A prominent, activist Asian-American poet, writer and professor, Cathy Park Hong’s first non-fiction book, Minor Feelings, is a bold and essential collection of essays that questions the racial identity of Asian-American immigrants and the problem of stereotypes that obstruct mutual understanding between the white and non-white population in the US.
Minor Feelings portrays with clarity how different generations respond to the notion of race. While her parents’ generation hoped to be accepted into American society through being more compromising and “invisible”, Hong questions the consequences of such invisibility and complicit silence, urging for more action to address stereotypes:
I have to address whiteness because Asian-Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy of this country. We are so far from reckoning with it that some Asians think that race has no bearing on their lives…
A crucial point Hong keeps coming back to is the way people failed to differentiate between the different nationalities or ethnicities among Asian-Americans, and to grasp their respective histories and longings. For example, she writes that she has “a hard time embracing the nineteenth-century history of Chinese America as my history,” because she is from a Korean family. Responding to the current time we live in, this book fleshes out some of the problems with applying ready-made categories to Asian-Americans, a context that makes it easier for us to understand the current debates regarding the “category” of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and the rising concerns over anti-Asian discrimination in educational settings and communities.
A striking example of racial awareness and stereotypes is Hong’s recollection of her father’s preoccupation with how they are perceived as a model minority on Iowa University’s campus, as he urges his daughter to be careful in her driving because otherwise “they will see that you are an Asian driving badly.” Hong identifies herself with the second generation Asian-Americans who, like her, are aware of their power to redefine themselves and to claim their place in a more diverse society:
I was the beneficiary of a mid-to-late-nineties college education … My most brilliant friends and professors were people of color. I took it for granted that a class should have a diverse reading list.
Throughout the book, Hong also retraces the long way that the Asian-Americans have come, from how the Chinese–possibly perceived by the white settlers as strange and “funny-looking in their padded pajamas”—were brought into the country and “drilled dynamite and laid out the tracks for the transcontinental railroad until they were blown up by dynamite or buried by sandstorms”, to the unjust treatment and deaths of Korean civilians in the Korean War, having been mistaken for being Communist collaborators.
At the heart of these essays are the honesty and authenticity with which Hong charts out her doubts or reflections on race, particularly as her negotiation on race or racial identity intersects hinges on her identity as a poet. While on one hand she is conscious that her father is proud of his daughter’s identity as a poet, her doubts remain as to how much creative licence and authority she possesses as an Asian writer:
But when I became a published poet, I couldn’t suspend my Asian female identity no matter what I wrote.Even in the absence of my body, my spectral authorial identity hampered the magnitude and range in which my voice reached readers … If Whitman’s I contained multitudes, my I contained 5.6 percent of this country. Readers, teachers, and editors told me in so many words that I should write whatever felt true to my heart but that since I was Asian, I might as well stick to the subject of Asians, even though no one cared about Asians, but what choice did I have since if I wrote about, say, nature, no one would care because I was an Asian person writing about nature?
Through her extensive research on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s rape and homicide and her genre-bending autobiography Dictée—which documents the violence of Korean history through Cha’s personal stories—Hong prompts the reader into questioning the perception of Asian women and the danger of perpetuating racial injustice through collective, complicit silence.
Exploring her feelings of allegiance and responsibility as a writer and an immigrant, Hong reminds us that an Asian-American immigrant’s indebtedness to his or her adopted country does not mean that they have to be always grateful. Illustrating her points with examples such as the Japanese-American activist Kochiyama’s advocacy for reparations and a government apology for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Hong calls for greater political consciousness and activism among immigrants to undo racial prejudice and divides that still run rampant in society today.
Through her encounters with history and literature, as well as her lived experiences, her literary influences and keen observations, Hong challenges the self-perpetuating nature of racial stereotypes as she translates the difficult, conflicting feelings growing up as a member of an ethnic minority into purposeful activism. Well-researched, intelligent and uncompromising, Minor Feelings leaves you feeling uncomfortable for the right reasons.
Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her books include Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry) and 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press).