The poet Cathy Park Hong begins her new book of essays with a bang that’s disguised as a tic. In “Minor Feelings,” she recalls an imaginary spasm in her face that marked the beginning of a yearlong depression. Hong, the American-born daughter of Korean immigrants, made an appointment with the only Korean-American therapist she could find who took her insurance, figuring their shared background would give her a reprieve from having to explain herself too much.
“She’d look at me and just know where I was coming from,” Hong reasoned. But the first thing Hong noticed when they met was the “enormous” size of the therapist’s face. Hong wondered if this was a problem for her; a common Korean compliment, Hong says, is to describe a woman’s face as “so small it’s the size of a fist.”
The delivery of this observation is matter-of-fact and remorseless, a sign that Hong’s book, subtitled “An Asian American Reckoning,” will also entail a reckoning with herself. The essays wander a variegated terrain of memoir, criticism and polemic, oscillating between smooth proclamations of certainty and twitches of self-doubt. The subject of the book is ostensibly racial identity, but Hong confesses to feeling unsure and unsettled about her authority to write it. “It discomfited me to attach my experience to a history that, next to the black and white apartheid that has carved itself into the American infrastructure, felt anecdotal,” she writes.
She used to let that “anecdotal” feeling dissuade her from writing about Asian identity, recalling poetry workshops in which her classmates would condescend to it as an “insufficient and inadequate” subject unless it came paired with some sweeping assertions about capitalism. As a teenager in the early 1990s, Hong lived in a big house in a Los Angeles neighborhood full of well-to-do white people — far from South Central when it was wracked by unrest following the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. The experience of Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central wasn’t hers to share; nor was the experience of Chinese workers brought to the United States after the Civil War.