to belong in this country? Let’s try to dissect what belonging is, because everything that we think of as belonging is encoded as white. Moving to a white neighborhood. Going to Yale and Harvard. Being obsessed with certain fashion labels. And part of that striving to be white adjacent is re-­inscribing the racial hierarchy. So in a way, Asians are very complicit. I went to this talk and this African American artist, Lorraine O’Grady, said, “In the future, white supremacy will not need white people.” And that just haunted me. As an Asian person, that really haunted me. Because whiteness—it’s malleable. And so there are maybe some of us—maybe some Asians—who will become white. What does that mean? I was trying to kind of challenge everyone to really examine this. This need to strive. This neoliberal ethos of getting ahead, which is very much an immigrant ethos with anti-­Blackness encoded in it. 

MO: As a person who is highly aware that Asian Americans are seen, as you say in this book, as “united,” as next in line to be white—in ways suggested by that Nicholas Kristof Op-­Ed—you also have a lived experience of being treated as a representational token, as other, and therefore invisible to a dominant white gaze. You ask, “Is there even such a concept as an Asian American consciousness?” I wonder if you could talk about your thinking around that question. You don’t ever resolve it, which is the strength of the book.

CPH: I never answer that question because I still don’t know if there is an Asian American consciousness. I quote Jeff Chang, who is a brilliant race scholar and critic, and who writes in one of his books about Asian American identity in a personal way. He is talking about African-­American and Latinx communities who say, “I love us, I love us.” And he’s like, “I wish I could say that I love us.” But then he’s like, “Who is us? What is that?” I relate to that ambivalence. “Who is us” is a question that I grapple with in this book because Asian Americans are a tenuous alliance of so many different regions, nationalities, classes, sexualities, and genders. We’re so disparate. To write any kind of unifying definition of Asian American is going to get me into trouble. But I also was frustrated with a lot of Asian American critical essays I was reading where, in reaction to the yellow people stereotype or the submissive woman stereotype, the authors are like, “We’re all really different. Look how different we are.” 

I’m dissatisfied with that. So, we’re different. I want to know what is it that we have in common, too. Is there a socioeconomic position that has some kind of common thread? Is there some kind of consciousness or double consciousness? Is it related to the Black double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois talks about? How is that going to be weaponized so that we can fight injustice? Is it enough just to say, “We’re all different”? Yes, we’re different. And then what? 


Cathy Park Hong’s book of creative nonfiction, Minor Feelings, was published this spring. A recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize at Yale University, she is the poetry editor of The New Republic.

Image: Joseph Schillinger, Key Blue (From series, Mathematical Basis of the Arts), ca. 1934, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute