Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World
“The face,” Cathy Park Hong assesses, “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” (4). The face is an apt motif for Hong’s essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a blend of memoir and cultural criticism that takes on Asian American consciousness; here, the face is to injury as racial identity is to racialization in the United States. In an effort to illuminate the slippery essence of Asian American existence, and the correspondingly precarious act of writing about it, Hong theorizes minor feelings as dissonant emotions arising from contradictions between American optimism and the racialized subject’s reality. Among others, cultural theorists and race scholars Sianne Ngai, Claudia Rankine, Glenda Carpio, and Frantz Fanon inform the book’s methodology, particularly in delineating the affective properties of minor feelings.
Hong opens with a self-portrait: hers is a face that once suffered from hemifacial spasms. Despite their medical correction, she worries the spasms have returned. Seeking therapy for the depression resulting from her paranoia, she consults a Korean American therapist in hopes that their shared cultural background will aid understanding. The therapist declines to work with her, and Hong directs her anger at Koreans as a whole. On an evaluation, she writes, “Koreans are repressed! Rigid! Cold! They should not be allowed to work in the mental health care profession!”—only later to reflect on her impulse to conflate shared heritage with recognition (28). Whether the intimacy between her and the therapist is imagined or real, Hong remains uncertain, and a similar ambivalence drives her theoretical questions: “Who is us? What is us? Is there even such a concept as an Asian American consciousness?” (28). Attempting to trace that concept, Hong uncovers her book’s titular emotions as existential truths. Minor feelings, she explains, are “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” (55). Hong first identifies minor feelings in Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy: in one joke, he communicates his relief in being Black and not white—because white people “have to go to the moon” (54). For Asian Americans, minor feelings often arise from the perpetuation of the model minority myth, which first circulated as and continues to be part of the capitalist white supremacist project. The dissonance of being told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while feeling like a failure is a typical case (56). Yet this and other instances of minor feelings are dismissed as “hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent” when expressed (if at all): as Hong puts it, “our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with [white] deluded reality” (56).
While each of the seven essays comprising Hong’s collection deals with its own unique concern, together they are threaded by political and interpersonal histories of violence and, more significantly, erasure; conversations with Asian American and other racialized thinkers; and meditations on writing, particularly in English. The history lesson in “United” serves as a primer for readers unfamiliar with how Asian Americans have become at once the economically advantaged and “invisible serfs” (19). In “Stand Up,” Hong confronts the difficulties of writing about race, especially the struggle to escape the white audience and its expectations. In “End of White Innocence,” she continues to discuss whiteness, elucidates the “racial pecking order” of America, and addresses Asians as ideal neoliberal subjects (75). “Bad English” explores the possibilities of othering a language to expose its imperial atrocities and of learning from cultural exchange along the way. In “An Education,” Hong invites readers into the intimate, creative, and familial space that she occupies with her college best friends, both of whom are also Asian American women. In “Portrait of an Artist,” she interrogates the silences surrounding acts violence against this same demographic, taking on the rape and murder of the writer and artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose best-known work is about young women dying violent deaths. Finally, Hong revisits her definition of “us” in “The Indebted,” stressing the radical origin of the term “Asian American,” paying respects to activists who struggled before her, and gesturing to solidarity between non-whites.
The strengths of Minor Feelings lie in its autobiographical disclosures and its meticulous use of rhetoric. Hong’s at times painful self-awareness enthrals as it discomforts, eliciting identification while carefully skirting the authoritative voice. A self-proclaimed unreliable narrator, Hong makes vivid every contradiction of her consciousness; she is “hypervigilant to the point of being paranoid,” as evidenced in her ruminations about other Asian Americans (she assumes that a Vietnamese teenage boy working on her pedicure hates himself before questioning her thinking, for example) (12). The candour that propels the memoir, however, also obscures the book’s critical cogency. In a move that confuses exposition with contempt, Hong claims that Asian Americans “are so far from reckoning with [their place in America’s hierarchy] that some Asians think that race has no bearing on their lives . . . which is as misguided as white people saying the same thing” (85). I am not convinced that these Asian Americans exist. If, as Hong argues, the unprotected consciousness knows America’s capacity for violence even before literacy, then it follows that the racialized subject is never without racial cognition—it may be concealed for reasons of safety or repressed under the dictates of an inherently racist alphabet, but it is ever-present. In calling for an Asian American reckoning, the book falls short: its hazy demands on Asians in particular deflect from the larger, more urgent project of structural equity. Still, as one Asian American’s reckoning—verb, in progress, not final—Minor Feelings is an indispensable text. Scholars of Asian American and ethnic studies, intersectional feminism, affect theory, rhetoric, and beyond will benefit from Hong’s craft. I find succour in her feelings.
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