Cathy Park Hong gives life to many voices. She’s a poet, author, professor, mother and nationally in-demand speaker since the 2020 publication of the critically acclaimed Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Minor Feelings is composed of seven essays that have been described as a “new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness.”
Our colleagues at Arlington Heights Memorial Library interviewed her in preparation for the upcoming Cathy Park Hong author event we are hosting with AHML and 20 other neighboring libraries. She shared these insights about her work, upcoming library appearance and her recent rise in the national consciousness.
Congratulations on being selected as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2021” — what has that been like receiving this honor?
I’m humbled. It’s been…I’m just really over the moon and also a bit overwhelmed but it has also been a bit abstract at the same time as it has happened during the pandemic, so you know for instance, when I did talks or corresponded with readers of the book, all of it was through social media or email or Zoom, and so even with the Time magazine cover, it’s almost like it’s happening to an avatar and not me.
What inspired you to write Minor Feelings?
The seeds of the book have been on my mind for a long time, and I actually wrote about the inspiration back in 2011. I was watching a comedy special starring Richard Pryor and it was revelatory and I was thinking, why isn’t there anything…I was craving that kind of raw honesty in thinking about Asian American identity, so that was the first seed. Then I became pregnant in 2014, and I realized when I found out I was having a daughter that I didn’t want her to have the kind of childhood that I had. I wanted her to be comfortable with the skin that she had, and you know, actually having her made me really think about, in a much more visceral way, the future of race relations. So that added an urgency for me to start this book, to write this book, which was initially conceived as a book of poems.
So what was that process like, “flipping the channel” so to speak, to be writing a memoir versus poetry?
Something about the lyric form was too constrictive. I wanted to have some satirical notes in the poem, which didn’t come across quite as well in the lyrical form, and I realized for it to work, I needed to unfold my thoughts into prose which was a much more capacious genre for me to go from being funny to being serious to jumping from a historical anecdote to a personal anecdote. Basically, I needed more room to stretch out, that’s why I turned to nonfiction, which of course produced a lot of anxiety because …I have had some experience writing politics articles and reviews and so forth, but it was like I basically learned how to write nonfiction by writing this book.
Did you know the timeline or order of the essays when you began writing?
I didn’t know what the order was, I just followed whatever it was I felt compelled to write about.
In fact, I was really scared to put them in any kind of order because I didn’t map it all out beforehand and my fear was that the essays would be just utterly disparate and have nothing to do with each other. But I realized, and I always tell my poetry students when they are putting their books of poems together, that your intuition is smarter than you think, that you are creating these thematic threads between poems or between short stories or between essays, even unconsciously, and I discovered that was the case with this book of essays.
What do you hope attendees will take away from your event?
I hope that after the event…that what I have to say about my book, and being Asian American, and race relations and capitalism…that it’s not a finished conversation, and that afterwards they seek out other writers and figures of color. I really hope that it piques their curiosity if they are new to the subject.
This interview was edited for length.
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