How Does One Tell the Story of Asian America?

Illustration by Diane Zhou.

When I was growing up, I would try to sit as far away as possible from any other Asian girl who happened to be in the same room. This applied largely to institutional settings—school, swim lessons—where experience had taught me that proximity was the surest path to our being confused with each other. My sense of individualism, it seemed, hinged on the rejection of racial conflation, to say nothing of racial solidarity. But by preemptively refusing affiliation with that other Asian girl, I had already absorbed the ambient racism of my white instructors and schoolmates. I did not yet understand how viewing her as a generalization implicated my internalization of anti-Asian sentiments.

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Cathy Park Hong’s bracing new book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, begins with a similar anecdote about two Asian women in irreconcilable conflict. More specifically, it begins with two Korean American women—Hong and a potential new therapist—who fail to get on. Hong suspects it is because of their shared ethnicity. Where likeness might enable a more productive therapeutic relationship, Hong encounters only further animosity. After the therapist finally rejects her increasingly desperate overtures, Hong leaves what she calls a “long screed” of a review on the website RateMyTherapist: “Koreans are repressed! Rigid! Cold! They should not be allowed to work in the mental health care profession!” At an appointment with a new therapist (this time Jewish), Hong spends most of the session retracing the traumas of her first. While the new therapist affirms her feelings about the previous one’s unprofessionalism, she also wonders whether Hong’s “personal history was somehow too close to the first therapist’s, issues that she herself had not fully processed.”

For Hong, the phenomenon of being “too close”—an overidentification that paradoxically produces alienation—is also a condition of being Asian American. This initial episode of antagonism becomes just one of many examples for Hong of such alienation. Disidentification is what often unites the Asian American experience, she writes; many Asian Americans find themselves caught in what she calls “minor” racial conflicts (one could call them microaggressions, except they occur intraracially).

The feelings that arise from these racial conflicts are the subject of Hong’s book. She is interested in how these minor antagonisms limit Asian American expression and representation. To make her argument, Hong draws from literary theorist Sianne Ngai’s theory of “ugly feelings”—those weak and dysphoric emotions such as envy, irritation, and boredom that, Ngai argues, are symptomatic of late capitalism. For Hong, they are also symptomatic of a society organized by racial inequality. Because Asian Americans have historically been stereotyped as meek, recessive, invisible, their emotional vocabulary has similarly inhabited a more muted register. They occupy, she writes, “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.” Not only are these minor Asian American feelings defined by a more depressive range of emotion—shame, resentment, paranoia, and melancholy—but their lack of catharsis also means they linger for a long time. The crux of Hong’s book, then, is this: How does one tell an Asian American story that captures the full range of these minor feelings, their complexity, their pathos, their commonness, without simply lapsing into conventions of disappearance and weakness so deeply associated with being Asian American?

Hong achieves this by fully attending to Asian America’s many weak and ugly feelings. Rather than commit to one strong narrative, Minor Feelings embraces the contradictions at the center of her book’s argument. Each essay weaves between biographical anecdotes and historical events. An author of three poetry collections, Hong is uniquely adept at negotiating rhetorical indeterminacy. Her 2012 book Engine Empire narrates the birth of a nation—from the American frontier to a semifictional Chinese city called Shangdu to a futuristic California—by modulating across different voices. In speculating on a shared constellation of themes, Hong’s poetry also contains the seeds of her new book: American exceptionalism, a mythical Asian imaginary, capitalist expansion. And while Minor Feelings is Hong’s first work of nonfiction, the stylistic traces of her eclectic and episodic poetic style persist even here. The chapters are each organized around a general theme, such as “The End of White Innocence” or “The Indebted,” but they scatter—as does her poetry—across a range of perspectives and genres.

In a chapter titled “Stand Up” that documents Hong’s unexpected identification with the comedian Richard Pryor, she describes her frustration with the “conventional forms in which racial trauma is framed.” While the confessional mode’s presumptions of universalism make her queasy, traditional realism also feels dubious for its claim to anthropological authenticity. Tired of how publishers fixate on what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as the ethnic “single story”—which shows “a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again”—Hong chooses instead to fracture that story, spilling it across multiple genres.

Sometimes this fracturing can look like a masochistic form of comedy, as when Hong tries stand-up herself. At other times, writing about race is a fervent “polemic, in that we must confront the white capitalist infrastructure that has erased us.” But it can also be, she reminds us, “a lyric, in that our inner consciousness is knotted with contradictions.”

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Her book is ultimately less a definitive document of the Asian American experience than it is a document of Hong’s attempts (and frequent failures) to articulate its contradictions. Because of Asian America’s relatively “minor” status as a racial minority, Hong seeks to make visible an underrepresented racial experience, even as she often voices the discomfort and difficulty of doing so. Yet this ongoing discomfort is ultimately crucial to Hong’s articulation of Asian American minor feelings—a set of negative emotions that cannot be expressed except in their ambivalence, their irreconcilability.

For as long as I could remember,” Hong writes, “I have struggled to prove myself into existence.” With Minor Feelings, she simultaneously grapples with associated anxieties about her potential disappearance in writing on behalf of the Asian American subject. “I began this book as a dare to myself,” she explains, because “I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent.” Yet even in the final product, this anxiety about the potential indulgence of the project can be felt. One of the dominant minor feelings in the book is, after all, Hong’s guilt—a guilt only heightened in the very act of talking about it. This book is indeed a reckoning: a willing to make oneself visible and heard. It is also an apology.

While Hong relishes identifying with Pryor’s caustic wit and rage, she demurs from overidentification. In watching him move between the racial stereotypes around black-white relations, she finds herself disoriented: “One minute I’m laughing at white people, and feeling the rage of black oppression as if it’s my own, until the next bit, when I realize I’m allied with white people.”

A concern with the notion that Asian Americans are “next in line to be white” can be found in almost every essay in Minor Feelings. Hong is attuned to the relationship between Asian racialization and American capitalism, as Asian American assimilation has almost always relied on economic advancement. It is, after all, one of the reasons Ngai’s model of capitalist ugly feelings maps so well onto Hong’s matrix of Asian American minor feelings. And while she often cites theorists such as Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. Du Bois, Hong is careful to distinguish the Afro-Anglophone experience from the privileges associated with Asian American capitalist success. Stuck between racial abjection and economic exceptionalism, she frequently finds her voice receding into a murky absence. “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’” she writes, “I replace the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear.’” For Hong, the specter of disappearance is inextricable from Asian America’s economic and cultural capital. A professor at Rutgers University–Newark, Hong is ever conscious of how Asian America’s rising economic and cultural capital helps promote this notion of disappearance. Part of the challenge in writing about Asian America’s minor feelings is doing so in a way that does not simply reiterate Asian American racial capitalism.

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Hong struggles with this dilemma throughout Minor Feelings. What does it mean to write for a racial minority that must nonetheless circulate within a largely white publishing community and readership? Is it even possible? While she touches on the radical origins of “Asian American,” she is aware that the term has since been commodified by the publishing world. An MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hong is no stranger to how literary institutions produce racial capital. Early on, she describes an overwhelming anxiety that her graduate peers could read her only through her Asian identity—a strategy of capitalizing on her ethnicity that the younger Hong finds “juvenile.” Fearing that others will label her as merely an identitarian poet, she chooses instead to be a “good student of modernism” with its commitment to abstraction and universalism.

When Hong starts publishing, she learns that her poetry gets read through her Asian female identity regardless of what she writes, and at readings she finds herself almost always addressing a mostly white audience. “There was no denying it,” she concludes. “I was performing for a roomful of bored white people and I desperately wanted their approval.” Although Minor Feelings seeks to reject this white approval, the specter of whiteness haunts the book. “Even in opposition,” Hong explains, “I still see my life in relation to whiteness.”

Hong’s struggle to detach from the value system of American capitalism and its reproduction of white prestige resonated with my own experience in university settings, where the aesthetic virtues of Anglo-American modernism still tend to dominate academic inquiry. Like Hong, I too began to feel what she describes as “a kind of despair” about the fact that there might be no way to write about a personal racial condition that does not lapse into a self-annihilating appeal for the approval of white people.

Yet as one moves through Minor Feelings, one begins to see how, beside her rejection of white affirmation, there exists a more affirmative story of Asian American collectivity: A minor plot of the book, scattered across its chapters, is one of racial solidarity. A poetry reading Hong gives at Western Michigan University is particularly illustrative. As the event wraps up, a Korean American student goes up to her and starts crying after describing “how alone and alienated she felt on campus.” They hug. “It is for her,” Hong thinks, “that I’m writing this book.”

Hong offers another example later. Writing about the women in Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s 1993 documentary Sa-I-Gu, which features Korean American shopkeepers whose businesses were burned down during the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Hong notes, “Interview after interview…I experienced another shock of recognition…. They are like my aunts.” For Hong, these anecdotal instances of recognition begin to add up to the major narrative impulse that drives Minor Feelings. They are why she is writing this book.

This minor plot necessarily emerges piecemeal. Readers repeatedly glimpse characters like the Los Angeles shopkeepers through Hong’s experiences of identification and disidentification. They are found in the personal and the anecdotal: the rejection of the Korean American therapist or the embrace of the Korean American student. They also prove to be a more general theme, appearing across the book like a heterogeneous Asian American grouping that Hong works to make visible, however fleetingly. Like the minor feelings that are the book’s named subject, their presence—and their persistence—occurs through their serial invocation, their cumulative semblances.

A chapter titled “Bad English” sits at the midpoint of Minor Feelings and functions as a pivot away from the more polemical ground setting in the book’s first half to the more intimate interventions in its second. Rather than advance any theses about contemporary Asian America, “Bad English” offers a searching and introspective examination of the very language that makes Minor Feelings possible—the literary forms that enable Hong to speak to and on behalf of the contradictions of being Asian American. The chapter ends with a series of unanswerable questions that strike me as a kind of renunciation of the more public-facing writing of the initial chapters:

Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin?

In the chapter that follows, “An Education,” Hong begins to answer some of these questions and in doing so produces one of the more thrilling essays of the book. Here, she documents her friendship with Erin and Helen—two other Asian female artists—as students at Oberlin College. “An Education” is not only a Künstlerroman in miniature; it also functions as a story of Asian American female friendship that I realized, upon reading, felt rare only in its literary representation. Hong, Erin, and Helen form an obsessive bond that is both painful and necessary. While they frequently experience conflict (especially the mercurial Helen, who is no longer part of Hong’s life), the friendship is clearly formative in not just a personal but also an artistic way. “When I made art alone, it was a fantasy,” Hong writes, “but shared with Erin and Helen, art became a mission.”

Throughout “An Education,” Hong renders their friendship—while often volatile and sometimes even violent—in a way that feels crucially vital. It is an artistic friendship that exceeds the sum of its parts. “I had intended to write only about Erin,” Hong admits toward the essay’s end, long after she’s spilled so many of the details and traumas of Helen’s life, but for Hong, her relationship with Erin was inextricable from the one she had with Helen.

Minor Feelings begins with intraracial antagonism, but it ends by trying to envision something closer to a form of intraracial solidarity. After “An Education,” Hong writes about the relatively underexamined rape and murder of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who is best known for writing the 1982 experimental autobiography Dictée. While scholars have pored over Cha’s avant-garde masterwork, which mixes genres and languages in narrating the lives of radical women such as Joan of Arc and Yu Guan Soon, Hong wonders what is lost by overlooking the more personal details of Cha’s death. While sympathetic to the concern of potentially fetishizing these events, she is baffled by “the length to which scholars will argue how Cha is recovering the lives of Korean women silenced by historical atrocities while remaining silent about the atrocity that took Cha’s own life.” Her essay seeks to reconstruct, if not quite popularize, Cha’s life for a broader audience.

Drawing on court records as well as interviews with Cha’s brother John and her friend Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Hong tells this story through an idiosyncratic archive that is both impersonal and so intimate as to be familial. Whereas legal documents provide only inconclusive information about Cha’s life and death, John offers the kind of biographical texture about her typically omitted by scholarship on Cha. Hong weaves herself into Cha’s story, saying how a teacher at Oberlin, the Korean American avant-garde poet Myung Mi Kim, first told her about Dictée. “By introducing me to Cha, my professor Kim established a direct, if modest, literary link: Cha, Kim, myself”—a genealogy of Asian American feminist aesthetic avant-gardism that might also include Erin and Helen.

Given Hong’s gesture to this personal genealogy, it is perhaps unsurprising that her final chapter ends on a note of debt, looking backward at the immigrants and political movements that now make her and her book possible. Likewise, Hong’s theoretical citations throughout the book show her indebtedness to other scholars of race—contemporary, Asian American, and otherwise. A look at the press blurbs for Minor Feelings, which include quotes from Claudia Rankine, Alexander Chee, and Kiese Laymon, also gives the reader a sense of the contemporary literary community that enables this book. Minor Feelings, then, stretches out along a broader network of not just racial but also intellectual circulation.

In ending on debt, Hong expresses an important fact of Asian American solidarity. As much as we might wish to reject one another—to reject other Asians as a way to affirm ourselves—our experiences are only as real as they are shared. One’s own Asian American story might begin with an anecdote as well, but it is also a part of a broader history as we begin to string them together. The very history of the term “Asian American” captures this dynamic—as it emerges from the radical student movements of the late 1960s, especially the Third World Liberation Front, which emphasized pan-Asian and cross-racial solidarity.

Such an act of collective storytelling seems increasingly necessary, given the rise of anti-Asian sentiment during the coronavirus pandemic. Writing for TheNew Yorker’s website, the novelist Ed Park wonders if his recent racist encounter with a man on the streets of New York City merited “minor feelings or major.” One xenophobic encounter might feel “not that remarkable,” but as his piece goes on to list, a series of instances of anti-Asian discrimination suggests a different story. What a strange time to be thinking about Asian American disappearance; I have never felt more anxiously visible. Yet it is a visibility that need not only be unwelcome. At such a time—taking my allotted daily constitutionals, standing in line for groceries—I scan the scene, wondering if I’ll see anyone else who looks like me.