Before beginning Minor Feelings, A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition, an essay collection by the poet Cathy Park Hong, I sat with the book in my lap for a few extra moments. Flames flick over the British cover. The title and author’s name are printed in ALL CAPITALS. It feels like the cover designer is trying to say this book is a fire bomb. My 23andMe profile would inform you that half my genetics are from Asia. I’ve been told I will love this book, and I want that to be true.
The essays can be read alone or in order. Hong gives her take on stand-up, female friendship, the poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, poetry, and art-making. Tying all this together is Hong’s desire to outline the Asian American condition. Hong argues that ‘Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy’: that Asian Americans occupy a slippery spot that makes them both the oppressors and the oppressed. When a white man tells her that ‘Asians are next in line to be white’, she considers that she could have replied, ‘We were here since 1587!… So what’s the hold up? Where’s our white Groupon?’ Hong looks at the LA race riots between the Black and Korean American communities. Koreans had the economic advantage: Asians were better able to get bank loans to open up small businesses in the poor neighbourhoods where they lived with other marginalised communities. But Hong also stresses the need to ‘balance multiple truths’ — many of these Korean merchants were themselves only just above destitution. They were not the architects of white supremacy. And she gives instances of Black Korean co-operation. The ways the Asian community can learn from and support the Black community is a recurring theme, be it in Hong’s own admiration for the black stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, or in the way she retells the story of Yuri Kochiyama and her support of Malcolm X. But the exact location of Asians, between whiteness and blackness, resists measurement. Perhaps because, as Hong points out, there are so many ways to be Asian or Asian American.
The desire and reluctance to speak of Asians as a group is present throughout Hong’s book. At times, Hong writes of Asians in sweeping terms — ‘From invisible girlhood, the Asian American woman will blossom into fetish object.’ While this experience may seem common, it is hard to believe it is universal. But elsewhere, Hong holds herself to account for her own assumptions. In another essay, she records a conversation with a friend in which she says, ‘I think it’s a problem how Asians are so private about their own traumas’, only to have that friend point out what a huge generalisation this is.
I was struck by Hong’s willingness to share this questioning of her own thought processes. She points out how we ‘lionise’ bad-boy white male writers but ‘demand that minority writers must always be good.’ Hong defies this maxim, allowing herself to be messily emotional. She goes so far as to describe herself as ‘a dog cone of shame’. This is only one of many of her so-named ‘minor feelings’, which Hong defines as ‘emotions that are negative, dysphoric and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.’ One way of dealing with your reality being dismissed is to write an entire book about it. Should we think to dismiss them as only feelings, we’re reminded that they are the products of careful racial, historical, and political analysis. Only a few paragraphs after describing herself as ‘a urinal cake of shame’, Hong quotes Sartre in a measured tone. And it is in her ability to intertwine the political, philosophical, and emotional that I find her to be at her most compelling.
The intertwining of educated thinker and feeling human is most present in the essay ‘An Education’, the story of Hong’s artistic education at university, and of her friendship with two other Asian women. Her friendship with Erin is healthy, productive, and filled for the most part with admiration. The only points of contention are Hong’s dislike of Erin’s boyfriends and a question as to whether Hong can include a point of biographical detail in this book. The other is messy. Helen is a mentally unstable, anorexic, illegal drug-taking, brilliant artist. She drives around throwing pink marshmallow birds and Lithium pills at her friends. She is overwhelmingly talented but suicidal. Her paranoia leads her to accuse Hong of wanting to escape their friendship. And Hong thinks ‘You’re right! You’re a fucking lunatic and I want you out of my life.’ She self-describes her younger self as ‘selfish’ and ‘cowardly’, and sometimes really seems so. Yet she is also vulnerable, scared of her friend’s rage, scared that she might not have enough talent.
The three girls are bonded in part because they are Asian, but also, it seems, because they are artists. The reasons are confusing, contentious, and at first might seem not quite to belong in a reckoning on race. Do we need to know about the time Hong wanted to do a poetry reading in a flooded basketball court, and how, after it was drained, Helen helped her flood it again? Do we need to know about Helen’s sculptures of copper pipes and filaments? Do we need to know about the day Hong tried to get her friends to relax and take their shirts off and it went horribly wrong? Actually, I think we do. We don’t need it in order to make Hong’s humanity as an Asian person visible — we need it for her humanity as a writer and thinker. She is giving us the history of her early education, the ways in which sometimes it was all about race, and sometimes it was about being worn out by a friend you love. She is offering her intellectual and emotional workings.
There were moments reading Minor Feelings when I wondered who it was for. Was the description of an achingly common experience — being called a chink on the subway — a rallying cry? Or was it to make this particular kind of pain real to a non-Asian audience? In the essay ‘United’, Hong recounts meeting a sobbing young Korean-American student, and deciding that she was writing this book for her — but she ends on a more ambivalent encounter with an elderly white woman. Hong does not say that she thought she would write a book for this woman. Yet it is, perhaps, intended for her too. And of course, as I read, I asked myself, was it for me?
There are books that make you forget yourself. You become the cameraman’s lens as you pass over the scene. Minor Feelings is not that sort of book. I could not figure out how to write this review without referring to my own mixed-race body. I came to the book hoping it would have a space for my own minor feelings, the battles that sometimes seem invisible to everyone but me, and might offer insight into how to describe the small fierce loves that may or may not have anything to do with my race. As Hong recounts insults heard on the subway, my heart duly spat up my own personal giftbox of slurs — oriental, exotic, half-caste. There were times where I found a perfect mirror — a childhood fascination with anime eyes and bodies whose delicate forms I didn’t match, the abrasions of wondering if you are being oversensitive, the pricks of fear that my work will only be perceived through the lens of my race.
There were differences, too. Hong complains that East Asians are supposed to write narratives in which the ‘character’s inner thoughts are evacuated’ — I, on the other hand, have often been asked to explain more, to the point where I wondered whether if my characters were whiter, a white reader would find it easier to just slip inside. Hong writes of the frustration and fear of being mistaken for another Asian person, but as a mixed-race child who for many years only longed to look like her mother, such mistakes bother me less. If anything, I must admit to a small fizz, thrill even, that I have been seen to belong in some group. She writes of the joys and trauma of ‘Broken English’, and I think of the loss and silence of sitting across from my Chinese great-aunt and knowing that although there was so much I wanted to ask her, we had no language in common. English was the only sound my tongue could make cleanly. I think of the fact that I never got to tell my Japanese grandfather that I was studying his language, because Parkinson’s had already shaken him away from me.
Yet Hong’s willingness to show her reckoning as partial and specific means that, rather than feeling excluded by the work, I am invited in to think with her. Hong quotes the film-maker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s suggestion that in filmmaking you can decide to ‘speak nearby, rather than speak about’ a group of people. As you film them, you ‘want to leave a space of representation open so that, although you’re very close to your subject, you’re also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or on top of them.’ Hong explains that she is ‘only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition’, and with that caveat she claims a freedom to think — to expand, to theorise, but also to leave space for others. It is not a book I will wave in the air and say, ‘This is me! This is me!’ Because it is not. It is deeply Cathy Park Hong. But that is as it should be. And it is a book that feels true and thorough. It is a book that will encourage you to look at your own life more clearly.
It feels impossible to write about this book or the Asian American condition without talking about the circumstances in which I’m writing this review. In between reading Minor Feelings, I was checking the news and my emails with that flickering attention that is supposedly so typical of the present day. As I write, Britain has just enforced a stricter lockdown. In this time of panic and pandemic, the world still seems to be shrinking, even for someone like me, who normally works at home. Confinement heightens appreciation of what used to be taken for granted. Mid-writing this essay, my editor emailed me, and mentioned that my copy of Minor Feelings was the last to make it out of the publisher’s office before they closed. I imagine it being slipped into its envelope just as everyone makes it out of the door carrying their laptops, their tiny plants in pots, their files.
My newsfeed is full of Asian British and Asian American people describing their sense of searing visibility. A friend who is, like me, mixed-race writes of how, when doing her rationed shop, a man began to yell at her. I wasn’t there for the abuse. Isolating miles away, I keep trying to reconstruct his face — to imagine the man whose niceties were scrubbed away by panic, screaming at a small woman holding a few bags of shopping. This is not the visibility that we were hoping for when we lobbied for more Asians in movies or on television. This is a reality in which faces that vaguely resemble my relatives are pinned to almost every article about a virus that is killing our elderly, killing our beloveds. And there are almost no sympathetic human interest stories about Asian victims. I am most worried about my 90-year-old Shanghainese grandmother who lives alone in New York. We are not there to explain to her what is going on. She is terrified of going out because she has picked up from the news that there is a renewal of ‘Yellow Peril’ viciousness. I will not know if someone screams at her. She will not post it to Twitter. COVID-19 seems to have triggered people’s recognition that there are Asian people everywhere. And this recognition seems, if anything, more frightening than invisibility.
Hong’s book was written before this began. Still, I found myself searching for answers in her text. There were moments of strange disjunction. Early on Hong writes of how ‘it’s a unique condition that’s distinctly Asian’ to ‘barely exist anywhere in the public eye’. But at the end of the book I find the quote that I need. Hong quotes protestor and ex-internment camp survivor Tom Ikeda: ‘We need to be the allies for vulnerable communities today that Japanese Americans didn’t have in 1942.’ In citing Ikeda, she could be talking to her white readers, urging them to be allies to the Asian Americans in their lives, or she could be talking to her Asian American readers, urging them to be allies to other minorities. I thank Hong for leaving us with Ikeda’s words — ones that apply no matter how visible or invisible we become.