Anti-Asian Violence Must Be a Bigger Part of America’s Racial Discourse
Alexander Chee and Cathy Park Hong on how the pandemic has cracked open discrimination against Asian American communities
In the fall of 2019 I received an email from the poet and critic Cathy Park Hong telling me she had written an essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. She asked me to read it and consider it for a blurb. I receive roughly three or four requests like this on most weeks, sometimes as many as three or four a day, but I am a fan of Hong’s, and I remembered her indelible 2014 essay on whiteness and the avant-garde in poetry. If a collection from her meant more of that, I knew I wanted to see it. Her description of her book also caught at me: “Minor Feelings is a collection of essays where I try to, as honestly as I can, deal with the inner life and politics of Asian Americans, an identity that is often unmentioned in the national discourse about race.”
None of my anticipation prepared me for the powerful reading experience that followed. The first essay, “United,” begins with a feeling — her sense of a tic in her face, a tingle no one around her could see but that she was sure was there. This becomes a way of understanding herself as an Asian American writer, the “vague purgatorial status” of being the “carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world,” whose only defense from racial self-hatred “is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.” Observations like this, delivered in passing on the way to her larger points — the essay is ultimately about the figure of David Dao, the Vietnamese man violently dragged from a United Airlines flight — all of this took time to absorb. As I went on, each page articulated at least one thing I had either suspected or knew but had never quite said aloud or written down.