Cathy Park Hong’s poetry is powerfully unique. In a reading I watched on YouTube, part of The Loft Mentor Series filmed in Minneapolis in 2014, Hong says that she likes to make up worlds and even languages. Her books are often stories of characters who inhabit these worlds with their own language.
Her poems beg to be read or spoken aloud. Alive, they jump up off the page. For some it may be an adjustment to adapt to this form: the different language and alternate worlds. As a reader, this was a shift for me. I found I needed to bring the same sensibility to her poetry that I bring to novels or pieces of long fiction. My consciousness needed to prepare to enter entirely new landscapes, allow the characters to develop in these poetic narratives. Something within me had to change to read these poems. That means these poems were changing me as a person, altering and molding my consciousness as I read them. They also changed the way I think about language and what is happening on this earth with all this mixing and intermixing of peoples. Hong’s poems challenged me to rethink what language is and what it is not, as I continued to read them.
Language is not and never was static. Though we may forget that, these poems won’t let us.
In Hong’s 2007 book, Dance Dance Revolution, a tour guide speaks in an invented dialogue in an invented city called the “Desert,” in the year 2016. Park describes the Desert as being a place like Vegas or Dubai, with hotels representing and presenting different cities and international places of interest. The tour guide is a South Korean dissident who participated in the Kwangju Uprising of 1980. Her own history cuts into and informs the narrative as well as an alternating voice called the “historian” who has arrived in the Desert looking for some information.
In the forward Hong tells the reader:
“In the Desert the language is an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects imported into this city, a rapidly evolving lingua franca. The language while borrowing the inner structures of English grammar, also borrows from existing and extinct English dialects”(19).
I include one of the poems from Dance Dance Revolution here:
The Hula Hooper’s Taunt
I’mma a two-ton spiker hips fast rondeau
N’ere more, nay sayer feel this orbit rattle
Wipe that prattle that spittle crass pupa
Gupta away you ma’ man,
where you revolving solving
spin shorty shark satellitic fever
Leer not, lyre I spiral atom pattern
Faster than you say my turn.
Also in that 2014 reading in the Loft, Hong notes a shift that is happening in her writing, saying, she is beginning to confront race more directly. In 2020, her nonfiction book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, was published, which does exactly that.
The book is an immersive experience into another person’s reality much in the same vein of Claudia Rankine’s, Just Us: An American Conversation. It was Rankine’s book that directed me to Hong’s. Reading these books, one gets to walk a mile in these women’s shoes. Both writers allow us in to their inner psyches, to their minor feelings, to what it feels like on daily basis to be Black and Korean American in the United States. At times these books elicit “necessary discomfort” with the revelations of inherent racism that not only hurt and alienate the writers but also affect and interfere with their quality of life.
In Minor Feelings, the reader is informed of how they may be missing, misunderstanding and/or inadvertently contributing to the pain and suffering of Asian Americans. In the quiet nuance of experience expressed in the book, Hong reveals added layers of oppression and otherness, in her case often experienced as invisibility.
“Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues. They don’t understand that we’re this tenuous alliance of many nationalities. There are so many qualifications weighing the “we” in Asian American. Do I mean Southeast Asian, South Asian, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich and poor? Are all Asians self-hating? What if my cannibalizing ego is not a racial phenomenon but my own damn problem. ‘Koreans are self-hating, a Filipino friend corrected me over drinks. Filipinos, not so much’” (18).
In a period of depression Hong begins to watch Richard Pryor obsessively, even transcribing his stand-up routines. She feels his approach to race captures something— the minor feelings.
“In Pryor, I saw someone channel what I call minor feelings: the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing its racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head”(55).
Maybe experiencing these feelings as “minor” is what allows racism to persist. This constant internal experience of wondering if one is imagining or overreacting or not quite sure if it happened. It’s like an incessant collective cultural gaslighting. How do we bring these minor feelings forward and out of the shadows of internal pain? Is it enough for white people to radically self-assess? Or do we also need to speak out, speak up and speak for exposure of the hurtful underpinnings of our daily actions and inactions? I am sure the answer is both but is it enough?
“There’s a ton of literature on the self-hating Jew and the self-hating African American, but not enough has been said about the self-hating Asian. Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? You rant in your head. Instead of solidarity, you feel that you are less than around other Asians, the boundaries of yourself no longer distinct but congealed into a horde”(9).
The “Portrait of an Artist” chapter is a moving and eloquently written eulogy to artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Cha’s work inspired and influenced Hong’s and she, also Korean American, has served Hong as a model and foremother. Hong writes in detail about the day Cha was raped and murdered in New York City 1982 at the age of 31 right before her book Dictee was published.
“Published in 1982 by the now defunct Tanam Press, Dictee is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictee documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old martyr Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison. In other chapters, Cha invokes Joan of Arc but as a character re-created by other women, such as the French nun Saint Therese of Lisieux”(153).
Hong’s website informs that: “Minor Feelings is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography and was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence… Hong is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her prose and poetry have been published in the New York Times, New Republic, the Guardian, Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University”(http://www.cathyparkhong.com/about).
Engine Empire published in 2012 is a book of poetry that contains three narratives.
1. “The Ballad of our Jim”: a western, which Hong calls “Billy the Kid meets Medea.”(past)
2. “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown: a group of sonnet like dystopian poems about a Chinese boomtown. (present)
3. The World Cloud: envisioning a digital age — a sci-fi virtual reality. (future)
All three house new languages and worlds. Again the reader is catapulted into these other realities by the force of the language, vision and humor.
I include one poem from each narrative here:
From “The Ballad of Our Jim”
Listen to this poem here
Ballad in A
A Kansan plays cards, calls Marshall
a crawdad, that barb lands that rascal a slap;
that Kansan jackass scats,
camps back at caballada ranch.
Hangs kack, ax, and camp hat.
Kansan’s nag mad and rants can’t bask,
can’t bacchanal and garland a lass,
can’t at last brag can crack Law’s balls,
Kansan’s cantata rang at that ramada ranch,
Mañana, Kansan snarls, I’ll have an armada
and thwart Law’s brawn,
slam Law a damn mass war path.
Marshall’s a marksman, maps Kansan’s track,
calm as a shaman, sharp as a hawk,
Says: That dastard Kansan’s had
and gnaws lamb fatback.
At dawn, Marshall stalks that ranch,
packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass
and Kansan gasps, blasts back.
A flag flaps at half-mast.
Of Lucky Highrise Apartment 88
The contractors were in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world so they rushed off before they finished building Highrise 88. So here is my apartment without its last wall, gaping out to a panoramic view of Shangdu’s river. Across the river, all the white-tiled factories hum anxiously. This hum of 2,000 factories can inspire or drive you mad. Yesterday, a drunk man and a suicide used 88’s unencumbered views to fall to their deaths and now there are ads for new roommates. I am one of the few women who live alone in this building. My last roommate married as quickly as she moved in with me. I see her in the neighborhood, pregnant and gloating, with men who fetch her footstools.
From “The World Cloud”
Engines Within the Throne
We once worked as clerks
scanning moth-balled pages
into the clouds, all memories
outsourced except the fuzzy
childhood bits when
I was an undersized girl with a tic,
they numbed me with botox
I was a skinsuit
of dumb expression, just fingerprints
over my shamed
all I wanted was snow
to snuff the sun blades to shadow spokes,
muffle the drum of freeways, erase
the old realism
but this smart snow erases
nothing, seeps everywhere,
the search engine is inside us,
the world is our display
and now every industry
has dumped whole cubicles, desktops,
fax machines into developing
worlds where they stack
them as walls against
what disputed territory
we asked the old spy who drank
with Russians to gather information
the old-fashioned way,
now we have snow sensors,
so you can go spelunking
in anyone’s mind,
let me borrow your child
thoughts, it’s benign surveillance,
I can burrow inside, find a cave
pool with rock-colored flounder,
and find you, half-transparent
Do yourself a favor, get this book, Engine Empire, and read it aloud a few times with a friend or friends.
Cathy Park Hong is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Hong, Cathy Park. Dance Dance Revolution. N.Y., W.W. Norton, 2007.
____________. Engine Empire. N.Y., W.W. Norton, 2012.
____________. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. N.Y., One World, 2020