In preparing this week’s cover story, which features an interview with author Roxane Gay, I also read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong. Hong will be at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, February 10, to make a presentation and participate in a moderated discussion about race, identity, poetry, and the power of creating art that is influenced by politics, culture, and the current societal moment. I wrote to Hong about her book, and she kindly answered my questions in advance of her upcoming appearance. That email exchange is reproduced below. I highly recommend her book, and all her writing. Hong’s voice is one we all need to hear now.
One key point that Hong makes in Minor Feelings is that, despite its origins in the progressive student movements of the 1960s, it’s time to move beyond the flattening, indiscriminate label “Asian-American” and begin learning the specific histories of individual artists and their families. One place to start is with Hong’s book, which is brilliant. Another would be with the music of Jennifer Koh, who will be appearing at Campbell Hall on Tuesday, April 12, with baritone Davóne Tines to perform a piece called Everything Rises that was commissioned by UCSB Arts & Lectures.
Both Hong and Koh belong to the Korean diaspora, and their projects, although conducted in disparate media, share the intention of giving voice to experiences that have too often been silenced in American culture. I hope you can find time to explore some of this rich material, and that you will join me and the community brought together by UCSB Arts & Lectures to bear witness to these women’s work.
Email interview with Cathy Park Hong:
When you travel and talk and teach now, do people express interest in and gratitude for the concept of Minor Feelings? Do you sense that it is a threshold concept, as in, an idea that allows people to access their experience in new ways?
Yes, I’ve been absolutely gratified by the responses I’ve received about Minor Feelings — oftentimes, readers say that I managed to articulate childhood wounds or doubts that they didn’t have the words for, which helped them process their own racial experiences.
How important do you feel it is for artists today to operate in an expanded field? Is this something that poets in particular need to do? How do you encourage the kind of scope and curiosity you describe among your friends at Oberlin in the students you work with today? Or is it something that they come by naturally?
I always encourage my students to look outside their own medium to find inspiration in visual art, performance, even computer coding to find new means of expression in their work. I ask my students to go to museums for inspiration, embed themselves in a community, and interview people from that community to turn into a poetic project. I had a biology student who wrote the most brilliant poem using DNA coding.
What are you working on now? Will you be writing an essay or a poem that reflects on your life during the pandemic? Are you continuing to experiment in other genres the way you did when you tried doing poetry readings as stand-up comedy?
I’m actually writing poems that explore the pandemic. Like probably a lot of writers, I was determined not to write about the pandemic, but it’s been so dominant in all of our lives that it’s hard not to think about it! My experimentations are less outrageous, I’m afraid. I’m actually just trying to write lyric poems. I’m also working on a prose book that is about mothers, the Cold War, and North Korea!