In her book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, the poet Cathy Park Hong explains the pleasures of what she calls “bad English.” Her ode is a celebration of the profane, the borrowed, the “short, barbed, and broken.” It is also an acknowledgment—that English is a limited language, that it can’t capture the full spectrum of emotions the people who speak it or who are forced to speak it feel.
The silences in language—the spaces between what happened and the inadequate words we have to describe it—is an obsession that Hong shares with Chanel Miller. Miller is an artist, writer, and the author of Know My Name, the best-selling memoir published in 2019. The book details her sexual assault and the court case that followed, which drew national attention after the victim impact statement that Miller read at the time of her assailant’s sentencing went viral.
Both Hong and Miller grapple in their work with the tensions and beauties inherent in overlapping identities—woman, Asian, artist, survivor. And so as Hong prepared for the paperback release of Minor Feelings and amid a national spike in hate crimes against Asian American communities, Glamour invited the two women to have a wide-ranging conversation about voice, creative expression, and writing as a defiant act. Then, less than 72 hours before their scheduled sit-down, a shooter killed eight people, including six Asian women, in a targeted, racist attack. The Atlanta massacre sparked not just massive outrage and protests, but also a national explosion of grief among Asian Americans and allies.
It was in that context that Hong and Miller met (over Zoom) at last to talk about their heartbreak, of course, but also power, confidence, and the importance of telling our stories in our own words.
Chanel Miller: So I read Minor Feelings right when COVID hit. I’ve been thinking a lot about how you’ve been asked since then about Asian American reckoning and what that reckoning is. You’ve talked about how it’s a process, a constant confrontation with the Asian American condition. You have all of these scenes and influential figures that are distinct in the book and that seem unrelated, but collectively they’re so cohesive and brilliant. You have a childhood in Koreatown, but you also have Richard Pryor unpeeling shame onstage. You have Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the poet. You restore her after her brutal erasure.
The question I have now is about that process. Right now, reading the news, I’ve been experiencing this minefield of memories—a constant barrage of resurfacing memories that I haven’t sat down to think of in a while. Memories of self-loathing, silencing, self-questioning. I am being bombarded with all these scenes that I have not figured out how to connect. I have a Word document that just is titled “Asian,” and I just pour into it.
When you set out to do this book and to tell these stories, what did your first drafts look like? Were you surprised by the influence of certain figures in your life or the significance of certain memories that you didn’t know were so pivotal? I just want to hear some guidance on how we begin to document as we make sense of the news through a personal lens.
Cathy Park Hong: Oh my God, I’m so glad you brought all of this up. The answer is I don’t know. I was kind of dragged kicking and screaming to the Asian American subject. It’s always been one of my core interests, but I’d never tackled it directly. At a certain point I realized that I had to; I wanted to deal with race, but I kept deflecting from confronting my Asian American identity. The book was supposed to be about race, poetry, and institutional racism in art. But as I kept writing, I was thinking there’s a huge gap—a huge, meteor-sized-hole in this discourse when it comes to Asian Americans. I had to jump in and see what I could find.