An Interview with Cathy Park Hong - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Cathy Park Hong

[Poet, Essayist]
by Franny Choi
May 27th, 2020

“One of the questions of this book is, “Who is us?” As Jeff Chang says, “I want to love us, but I don’t know who ‘us’ is.” I wanted to keep emphasizing that, because I know that Asians get sensitive when people try to define us. But for me it always remains a question, and maybe a resolution can be reached as people keep talking about it and ask that question too. “

Cathy Park Hong is my sunbae. It’s a word that means “senior” in Korean, often used to denote an older student, a senior coworker, or a more established colleague in your field. But the term—and the relationship—also carries a suggestion of mentorship, of mutual care. At least, I think it does. As a Korean American who’s lived in the US her whole life, I don’t always trust my own authority in parsing the subtleties of the Korean language and its interactions with my English.

Which, frankly, is why it’s always been comforting to know that writers like Cathy Park Hong exist. I owe much to the space she’s carved out, as a Korean American poet making political and aesthetic interventions in both the avant-garde and the literary world at large. In 2014, when I had just finished putting together my first poetry collection, her essay “Delusion of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” in the journal Lana Turner put language—fiery, incisive, clear-as-day language—to the unsettling frictions I was seeing between innovative writers of color and their white counterparts. While writing my second book, I returned again and again to Hong’s 2012 collection Engine Empire, which served as a guiding light in my venture into speculative poetry. 

So when I saw a publishing announcement about Hong’s first essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (recently released by One World/Random House), I rushed to my local bookstore to preorder a copy. I was thrilled to know that a nonfiction book about my experience would soon be in my hands. And yet, when I started reading, I was struck to discover it wasn’t about my experience—not always, not completely. There were essays and passages that I drank in greedily, gleefully, underlining and writing exclamation marks in the margins. There were times I put down the book to sigh or laugh. But there were question marks in the margins, too. There were assessments about the state of Asian America that I didn’t agree with, anxieties that felt distant from my own. All in all, I found myself in a strangely triangulated relationship with the book and the world it described—in which the self I found wasn’t always a self I recognized.

All of this made me nervous to talk to Hong, about the rupture that I was afraid it might cause in our sunbae/hoobae relationship. But our conversation turned out to be a necessary reminder that there’s never been a single Asian American experience—and that, in fact, the lack of easy equivalencies is precisely what Minor Feelings is all about. If an “Asian American reckoning” happens anywhere in Hong’s beautiful, genre-bending new book, it’s between contradictory selves that hold each other with curiosity and care.

—Franny Choi

THE BELIEVER: How are you feeling about the book being out in the world?

CATHY PARK HONG: I’m more nervous than when my poetry books have come out, probably because it’s a larger audience. It’s also my most personal book. I dig into a level of vulnerability that I haven’t done before. And I think there’s also a more functional purpose to this book of nonfiction. My poetry is more of an art form, whereas in nonfiction I’m really trying to spark a discussion and fill in a gap. I was reading an essay about how prose is a place in which we are able to say what we mean; to see what is meant to be understood, and to understand. I think there’s less of that in poetry—this need to be understood. 

BLVR: That’s fascinating. What led you to want to be understood? 

CPH: I think it was becoming a mother and getting older, and seeing our political situation getting more dire, while my position as a woman and an Asian American was still misunderstood. I think I was just tired of it. I was like, “Why are we having the same conversations about Asians being the most minority?” The book was my version of an intervention, to tear down what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a “single story”: the standardized, one-dimensional narrative of racial experience. It’s my way of saying, “Okay, let’s see what else is there.” 

I believe that it was probably motivated by the fact that I started making that switch from poetry to prose while I was pregnant. I think part of it was that I had less time and therefore wanted to be as efficient as I could—you know, more words per minute. But more importantly, I was grappling with my position in this country, with the future of America, and what it’s going to be like for my daughter. That was a huge motivating factor. 

BLVR: In the book, you define “minor feelings” as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, both from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Can you talk about what you mean by this?

CPH: When I say “minor feelings,” that includes all the feelings of shame, suspicion, and melancholy that you feel when the dominant culture gaslights your lived experiences. For instance, it’s when you hear a racist remark and then a white person tells you, “That’s not racist. It’s just all in your head.” Or it’s feeling like a failure while being told Asians are so successful. Or it’s “dining out while black,” or “playing tennis while black,” or “dancing while black.” It’s unlike being white, where you move in and out of your identity; when you’re a person of color, you can never really escape being labeled as such. And yet certain kinds of Asians—I’m not talking about Muslim Asians or trans Asian Americans here—but if you’re East Asian, then you tend to be hyper-invisible. And so, Minor Feelings is about the psychological effects of being invisible in this country. 

You know, there’s the Korean national emotion, Han. It’s wistfulness, bitterness, and melancholy, cemented over many years of colonialism and the war and dictatorships; it’s a kind of ongoing melancholia and pent-up rage about structural repression. I always thought this feeling was particular to Korea, but it’s not. I think there are some overlaps in American culture as well.

My thinking about minor feelings is also influenced by affect theory, especially Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. It’s cruel because you’re led to believe that, if you aspire to a certain kind of good life, you will attain it, when in fact it happens to very few people. When you don’t attain it, what kind of feelings are you left with?

BLVR: I was definitely struck by the lineage of Sianne Ngai. I also thought about work by David Eng and Anne Alin Cheng as I was reading it—maybe even Vijay Prashad, with The Karma of Brown Folk, in the lineage of DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Can you talk about other thinkers and writers you see this book being in lineage with? 

CPH: There are so many—there’s Theresa Cha, who I write about. Susan Sontag, in particular “Regarding the Pain of Others.” And all of Baldwin’s essays. I know, it’s boring to say those names, because everyone is influenced by Balwin and Sontag. Also, black intellectual thinkers are absolutely foundational to the work—people like Saidiya Hartman, Cornel West. Are you asking about nonfiction writers in particular? 

BLVR: I guess so, but this book straddles genres. It’s drawing from affect theory and Asian American studies, but at the same time, it’s not a scholarly text. 

CPH: Well, this is my role as a poet. Personally, I’ve never liked being contained in one genre. It was very important that I didn’t write another critical book or a scholarly book or history book. I wanted it to be kind of a weird book, a hybrid that was poetic and personal and theoretical. But I wouldn’t call it a lyric essay, either. I don’t know. What would you call it?

BLVR: Good question. It reads like something between critical essays and personal essays. And yet, like you say, the clarity of the writing makes it not quite lyrical either, though the prose is beautiful.

That makes me think: I was struck by the unconventional structure of many of the essays in this collection. They don’t do the thing where they start with a premise, think through its problems, and then return to the premise. So many of them start in one place and end in another, which I thought was really interesting. Can you talk about how you structured the essays and why you chose to do it that way?

CPH: It’s not so far removed from a poem. First of all, an essay follows the journey of your thinking. And if you write a certain kind of poem, you might do the same thing, following the journey of a thought. A lot of my thinking was quite associative. For instance, the essay “Bad English,” which is about my relationship with English and growing up bilingual. It started with childhood memories that then reminded me of this site called engrish.com and then reminded me of my mother’s English, which led me to think about cultural appropriation, to the artist Wu Tsang, to the question of how we live together. I didn’t want it outlined in the conventional way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It was more organic, one thought leading to another. The way I structured an essay was very much like a poem, with different anecdotes and analytic passages. It was led more by sound—by the way you put together a group of poems, based on sound and recurring images. 

BLVR: Yes, it seemed to be driven by both associative leaps and resonances between ideas and thoughts. At some point, I had the question, “What is it about these essays that only a poet could have written?” And I think the answer is that letting go of the need to have the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure. And doing that means that the ending isn’t always satisfying, exactly. It frustrates the expectation of arriving at an answer. I think only a poet writing about minor feelings could be comfortable with how unsettling that is.

CPH: There are no happy endings. And there are no easy answers!

BLVR: Can I ask you about the challenges of writing about the big, unwieldy category of Asian Americans? You acknowledge the nature of this problem in the book. There’s a line, “The paint on the Asian American label has not dried,” which is a beautiful way of putting it. How did you manage the unwieldiness of the term in this project?

CPH: It was really hard. My writing has always been invested in race, and the way I tackled it was by exploring my Korean identity and history, or writing about migration. But “Asian American” is a very amorphous label. It’s a term that ties together, like I say in my book, “a tenuous alliance” that includes many nationalities, sexualities, cultures. So, how do you even go about trying to define that? A lot of people think the U.S. Census Bureau came up with the term Asian American, when in fact, it was a radical term that was coined in 1968 by activists at UC Berkeley who wanted to create an oppositional identity. I think we’ve forgotten that part of history. 

I decided to write about Asian Americans because I always shied away from it. And whenever I’m uncomfortable with a subject, the contrarian in me wants to tackle it head-on. I asked myself, “Why do I kind of hate this term, ‘Asian American?’” I feel less uncomfortable with “woman of color” or “Korean” or “Korean-American” or “non-white.” But Asian American? I had a complicated relationship with that term, and so I wanted to dig and see what came up. 

I also felt I needed to write about it, because there is this belief—and it’s shared not just by whites but also by some Asian Americans—that maybe one day they’ll become white. That frightens me for a number of reasons. First, there’s a lot of historical oppression that we haven’t really reckoned with. But I know many Asian Americans—I mean, not you, or the poets we know, or actually any of my friends—but I do know people who aspire to be white-adjacent, if not white. Of course, there are struggling, working-class Asians in this country, but there are also others who are close to power, who don’t consider where they’re coming from. I’m hoping the book can reach out to people who think of Asian Americans as being uncritically white-adjacent. 

BLVR: I think it’s particularly interesting for people like us, who are East Asians who’ve achieved certain kinds of professional success, to make those interventions, considering there are many groups of Asian Americans who are much more marginalized. You know, there were times while reading the book where I didn’t always agree with a point you were making. And I think, often, it was precisely because the category of Asian American is so vast and amorphous, as you say, that it’s hard to make any broad claim about all of us.

CPH: What points did you not agree with?

BLVR: There was a point where you said, “Asian Americans haven’t had a mass movement of our own since the 60s”—meaning, since the era of activists like Yuri Kochiyama, and the radical Asian American movement. I don’t know if I agreed with that. I think the shapes of those mass movements have just changed. Maybe that has to do with the fact that my first job out of college was in a Southeast Asian-led organization that was fighting against the deportations of Cambodian folks and racial profiling of Southeast Asian communities. It taught me that there was definitely a mass movement of Asian American organizations across the country, fighting against deportations and criminalization and so on.

CPH: Sure, I’m not saying activist movements haven’t happened. There are a ton of intersectional movements, with activists, organizers, and lawyers fighting for undocumented workers and refugee rights and movements like Asians for Black Lives. Even when I was in college, Asian American organizing was very active. What I meant was—and maybe it was unfair to pin it on Asian Americans—it’s all atomized. It’s about undocumented workers, or it’s about refugee rights. Or it’s affirmative action, or it’s representation in Hollywood. It’s about particular issues. And also, the media only recognizes our activism when it fits the conservative white agenda, so they focus on the small percentage of Asian Americans who are anti-affirmative action. But when it comes to a mass mobilized protest or something that feels more collective, I haven’t really witnessed that. 

I’m happy to be wrong, though. The book is opening up certain questions, and I hope that the opinions in it can be refuted, too. I hope to invite more discussion and action.

BLVR: I think it’s really interesting. I agree that there hasn’t been a single issue movement that has really involved everyone who fits under the umbrella of Asian American. 

CPH: Well, I think the issue is that, in the late 60s was there was the Vietnam War. And so Asian Americans were getting drafted, while at the same time there was discrimination against Asians, and also thousands of lives were lost. That was kind of a single issue that a lot of Asian Americans were able to connect around. Now, I think late capitalism has divided not just Asian Americans but everyone.

BLVR: I think it may also be the case that if we tried to apply the issues that united Asian Americans in the 60s and 70s, to what Asian America looks like now, it wouldn’t necessarily work.

CPH: Well, we’re more diverse. 

BLVR: Exactly.

CPH: I mean, before, it was Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino: that was the majority. Now, it’s South Asian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, etc. Now, there are Asian Americans who identify more as being brown than being Asian American. But you know, any racial group, whether Black, Latinx, indigenous, etc., they’re all dealing with this; they’re all heterogeneous groups. 

BLVR: I love the way you don’t shy away from the difficulty of these questions in the book itself. There’s a great moment in the first essay where you talk about Asian American self-hatred and then recount a conversation you had with a friend, where they say, “Koreans are self-hating. Filipinos, not so much.” I thought this was so funny. And it came right at the time when I was thinking like, “Does this really apply to everyone?” And so it’s such a brilliant move to interject and say, “I know, I know.” 

CPH: One of the questions of this book is, “Who is us?” As Jeff Chang says, “I want to love us, but I don’t know who ‘us’ is.” I wanted to keep emphasizing that, because I know that Asians get sensitive when people try to define us. But for me it always remains a question, and maybe a resolution can be reached as people keep talking about it and ask that question too. 

By 2050, minorities will be the majority of the U.S. Does that mean anything? What does it mean that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority in this country? Are we just going to assimilate and be quiet, or will we be defined as something else? 

You know, in the 80s and 90s, there was a common sensibility, among someAsian American scholars, that we’re too disparate, and there’s no way to define us. And I was like, “Yes, I get that, but then is that all there is? We’re just this disparate group?” Is there an Asian American consciousness? Does that exist in the way that black consciousness has been defined again and again, by thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois? Or is it just impossible? Again, I don’t know that I’ll ever answer that question. 

BLVR: Right, and what would even mean to answer that question, living as Asian American writers now, when the schematics that we have available to us may not apply? Or are necessarily based on a Black-white binary that doesn’t capture the whole picture? What does it mean to try to build a theory of now, based on the inherited, limited scope of traditional Asian American political thought?

CPH: I guess what I’m trying to establish here is to consider historical consciousness for Asians, and I think this is where I’ve been trying to get outside our little slice of the demographic pie. For me, it’s not about humanizing the Asian American experience; it’s more about trying to plant in solidarity with other non-white, immigrant experiences, or other people who’ve been previously colonized. Yes, many of us are here because we voluntarily immigrated to America, because we wanted to succeed and make a lot of money—or at least, that’s what some of our parents tell us. But we’re also here because of western imperialism and intervention. And this can apply to the Middle East; this applies to South Americans; to East Asian people. Many of the immigrants who are here post-1965 have been victims of American and European colonialism, war, and the destructive results of trans-capitalism. That’s the common thread I’m trying to establish.

You know, the immigrant experience doesn’t just begin with landing in America. It precedes that. It goes back to why we—or our mother, grandmother, great grandmothers, etc.—couldn’t live in their homeland in the first place. What happened there? What violence has brought us to the U.S.? That is perhaps one commonality that can connect us, and not just Asian Americans. It’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of immigrants and nonwhite people, and some white people too.

BLVR: Yes, for sure. On that note, who is this book for?

CPH: Who do you think it’s for?

BLVR: I could see myself as an undergraduate really cherishing this book. And I think it’s also particularly for Korean Americans who are trying to understand how they fit within a larger Asian American context. And I think that it’s for people who aren’t Asian American, as well. Did you have an imagined audience in mind? 

CPH: Other people like me, I guess—younger versions of me. I wanted just to have a conversation with other Asian Americans, people of color, people who come from immigrant families. I also wanted to have a conversation with writers and artists about some of the issues they go through in trying to make their art and put it into the world. It’s for white people, too, but they’re not the first audience I think of. And yes, I hope it also speaks to other Asians, too, not just Koreans, but I couldn’t speak for them. I had to speak particularly from my perspective. At some point in the book, I say I’m speaking nearby “Asian American,” because I can’t encompass it. 

And for my daughter. I’d say it’s for my daughter. 

BLVR: At some point, you talk about how hard it is to stop writing for white people—to unlearn that impulse. I guess my question is: how do you do it? How do you stop writing for white people?

CPH: Oh, I don’t know. It’s so ingrained in us, you know?

BLVR: Yeah, I ask because this is something that has on my mind lately. Even when I think that I’m writing for my people, I look back and realize that wasn’t always happening. 

CPH: I don’t think you can ever escape it. Your education is built around pleasing white people. In my book, I say, “Even when I say I’m writing for myself, I’m writing for that part of me that wants to please white people.” It’s so internalized. 

But I think imagining a specific person in your mind—or a specific group of people—helps. I don’t know if I really achieve that with my book. It may still read like I’m writing for white people. I don’t know; I don’t want to give any kind of specific advice. It’s just finding the truth that is most urgent to you and trying as hard as you can not to domesticate it, not to let your fear get in the way of telling that truth. Some of that fear is not about white people; it’s also people in your community, too. 

You know, I’m just curious. Were there any other problems that you had with the book? 

BLVR: Hmm, I mean, there were questions. Generally, I was most drawn to the middle essays over the bookends. That makes sense to me, because I guess you have to go really wide at the top and frame the project in its context. And I found myself drawn to the middle pieces, partly because I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to write specifically about the Korean American experience, to try to define a Korean American feeling. And maybe because of that recent interest, or because of my own background in Asian American studies, some of the ideas that you were wrestling with in the top and the bottom were a little less new to me. 

But overall, I felt like I could have a very active conversation with this book, in that there were times when I couldn’t quite match up a point you were making with what I understood to be true. There was another bit that I underlined, where you say that South Asian Americans didn’t really identify as brown until after 9/11. I don’t actually know enough to argue against that, but my impulse was to question it.

CPH: You know, that was based on research and conversations I was having. I was talking to South Asian friends of mine and asking when the term “brown” became common vocabulary. Because I don’t remember it being so when I was in college in the late 90s; South Asians didn’t really identify as brown. And a friend told me that it really started after 9/11, when Muslims were being persecuted, and it was also a way to identify being Latinx and so forth. I can’t say for sure; these markers change all the time. “Asian American” might be considered totally outdated a few years from now. 

BLVR: I mean, I bring this up to say that it was a book that I could have an active conversation with, and I think that is a good thing. It’s important for people from different parts of the country of Asian America to disagree with each other. It’s the most Asian American thing I can imagine, actually. 

CPH: I think that’s the fear, but also the need. I think I was opening myself up to that by writing this book. I wasn’t even thinking of subtitling it, “An Asian American Reckoning.” But it was a way of announcing that there is a gap. I mean, there are so many novels, poetry, brilliant scholarly books on the Asian American condition. But in the general discourse on race, Asian Americans are still left behind. So this attempt to, in my own weird, poetic way, try to help fill in the gap. But by doing that, I’m opening myself to criticism, surely. Because lots of Asian Americans are going to say it’s not accurate to their experience. I expect that. I think disagreement is healthy and necessary, because it builds conversation. And that’s how the gap is filled: through discussion, through healthy and lively disagreement. So, this is just my part in it.

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