Book review: ‘Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’ By Cathy Park Hong
On the cover of Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings,” aptly subtitled “An Asian American Reckoning,” flames dance around the uppercase title of the book. An arresting design, the cover art suggests danger, drama and daring — three elements that are unapologetically present in this essential interrogation on race and writing.
“Minor Feelings” is a collection of seven essays that explore a question of rising importance: What place do Asian Americans occupy in America? On the one hand, Asians are often called the model minority, considered “next in line to be white.” Asians as a whole are more economically privileged than other minority groups in the U.S. and are often high-achieving students and employees. But events in recent history, from the 1992 LA riots that took place in K-town to the 2017 incident where the Vietnamese doctor David Dao was forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight, suggest that Asians are more likely in line to “disappear” — to assimilate to or be swallowed up by the very system of capitalism that exploits them. Asian Americans, who have even been told that they don’t “count” as minorities anymore, are still often made to feel inadequate — if not by others, then by themselves.
“Not enough has been said about the self-hating Asian,” writes Hong. This self-hatred, which foments when Asians see themselves through the lens of white people, is among the “minor feelings” discussed in the book, along with emotions such as ingratitude, hostility and jealousy. The term describes the “cognitive dissonance” that Asian Americans feel when they are gaslit by American optimism, as well as the negative emotions they are “accused of having” when they confront their racialized reality. Reading the book, I felt seen; I wouldn’t be surprised if many AAPI readers realized that “minor feelings” is a term we have been hoping to come across for a long time.
“Minor Feelings” is a rigorously researched study of racism in America, and Hong writes about the Asian American experience holistically, showing how the struggles of all nonwhite people in America are connected. For example, even the term “Asian American” was inspired by the Black Power movement, coined at UC Berkeley in 1968 by activists.
But as much as “Minor Feelings” is a book about racial consciousness, it is also a book about writing against racism. Educated as a poet in American institutions, Hong understands all too well the inequities built into further education and literary publishing. As a student of color in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, she experienced firsthand microaggressions from her white classmates during workshops; as a reader and writer, she has watched publishers repeatedly market the “ethnic story” as a “single story.”
At the same time, “Minor Feelings” recognizes and is hopeful for a paradigm shift in the publishing world: one that overhauls the reduction of POC stories and urges writers of color to cease framing their trauma for a white imagination. This hope is palpable in “An Education,” Hong’s essay on the formative friendship she developed with two Asian American artists at Oberlin. The essay is a genuine page-turner, teeming with the drama and competition that occurs between close friends at college. More importantly, it is an ode to the “creative imagination” cultivated by friendship, a testament to the power of solidarity between artists who see themselves as outsiders.
“Minor Feelings” is an essay collection with poetry at its center. In one of the most powerful moments in the book, Hong describes how the presence of “bad English” in her own work is her way of using “English as a weapon in a power struggle” to “chip away at the pillar of poetry.” Through craft, she others a language that once intended to mark her as the other. Readers of Hong’s poetry will understand what she means by this — her striking poems intentionally use unconventional syntax, nonstandard spellings and non-English languages. Poetry, which Hong describes as a “forgiving medium for anyone who’s had a strained relationship with English,” thus becomes a medium for rebellion.
Indeed, as Hong argues, “writing about race is a polemic,” an attack on the infrastructure of white capitalism. It is also “a lyric, in that our inner consciousness is knotted with contradictions.” No essay better captures this sentiment than “Portrait of an Artist,” which conjoins polemic and lyric in a tribute to the late poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Cha’s “Dictee” is a seminal text in feminist studies, but the brutal rape that led to her murder is often ignored by scholars. Hong writes about Cha’s death directly, however, counteracting America’s history of allowing the disappearance of Asian women to go unnoticed. She rewrites a narrative that originally sought to satisfy a white audience and Western literary canon. The essay is heartbreaking and difficult to read. As such, it is a crucial part of a book that encourages us to recognize these uncomfortable, minor feelings; to ignite the tinderbox of change.
In “Minor Feelings,” Hong writes against disappearance, narrative and imperialism to carve out a space where Asian Americans can experience the reckoning they deserve. With every re-read, one sees more clearly how Hong explodes the myths of Asian American identity while exposing the racist underbelly of America.
Persuasive, poetic and poignant with a sense of humor, “Minor Feelings” is a blazing triumph.
May Huang is a writer and translator. Her work has been published in Electric Literature, Popdust, Words Without Borders, Circumference and more. Find her on Twitter @mayhuangwrites.
Read more of the May 26 - June 1, 2021 issue.