I set my entire June TBR list over two months ago, including this book, but it turned out to be an eerily prescient choice. When I was reading the bits about the 1992 L.A. riots, and the parts where she directly addressed anti-back racism in America, I felt such a weird sense of momentous synchronicity. Anyway, the book.
This was nearly a five star read for me, and will likely be a five star book for many. My reasons for not giving it the full five are purely personal preference, and I’ll get into them later. Mostly, this book is great. Hong, by profession a poet and an academic, writes in a style that is (mostly) straightforward, intelligent, and darkly humorous. She writes openly about how the style and subject matter she has chosen goes against cultural norms and artistic conventions. The book is structured in the form of seven personal essays, but she mixes in cultural criticism, art criticism, and political and social criticism interchangeably. This book, she says, was a challenge to herself to write against how she had been conditioned: to blend into the background, to go along, to accept the dominating narrative of what it means to be Asian American or an immigrant, to be a minority in America.
The book’s title is a reference to the feelings that Hong has, and that other Asian Americans and people of color have, when their lived experience is in direct conflict with the dominating narratives of American culture.
“. . . minor feelings are not generated from major change but from lack of change, in particular, structural racial and economic change. Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place. It’s playing tennis ‘while black’ and dining out ‘while black.’ It’s hearing the same verdict when testimony after testimony has been given.”
Hong writes around or near (her terms) the experiences of black people and other people of color, but her particular focus is the experience of being Asian in America, those things that don’t fit in with the common image of “the good immigrant” or the “smart, studious Asian” who is “almost white, and aren’t you lucky?” (She also attempts to deal with the all-encompassing label “Asian American,” which homogenizes various Asian cultures into one monoculture, separate from the “norm” of the white middle class.)
It’s not an easy read, emotionally speaking, but that was straight up Hong’s purpose in writing. She writes to make you uncomfortable, she writes with an audience in mind (a no-no in poetry). She writes things that she has been censored (or self-censored) from writing before. A lot of the book is her trying to work out her thoughts.
My only criticism, and it feels slightly wrong to call it that because it’s mostly my personal preference, is that occasionally she lets her inner academic out, the part of academia that drools over critical theory. I left academia in part so I would not have to read or think about men like Frantz Fanon or Roland Barthes ever again. In select places throughout the book, she quotes or ruminates on ideas put forth by writers and theorists like them, when I feel her points are much stronger when she backs away from that type of writing. I just find it unpleasant, how good ideas are constantly being lost in the struggle to impress or be the smartest, or to see just how impenetrable one can make one’s own writing, so that others will have to prove their intelligence in order to comprehend you. She herself does not come across like that at all, so it’s jarring when she quotes someone much more formal and obtuse than she is.
“It makes me worried about the future, about this nation’s inborn capacity to forget, about the powers that be who always win and take over the narrative. Already, ‘woke’ is a hashtag that’s now mocked, when being awake is not a singular revelation but a long-term commitment fueled by constant reevaluation.”
All in all, highly recommend this one.
“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria. A 2017 study found that the ideology of America as a fair meritocracy led to more self-doubt and behavioral problems among low-income black and brown sixth graders because, as one teacher said, ‘they blame themselves for problems they can’t control.’
Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult—in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequality are not commensurate with their deluded reality.”
– – –
“It’s also human nature to repel shame by penalizing and refusing continued engagement with the source of the shame. Most white Americans live in segregated environments, which, as Alcoff writes, ‘protects and insulates them from race-based stress.’ As a result, any proximity to minorities—seeing Latinx families move into their town, watching news clips of black protestors chanting, ‘I can’t breathe,’ in Grand Central Station—sparks intolerable discomfort. Suddenly Americans feel self-conccious of their white identity and this self-consciousness misleads them into thinking their identity is under threat. In feeling wrong, they feel wronged. In being asked to be made aware of racial oppression, they feel oppressed. While we laugh at white tears, white tears can turn dangerous. White tears, as Damon Young explains in The Root, are why defeated Southerners refused to accept the freedom of black slaves and formed the Ku Klux Klan. And white tears are why 63 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women elected a malignant man-child as their leader. For to be aware of history, they would be forced to be held accountable, and rather than face that shame, they’d rather, by any means necessary, maintain their innocence.”
– – –
“At the time of my writing, this country has seen a retrenchment of identities on both sides of the political spectrum. The rise of white nationalism has led to many nonwhites defending their identities with rage and pride as well as demanding reparative action to compensate for centuries of whites’ plundering from non-Western cultures. But a side effect of this justified rage has been a ‘stay in your lane’ politics in which artists and writers are asked to speak only from their personal ethnic experiences. Such a politics not only assumes racial identity is pure—while ignoring the messy lived realities in which racial groups overlap—but reduces racial identity to intellectual property.
When we are inspired by a poem or a novel, our human impulse is to share it so that, as Lewis Hyde writes, it leaves a trail of ‘interconnected relationships in its wake.’ But in the market economy, art is a commodity removed from circulation and kept. If the work of art circulates, it circulates for profit, which has been grossly reaped by white authorship. Speaking on this subject, Amiri Baraka offers an invaluable quote: ‘All cultures learn from each other. The problem is that if the Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie, I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi.’
We must make right the unequal distributions but we must do so without forgetting the immeasurable value of cultural exchange, in what Hyde calls the gift economy. In reacting against the market economy, we have internalized market logic where culture is hoarded as if it’s a product that will depreciate in value if shared with others; where instead of decolonizing English, we are carving up English into hostile nation-states. The soul of innovation thrives on cross-cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die.”