Review: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

“The Korean word jeong is untranslatable but the closest definition is ‘an instantaneous deep connection,’ often between Koreans,” Cathy Park Hong writes in her new essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Perhaps this is one of the things the book accomplishes: building a deep and immediate sense of connection, intimacy and awareness. Minor Feelings moves between cultural criticism, memoir, history, and research, asking questions about Asian American identity, both collective and individual. The essays are provocative, as they are vulnerable and tender. Hong draws on her experiences of being raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles, fraught family dynamics, friendship and art, in order to understand the Asian American psyche. In this quest, she urges her readers to consider how we imbue people with preconceived stereotypes and expectations related to race. 

To this end, Hong provides new and necessary language for discussing the complexities of race. In the essay “Stand Up,” for example, Hong coins the term “minor feelings,” drawing inspiration from two writers she admires: Richard Pryor and Claudia Rankine. According to Hong, minor feelings are the cognitive dissonance between American optimism and the one’s individual racialized reality, characterized by everyday life experiences where your identity is questioned or dismissed—the, “Oh, that’s all in your head,” sentiment that both Pryor and Rankine explore in their work. Hong’s idea of “minor feelings” doesn’t conform to the “archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination” in contemporary American literature—one in which publishers expect nonwhite authors to write about exceptional family or historic tragedy turned revelatory state of self-affirmation. She points to this expectation as the reason that many Asian American novelists set trauma in the distant mother country to ensure that their pain is not an objection against American culture and society. She also writes specifically about the case of the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong. Reviewers never fail to cite his biography—a story of immigration to America after the Vietnam War, and yet, ignore his queer identity. It has only been after his 2019 novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, that reviewers have started to become sensitive to the complex intersectionality of his identities. But still, queerness doesn’t fit into the white expectation of “the tragic Vietnamese refugee,” and so interviewers still ask him to recite the expected narrative arc of refugee impoverishment and finding salvation in poetry.

Minor feelings resist the emotional catharsis that is expected in nonwhite writers’ stories— “Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain? I don’t think, therefore I am—I hurt, therefore I am.” These feelings can be paranoia, shame, melancholy, irritation. The commonality is that they are born out of lack of change—especially structural and economic change. She writes, “Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place.”

The essay collection itself is anchored by Hong’s own versions of minor feelings. Her voice is confident, provocative, and relentless as she reflects on her own experiences. She resists traditional arcs of emotional overcoming or demise by peppering the book with episodes of self-doubt—a minor feeling she taps into often. The book begins with a story about Hong’s facial tics that leave her anxious, self-conscious and depressed. Self-doubt is also deeply embedded in the project itself: “It discomfited me to attach my experience to a history that, next to the black and white apartheid that has carved itself into the American infrastructure, felt anecdotal.” Hong writes, “Writing about race is a polemic, in that we must confront the white capitalist infrastructure that has erased us, but also a lyric, in that our inner consciousness is knotted with contradictions.” She describes, for example, how Asian immigrants often feel indebted to America, and as a result, their children think they owe their lives to their parents’ suffering and in this way become, “ideal neoliberal subjects” and thus must prove themselves in the workforce through endless hard work and striving. At the same time, Hong recognizes that this model-minority is a myth, and yet benefits from this system as an intellectual and artist.

But the emotional contradictions in this book are working at a deeper level, too. In her description of a brief experimentation with stand-up comedy, she writes: “In my search for an honest way to write about race, I wanted to comfort the afflicted, but more than that, I wanted to afflict the comfortable; I wanted to make them squirm in shame, but probably because I too identify with the comfortable.” This discomfort underlies many experiences of her own life: like when she felt angry at a Vietnamese immigrant teenager who was giving her a pedicure and yanked off her cuticles; when a group of white kids in her Southern California neighborhood mocked her and her grandmother by saying “Herro” and kicked her grandmother to the ground; when someone said, “Ching chong ding dong” to her on a New York subway and she got angrier at her white friend who burst into tears because it was too painful to watch.

I myself experienced the nuance of Hong’s arguments as I read the book. I am Japanese and I identify as Asian. This book made me agree in emphatic yes’s at some moments and it made me feel vulnerable, uncomfortable and guilty at others. I felt validated in all of the moments she talks about the things I’ve felt are taboo for me to talk about: the difficulty of being a writer who doesn’t necessarily write about race (and doesn’t want to) and yet is pushed into doing so; the ongoing racism within Hollywood, complaining about work or social hierarchy or pay and being told “Why are you pissed! You’re next in line to be white!” But I also felt deeply uncomfortable in certain moments, such as when Hong says that Asians are so far from reckoning with race that, “some Asians think that race has no bearing on their lives, that it doesn’t ‘come up,’ which is as misguided as white people saying the same thing about themselves, not only because of discrimination we have faced but because of the entitlements we’ve been granted due to our racial identity.” As an Asian nonfiction writer who writes extensively about personal experiences and yet very rarely writes about race, I felt deeply implicated in that moment. I have always been the writer in the room who defends adding more detail about Japan or my interracial relationship because “it doesn’t come up.”

This book gives language to those of us who never learned in college or media or life how to talk about this liminal racial space we inhabit, which is both purgatory and privilege. The more I thought about it, I realized that this discomfort Hong says she wants to inflict applies to everyone, even me. If we don’t bring Asian identity to the current black-and-white racial discourse, will it ever be discussed? If we don’t interrogate our own biases and privileges, how could we ever improve the public discourse around race? Hong doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, provide a solution to racial inequity but she is, unarguably, a fierce and much-needed voice today.

About the author

Yoshiko Iwai is a nonfiction MFA candidate and narrative medicine MS candidate at Columbia University.

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