Book Reviews and Highlights

Minor Feelings

Cathy Park Hong

  • American
  • Art
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Criticism & Theory
  • Cultural, Ethnic & Regional
  • General
  • Literary Criticism
  • MY DEPRESSION BEGAN WITH AN imaginary tic.
  • United | Page: 3
  • #first-sentence
  • The face is the most naked part of ourselves, but we don’t realize it until the face is somehow injured, and then all we think of is its naked condition.
  • United | Page: 4
  • When I could not sleep, I could not think. When I could not think, I could not write nor could I socialize and carry on a conversation. I was the child again. The child who could not speak English.
  • United | Page: 4
  • A friend said that when she was depressed, she felt like a “sloth that fell from its tree.”
  • United | Page: 5
  • To recite my poems to an audience is to be slapped awake by my limitations. I confront the infinite chasm between the audience’s conception of Poet and the underwhelming evidence of me as that poet.
  • United | Page: 7
  • Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post- racial we’re silicon.
  • United | Page: 7
  • For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern- day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm.
  • United | Page: 9
  • They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.
  • United | Page: 9
  • Racial self- hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.
  • United | Page: 9
  • My friend and I were at the Coral Ridge Mall for a pedicure and found a family- owned place where the Vietnamese owner put on his immigrant patter by repeating everything twice: “Pedicure pedicure? Sit sit.”
  • United | Page: 10
  • To be competent at this line of service, you have to be so good you are invisible, and this boy was incapable of making himself invisible!
  • United | Page: 12
  • I am an unreliable narrator, hypervigilant to the point of being paranoid, imposing all my own insecurities onto him. I can’t even recall if I actually felt that pain or imagined it, since I have rewritten this memory so many times I have mauled it down to nothing, erasing him down until he was a smudge of resentment while I was a smudge of entitlement until we both smudged into me.
  • United | Page: 12
  • What did I know about being a Vietnamese teenage boy who spent all his free hours working at a nail salon? I knew nothing.
  • United | Page: 12
  • When the 1965 immigration ban was lifted by the United States, my father saw an opportunity. Back then, only select professionals from Asia were granted visas to the United States: doctors, engineers, and mechanics. This screening process, by the way, is how the whole model minority quackery began: the U.S. government only allowed the most educated and highly trained Asians in and then took all the credit for their success.
  • United | Page: 13
  • Upon meeting him, strangers have called my father a gentleman for his quiet charisma and kindness, a personality he cultivated from years of selling life insurance and dry- cleaning supplies to Americans of all manner of race and class.
  • United | Page: 14
  • “Don’t ever make an illegal U- turn here,” my father advised after I made an illegal U- turn, “because they will see that you are an Asian driving badly.”
  • United | Page: 15
  • Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.
  • United | Page: 19
  • There are so many qualifications weighing the “we” in Asian America. Do I mean Southeast Asian, South Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander, queer and straight, Muslim and non- Muslim, rich and poor? Are all Asians self- hating? What if my cannibalizing ego is not a racial phenomenon but my own damn problem?
  • United | Page: 19
  • Asian American success was circulated to promote capitalism and to undermine the credibility of black civil rights: we were the “good” ones since we were undemanding, diligent, and never asked for handouts from the government.
  • United | Page: 22
  • Sharma worked that much harder as a director. But she also made a point to say something whenever she was demeaned, behavior which people in the program scorned as overdramatic.
  • United | Page: 25
  • Like Sharma, once he had power, her father was humiliated. But unlike Sharma, her father was forced to resign, chased out by unfounded rumors of mismanagement.
  • United | Page: 25
  • But assimilation must not be mistaken for power, because once you have acquired power, you are exposed, and your model minority qualifications that helped you in the past can be used against you, since you are no longer invisible.
  • United | Page: 25
  • I can tell you I have attracted all kinds of wild, vituperative behavior from white people because I never play the role of compliant Asian woman.
  • United | Page: 26
  • The Korean word jeong is untranslatable but the closest definition is “an instantaneous deep connection,” often felt between Koreans.
  • United | Page: 27
  • For many immigrants, if you move here with trauma, you’re going to do what it takes to get by. You cheat. You beat your wife. You gamble. You’re a survivor and, like most survivors, you are a god- awful parent.
  • United | Page: 34
  • I thought of Asians throughout history being dragged against their will, driven or chased out of their native homes, out of their adopted homes, out of their native country, out of their adopted country: ejected, evicted, exiled.
  • United | Page: 34
  • We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.
  • United | Page: 35
  • My ego is in free fall while my superego is boundless, railing that my existence is not enough, never enough, so I become compulsive in my efforts to do better, be better, blindly following this country’s gospel of self- interest, proving my individual worth by expanding my net worth, until I vanish.
  • United | Page: 35
  • During that year when I was depressed, I barely talked anyway. I spent most of my days crumpled in bed or on the couch. I was a blip on a cardiogram.
  • Stand Up | Page: 36
  • We say we don’t care about audience, but it is a lie. Poets can be obsessed with status and are some of the most ingratiating people I know.
  • Stand Up | Page: 40
  • We rely on the higher jurisdiction of academia, prize jury panels, and fellowships to gain social capital.
  • Stand Up | Page: 40
  • I’ve been raised and educated to please white people and this desire to please has become ingrained into my consciousness.
  • Stand Up | Page: 40
  • You laugh from surprise but you’re only surprised once, which is why comedy ruthlessly lives in the present. Nothing gets dated faster than a joke.
  • Stand Up | Page: 43
  • Publishers treated the ethnic story as the “single story,” which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines as follows: “Create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
  • Stand Up | Page: 47
  • As the poet Prageeta Sharma said, Americans have an expiration date on race the way they do for grief. At some point, they expect you to get over it. But as suspicious as I am, I also hope that we can seize this opportunity and change American literature completely.
  • Stand Up | Page: 47
  • Overhaul the tired ethnic narratives that have automated our identities; that have made our lives palatable to a white audience but removed them from our own lived realities— and stop spelling ourselves out in the alphabet given to us.
  • Stand Up | Page: 47
  • For the last twenty years, until recently, Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories were the template of ethnic fiction that supports the fantasy of Asian American immigrants as compliant strivers.
  • Stand Up | Page: 48
  • In many Asian American novels, writers set trauma in a distant mother country or within an insular Asian family to ensure that their pain is not a reproof against American imperial geopolitics or domestic racism; the outlying forces that cause their pain— Asian Patriarchal Fathers, White People Back Then— are remote enough to allow everyone, including the reader, off the hook.
  • Stand Up | Page: 49
  • At the start of his career, the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong was the living embodiment of human resilience. Reviewers never missed an opportunity to recite his biography: Vuong was born to a family of rice farmers in Vietnam who immigrated to Connecticut as refugees after the Vietnam War; his mother renamed Vuong “Ocean” to give him a new start in the United States; Vuong couldn’t read until age eleven, which makes it all the more miraculous that he became a prodigy and award- winning poet.
  • Stand Up | Page: 49
  • But watching Pryor reminded me of an emotional condition that is specific to Koreans: han, a combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and U.S.- supported dictatorships that have never been politically redressed.
  • Stand Up | Page: 54
  • Han is so ongoing that it can even be passed down: to be Korean is to feel han.
  • Stand Up | Page: 54
  • In Pryor, I saw someone channel what I call minor feelings: the racialized range of 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.
  • Stand Up | Page: 55
  • A now- classic book that explores minor feelings is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. After hearing a racist remark, the speaker asks herself, What did you say?
  • Stand Up | Page: 55
  • Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place.
  • Stand Up | Page: 56
  • Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.
  • Stand Up | Page: 56
  • Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult— in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.
  • Stand Up | Page: 57
  • It’s as if readers relish white male writers behaving badly but they demand that minority writers must always be good. And because of this, we put our minor feelings aside to protect white feelings.
  • Stand Up | Page: 57
  • Reading to my daughter, I see my own youth drifting away while hers attaches firmly to this country. I am not passing down happy memories of my own so much as I am staging happy memories for her.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 67
  • To look sideways has another connotation: giving “side eyes” telegraphs doubt, suspicion, and even contempt.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 68
  • Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 73
  • Hollywood, an industry that shapes not only our national but global memories, has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia, stuck in a time loop and refusing to acknowledge that America’s racial demographic has radically changed since 1965.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 73
  • Shame is that sharp, prickling awareness that I am exposed like the inflamed ass of a baboon.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 75
  • My shame is not cultural but political. It is being painfully aware of the power dynamic that pulls at the levers of social interactions and the cringing indignity of where I am in that order either as the afflicted— or as the afflicter.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 75
  • We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 78
  • I see that even my mind is stained by whiteness, as if it’s been dyed with the radiopaque ink used for X- rays. This stain makes me incessantly analogize my life to other lives. I no longer think my life comes up short. But even in opposition, I still see my life in relation to whiteness.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 86
  • I have to address whiteness because Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy of this country.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 86
  • Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self- scrutiny shame requires.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 87
  • For to be aware of history, they would be forced to be held accountable, and rather than face that shame, they’d rather, by any means necessary, maintain their innocence.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 89
  • Whether our families come from Guatemala, Afghanistan, or South Korea, the immigrants since 1965 have shared histories that extend beyond this nation, to our countries of origin, where our lineage has been decimated by Western imperialism, war, and dictatorships orchestrated or supported by the United States.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 89
  • But our shared root is not the opportunity this nation has given us but how the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy has enriched itself off the blood of our countries. We cannot forget this.
  • The End of White Innocence | Page: 90
  • The Korean girls I knew were so moody they made Sylvia Plath seem as dull as C- SPAN. Some were from L.A.’ s Koreatown, wore fake Juicy Couture, applied makeup like Cholas, and spoke in the regional creole accent of FOB, Gangsta, and Valley.
  • Bad English | Page: 92
  • I did not actually use my mechanical pencils so much as line them up to admire them. My mechanical pencils, in pistachio, plum, and cotton candy pink, were wands of sublime femininity that had to be saved for later.
  • Bad English | Page: 94
  • I have been partly drawn to writing, I realize, to judge those who have unfairly judged my family; to prove that I’ve been watching this whole time.
  • Bad English | Page: 99
  • But bad English is a dying art because the Internet demands we write clear, succinct poems that stop us mid- scroll.
  • Bad English | Page: 104
  • In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz wrote, “We must enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in this world. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present.”
  • Bad English | Page: 107
  • Art is to dream, however temporarily, of this not- yet. But how do we create these hidden worlds now when social media uproots these secret utopias to the surface almost immediately and the world in which we now share art and poems is under the algorithmic eye of tech corporations?
  • Bad English | Page: 107
  • I admit my hypercriticality comes from a selfish place, since an artist’s guilt is a contagion that I want to swat away so it doesn’t infect me.
  • Bad English | Page: 108
  • I made a friend whom my mother said I couldn’t play with, and when I asked why, she said it was because she was Mexican. The horror of it was that I told this friend. I said, “I can’t play with you because you’re Mexican,” and she said, “But I’m Puerto Rican.”
  • Bad English | Page: 109
  • In his book White Flights, the writer Jess Row says that “America’s great and possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live together.”
  • Bad English | Page: 109
  • 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?
  • Bad English | Page: 109
  • At one point, she ripped out a fart. When she saw my shocked expression, she laughed: “Why do we have to walk around with clenched butts? It’s unhealthy to hold it in.” Mostly we worked silently.
  • An Education | Page: 111
  • The greatest gift my parents granted me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven- day workweeks.
  • An Education | Page: 117
  • The wealthier Korean parents had no such excuse, ruthlessly managing the careers and marriages of their children, and as a result ruining their children’s lives, all because they wanted bragging rights.
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • To unpack the source of my adolescent unhappiness would be to write about my mother, which I have struggled with in this book: How deep can I dig into myself without talking about my mother?
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • Does an Asian American narrative always have to return to the mother? When I met the poet Hoa Nguyen, the first question she asked me was, “Tell me about your mother.”
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • When I met the poet Hoa Nguyen, the first question she asked me was, “Tell me about your mother.” “Okay,” I said. “That’s an icebreaker.” “You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • “Okay,” I said. “That’s an icebreaker.” “You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.
  • An Education | Page: 118
  • I wish I’d had a stenographer who followed me so I had transcripts of these quotidian moments that as a whole were more life- changing than losing your virginity or having your heart broken.
  • An Education | Page: 119
  • I believed talent but also old- fashioned sweat was proportional to the artwork’s success, not knowing that no matter how hard I worked, I could not make it good. Someone else had to decide it was good, and what they decided was good had little to do with the artwork itself but the conjoining forces of staging, timing, luck, and how I comported myself as an artist.
  • An Education | Page: 126
  • I was intensely private because I wanted to keep the poems inside my private temple of self- regard. I knew how fast I could plunge from confidence to self- doubt, how fast my poem could fade from a vibrating disc of light to shit spray on paper.
  • An Education | Page: 143
  • When I wasn’t racked with insecurity, I was wildly arrogant. All three of us were. We had the confidence of white men, which was swiftly cut down after graduation, upon our separation, when each of us had to prove ourselves again and again, because we were, at every stage of our careers, underestimated.
  • An Education | Page: 150
  • When I was dating, my mother used to ask, “You’re not doing anything bad, are you?” That was her euphemism, if you can call it that, for sex, which was otherwise never mentioned.
  • Portrait of an Artist | Page: 156
  • In every Asian culture, stories abound of women disappearing or going mad without explanation. The most that would be revealed was that something “bad” happened.
  • Portrait of an Artist | Page: 156
  • The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.
  • Portrait of an Artist | Page: 165
  • From invisible girlhood, the Asian American woman will blossom into a fetish object. When she is at last visible— at last desired— she realizes much to her chagrin that this desire for her is treated like a perversion.
  • Portrait of an Artist | Page: 174
  • The takeaway from the crowd- pleasing opening scene in the novel and film Crazy Rich Asians is the following: if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in.
  • The Indebted | Page: 183
  • Throughout my life, I had felt the weight of indebtedness. I was born into a deficit because I was a daughter rather than the son to replace my parents’ dead son. I continued to depreciate in value with each life decision I made that did not follow my parents’ expectations.
  • The Indebted | Page: 185
  • Being indebted is to be cautious, inhibited, and to never speak out of turn. It is to lead a life constrained by choices that are never your own.
  • The Indebted | Page: 185
  • If the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering. The indebted Asian American is therefore the ideal neoliberal subject. I accept that the burden of history is solely on my shoulders; that it’s up to me to earn back reparations for the losses my parents incurred, and to do so, I must, without complaint, prove myself in the workforce.
  • The Indebted | Page: 185
  • In 1968, students at UC Berkeley invented the term Asian American to inaugurate a new political identity.
  • The Indebted | Page: 190
  • My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States. Don’t talk to me about gratitude.
  • The Indebted | Page: 195
  • Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society.
  • The Indebted | Page: 202
  • If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of our conditional existence.
  • The Indebted | Page: 202
  • We were always here.
  • The Indebted | Page: 203
  • #last-sentence