‘Speaking Nearby’ Ourselves: Cathy Park Hong

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I’m not sure that the title and blurb of Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings give a completely accurate impression of what the book is about – in short, I can see someone picking this up expecting a meditation on the Korean American immigrant ‘experience’, and instead, encountering a series of essays that are much more concerned with making art while happening to be Korean American. Indeed, part of Hong’s achievement here is to demonstrate the deadness of familiar questions such as ‘Can white people write characters of colour?’ and to say much more interesting things about writing from your own and from others’ experiences, in conversation with other female Asian artists. For example, she writes:

‘Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby”. In an interview for Artforum, Trinh says: “When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and the who populate your film… You can only speak nearby, in proximity… which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning… This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish.”‘

Hong uses Trinh’s insights to try and turn the conversation away from the inevitable focus upon white writers writing ‘outside their lane’, arguing: ‘I am only capable of “speaking nearby” the Asian American condition… I can’t stretch myself across it.’ (I found Jeannette Ng’s essay, ‘On Identity, Performing Marginalisations and the Limitations of #OwnVoices’ interesting in this context, reflecting some of Hong’s concerns about the power of the ‘single story’, or what happens when only immigrant narratives palatable to white audiences are told and retold).

Minor Feelings wrestles with the question of how artists should and can use their own experience, especially female artists of colour who risk being totally defined by it; what Nesrine Malik has called always writing ‘as a’. One of Hong’s closest friends as a young artist, Erin, insists on keeping some tragic events in her own past completely private: ‘If you reveal anything, they collapse your art with your life – and I don’t want my autobiography hijacking my art. Maybe back then, my loss was a deep part of me but I have worked really hard to separate my work and my identity from that loss.’ In another essay, Hong further interrogates these ideas through an exploration of the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist and poet who worked in America but who was originally from South Korea, and who was raped and murdered at the age of thirty-one in 1982. Cha’s Dictee has become ‘a seminal book in Asian American literature… taught widely in universities’, but, Hong found, scholars are reluctant to talk about Cha’s death or to read her book as autobiographical because they feel this context devalues her art. ‘But where does the silence that neglects her end and where does the silence that respects her begin?’ Hong asks.

Because I’m fascinated by writing about art-making, I loved the turn that Minor Feelings took after the first couple of essays, which were equally strongly written but made points that were relatively more familiar to me (the denial of ‘innocence’ to children of colour; the ‘underachievement’ of black children in formal education in the US; the awkward position of Asian Americans, who are conceptualised as a ‘model minority’, privileged at the expense of African Americans, but who are also subject to racist stereotypes of passivity and authoritarianism, and told to “go home”). Hong is especially good at placing her work in dialogue with a longer tradition of female Asian American writing about art and emphasising that this is completely natural, remembering her good fortune in being college-educated in the US in the mid to late nineties: ‘Of course I read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha alongside William Carlos Williams in poetry class. I didn’t study the performances of Guillermo Gómez-Peña because I needed a sample of the “Chicano experience” like a vitamin supplement. I studied these writers and artists because they were the most interesting thinkers’.

Therefore, Minor Feelings itself becomes a subtle rebuke to those who read it looking for a certain kind of book, one that will somehow illuminate the Korean-American or, even more ridiculous, the Asian-American ‘experience’. As Hong argues, this can’t be done. But this brilliantly intelligent collection of essays is an important intervention in ongoing debates about race, identity and art.

I received a free proof copy of this essay collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on March 5th.