Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The poet’s new collection of essays, Minor Feelings, threads intense friendships, “bad” English, and standup comedy into a meditation on the Asian-American experience.
When I first read Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (W. W. Norton, 2007), I was blown away. The poetry collection is premised on an imagined cyberpunk version of Seoul, set in a future so polyglot and globalized even the language of the poems reads as a mix of pidgin, Korean, and future noises. The book seemed to open a new horizon on speculative or science fiction as an expansive, generative way to talk about race: to invent rather than react.
Cathy’s two other poetry collections similarly created a framework to explore a project of the Asian or Asian American imaginary: Her prior book, Translating Mo’um (Hanging Loose Press, 2002), followed the testimonies of people who had become racial symbols (e.g., Chang and Eng Bunker, Tono Maria, and Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus) and “translated” them in a broken English reminiscent of that of Myung Mi Kim. And her third poetry book, Engine Empire (W. W. Norton, 2012), consisted of a triptych of three frontiers—the nineteenth-century American West, the industrial capitalism of contemporary China, and a melancholic, computer-aided cyborg future yet to come. While these books refracted Cathy’s investigations of race into conceptual structures of her own invention, her new essay collection Minor Feelings (One World, February 2020) confronts Asian American identity in a more autobiographical, overtly emotional way. Influenced by the work of Sianne Ngai, the book explores the Asian American psychic state. While one typically imagines the reaction to racial prejudice as anger or despair, Cathy’s fragmented essays portray Asian American identity as a kind of sadomasochism: identity as the stuff of shame and internalized self-hatred, neuroses and overwhelming anxiety—all the lovely stuff we discussed one afternoon at the Cullman Center at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Ken Chen In Minor Feelings, you have these fragments of what would be the idealized or conventional Asian American novel form: an autobiographical family novel. But instead of writing that novel, you take the germs of what those scenes would be and paper over them with essay, philosophy, and personal reflections.
Cathy Park Hong As a writer I’ve always avoided subjects that I as an Asian American am supposed to write about. This inhibition might be particular to our generation, but I was definitely inhibited from pursuing Asian Americanness as a monolith. Before I started writing the book, I thought I was over it, but I still felt really defensive—like what I was writing about was trivial, predictable, a little embarrassing. The subject seemed tepid. But rather than take that at face value, I kept thinking, What’s underneath that? I used to make these dismissive remarks like, Well, because of the way Asian American narratives have been recycled, they feel inauthentic, and that’s why I’m not interested in writing them. But then I thought, Isn’t that some kind of defense mechanism, since it’s not true?
It took a lot of painful reexamination to pry out what might be throbbing beneath my prejudices. Minor Feelings is a self-reflexive book; as much as I was writing about language, family, and friendship, I was also wrestling with what it means to write this kind of book. I was partly inspired by Young Jean Lee and what prompts her plays. She asks herself, What’s the worst thing I could possibly write about? And then she sets out to write that play. Like her, I wanted to sit in that same extreme discomfort and see where it led. Part of this discomfort is in the way people disparage identity politics.
KC We’re in this weird moment. Asian Americans and other writers of color who are Gen X or older grew up in a hierarchy when it came to writing about race in politics. On the one hand, we grew up under a tacit system of racial censorship, where you’re not supposed to talk about race or politics if you’re writing high or experimental literature, which supposedly followed a modernist notion of purity of form. But on the other, there is the invention of Asian American literature as market category after The Joy Luck Club, where ethnic literature is specifically marked as commercial fiction with an autobiographical subtext. So it’s this two-tier system, where to write about race is ghettoization. Writers over forty don’t want to be labeled as Asian American. But now we’re in a moment where you get more cultural capital by writing about your identity. It’s been interesting to see Gen X writers adapt to this and find their comfort level.
To bring it back to your book, one form you explored for talking about race and cultural taboos was stand-up comedy. What you’re saying about forcing yourself to talk about the worst subject possible—that’s often the subject of stand-up.
CPH I was always interested in writing about race but preferred doing so in a roundabout way. I didn’t feel I had a way into the personal stories through poetry or prose. But then in 2011, I watched Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert (1979). It was a revelation. I was depressed and my mind lit up. Probably because my natural mode as a writer is tragicomedy.
KC Gallows humor.
CPH Yes. I was interested in how Pryor used humor as a trapdoor to engaging difficult subjects. He’s more honest about race, about racial self-hatred, than many literary writers. Not many writers pursue interracial lust in the frank way that Pryor does. Ronaldo Wilson does it; Saeed Jones too. But Pryor really spelled it out. I was inspired by him, and what attracted me most to stand-up was the sadomasochism. At any second you could fall flat on your face. The shame and humiliation was attractive. (laughter) Those were my main feelings associated with my identity or the Asian American condition, not grief and rage.
So how could I turn this into a literary mode? I hated doing poetry readings, so I started doing stand-up instead of reading my poetry up there.
KC I remember when you were doing these comedy events. What were they like?
CPH They were really bad! I don’t want to repeat the jokes, as they would offend people. They were off-color.
I also tried to write absurdist poems, and that didn’t work. I tried the same ideas as a novel, which also didn’t work. Eventually the project became this essay collection. The book is made up of reinvented passages from that failed novel and failed poems. I found essays to be liberating because they can absorb so many different forms. You can jump around from the personal to the philosophical to the psychoanalytic to the historical, then back to the personal.
KC I didn’t expect Minor Feelings to be about your father. Or your grandparents. There’s a funny thing about Asian American authors’ relationships with our parents—the dysfunctional family relationship drives us to write because we’re wounded, and we have to sublimate it. And our parents are in this weird position as these status- and acquisition-oriented tiger parents, who inadvertently foster the elite education that leads us to become a cultural people. And what could be worse than being an artist? My dad wanted me to autograph all these books, so he could give them to his friends, for bragging rights. I was like, “I’m sorry if there are parts of the book that offend you.” He just laughed, saying, “It’s okay. I’ll never read it anyway!”
CPH We’ve committed the biggest betrayal, right? Our parents say their reason for moving to the US was to give us an elite education. I think some of this is bullshit. It’s what they like to say, but another reason was to get away from their families. They were rebellious twentysomethings, wanting to have adventures and escape their toxic parents. And then they say, “We did it for you.”
KC So what do your parents think of you being a poet?
CPH Oh, they’re actually much more relaxed. My dad used to want to be a poet, then a novelist, so there is some writerly gene in play. He’s very proud of me, but he can’t read the kind of English I used in my poetry which is all in this invented pidgin. He tried reading the poetry book and said, “I’m sorry, my English isn’t good enough.” I said, “Even a native speaker might run into problems.”
I’ve also written some journalism in the past, like one short piece for the New York Times Magazine about a luxury condo in Korea that was the first wireless “smart” building, where you could turn on the oven with your phone and so on. At first, I couldn’t get access, but my dad had a friend of a friend who got me in. I wrote about the irony of this building—that because only the wealthy could afford to live there, the residents were over fifty years old and had no clue how to use the technology. When the magazine came out, my dad bought ten copies from a newsstand to send to friends in Korea, but when he opened one up and started reading, he closed it and said, “I can’t send this.” That was the first piece of my writing he could really understand.
KC There’s this book that just came out by Shinhee Han and David Eng: Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. It’s about Asian American mental illness, about parents having their dreams dashed and all of their desires being displaced in the child, in a debt that can never be repaid.
CPH It’s psychologically not fun to be the living embodiment of your parent’s ego. Being a mom now, I think about how destructive it is to have that mentality. My ego is tied to my books, which is why writing’s such a tortuous experience. But so many Asian parents treat their kids as an investment opportunity where everything their child does is filed as either failure or success, as a reflection of who the parents are as human beings. It really screws you up, and I don’t think mental illness in the Asian American community is talked about enough. It’s a chronic problem that’s not mentioned in families or in the media. Not just Asian Americans but all children of immigrants can feel gaslit
by their parents. They think that if they write about what their family is truly like, then they will bring shame upon them. I’ve felt that. I can’t write everything; I don’t even know how to write truthfully, not in a chronological way at least. I can only give glimpses.
KC It’s interesting to think about that in the context of poetry, where the dominant mode is the confessional, baring everything. I remember talking with someone about how Language poetry was really just fear of writing about oneself, because it would be too embarrassing or vulnerable. I remember driving with my mom and playing these CDs I had burned, with PennSound audio files on them—it was Lynn Hejinian reading her work. You hear this line about how people describe postmodern writing—dislocated, no self, jargon. My mom was like, “Is this considered poetry? I feel like poetry should be about looking at flowers. This is so fragmented.” She was in some sense describing Language poetry correctly, from the point of view of a lyric person.
I’ve also wondered why so many Asian American writers are funneled through modernism and become categorized as experimental. One reason could be the idea of the self being filtered through fragmentation, traditional collage as a way to escape the self. At first I also thought it had something to do with how modernism arrived filtered through the imaginary of Asia, most obviously with Ezra Pound. But one thing I’m thinking of writing about is the idea that modernism is a meritocracy, where it’s all form, as if it’s something you can master through schoolwork and a scholastic reading of canonical texts. Then you apply the correct technologies, like quotation, conceptual practices, etcetera… But maybe there’s a second subtext too, like you’re saying—modernism as a place where you don’t have to write about yourself. (Though I should state that I don’t think the willingness to write about oneself is necessarily better than the decision not to!)
CPH So interesting. I wonder if I agree with you though, about how so many Asian American writers get filtered through those categories. Certainly with Gen X, or whatever you want to call it. There are more poets in the younger generation who are definitely writing in the confessional mode, though. But I don’t know, I wonder if part of that has to do with access to education.
KC Yeah, it’s a class index.
CPH Definitely. Access to undergraduate and graduate courses that enabled study of Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and all those poets that were the trend back in my time. When I was coming of age as a poet, a lot of MFA programs encouraged you to write in this fragmented way, in the modernist tradition, and wanting to please, I really embraced that. As much as it’s about fragmentation, you could also say there’s something virtuosic to a lot of the forms; so it was a way to flex your technical muscle as a poet, like the way a pianist might play a Bach piece. There’s something to that experimental mode, where the “I” is almost discouraged, and you don’t have to dig in and face your vulnerabilities. It’s also very gendered, so masculine. Any vulnerability is considered weak.
CPH Or anti-intellectual. At least when I was in grad school, all the poems people turned in were quite guarded. Anything autobiographical was looked down upon. And I think many of the poems written there, my own included, weren’t very good because of this. I wish there was a mode in between. People talk about confessional or Language poetry as the two poles—writing about your life or avoiding doing so.
KC That’s our generational box. And what was liberating about your first poetry books, as well as those of LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and Bhanu Kapil, was the way they took some of the technical, post-structural elements of experimental writing and mixed them with—
CPH —actual content?
KC Yeah, having the world in there, with all its social relations and politics. Minor Feelings speaks to this. In “Bad English,” you talk about how traditional experimentalism fractures language because it’s cool to do so, but then your parents are fracturing language all the time because they’re immigrants. You write about not knowing English as a kid. That’s something I relate to. When I first went to school I was so frustrated that I couldn’t talk to anyone, but because I was very expressive, I ran away on the first day—my first moment of punk rebellion. And they kicked me out of the school!
CPH What? But you were like five!
KC We talk about our parents not really getting or understanding the work, even as the work is really like a recovery project of their linguistic condition.
CPH That’s exactly it. And I think that’s why I was so drawn to experimental poetry. When I read it, I thought, This isn’t revolutionary; this is how I used to speak! A lot of the avant-garde practitioners, like Gertrude Stein or William Carlos Williams, came from immigrant families. They were already estranged from English, so it was natural and intuitive for them to break up syntax. It was the same for me. I was alienated from English growing up, so I found it really freeing to find that there was this whole school of thought where I could just write in that way. It’s ironic that my parents don’t understand, since I’m going back and writing in the way that they speak English.
KC I feel like, in a way, bad English is the aesthetic equivalent of how you talk about emotions in the book. Writing bad English is not necessarily against English, but it’s kind of messy, illegible sabotage. On the other side, you talk about emotions and pain. The book is about intergenerational trauma, which is what every book seems to be about now—but I don’t think it’s immediately obvious in this case. Trauma usually becomes a commodity, an inverted hierarchy—as in, pain is bad, but it’s good you have it, but your treatment of feelings is less legible concerning a vocabulary of pain in terms of negative, minor, nonheroic emotions. It’s not I’m traumatized but I’m neurotic or sadistic or anxious or masochistic.
CPH Underpleasant, shall we say.
KC Well, it’s relatable, but different from saying, “I’m in pain.” You’re asking, Is it good to feel embarrassed or sadistic?
CPH You don’t see these nonheroic, non-cathartic emotions in Hollywood films or bestsellers or even certain modes of confessional poetry, where pain is put on a pedestal. There are minor feelings in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, but I’m more in conversation with Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, where she talks about the feelings you get from late capitalism and growing up as a racialized other, where you have these muddled, negative feelings that sit in you and cannot be verbalized. If you do verbalize them, they are belittled. Ngai talks about envy and jealousy as a really genuine expression of social inequity. A lot of times when a person of color or someone who is in a marginalized position expresses some kind of grievance, the dominant culture will just say, “You’re jealous.” Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of your feelings.
KC They’re depoliticizing the feeling, so it becomes personal.
CPH Speaking of all these minor emotions, I was thinking on the way over here about social media. On Twitter and Instagram, you have such a limited range of emotion to express yourself. It’s either bragging about something or total outrage.
KC We can only exist on social media as a totem for the viewer to identify or disidentify with. Like: I agree, or I hate you.
CPH But when you peel yourself away from the screen after three hours, you have these residual emotions from social media withdrawal: anxiety, stress, melancholy, envy. And those are subtler feelings that come after getting away from the Internet where the self is commodified. I’m interested in what happens when you’re surrounded by an environment where you’re constantly competing and there is a value measured by “likes.” I guess this is just the condition of living in the late capitalist era.
KC I’m interested in how emotions are impersonal. What we call feelings are very much created by a given time, its economic and political conditions. In her scholarship on racial melancholia, Anne A. Cheng does this flip, where the feelings of alienation or melancholy that come from oppression are what invent race in her account.
Or I was recently looking at this document created by this weird, anarchist collective whose name I can’t remember. It was saying that the paradigmatic emotion of the baby boomers is boredom because they’re affluent and feel alienated by having too much time on their hands—and this sense of alienation politicizes them. For those after the boomers, it’s anxiety because economic failure is around the corner.
I once held this event with Minsoo Kang that blew my mind. He was talking about han, which is the sort of anger that is taken to be part of the Korean essence. Minsoo says that han is clearly a part of Korean culture, but it wasn’t always the central emotion. During the Japanese invasion of Korea, han was actually reinvented and weaponized by the Japanese in response to Korean anti-colonialism. The Japanese would say, “It’s not like we’re oppressing you. This is just what you are like—angry!” So rather than being the Korean national essence, it was an ideological technology used by the Japanese to depoliticize Korean anger. You go back before colonialization, and there was this other emotion, which was joy in balance with han. I also wonder if han was perceived differently in different contexts, like in the Korean diaspora versus Seoul versus North Korea versus Koreans in the former Soviet Union.
CPH I’m sure it is. I said something about han to my mother and she scoffed and said, “You don’t feel han.” But let me first explain what han is: han’s a Korean national affect that’s a combination of melancholy, bitterness, rage, hopelessness, and nostalgia. It’s a feeling of resentment thought, or ressentiment, generated from years of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, and various dictatorships.
KC It’s almost operatic.
CPH I would say ignoble. It’s considered the national emotion. To be Korean is to feel han, and you know it when you feel it. Perhaps it’s national, like duende for Spain. A lot of Korean film and literature makes use of this feeling as a baseline. I agree that han doesn’t seem so pronounced in preindustrial Korea, but I think after Korea was split in two it really took off. Still, I’m not always so sure I have a grasp on it. I met with this queer Korean student, and she didn’t think Korean Americans have a handle on han at all: “You think it’s a tragic emotion born of conflict and violence, but it’s different for us—more like annoyance, irritation.”
KC Oh, like, “I feel han because the Wi-Fi is out.” (laughter)
CPH I was reading a lot of affect theory as I wrote Minor Feelings, but really I was thinking about han. About emotions I don’t see represented in Asian American films or literature or in American culture overall. I don’t think han is exclusive to Koreans. Any group that’s been persecuted has something like this. Perhaps it’s unwise to do so, but that’s why I see an identification with the despair among African Americans. I’m not collapsing our socio-economic positions in any way, but we could say there’s some connective tissue there, which is a structural feeling that people of color can identify with, even from very different backgrounds.
KC You once told me that when you were young, you wished you could be part of an art collective. That was your romantic dream. The essay, “An Education” is about your college relationship with two friends, both Asian American artists. You decide they are good at visual art, not you, and you’re going to do poetry instead—so your whole pursuit of poetry comes from feeling minor. And at the same time, they are dealing with their own traumas. It seems like the value of art for traumatized Asian Americans is as a way to sublimate their baggage into a creative, productive release. But your poetry books are like art practice: one can look at your books like Dance Dance Revolution as installation, or like a conceptual world-building project.
CPH That’s really why I started writing, as a way of building worlds that I couldn’t make as a failed artist. In the book, I say that all my poems at that time were sort of these ekphrastic exercises involving artworks I had in my mind but couldn’t realize as objects. When I started writing, it didn’t come from autobiography; it came from fantasy maybe, or conceptualism. Playing guitar since I was thirteen and wanting to be in a punk band—that idea translated to wanting to be in an art collective, which in my mind was something like the New York school, the Surrealists, or the Bauhaus, Dada. American and European schools of art. You know, the bro gangs.
I did have this community in college, but I couldn’t see it. Perhaps because it was so painful. An art collective is a group of friends who are very close and parry ideas back and forth and make things. That’s what my friends and I did, though I didn’t see it as such. When I was in high school, I thought the default makeup of such a group would be white, and my friends were not. My model of an art collective was also more cerebral or filled with mindless partying. Whereas my friendships were very deep in a way I didn’t want. One friend was unstable, and it was hard for me to be her caretaker. I never thought I would write about a college relationship, but I was journaling and all these memories came up—this very flawed, maybe traumatic, but informative friendship. I don’t read about this type of friendship anywhere—maybe between men, but never between women of color. It’s a friendship that passes the Bechdel test: not based around a man or even around a family. All that’s subtext, background. I wanted to foreground artmaking and the creative imagination. What’s different about this, as opposed to the bro gangs, is that you can’t separate the creative imagination from all the messy, personal entanglements. It’s all enmeshed.
Ken Chen is the author of the poetry collection Juvenilia (Yale University Press, 2009). He is currently a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, where he is writing a book about his travels to the underworld.
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Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.