Books

Cathy Park Hong
Minor Feelings

In response to the current pandemic, violent attacks against Asian people in Western countries – including Australia – have spiked. Far from isolated events, these attacks are symptomatic of a structural racism embedded in these countries’ histories.

Written before Covid-19, Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings, offers blistering insight into the Asian–American condition. Though set on the other side of the Pacific, Hong’s analysis, both historical and personal, is keenly relevant to contemporary Australian race relations. The parallels between the United States and Australia – for example, the US Chinese Exclusion Act and the White Australia Policy – are undeniable.

A renowned poet and academic, Hong writes that the Asian–American inner consciousness is “knotted with contradictions”. Indebted to Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, she explains that minor feelings are the range of negative emotions accrued from everyday racialised experiences, which constitute a reality so distinct from the American dream that it is either questioned or dismissed. Hong conceptualises these feelings as cumulative, ongoing; if not ignored, they are set aside “to protect white feelings”.

Of course, this book is Hong’s glorious refusal to set her feelings aside. Instead, she positions herself at its very heart. Her scope is large, swinging from strange intimacies between friends, to the Los Angeles riots, to her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She considers motherhood, the craft of writing, the potentials of “bad English”. She finds power in accretion. She dedicates a chapter to the murder of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean–American writer who, Hong writes, treated “language as both the wound and the instrument that wounds”. Each line careful, Minor Feelings is undeniably the work of a poet.

Hong baulks at the rule that underpins contemporary American literature, “show, don’t tell”: she writes that this lack of interiority allows readers to slip into a character’s suffering while avoiding any interrogation of their own privilege. Yet if we are to see any change in society – and the recent racially motivated violence confirms that change is sorely needed – readers must allow themselves to be shown and told, to be discomforted within their own privilege. Minor Feelings is an incredible place to start.

Leah Jing McIntosh

Profile, 224pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings".

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Reviewer: Leah Jing McIntosh