The poetry editor of the New Republic discusses her experiences living and working in a culture hostile to expressions of Asian individuality and identity.
In this memoir in essays, Hong (Engine Empire, 2012, etc.) offers a fierce and timely meditation on race and gender issues from her perspective as a Korean American woman. She begins by reflecting on her struggles with depression, which she traces to being forced into the role of model minority. Working harder than everyone else for recognition as an artist, she describes how she watched herself disappear into the “vague purgatorial” no-man’s land inhabited by other Asian Americans. The author details how her experiences developing bonds with other talented Asian American women in college taught her to take herself seriously in a world that stereotyped Asians as “math-crunching middle managers.” She began developing a greater sense of race consciousness when watching comedian Richard Pryor, which she explores in the essay “Stand Up.” His no-holds-barred comedic monologues embodied racialized “negative [and] dysphoric” emotions with which she immediately identified. In turn, Hong attempted to access those “minor feelings” through her own brief foray into stand-up comedy. Like the experiments with language she discusses in “Bad English,” the author was seeking a way to speak honestly about her own experiences with racism in an effort to end “white innocence,” a concept she addresses sharply in a separate essay. As she sees it, the United States has achieved dominance through “the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy.” In “Portrait of an Artist,” Hong discusses Asian female invisibility by delving into the groundbreaking work of artist and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Seeking to force confrontation with Cha’s largely undiscussed murder, Hong examines how Cha died while suggesting that Cha’s preoccupation with discursive erasure was a manifestation of revolutionary—rather than “feminine” self-silencing—impulses. Candid and unapologetically political, Hong’s text deftly explores the explosive emotions surrounding race in ways sure to impact the discourse surrounding Asian identity as well as race and belonging in America.
A provocatively incisive debut nonfiction book.