Cathy Park Hong is unapologetically honest at Scripps Presents

A headshot of an Asian woman with short black hair, wearing a blue shirt and hoop earrings.
Cathy Park Hong spoke about Asian American identity and her writing at Scripps Presents on Sept. 24. (Courtesy: Scripps Presents)

“There’s something very absurd about my previous experiences,” poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong said at a Scripps Presents event on Sept. 23. 

The “Minor Feelings” author put a magnifying glass to her award-winning book, her writing process, Asian-American women’s identity and future literary work with fellow author Jade Chang. 

In “Minor Feelings,” Hong explained that it’s not her absurd experiences that are necessarily the problem, but that they are commonplace in Asian immigrant families.

“Humor has always been one way to kind of smuggle uncomfortable truths,” she said. “Beauty is another way — certain forms of beauty.”

The winner of the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award graced the Scripps Presents virtual stage a week after gracing the cover of the TIME100 most influential people of 2021 list. The event was held in partnership with Scripps College’s Core program, for which first-year students had recently read “Minor Feelings.”

“Cathy Park Hong is a quintessential pick for Scripps Presents!” Scripps Presents Artistic Director Corrina Lesser said via email. “Her work is such a powerful force in our contemporary cultural conversation about race in America.”

Published in the spring of 2020, “Minor Feelings” became more urgent after Donald Trump’s election led to an increase in anti-Asian racism, according to Hong. In response, she pivoted from a deep dive into systemic racism toward a more educational and accessible book for a broader audience, though it was still intentionally written for her fellow Asian Americans. 

She wrote about historical events and perspectives often excluded from the mainstream American narrative and curriculum: Koreatown during the Los Angeles riots, Asian soldiers in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, Japanese internment, the Korean War and modern anti-Asian racism. Hong takes a deep dive into the lives of people impacted by these events, these untold stories forming a patchwork quilt of people at risk of fading into the past.

“My approach to the essays is that I treat it like it’s Frankenstein’s monster, where I use parts of many different bodies of knowledge to make my overall argument, so that’s why I can’t be satisfied with [genre titles like] memoir or critical essay or criticism,” Hong said.

Hong wrote deliberately, honestly and angrily, refusing to be boxed in by labels or generalizations. She brings in various media like other books, stand-up routines, poetry collections, essays and interview excerpts, compiling an informal reading list as if to say her book is just a start for these conversations.

“She’s so palpably angry throughout the entire book, which sounds like a small thing, but it’s so uncharacteristic of the Asian woman stereotype, and it’s probably the aspect of the book I related to the most,” Aanji Sin SC ’24 said. “I also thought it was particularly special that she was in conversation with another Asian-American woman writer and that they were able to relate to each other on that same level and could talk about those specific experiences.”

Hong chose an essay format rather than poetry so she could extensively describe her thoughts. In her book, she mentions how “show don’t tell” allows the reader to be a voyeur and not recognize their own privilege as intricately related to a character’s suffering.

“I think people think automatically there’s a way to write — it comes from a lineage of midcentury American writers,” Hong said. “The CIA actually actively funded the Iowa Writers Workshop [where I did my MFA]. This depoliticized way of writing had very political foundations to it.”

Julin Everett, French and Core I professor, moderated the audience questions during the latter half of the event.

“It really encouraged me, as a reader, human being [and] researcher, to think about how our texts, how our movies, how all cultural production is really engineered to focus on the feelings of the majority population rather than on marginalized identities,” Everett said.

As Hong pointed out in her book, one does not hear about aesthetic movements founded on artist friendships that are not between white men, despite there being plenty.

“The literary world was all a bunch of boys’ clubs, who were pioneering these literary movements,” Hong said. “I wanted to write about Asian-American women making art together. ‘An Education’ is not about males, or family. It’s about our intellect. These friendships are what make movements.”

“An Education,” the fifth of seven essays in the book, focused on Hong’s time at Oberlin College and her close friendships with two Asian-American women that launched her artistic courage, confidence and creativity.

“What about community? What about your support network?” Hong said. “Up until that point [in the book] I’m writing about Asian-American consciousness under the scrutiny of the white gaze, and the essay is a movement away from that.”

This essay is a favorite among her Asian-American women readers — including guest moderator Chang — who felt viscerally seen in a way they thought was not possible before. 

“Hong and these other Asian-American authors are able to articulate these Asian-American experiences in ways that I haven’t yet been able to for myself,” Sin said.

Asian Americans across the nation found inspiration and kinship in her powerful words — threads of consciousness that connect all Asian Americans in spite of the vast range of experiences within.

“Listening to Hong’s thoughtful erudition and flat-out courage was impressive and enlightening,”  said Winston Ou, the Scripps College Elizabeth Hubert Malott Endowed Chair for the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. “It reinforced my impression of the author as one who is bravely and confidently claiming equal space for herself and others.”

Hong chuckled while talking about all the things she could change to update “Minor Feelings” for the current climate. She named exploring the relationships between Black and Asian communities as well as Asian-American women’s sexuality as potential topics for another book. 

“Let’s continue this conversation in person sometime,” Hong said at the end of the evening.

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