As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong found writing poetry to be freeing — an empowering way of escaping the invisibility of Asian American identity. Then, as a professional poet, it became clear that the literary world expected Hong’s identity to be both a part of, and a limitation to, her work. This cognitive dissonance is one of the “Minor Feelings” addressed in her book of essays of that name. Cathy Park Hong joins us in front of an audience of students at Portland’s Leodis V. McDaniel High School.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today from the extensively renovated and recently renamed Leodis V. McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland, and I am thrilled to say that we are here in front of an audience to talk to the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong. Hong is the author of three poetry collections including Dance Dance Revolution. She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and a professor of poetry at Rutgers University, Newark. In February of 2020, just before the pandemic shut the world down, Hong published Minor Feelings, an Asian American reckoning. It is a book of essays written with precision, compassion, humor and fury about Hong’s own experiences as a woman, a Korean American and an artist in the US. It’s also an honest exploration of the complicated ways that her story connects to a collective. Hong wrestles with racism, violence, language, friendship and capitalism. Cathy Park Hong, it is a pleasure to welcome you to Think Out Loud.
Cathy Park Hong: Thank you so much.
Miller: The other day, you wrote this on Twitter that this trip to Portland is your first one, for an event outside of New York, that you’ve done in more than two years. What’s it like to be out in the world?
Park Hong: It’s really exciting. I’m really grateful and honored to be here. But also, I feel a little vulnerable, just like a hermit crab that doesn’t have a shell to go back to. Because, I don’t know about you all, but especially during the last winter, I’ve been back… There was that summer where we’re like ‘okay, we can kind of come out now’ and we’re all vaccinated. And then we’re pushed back into our respective shelters. I feel like I haven’t been outside my apartment for a month, two months. In January, which felt like a year ‒ we’re still in January ‒ so I’m so delighted to be out here. But I’m also a little nervous because I haven’t faced the public like this in such a long time.
Miller: That’s interesting, because that seems like it’s part of the physicality of it, right? Because, can you count the number of Zoom events you’ve done over the last two years? The number of times you’ve talked about this book?
Park Hong: No, it’s all blurred into one long Zoom event.
Miller: But being physically somewhere is different?
Park Hong: No, I think it really chisels your way into your mind in a way that “doom” doesn’t. I just actually said “doom” instead of Zoom. I mean, no, I’ve loved the Zoom events I’ve done. But I think that there’s something about being on the internet just kind of collapses time and space in a way that you don’t feel inhabited in your body, and you don’t really feel like you’re engaging with people or the audience, or your friends in the same way that it’s like in person. I mean, scientists talk about this. So it’s just really thrilling to actually have engagement, real person- to-person engagement.
Miller: Well, let’s go back way pre-Zoom. Since we’re in a high school, I thought we could talk a little bit about your own experience of high school. You write in the book that, when you were born, your family lived in Koreatown in LA, but then moved west to a richer, whiter neighborhood. What was your high school like?
Hong: I don’t know. I hated high school. I don’t even have friends from high school. I’m hoping all of you have a better high school experience than I did. But I went to a public school for a while, elementary school and middle school. Then, when I was 15, I went to a private school, and that was a real culture shock. I think I did get a much better education being in a private school. However, the kids were very mean. It was just a high school of mean girls and it was very isolating. I didn’t think I belonged there. I think just high school in general is kind of a cruel Darwinian experiment where it’s like your hormones are… You’re at your most vulnerable, right? When you’re a teenager and then you’re thrown into a school where it’s, as I was saying, it’s like a Darwinian jungle. But I’m hoping [and] I’d like to think that high school has gotten a lot nicer. Kids have gotten a lot nicer. You could correct me if I’m wrong. But it was also difficult, I think, being Asian American because I didn’t really have the vocabulary that it wasn’t the same kind of culture. I didn’t have the books or the art or the media figures or literary figures who told me it was OK to be me, where I felt justified in being Asian American or being a young woman of color. I didn’t figure that out until later. So I was filled with much confusion and teen angst.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us two pages from early on in the book. This talks a little bit about your progression as an artist and as a poet.
Park Hong: Okay.
‘When I was 15, writing a poem was as mysterious to me as writing in cyrillic. So, I was ready to be impressed by my classmates’ poetry when I flipped through my high school literary journal. But I was disappointed to find that, as is typical for most adolescent poems, there was no ‘there’ there in their pretentious musings. Their amateurish efforts emboldened me to write one myself. That doesn’t look so hard, I thought. I bet I can do that. And then I wrote one. I felt giddy, like I’d discovered a new magic trick. At the time, my family lived in a new development in LA. So, we were surrounded by half-constructed homes. Herds of deer still roamed the scrubby, flattened hilltops of the neighborhood, grazing on thistles and sagebrush. One night, when the moon was full, I saw a stag with little antler thumbs poking out of its head, bend its hind legs, and **** in our backyard before leaping away. I thought my house was haunted. I woke up a few times at night with my bed stand rattling. Another time, I was startled awake by an invisible phantom trying to lift my body off my mattress. I gripped my sheet so I wouldn’t float away. I was deeply lonely and never felt quite present then. I only came into focus when I was making art. And later, when I began writing poetry, which I found freeing because my body was dematerialized, my identity shed and I could imagine myself into other lives. Everything I read affirmed this freedom, John Keats said a poet “has no identity”. He is continually in for, and filling some other body. Roland Barthes said, ‘literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes. the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.’ But when I became a published poet, I couldn’t suspend my Asian female identity no matter what I wrote. Even in the absence of my body, my spectral authorial identity hampered the magnitude and range in which my voice reached readers. How naive to think that my invisibility meant I could play God. If Whitman’s ‘I’ contained multitudes, my ‘I’ contained 5.6% of this country. Readers, teachers and editors told me in so many words that I should write whatever felt true to my heart, but that, since I was Asian, I might as well stick to the subject of Asians even though noone cared about Asians. But what choice did I have? Since if I wrote about, say, nature, noone would care because I was an Asian person writing about nature. I suspected that if a reader read my poem and then saw my name, the fuse of the poem would blow out, leading the reader to think, ‘I thought I liked the poem, but on second thought, I can’t relate to it’. But what proof did I have of this? How did I know it wasn’t simply because I had no talent? The problem was that I didn’t know. Either way, I couldn’t shake off the stuckness. I always thought my physical identity was the problem. But writing made me realize that, even without myself present, I still couldn’t rise above myself, which pitched me into a kind of despair.’
Miller: There’s so much in those two pages, but I want to focus first on your first experiences of art making or poetry making, which you say was kind of dematerialized, and your body was dematerialized, and it seems like a kind of freedom. Did that feel like more a secession of pain or of actual pleasure and joy?
Park Hong: Both. I think it was both a secession of pain and joy. I think when I started writing poems in high school, it was less about writing poems as diary entries, where I was using it as an outlet for whatever angst, whatever anger or depression I was feeling. I was writing poetry as a form of escape, which is another outlet that writers do. It was just a way for me to kind of invent personalities, invent personality, invent worlds, just be places. I was also reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy at the time. That aspect of writing really appealed to me. Like, I could just actually just escape the body, the sort of insufficient ‒ what I thought at the time, this insufficient body that I was in ‒ and be in these other worlds, other personas. That escape, I thought, was just really comforting to me. And it was, I thought, a kind of superpower. A little like a kind of magic trick, I said in the book, but also kind of superpower, where if I felt deeply invisible in high school, which I was, then I could use my invisibility as a superpower to be other people and get away with things as someone who was invisible. Then of course, I write about how I get older, the kind of difficulties that I had with this sort of myth of being able to escape through writing.
Miller: Let’s take a question from our audience. Go ahead. Can you tell us your name?
Eva: My name is Eva. I’m a junior at this school. I was wondering how you want your work to affect Asian girls like myself and many others at the school.
Park Hong: I don’t know. I’m feeling so vulnerable. I feel like, with every question, every time I hear from a student, I’m going to be moved to tears. I wrote this book for, actually, an advice. Let me just backtrack here and just say a few things. People always ask me ‘who do you write for, who do you write to?’ because this question of the audience comes up constantly, And with Minor Feelings, I was writing to my daughter who is seven years old, writing it to her for her future self, when she’s in high school or when she’s in college. I was also writing it to a younger version of me, or younger version of people like me, who feel that same kind of inadequacy, that I deeply felt that was really cleaving my heart when I was in high school. So, I wrote that book for young Asian American women to not feel alone so that whatever you’re feeling is not yours, it’s not isolated. You are in company and that it’s okay to feel that way and that you should feel both. You should acknowledge that, and to reckon with that, and to use that, to weaponize that inadequacy or that sadness or that rage that you may feel and change the world. Now, that’s a tall order. You could just stop there. But I think that you have the power to amplify your voice, amplify yourselves and not to shrink, not to stay invisible and to really use your voice.
Miller: Eva, can I ask you, if you don’t mind? Because the first thing that Cathy said is she doesn’t want you to feel alone. I’m curious if, when you read the book, if she succeeded?
Eva: Yes, definitely. It was nice to hear very similar thoughts on the pages. Thank you.
Miller: Eva, thanks for being the first one to go up to the mic. I’m encouraged now. All the other students, when you have a question, go to the mic. Cathy, I want to go back to the second half of that passage that you read because, among the things you’re describing there, is what’s been shorthanded as being gaslit, being made to doubt your own experience of the world. One of the sentences you say is, ‘What proof did I have that this is actually what was happening?’ What is the experience of feeling that over and over for an extended period of time?
Park Hong: This is what drove me to find a term, at least for myself, and that was also inspired by other writers and scholars that I was reading, to call it something which is minor feelings, which is I think in America there’s this glorification of these major emotions, where either joy or grief or triumph, I wanted to talk about this other spectrum of affects or feelings that were not articulated in a lot of the best selling books that you read or in films, and I think that it’s not just Asians, but I think anyone who comes from a marginalized community in the US feels, which is to see your life not reflected back and to see your own sense of being marginalized from this kind of racial capitalist society reflected back in any kind of way.
So, if you are gaslit or not acknowledged or not reckoned with, you start doubting yourself constantly. You start doubting what you see in front of you, what you experience, what you do. And that really cuts at your own sense of self, at your own sense of humanity. I’ll use a very recent example. Within the last two years, there has been this spike of anti-Asian hate. It was interesting to have my book come out around this time, because suddenly I became sort of the spokesperson for what was happening, which was not my intention when writing that book. I really thought that only other poets will be reading the book, because I’m a poet. But when I went on a radio show or something, I also encountered a lot of Americans who happened to be white who said that what I was experiencing or what other Asian Americans were experiencing, these bias incidents, these anti-Asian crimes, were not happening. It was like pretty continuous where they would say, ‘Well, I don’t see it happening, so it’s not happening. I have Asian friends, and they say it’s not happening, so it’s not happening’. There’s a real frustration where people refuse to see the reality that you’re feeling. That’s also statistical, it’s proven, so it’s a, it’s a tremendous amount of frustration.
Miller: I want to turn to questions of form, because there are a lot of them in this book. You tell us that you tried to write what became this book in a variety of ways. You tried poems. You tried a novel. You tried stand-up comedy. You ended up with this super-lauded book of essays. But I’m curious about your experience of the cul-de-sacs there. What didn’t work when you tried to address these issues head on as poetry?
Park Hong: I mean, maybe if I really worked at it, maybe I could have written a book of poems. But I found that the lyric form was too narrow for me to write, just basically for me to spill my guts, and I just needed to write in paragraphs to allow for all of the kind of tonal ambiguities that I was trying to get at. I also found that humor is an important part of the book. At least for me, there have been a lot of very funny poets in the past, and who are still writing poetry now. But it was hard to be funny in poems. I really was interested in using satire and poetry, and it was just not working. It just seemed like I was being serious. So I think part of it was a tone problem. Also, I think when you think about the differences between poetry and the essay, I wanted to make an argument, which is more conducive to the essay than it is to the poem. I wanted to start with a question and follow the journey of answering that question. I don’t know if I ever answered any of the questions that I asked myself, and instead what that initial question was was that it opened up other questions. But that journey to me was necessary. And I think that rhetorical general journey was much more accessible to the essay form than the poetry form. By the way, I was never intending on being a stand-up comic. That was just a failed little experiment, a masochistic experiment that I tried.
Miller: You say you are masochistic and sadistic. You wanted to sort of make your audience uncomfortable too.
Park Hong: And they were uncomfortable.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our students here.
Isaac Patterson: My name is Isaac Patterson. I’m a junior here. Often artists will talk about the white gaze and how it affects their work. I was just wondering how that affected Minor Feelings and how you think it’s going to affect your future projects.
Park Hong: That’s a very good question. There’s a quote in my book. It’s funny. After I wrote it, I completely forgot everything I wrote and I have a hard time memorizing my own passages. So, I think I said something in the book about how, if you’re BIPOC, you’re so busy arguing what you’re not that you never get around to who you are. So in a way, with Minor Feelings, as a poet, actually, I did always try to get around to the white gaze, but I just finally just really got sick of the fact that Asian Americans had no control over the narratives that were being told about us. So, I felt this need. The book, Minor Feelings was an intervention. It was like, ‘this is an intervention, because I need to set the record straight and I need to provide a corrective,’ because I just about had it. I can’t believe that I’m still dealing with the same stereotypes and BS that I was dealing with when I was a kid. And the change has been glacial. So, Minor Feelings was an intervention. And so yes, it was a direct rebuttal or direct confrontation to the white gaze. And what I was providing in Minor Feelings as an intervention was a counter narrative. This is the counter narrative to be what Asian American is. And I think that the very esteemed, amazing writer Viet Thanh Nguyen said that we need to for that. It’s important to have that counter narrative. But what’s also more important is that we have narrative plenitude, and with that, that the world, that this country and the publishing industry and all that allows itself, opens itself to as many different kinds of stories as there are about a certain group so we’re not constantly writing to a white gaze anymore, so that any kind of one circumscribed notion of who we are, of who we are not, gets completely eradicated and so we’re no longer writing for that white gaze anymore. While I do acknowledge that there is a white gaze that I’m not sure if I’ll ever be totally unselfconscious of. I also find it very important to write for people in my community and my Asian American community and immigrant communities and BIPOC communities and ever, what have you. I think it’s also really important to write about where you come from, as well, which necessarily doesn’t have to do with the white gaze.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our students here. Go ahead. Tell us your name first, if you don’t mind.
Keegan Martin: My name is Keegan Martin. I am also a junior here. And I was wondering, was there any essay in “Minor Feelings” that you had to dig particularly deep into yourself in order to write?
Park Hong: Well, that’s a very good question and I have to say all of that, I would, it’s interesting because like when I was, when I wrote the book, it was more, it was more not critical as in, it was more, it was more like a book of criticism, right? It had less of the personal, more of these analysis of what race is and what writing and what literature is and so forth. And I had a really fantastic editor who happened to be Asian American and they said, they just like, just kept, just wouldn’t leave me alone about how I had to be more vulnerable, how I had to just like really dig further into myself, that I couldn’t just make these like sweeping generalized comments about America, that I had to really come, it has to really come from a place in, from my heart and from my personal life. So I would say that for every essay, I think…
Miller: Can I ask you a terrible capitalism question here? Because when you got that advice from your editor, did you hear it as, ‘this is going to make the book better or this is going to make it sell more or could it be both at once’?
Park Hong: I don’t know. My editor, who’s now a Buddhist monk, left and they’re like, ‘I’m going to go to a monastery’ and I just really felt heartbroken, like they were dumping me. I was thinking about myself instead of the journey that they’re going on, I mean my editor is very anti-capitalist. So I tried not to think of it, but I definitely could see that right argument, but I don’t think it was more about making that book more sellable. I think it was more about sort of carving out the emotional stakes in “Minor Feelings”, which can also be editor speak for ‘we need to sell this book’, but I also understood, I got it. I felt like I wanted to do that too, I was just afraid to do that. And it’s something that I also tell my students all the time too, is that you have to write towards what makes you uncomfortable and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to, like confess all your family secrets or anything. It could be, it could be the way you, the way, the kind of form that you’re writing in and so forth. But I acknowledge that, I also realized that in myself, that I was like there was something very guarded about the way that I was writing. If I didn’t think that was integral to my project, I would have, I would have ignored their advice. But I would say probably the friendship essay was really an essay where I felt like it was really hard for, where I needed to kind of dig deeper into myself. That was probably a very difficult essay, but also the essay about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha but for different reasons. I think that was more about finding the permission to kind of really dive into what happened to her.
Miller: Let’s talk about both of those chapters, but we have to take a short break first. We have a lot more with Cathy Park Hong and the students here at McDaniel High School, after a short break. This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you today in front of an amazing audience at McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland. Our guest for the hour is the writer Cathy Park Hong. She is a poetry editor of the New Republic and a professor at Rutgers Newark University. Her most recent book is the essay collection “Minor Feelings”. So in answer to that last question from our audience, you said that, if pressed, you would say that the essay you wrote about friendship, about your friendship with two fellow artists, fellow young Asian American women in college,
that that chapter was the hardest one to write. Can you tell us, first, why you wanted to include an essay about friendship in this book?
Park Hong: Actually that wasn’t the hardest, in terms of digging into my personal self memories, it was the hardest. I would say that Theresa Hak Kyung Cha essay was probably the hardest. But that was the friendship essay, which is actually interestingly the essay that a lot of readers say that it didn’t kind of belong in the collection and I thought it was really important for me to have that because, to have that essay and it was actually also the first essay that I wrote for the book, because going back to that question about the white gaze, I think if you, the way I structured it was like the first half of “Minor Feelings” was more this kind of, this sense of estrangement or alienation that I felt about being Asian in America. And then the second half, I wanted to write more about community and it was really important to just not write about me feeling alienated. It was really important for me to also write about having a community and being empowered and finding these Asian American women who were also dysfunctional, but who I felt really validated and justified to being an artist and a writer. And I think that, with the stereotype of Asians, especially about how we’re all into STEM, that we’re all into STEM people, it was really important for me to have that narrative in there that I didn’t, I had no interest in. Even my parents didn’t like force me, like you have to be a doctor. I think it was like, I wanted to have that narrative in there, that I was like, this is my journey as a writer and an artist and the friends who informed me were other Asian Americans and other Black and Latinx friends, faculty members and those mentors, I mean, and that was that was just really really important for me to have that in there because the book is not just about a reckoning, about an Asian American reckoning or what Asian American is, it’s also a portrait of an artist, and a portrait of an artist who happens to be a Korean American woman.
Miller: Let’s take another question from the audience. Go ahead.
Akasha: Hi, my name’s Akasha. I’m a junior here at McDaniel. And my question is, what resources, like what tools did you use to speak up on your personal journey with becoming one with yourself and like a biased racially organized world and as a fellow POC member, how did you educate yourself with such advanced artistic thought?
Park Hong: It was a lifelong journey, I think. Actually I would have to say that it started from, and this is also why I had to have that essay in there, was that it started with my friendships in college, and having the kind of friends where it’s so, I think especially when you’re in high school, you tend to have these aspirational groups of friends and it also happens afterwards where you want to be with the cool kids, or the popular kids and whatever, but then you feel absolutely uncomfortable being who you are. And when I went to college, it was the first time where I just felt like I was with, I found a group of friends where I just, if I said something about how crazy my mom was, they understood, they got it, and that was really important, but also, in the book I say that, having the friends that I had, art became, art wasn’t a fantasy, art became a mission. And so that sort of empowerment that I had in college gave me the tools and also the kinds of books that I read, the poetry books that I read in college. And then it was like, it started young, or when I graduated from college and I was a fact-checker for a while at the Village Voice and that was in my early 20s, that was an alternative weekly in New York. And they were like writing profiles about police brutality that was happening at the time and I was like, I was just educated in that and during my very formative years and of course, there are moments of regression, like being in grad school or trying to get published and I was faced with a very white publishing industry and having to come to terms with that, but it was really important for me to have the community of friends and also the books, a lot of the books that I read, wasn’t taught in high school, so I was in, like most writers of color, I was an autodidact, where I had to find my own history, my own books. I wanted to learn about Korean history, I had to find it myself, I wanted to learn about intersectional feminism, I had to go and find it myself, but that sort of library was what that community, was part of that community that helped me write this book.
Miller: Let’s go for another question from our audience. Go ahead.
Aidan Donaghy: Hello. So my name’s Aidan Donaghy and I’m a junior here at McDaniel and I would like to ask, what would you say is the part, a part of notebook that you can look at and go, this is something I am proud of, this is something that I’m proud of?
Park Hong: Thank you for that poignant question. There are actually, I have to say I’m proud of many parts of the book. I feel proud of, well, I’ll say I feel proud of the essay about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, that I was able to go there and write about what happened to her and…
Miller: Could I interrupt, because this is I think the fourth time you’ve mentioned it and for people who haven’t read the book, I think they may need a little bit more background. Okay, could you just tell everybody what we need to know about that?
Park Hong: I’ll just give a quick summary of the book. I mean it’s, the essay is actually called ‘Portrait of an Artist’ and it’s about this poet and writer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha who was raped and murdered in 1982, right when her book came out, “Dictee”, which was very informative and formative for me when I was in college and wanting to become a writer myself. But no one ever talked about what happened to her when she died. No one even said the ‘R’ word and said that she was also sexually, violently sexually assaulted. Sorry, there’s some content. I should have said there was a content warning, given some content warning. And so I felt like this is where I was kind of wore my journalist’s hat and I kind of got into what happened to her death and it involved also talking to family members and friends of hers and because, I think, let me just say this quickly, there’s not, at least with Asian Americans, I think there’s also a lot of suppression of sexual violence in Asian American communities. And I thought that was something that had, it was my way of, kind of, writing about it and what the kind of difficulties of being quiet about it or silent about it are. My other proud moment was actually the end of “Minor Feelings’' too, where I wasn’t really sure how I was going to end the book and it really gave me a lot of sleepless nights because I was like ‘how do I put this book together’? And I have to say when I got towards the end and I talked about Tom Macada, the Japanese American who was a former intern who was formerly interned in the Japanese internment camp, standing there protesting against the detainment of undocumented Central Americans and how we have to and he said we have to be there for those people the way, in the way that we haven’t, people weren’t there for us and I felt proud of that, writing about that and how because I want to drive home, it’s not in the book, that it’s not just about finding your identity and feeling empowerment through your identity, but it’s also about mutual aid and how we need to find new languages for coalitional empowerment.
Miller: I want to go back to something that’s threaded through the chapter about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and your friend Erin, who you have a really interesting conversation with that you put in the book and even the way you talk about your conflicted approach to how much of your own life to talk about and it gets to this central tension of, on the one hand, you’re very clear that you want to be honest, that that silence could, could become erasure and you’re pushing for honesty even if it’s, if it leads to ugly truths. On the other hand, you point out that especially for many people of color and and maybe particularly for Asian Americans, there has been this sort of trauma currency where you, I think that the point you make is that it’s by, only by bearing your trauma can you then be seen as as a full human being worthy of pity or being seen as human and those are intention. I’m curious how you think about how much of your or somebody else’s personal life to get into, given that, given this tension.
Park Hong: Into other people’s lives?
Miller: It seems most complicated when it’s a question of other people’s lives. I mean, this was a question with your friend Erin, you talked about it a little bit with Cha as well, but it seems like you wrestled with it throughout the book.
Park Hong: I think it was important that I wrestled with it consciously and I think, you know in the book, I say that like with BIPOC, in literature that there is this kind of cultural currency for trauma, right? Like it’s not, I think therefore I am, I hurt therefore I am. So the more you suffered, the more profitable your book can be and that’s a very crass sort of formula. But a lot of black writers have talked about this as an issue and that’s also probably also what sells a lot of memoirs, right? Is that like, it’s about sort of kind of spilling your guts as I was, as I like to use that term again and kind of to show how hurt you are because it’s like and in the worst way, if it’s in the most insensitive kind of relationship between reader and writer, the reader will just sort of treat it as like a car accident right? Where they’re rubbernecking and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened to that person’ and to feel that sort of both that curiosity and that maybe sympathy or compassion, but that’s where it ends. And I think that people need to write about their trauma and I think it’s important for people to write about their trauma. But I also think that, especially for Asian Americans, but I also think that it’s not just writing about your trauma, it’s how you write about your trauma and it’s like, for me at least, like it wasn’t, it was less about writing about the way I was hurt, but then how, when I talk about my childhood or like sort of the macro and micro aggressive aggressions that I faced was like, it was less about how exceptional it was and how typical it was. And what does that say about the society at large, what does that say about sort of the kind of white supremacist society that we live in, what patterns can we see from the ways that, from all the ways we’ve been hurt by this, by the society and this was what I was trying to say to Erin, right, about like how we have to talk about it because people just think we’re robots, but I also understand her point of view too, and that’s something that’s why I helped so hard to have in their, have that in the book as well. I didn’t want to resolve that argument. I just wanted to lay it out in the book and I wanted the reader to decide what to think of that, too. So because I don’t think there are easy answers to that question to writing about the other as well. Writing about the suffering of other people is always very very tricky and this is something that writers go through all the time. And it’s like the only way that I could say is that I think it depends I guess on whether it’s a memoir or a memoir or a novel, but if you’re gonna, someone was saying that well, if someone, he wanted to write about how someone treated you badly and that person doesn’t like it, well that person should have behaved better, and you’re allowed to write whatever you want. But I don’t think I’m that extreme. I think that there are some ethical standards there. I think it’s important to kind of also correspond, talk to that person like I did with Erin and that was my way of dealing with it. The other friend Helen, that’s, we could go into that too, but I’d rather not.
Miller: Folks should read the book if they want to know more about that. We have time for another question. Go ahead.
Grace: Okay, so my name is Grace and I’m also a junior here at McDaniel. I am half Korean myself and just reading your book, I really did feel seen and you’ve been a really big influence and…
Park Hong: Thank you.
Grace: …like my writing, and I’m sure that many people in this, many students in this room can also agree that they were touched when reading some of your essays in “Minor Feelings”, but in a broader sense, I wanted to ask, in the future, what do you hope your greatest influence or legacy on American culture will be?
Park Hong: Wow, that’s a very, I don’t know, I think that, probably I hope that my lasting influence is that I influence people like you to write and to use your voice. Younger generations who weren’t previously not allowed in the American letters, that it empowers you to tell your story, so that we’re not living in the world that we’re living in now, that’s what I want my influence to be.
Miller: We have another student question now. Go ahead.
Elliott Cusick: Yeah, Elliott Cusick, junior. So you guys talked a little bit about how escapism is like a big topic in your book, right? And how in escaping worlds and becoming other people or another person, you kind of found comfort, ability and strength. I guess my question is do you ever feel like you can occasionally lose yourself in your invisibility? And do you think there’s times, maybe of almost avoidance of issues that you may be having? Is that, like, do you think that might be a bad thing? I think it’s something I personally struggle from, it might be confusing the way I worded it.
Park Hong: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. I would say that, like with my poetry, at least with “Dance Dance Revolution” and “Engine Empire”, I use those books’ poetry as an opportunity to not necessarily escape, but to invent and indulge in fantasy and to write myself into these almost drag personas. Whereas “Minor Feelings” was very difficult for me to write. It was an abrupt, very kind of dramatic transition where I kind of mined my personal life and it was kind of really directly dealing with that. I my, I will say that my favorite books, my favorite kind of books, sci-fi books or novels that write from multiple perspectives that might not necessarily be read as autobiographical or books that are both escapist but also say something about the world that we live in right now, which is what a lot of science fiction does actually. They use the future as an indirect way of looking at what’s happening in the present. And I would say that even when I was writing in persona like in “Engine Empire”, for instance, the first section of the book is a western and I write about these white cowboys and there’s one younger boy who’s half indigenous and they have nothing to do with who I am as a person. But at the same time I also allow my feelings, who I am, parts of who I am, I parcel it out into those characters. And I think when you have, when you kind of give a little bit of yourself to your characters and they feel more real and then they feel less like avoidance, but then more like actual characters that readers can really relate to.
Miller: Thank you so much Cathy Park Hong for being so generous and as you know today, being so vulnerable. I really appreciate this hour. Thank you.
Park Hong: Thank you so much. It was really just an honor to be here. I’m really really happy to have spoken to you all and I’m just, I was, there was a question I just, I just want to say that the younger generation, there’s very little joy in my life right now I think, but the younger generation just gives me so much joy because of your strength and your vision. So thank you.
Miller: Thanks to everybody in front of us right now. Also to Gene Brunak and Nancy Sullivan at McDaniel High School who made this show possible. And Olivia Jones-Hall at Literary Arts, a partner for this event. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app, on Apple podcast or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at 8p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Miller: Thank you.
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