On Feb. 10, Emory’s Creative Writing Program kicked off its spring reading series by hosting poet and nonfiction writer Cathy Park Hong. Emory professor and fellow poet Robyn Schiff facilitated the virtual conversation alongside Hong. Despite electronic barriers, Hong’s work shined through.
Hong has released a plethora of work over the last 20 years. Her poetry books include “Translating Mo’um” (2002), “Dance Dance Revolution” (2006) and “Engine Empire” (2012). Her most recent book, a collection of creative nonfiction, titled “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” was published by Random House imprint One World last spring.
Hong coined the term “minor feelings” to describe a category of emotions such as shame, melancholia and suspicion brought about by, as Hong writes, “having every day racial experiences and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”
“Minor Feelings” features a series of personal essays grappling with the experience of understanding and accepting an Asian identity in America. Hong started the event by reading from her book’s first chapter, which recounts a point of significant depression in her life. Her nonfiction writing was detailed, relatable and beautifully intimate, bringing the story to life as she attempted to understand herself and her identity in the context of white America. Her unhindered emotion and honesty made her writing unforgettable.
Next, Hong read a few selected poems from the last section of her book “Engine Empire” titled “The World Cloud.” She began by reading “A Visitation,” which begins with: “You are at home / You are wearing bicycle shorts though you don’t own a bike / Outside your window, you see a flower you don’t recognize.” Hong’s use of second person pronouns immediately pulls in those listening to her poetic landscape, creating an immersive, enveloping experience. She followed by reading “A Wreath of Hummingbirds” and concluded with “Fable of the Last Untouched Town.”
These poems take on a different voice than that of her nonfiction work — they are weird and dystopian and imaginative. “The World Cloud” looks far into the future, depicting a society entrenched in technology and considering how this could affect individual consciousness. When Hong wrote these poems in the early 2010s, this picture of society seemed like a far off idea, but as we sat over Zoom listening to her read, it became clear that we are currently living in the world Hong imagined.
“I was imagining this bleak, digital future,” explained Hong, “where the Internet and the mind completely melds, and there’s no separation of reality and digital reality, and the isolation that comes as a result of that. It kind of seems like we are living that now.”
Following her reading, Hong also hosted a private question and answer session for current creative writing students on Feb. 11 in conversation with Schiff. The session prompted students to ask Hong questions about her process and purpose as a writer. Hong passionately talked about her love and respect for translating poetry, her scattered approach to picking a genre of work and Britney Spears.
Hong also touched on what it feels like to be an Asian American in the current xenophobic climate, worsened by the pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric. While the current surge in Asian American hate crimes has only recently come to light, it is merely the latest manifestation of this country’s ingrained racism and is not new.
“It’s been hard for all minorities during the pandemic,” Hong said. “For Asian Americans, what we’re seeing here is a resurfacing — although it never went anywhere —- of the xenophobia from even 100 years ago. And what’s absolutely damaging about the model minority myth is that there’s this assumption that Asians are: A) invisible and B) because Asians are invisible, racism against Asians is invisible.”
Hong went on to explain her motivation for writing her book and her belief in the importance of solidarity across minority groups.
“One of the reasons that I wrote this book is that I do believe in alliance-ship,” Hong said. “I do believe that there are shared experiences between minority groups. We have to be there for injustices against the Black community and Latinx community and Indigenous community. It’s the only way we can be in this country.”
It is obvious that Hong’s work extends beyond the personal. “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” is Hong’s contribution to the ongoing struggle to achieve racial equality in America. While she recognizes that her writing does not portray “the” Asian American experience, she offers her story to further the understanding of race, oppression and injustice in the U.S. As Hong explains, intersectionality and a pluralistic approach to activism is vital.
Hong’s reading shows that activism can take many forms. Simply raising your voice and telling your story can be enough to enact change and spark hope.
“Asian Americans, we need to do the work,” Hong rallied. “We need to speak up. We need to be as loud as possible. We need to mobilize. Only we can get ourselves heard.”