Cathy Park Hong on ethical storytelling and her ‘accidental’ writing process

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Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong began her Thursday reading, hosted by the Creative Writing Program and the English Department, with a disclaimer.

“It’s going to feel a little bit disparate,” she said, before launching into excerpts from three different works: her poetry collection, “Engine Empire”; her book of creative nonfiction, “Minor Feelings”; and her translation of the South Korean feminist poet Choi Seungja’s “Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me.”

“I hope you can bear with me and deal with the extreme change in tone here,” she added.

But any non-disparate selection from Hong’s oeuvre would do a disservice to the variety and complexity of her writing — for Hong is an author whose genre-traversing work rejects homogeneity. She composes poems with the narrative eye of an essayist, and she writes essays with the associative touch of a poet. Her lyrics and prose embrace all languages, dialects and forms of “bad English.” And as interim director of the Creative Writing Program Patrick Phillips said in his introduction of Hong, she has an “ability to hold in mind both rage and hope, both a searing critique of whiteness and colonialism and capitalism and a vision of the world as something other and better than what it is.”

It is this quality — her knack of linking ideas that seem poles apart — that distinguishes Hong’s writing. In her essay “The End of White Innocence” from “Minor Feelings,” she draws upon the scholarship of theorists Kathryn Bond Stockton, Robin Bernstein and Charles Mills, as well as traumatic moments from her own life: chastisement by a cruel first-grade teacher, her grandmother’s assault at the hands of white kids in an otherwise peaceful California cul-de-sac. These scenes could feel “disparate,” and yet Hong finds the threads of connection among criticism, history and memoir through lucid, astute observations (“One characteristic of racism is that children are treated like adults and adults are treated like children”).

“Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of writer who outlines everything beforehand and then writes it,” Hong said. “That’s just not my process at all. It’s often accidental and random.”

Hong explained that, after conducting research, she writes “patches” of scenes or poetic lines. “Then my writing keeps cannibalizing itself until somehow the ideas start to cohere beautifully,” she said. Eventually, “a voice forms, a narrative forms, and then my painful process starts to make a kind of sense.”

But finding coherence isn’t the only hitch in Hong’s writing process. While working on “Minor Feelings,” Hong struggled with how to capture the Asian American experience — which, as she pointed out, “is not a monolith” — from her own limited perspective as a Korean American writer.

“There was so much anxiety over writing about the Other,” she said.

For Hong, however, the way forward was not to limit what she could write about. “I don’t believe that you should only write about yourself. I don’t even know what that means,” she said. “I mean, our lives overlap with other people’s lives.”

Instead, Hong suggested a new way of framing the problem of writing outside one’s experience: Rather than bifurcate the issue into “yes, you’re allowed” and “no, you’re not allowed” to tell a particular story, we should consider and question how an author chooses to tell the story.

“It’s an ethical hornet’s nest even to write about your own life because you’re still writing about other people,” Hong said, also noting that one’s life story remains susceptible to “the white imagination.” Any kind of writing, therefore, requires care, humility and — as Hong puts it — “empathic inquiry.”

In “Minor Feelings,” Hong chose not to write “about,” but to write “nearby” — an approach coined by Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha that acknowledges the gulf between the author’s knowledge and that of the community she portrays.

“I didn’t feel comfortable, say, making generalizations about South Asians,” Hong said. But writing about her friend Prageeta Sharma’s poetry presented a way of “creating a bridge between our experiences and “showing how [they’re] both shared and different.”

In the wake of rising anti-Asian racism, Hong has been interviewed by several media publications. But she doesn’t consider herself a public intellectual, though some have started to label her as one. 

“I guess I’ve been speaking up more because it’s very frustrating to see how media gets it wrong about these anti-Asian hate crimes,” she said. “And I feel like I have maybe enough of a platform.”

Hong is becoming increasingly recognized as a major literary voice. Creative writing lecturer Shimon Tanaka, who attended Thursday’s event, taught a course called Asian American Stories last quarter, and the first reading he assigned was “Minor Feelings.”

“‘Minor Feelings’ is a book I wish I’d been able to read when I was in college,” Tanaka wrote in a statement to The Daily. And in his class, “it really helped lay out many of the issues that Asian American writers today are grappling with.”

And indeed, although Hong expressed her annoyance with certain sectors of the media, she was enthusiastic about the progress being made in the literary world, particularly the emergence of BIPOC-centered communities.

“Poets of color that I have taught [at Rutgers-Newark University, where Hong is a full professor] … no longer feel this need to translate themselves for white people,” she said. “They write for others in their community.”

But amidst this changing landscape, what’s next for Hong? Currently, she’s working on a collection of sonnets. She’s also putting her self-described “woefully undisciplined” research methods to good use for a hybrid poetry-prose book.

The topic of that book? According to Hong, it’s still in that stage where she doesn’t know how to “corral it together into a nice-sounding pitch.” So, as a hint, she finished her reading with two quotes that have been on her mind:

The first, from Bhanu Kapil’s “The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers”: “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?”

The second, from Bong Joon-ho: “We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”

So, something about motherhood, beauty, capitalism, pain. If anyone can tie together these disparate strands — it’s Hong.

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Jared Klegar is a Staff Writer for Arts & Life and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. Born and raised in New York City, he looks forward to the day when live theater can resume safely. Contact him at jklegar 'at' stanforddaily.com.