Explained: In the work of poet Cathy Park Hong, an influential statement for people of color in the United States
“Poets, especially Asian American poets, do not dream of being on the Time 100 List. But it happened and I’m on the cover, ”Cathy Park Hong tweeted on Sept. 16, of her inclusion in the world’s top celebrities. Time the magazine‘s annual list of the 100 most influential people of the year, released this week.
The 45-year-old Korean-American poet’s searing exploration of race and minority identity in a collection of essays published last year sparked a conversation about the experiences of people of color in the United States, in especially at a time when the pandemic had exacerbated entrenched discrimination. “I annotated the hell out of Minor Feelings – this is the kind of book you want to listen to and highlight… I felt so seen that I couldn’t believe this book existed,” writes the comedian, writer and actor American Ali Wong in his profile of Hong for the Time magazine.
A professor in the English department at Rutgers University in Newark, Cathy Park Hong first appeared on the literary scene in 2002 with her collection of poetry, Translate Mo’um (Hanging Loose Press), which won him a Pushcart Prize, an annual literary prize awarded to the best independent publishers. Since then, Hong has published two more volumes – Dance Dance Revolution (2007, WW Norton Norton), who won the Barnard Women Poets Prize, an award personally supported by feminist poetic icon, Adrienne Rich, and Empire engine (2013, WW Norton). A sense of alienation is pervasive in his poetry, in which Hong explores the duality of his identity. In the poem ‘A wreath of hummingbirds‘from Engine Empire, Hong, who also serves as the poetry editor for The New Republic magazine, writes: “I suffer from a different kind of loneliness. / In the trill rings of the songs / troglodytes, the cries of babies and the mixtures of ballads, / my ears, already hardened by the buds, / turn towards the brass . ” In Dance Dance Revolution, Hong’s poems take the form of transcriptions of imaginary interviews conducted by the narrator at a fictional journeying station called Desert, where the flow of visitors gives birth to a language that draws on more than 300 dialects and other linguistic sources. In 2018, Hong won the prestigious Windham-Campbell Award. She is the recipient of several other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015).
Minor feelings: a review of race and the Asian condition
“It’s a unique condition that is distinctly Asian in that some of us are more successful economically than any other minority group, but we hardly exist anywhere in the public eye,” Hong writes in a test in Minor feelings: a review of race and the Asian condition (Profile books, Rs 499). Released last year, at the start of the global pandemic, the book is a collection of seven essays that were triggered after seeing comedian and actor Richard Pryor talk about racing on stage.
Part memory, part interrogation, Minor feelings is Hong’s first non-fiction attempt to examine racial trauma and life on the fringes. As a member of a community often touted as an immigrant success story, she writes that she must face the perceptions of Asians in America and struggle to find their way around. In the essay “Stand Up,” Hong describes “minor feelings” as the “racial range of negative, dysphoric and therefore non-telegenic emotions” and so homogenized that they refuse to recognize individual experiences. Later in an interview with The Guardian, Hong explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the racial divide in the United States. The book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category, was also a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in the general non-fiction category.
The daughter of immigrants, Hong grew up in Los Angeles, where her father worked in insurance before starting a warehouse business that managed to provide Hong with a private education. She studied at Oberlin College, Ohio, and received a Masters of Fine Arts from the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop. In the opening test of Minor feelings, “United,” Hong explains why she had always avoided writing about her racial experience in a way that erected it as an “anthropological experience” for readers. It was the birth of her daughter and her efforts to make her child feel more comfortable with the twin identities she inherited that ultimately prompted Hong to write the book. Besides Hong, sci-fi writer NK Jemisin is another literary figure to feature in Time’s 2021 list.
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