The poet Cathy Park Hong begins her new book of essays with a bang that’s disguised as a tic. In “Minor Feelings,” she recalls an imaginary spasm in her face that marked the beginning of a yearlong depression. Hong, the American-born daughter of Korean immigrants, made an appointment with the only Korean-American therapist she could find who took her insurance, figuring their shared background would give her a reprieve from having to explain herself too much.
“She’d look at me and just know where I was coming from,” Hong reasoned. But the first thing Hong noticed when they met was the “enormous” size of the therapist’s face. Hong wondered if this was a problem for her; a common Korean compliment, Hong says, is to describe a woman’s face as “so small it’s the size of a fist.”
The delivery of this observation is matter-of-fact and remorseless, a sign that Hong’s book, subtitled “An Asian American Reckoning,” will also entail a reckoning with herself. The essays wander a variegated terrain of memoir, criticism and polemic, oscillating between smooth proclamations of certainty and twitches of self-doubt. The subject of the book is ostensibly racial identity, but Hong confesses to feeling unsure and unsettled about her authority to write it. “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,” she writes.
She used to let that “anecdotal” feeling dissuade her from writing about Asian identity, recalling poetry workshops in which her classmates would condescend to it as an “insufficient and inadequate” subject unless it came paired with some sweeping assertions about capitalism. As a teenager in the early 1990s, Hong lived in a big house in a Los Angeles neighborhood full of well-to-do white people — far from South Central when it was wracked by unrest following the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. The experience of Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central wasn’t hers to share; nor was the experience of Chinese workers brought to the United States after the Civil War.
But the material privilege of her childhood was bounded by a father who drank too much and a mother prone to sudden fits of rage. The homes of her white friends emanated a “harmonious balance of order and play,” with parents speaking calmly to each other and adorable terriers gamboling for biscuits. Hong’s home, by contrast, “was tense and petless, with sharp witchy stenches, and a mother who hung all our laundry outside, and a grandmother who fertilized our garden plot of scallions with a Folgers can of her own urine.”
A liberating figure for Hong turns out to be the comedian Richard Pryor, whose standup special she watched during her depression, marveling at his freewheeling delivery and his brave attire: a red silk shirt that unforgivingly revealed dark blooms of sweat. She knows that the affiliation she’s claiming is unexpected, but what drew her to Pryor was his ability to channel a range of “minor feelings” that included melancholy and shame. He would strut across the stage one moment, confidently delivering an impression, and in the next he would trail off to let the discomfort linger after a double-edged joke.
Citing the poet Claudia Rankine and the theorist Sianne Ngai, Hong distinguishes minor feelings from the major emotions that propel typical narrative arcs and moments of revelation. Minor feelings don’t lend themselves to catharsis or change; they’re ambient and chronic, “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”
Her book, then, conveys her perception of reality, as she rescues it from the flattening forces of her own distortions and other people’s expectations. A white man yelled a racist epithet at her on the subway, but she says she’s still angrier at her white friend who burst into tears. She recalls getting a pedicure at an Iowa strip mall and fuming at the teenage son of the Vietnamese immigrant owner who ripped off her cuticles with his rough ministrations. Her tone can sound petulant and aggrieved, sly and comic, sometimes all at once: “He was so ungainly in that supplicant’s crouch, making me feel ungainly in my vibrating massage chair.”
Can she be trusted? “I am an unreliable narrator, hypervigilant to the point of being paranoid,” she writes of the experience at the nail salon. “I have rewritten this memory so many times I have mauled it down to nothing.” “Minor Feelings” is studded with moments like this — candor and dark humor shot through with glittering self-awareness.
Hong says she feels torn between the lyric, which recognizes ambiguity and contradiction, and the polemic, a more urgent yet constricted form. The polemical Hong is earnest and righteous, denouncing “the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy” that “has enriched itself off the blood of our countries.” What she wants, as a writer, is “to help overturn the solipsism of white innocence.”
The lyrical Hong is no less furious, but she’s wryer and sharper, less blunt and more subversive. She sees how she benefits from the model-minority myth even as it traps her, absorbing her accomplishments to fuel a system she doesn’t believe in. American culture might thrive on noise and bombast, but Hong knows that power can accumulate elsewhere: “The circuits of a poetic form are not charged on what you say, but what you hold back.”