MARK SHIELDS: My name is Mark Shields (ph). I live in Washington, D.C., right now, but I'm actually a native of Chicago. So I listen to WAMU, but WBEZ is my home NPR affiliate.
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Mark Shields listens to a ton of NPR shows, including this one. But Mark's developed a routine with one show in particular.
SHIELDS: I have been known to spend an evening sipping a bottle of red wine and doing a Terry Gross interview in my bathtub. Terbear (ph) and I like to work some things out (laughter).
SANDERS: Clearly, Mark loves NPR. But there's one thing about public media that he hates.
SHIELDS: Oh, my God. We are not listening seven straight - let's be honest, 10 straight days. It's called pledge week. I am owed a week and I get 10 days of, like, guilt. I'm Irish Catholic from Chicago. Like, I understand guilt in a deep way.
SANDERS: Mark admits you can only complain about pledge drives on NPR stations if you're actually a donor.
SHIELDS: If you're not giving, then you're just a crank. But if you're an actual donor, you're complaining means more. And that is democracy.
SANDERS: Trust Mark. Give to your local station, and then complain all you want. You know, NPR's work and our work on this show right here, it relies on listener support - listener support of member stations and communities all over the country. Support those stations and this show. Go to donate.npr.org/sam. Go donate right now. And if you use that link, they'll know that I sent you there. OK, go ahead and listen to this episode now without any guilt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Listeners, this episode contains very frank discussions about race, and that conversation includes some racial slurs, so perhaps not the best for kids. All right, enjoy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: So a little earlier this year, I interviewed comedian and "Saturday Night Live" star Bowen Yang. And Bowen and I talked a lot about race and representation. And in that chat, Bowen mentioned this book on race that he loved. So my editor and I read that book, and then I interviewed the author. Her name is Cathy Park Hong, and she is a poet. But that book Bowen mentioned, Cathy's latest book, it is not a book of poetry. And it was inspired not by a poet but by a comedian.
CATHY PARK HONG: I think when I had really started working on this book, it was the first time I saw Richard Pryor's "Live In Concert."
SANDERS: Yeah, Richard Pryor. "Live In Concert" is his legendary 1979 comedy special.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "LIVE IN CONCERT")
RICHARD PRYOR: You ever notice how nice white people get when there's a bunch of niggers around?
HONG: When I saw "Live In Concert," I was just completely stirred. You know, it was a revelation. And...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, he's really good (laughter).
HONG: It was really good. But...
SANDERS: Cathy says she loved how Richard Pryor could talk about race without any guardrails. And it made her wonder...
HONG: How come there aren't Asian Americans who write about their racialized experience the way Richard Pryor talks about it with that kind of rawness and honesty and brutality?
SANDERS: So Cathy, an Asian American, she went on this quest to capture that rawness and honesty. And ultimately, Richard Pryor's comedy - it didn't just inspire Cathy's latest book. It also - for a little bit, it turned Cathy into a stand-up comic herself.
HONG: I thought it would be a kind of conceptual stunt. I would be invited to do a poetry reading, but instead of doing a poetry reading, I would just do a little comedy routine instead.
SANDERS: Cathy told me one of those jokes. And listeners, it was so raunchy, we cannot actually repeat it on this public radio show. But I did ask Cathy if she thought that joke - her jokes - were any good.
HONG: They were all horrible. They were really, really bad.
SANDERS: So bad that they stopped her audiences cold.
HONG: They looked at me as if I, like, pissed my pants. They were horrified.
HONG: I mean, they were just so embarrassed for me (laughter). I mean, I don't know...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your host, Sam Sanders. And today, Cathy Park Hong will show us why she is better at writing books than telling jokes. We'll discuss her latest work, "Minor Feelings." That book came out in February of this year. And as 2020 comes to a close, it couldn't be more timely. This book, "Minor Feelings," it is all about race and the quiet, often painful feelings tied to it. In this year of racial reckoning, a lot of those quiet feelings, they've gotten loud. And Cathy says that is probably a good thing. Stay with us. More from Cathy on "Minor Feelings" and race in 2020 with no bad jokes, I promise.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: All right. Before we start this conversation, we should define "Minor Feelings." Cathy, go ahead.
HONG: It's these range of kind of negative emotions, like shame or paranoia or melancholia, that a lot of Asian Americans feel growing up in the U.S. And it's not just Asian Americans, you know. It could also be other people of color, not just because they feel different in this country, but also because their reality that they're living is not recognized by the dominant society.
SANDERS: Basically, all the weird and often bad ways people of color experience race, the stuff that's always there and the stuff that we are often reluctant to actually talk about. Cathy says for years, she was reluctant to write about her own personal minor feelings because she knew a lot of white people were reading. And in the book, she describes having to get over that. So that's where we start - on her audience, who it is and how it affects what Cathy writes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Do you think you've - I don't know - either made peace or had some growth with this idea of the white audience, the white gaze - G-A-Z-E? You know, I think about this a lot as well. Like, my audience is mostly white. I work in public radio.
SANDERS: Whether I'm not talking about race or I'm only talking about race, my audience is mostly white. And I don't think I let that hold me back, but it's always there and I'm always thinking about it. I'm guessing that even with this book that you wrote, "Minor Feelings," that a large chunk of folks that bought it are white. How have you - or how has, I guess, your perspective on who the audience is and how you speak to them perhaps changed since the stand-up comedy routines?
HONG: Well, I think this goes back to Richard Pryor. You know, like, when I was reading about Richard Pryor, fans, scholars, anyone who's - I mean, a lot of white people found him hilarious, but then there were also Black people who said they were just shocked. There was that, quote-unquote, "shock of recognition." They were like, oh, my God, I can't believe he's, like, telling our private jokes to this white public, you know?
SANDERS: The family business, yeah.
HONG: The family business, right? I think, like, from him and also a lot of other writers and artists who I'm inspired by, I thought, I'm really going to try as hard as I can to disregard the white gaze and try to write - I can't even say try to write for Asians because there are so many different kinds of Asian Americans, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HONG: It was almost - it was like I wanted to - I had to think of specific people. I was like, I'm going to write to that Korean American student who came up to me and cried after I gave a reading because she said she felt so alone and there was no one she could talk to. You know, I wanted to write to my daughter, who's now six, when she's an adult. It was almost like I was trying to have a conversation to other people that I knew. And in that way, I was writing to myself as well.
And yes, there were a lot of white people who have bought the book. But actually, what has been incredibly gratifying is that there have been so many Asian Americans who have told me that they feel seen and that they've never had their experiences written down the way that I wrote it down.
HONG: So it's - I realize that I don't need a white audience to make commercially successful book.
HONG: I just need to write to my community, and that community will respond...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
HONG: ...That is more important than anything else. That being said, it's not like I don't want white people to read my book. I want everyone...
SANDERS: (Laughter) White people, buy the book.
HONG: Yeah, white people, please buy the book. I want everyone to read my book (laughter).
SANDERS: It's funny. Whenever I mention the white gaze in an interview - G-A-Z-E - someone writes me and says, I couldn't tell if you were talking about white gaze or, like, white gay men.
SANDERS: Listeners, we're talking about the white gaze - G-A-Z-E. But any white gays - G-A-Y-S - listening, thinking this refers to you, it does.
HONG: I'm definitely writing it for white gays.
SANDERS: Shout out to our white gays supporters. We appreciate you.
SANDERS: You know, you just mentioned having this fear that your book wouldn't speak to all Asian Americans. And you write that, you know, the Asian American experience is incredibly diverse. You know, this is a demographic group that has the largest variation in average income than any other demographic group in the country. And yet you write about how the identity of Asians in America is constantly - and this is the word you use - flattened. What do you mean by that when you say it's flattened?
HONG: Well, I would say that Asian Americans at this point - like, it's not even exact - it's less of an identity then more like a coalition of different nationalities...
HONG: ...Classes, genders, sexualities. You know, a lot of people when they think Asian, they think Chinese or they think model minority. They think, like, Chinese engineer who works in Silicon Valley or something, or they think of, like, an Asian news anchor woman or something. And when, you know, you have everyone from the Chinese American engineer who works in Silicon Valley to someone who's Hmong, who lives in Minnesota and who lives in the projects alongside other Black Americans, you know? So there's such a wide display of what Asian American is.
And I have to be very clear about this. It's also - the book is also about this country from the perspective of an Asian American woman. This book is not just about my identity, but it's also about the kind of changing demographic of this nation and the future of this nation and someone who's part of that and what someone from this growing demographic thinks about this country.
HONG: You know, I say this in the book that in 2050, the majority will be people of color. Now, what does that mean? And I - and this is why I don't want just Asians to read this book. I want everyone to read this book.
SANDERS: White gays, you can read it to.
HONG: Yeah, white...
SANDERS: Please, go ahead. Sorry.
SANDERS: One of the parts of the book that really,really opened in my eyes was the work you did to point out the racialized history of Asians in America. I think part of the flattening of Asian identity happens because most Americans don't know the history of Asians in this country. You know, before I read this book, I didn't know that Chinese people were brought into America to replace slaves in the plantation field after the Civil War. I didn't know until I read...
SANDERS: ...You in the book writing that. I didn't know the way in which U.S. immigration policy kind of helped create the myth of Asians as a model minority until I read it in your book. You know, what does it say about all of us or about the American experiment that so much of this history of Asians in America is erased?
HONG: I - there's a big reckoning that this country has to face. And so far, the history that I learned in - when I was in high school was a history that was - I don't want to say jingoistic but, you know, that did...
SANDERS: You can say that. You can say that.
HONG: (Laughter). All right. It was jingoistic...
SANDERS: (Laughter). Yeah.
HONG: ...That completely whitewashed even slavery. I didn't even know even the beginning of how this country was founded on Black death, slavery, dispossession. There was no - I didn't learn about Asian Americans in high school. I didn't read Asian Americans in high school. It was - I did - I had to seek it out in college, you know?
A lot of Americans also don't know about Asian American activism, you know, and how the term Asian American was actually coined in the late 1960s by these UC Berkeley activists who were also inspired by the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War protest movement. And that part of history can also just motivate Asians, you know? We don't come from a model minority history.
HONG: But a lot of that is erased, you know? And I think it's - what people don't know about model minority is that it's very much an engineered stereotype.
SANDERS: This is the thing. You blew my mind when you wrote that. Explain that for our listeners.
HONG: OK. So from the Chinese Exclusion Act around the 1880s was the first race-based immigration ban that outlawed Chinese people from coming into the U.S. That had a lot to do with economic anxiety because white people thought Chinese people were taking their jobs. So they banned Chinese from coming into that country. That ban expanded to all of Asia, you know, and then expanded to Africa and Latin America. And only a sliver of northern Europeans were really allowed into the U.S. So basically, what it was was segregation on a global scale so that the U.S. would remain 80% white and the 20% were, like, Black and other minorities.
In 1965, there was an act called the Hart-Celler Law. This was a law passed by Lyndon Johnson which actually lifted that immigration ban. Right? And the reason why he had that - lifted that ban in the first place was - part of it was because of the civil rights movement. It was because the Jim Crow laws and all of that was embarrassing for American public image. But even after they lifted that ban, there was still just a quota of Asians who could get in. And the quota was Asians who were - it was like the smartest of the Asians...
HONG: ...Asians who were engineers, doctors. So it wasn't like - so there was this...
SANDERS: And so that leads to this minority group that is incredibly successful (laughter).
HONG: That's already successful - so they were already - these immigrants were already successful by the time they came into the U.S. But the American myth is that, oh, wait, look at these immigrants; they're successful. And then they go to like - and then to - and then to Black and brown people and are like, why can't you be successful like these Asian immigrants? And like, well, that doctor was already a doctor by the time he came into the U.S.
SANDERS: Exactly (Laughter).
SANDERS: Well, and this is just the, like - this is the insidiousness of white supremacy. It's not just in-your-face racism. It is this cunning (laughter)...
SANDERS: ...In which one group is put up against another...
SANDERS: ...While the dominant white power structure gets to laugh at all of us. Like, it is crafty and sneaky.
HONG: Yeah. Yeah, it is very sneaky. And it's still - and it's hard to - I don't know. It's hard to break down, but we're trying, I guess.
SANDERS: We've got to.
SANDERS: We have to, yeah. You know, there was a time in your career that you wrote about when you didn't want to write about race, and now you really do. What changed?
HONG: I always - actually, I could say my poetry books all have to do with race.
HONG: But the way I dealt with it was not autobiographical. It was more surreal, more fantastical. I always used - even though I was a poet, I always used sort of these fictional personas. But I think it was when I became a mother. You know, I had my daughter when - in 2014. I think that was a real pivotal moment, you know, where I thought, I'm in a position of authority. I'm a - I'll have to be a role model to my daughter. And, you know, when I found out that I was going to have a girl, I was scared, I have to say...
HONG: ...Because I had a [expletive] childhood, a bad childhood.
SANDERS: And you write about it. Oh, yeah. It's all up in the book (laughter).
HONG: Yeah, I write about - I write some of it. Yeah - but some of it, not all of it.
SANDERS: OK (laughter).
HONG: But - and I was like, I don't - you know, and I was very, very insecure, you know? And it took me a long time to get over my insecurities. And I was like, I don't want my daughter to feel that way. I want her to be confident. I want her to feel comfortable in her skin. And so I was nervous for her. And I think that was what sort of motivated me to write this book in a way that was actually very personal, autobiographical and vulnerable. I've never written a book like that before. And it was quite scary for that reason. But...
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it worked.
HONG: I hope so. Thank you.
SANDERS: Yeah (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: When we come back, Cathy Park Hong tells me how her own family history inspired "Minor Feelings," plus, how her parents see race very differently than she does.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Hey, listeners, before we get back to the show, I want to remind you real quick, if you love what you're hearing, if you love the journalism and interviews that you get from NPR, you can support public radio by giving to your local station. Just visit npr.org/sam. That is npr.org/sam. Give whatever you can. We appreciate you. Thanks. All right, back to the show.
You know, you mentioned your family history. So much of this book is you unpacking that family history and what it was like for you as a kid and how your family got here, what it was like for you to grow up with immigrant parents. And you really do a good job of talking about the ways in which our racial history bumps up against and is connected to our very personal nuclear family histories. And you unpack the ways in which generational trauma that families experience - it can come from, like, just the nuclear family itself or from these larger, bigger issues like colonialism. How - reading it, I wondered how your relatives reading it took it. Do you think they were thinking about the childhood stories written down in that way the same way you were? Because, I mean, it's a lot for, I suppose, some relatives to read in this book about your family history.
HONG: I don't think they read it.
HONG: Yeah. Well, I don't know. I mean, most of my relatives live in Korea. Thank God, it's not translated into Korean.
HONG: And in fact, there was an offer - the Korean publisher offered to translate it. And I was talking to my mother and I was like, should I sign the contract? She's like, I don't know if it's necessary for it to be translated.
SANDERS: She doesn't want to read it.
HONG: Well, she doesn't - her English isn't very good, so I don't think she can read it. And this is one of the benefits of being an immigrant's kid, you know?
HONG: The daughter of an immigrant who's a writer is that your parents can't understand what you're writing.
SANDERS: How do you feel about that?
HONG: I feel safe - I mean, not safe. I feel, like, a relief that they can't read it.
HONG: But I am also curious, you know, what they would think. I'm curious what my father would think. You know, he asked me. He's like, are you going to say bad things about me? I bet you are, aren't you?
SANDERS: Oh, what did you say?
HONG: I said, no, Dad, it's just - you're going to be a sympathetic person in the book. And he didn't quite believe me, but he said, OK. But I told him how I was going to write about how he immigrated to the U.S. Now, when I said that there was a quota, my father didn't meet the standards of getting a visa to the U.S. because he was not a doctor or an engineer. But mechanics were also allowed into this country as well. So he lied in his application and said he was a mechanic. So he managed to get a visa and come to the U.S., and he worked at a Ryder truck company in Erie, Pa. And I told him that and he just had this look of alarm in his face. And he's like, oh, no, I'm going to get deported.
SANDERS: Thinking about the book and the way you talk about race and the way you connect it to trauma and family trauma, what do you think is the biggest difference between the way you see race and the way your parents see race, particularly y'all's race?
HONG: Oh, that's a very good question. My mother, for instance, doesn't understand race in America, you know? She still sees herself - she doesn't even see herself as Asian American, you know, or even Asian. She considers herself Korean.
SANDERS: Wow. Yeah.
HONG: She's Korean, you know. Her nationality's Korean. And everyone else is an American. And for her, when she means by American - also - but actually, interestingly, when she says, oh, Americans are so selfish, she means - she's thinking of white people. I think there is a sense of indebtedness and gratitude for being here, you know, because she still sees herself as a foreigner.
SANDERS: And, like, that's what gave me a little pause in the book. Because you write about all of the indignities your parents experienced.
SANDERS: How they were mistreated by racist pricks.
SANDERS: And yet they still have this hopefulness and this belief in America, capital A.
HONG: I don't know.
HONG: I think they choose - you know, they're like - they do believe in this - well, not anymore. They don't believe in it. I think my mother...
HONG: ...Is totally disillusioned about America. I think my dad has a more complicated idea of what America is. He's more aware of race than my mother is. You know, he - you know, when I was young, he would be like - if we were seated in the back of a plane, he would say, oh, it's because we're Asian. Or if we were not seated at a restaurant first, he would say, oh, it's because we're Asian. And I can tell that he probably faced a lot of discrimination. As someone who is actually out there in the work force...
HONG: ...Doing business, he probably faced a lot of discrimination that he will never tell me. And in fact, I didn't write this in the book, but I'm going to tell you. There's this one scene...
SANDERS: Tell me.
HONG: ...(Laughter) Where I was - you know, I was, like, 13. And my sister was around 9. And we were - as we were coming out of the mall, there was this adult man and his wife - they were white - who came in. They let us out before they went in. I thought they were - he was holding the door open for us. But as he - before he closed the door, he yelled out, I don't open doors for chinks. But then afterwards, I told my father what happened. And he got so angry. And I thought he was going to start cussing out those white people. And instead, he said, why didn't you let them go first?
HONG: And I said, what? They were like...
HONG: ...Why didn't you let them go first? And I said, Dad, they called us - he called us a chink. And he said, you always have to let them go first. You always have to let them go first.
HONG: And then he paused. And he said, you can't trust them. You don't know what they'll say.
SANDERS: Put that in the next edition.
HONG: I will.
SANDERS: (Laughter) That needs to be in there.
SANDERS: What do you think that says about him and how he thinks about race or thought about race in that moment?
HONG: I think he just felt a lot of rage that it happened to us. But, you know, I think another big difference between my parents' generation and our generation is that they're survivors. They're more about surviving. Like, they've been through war, you know? I mean, my dad saw dead bodies, you know...
HONG: ...You know, when he was, like, a kid from the Korean War. I mean, they've been through a lot. And so for them, it's just racism in this - that they face is just an inconvenience, you know? It's what - it's just another obstacle. Yes, they're hateful, awful people. But you got to just keep it in because the only way to survive in this country and succeed in this country is to just get through it and forget whatever grievance you might have...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
HONG: ...Against these white people. And...
SANDERS: Whereas your book is saying, I will not. I will name the grievances...
HONG: Oh, yeah.
SANDERS: ...And I will say, let's talk about the grievances.
HONG: Because I'm petty. And I will...
HONG: ...I know every single person who's...
SANDERS: You know, it's interesting to hear you talk about the way that your parents think about race. How do you think your daughter - what, she's 6 now, you said? How do you think she thinks about race if at all?
HONG: Well, she's 6. So she's - she doesn't really - and she's also mixed. She's half Asian, half white. So I don't really know. I mean, I think, at this point, she's proud to be half Korean. Or she doesn't even say...
HONG: ...She's half Korean. She says, I'm Korean. And that really warms my heart, you know, that she doesn't even think twice about it, you know? And - but I don't think she knows - really knows what that means, you know? I think she thinks, oh, Korean like grandma and grandpa, Korean like the food that I eat. But I don't think she really understands that she's never visited Korea. She doesn't have a deep understanding of what race is. And I'm...
HONG: ...I think it'll change. I don't know. I'm not saying it's going to change for the better. I'm just saying it'll change in some way...
HONG: ...You know?
HONG: I don't even know if Asian American will be a category. It might be called something different, you know, when she's an adult.
SANDERS: Yeah. Oh, my God. They're going to keep making up new terms, because...
HONG: I know.
SANDERS: ...I can't keep up anymore, let me tell you (laughter).
HONG: I can't keep up. But they're always making up new terms. And they're going to continue making up new terms. And so she might identify as something else when she's older.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
HONG: We don't know.
SANDERS: We don't know.
HONG: I don't - we don't know.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, there were so many lines in this book that stopped me in my tracks. Either I stopped and said, yes. Or I just, like, paused - getting kind of emotional. And you - there was one line that you wrote that just is, like, etched on me now. You're talking about your daughter and how you're raising her in response to the trauma that you've experienced as a kid, in response to the trauma your family experienced. And you wrote about your daughter, quote, "I am not passing down happy memories of my own so much as I can stage happy memories for her." It was beautiful and also sad. And I just want to ask you, to close, how that's going.
HONG: Yeah. You know, you make your own rituals. You make your own traditions. And what happens - you know, I started writing that book when she was born, and now she's 6 years old - is that I've read to her so many times or I've - or given her baths or go and take her to the playground is that, like, we're making these memories. They don't feel staged anymore.
HONG: It's just the experiences of my daughter and me. And now, I think, I want her to have these memories for when she's an adult, you know? We're making our own rituals. We're making our own traditions in the way that my parents had to improvise and make traditions when they first moved here. And, hopefully, my daughter will have happy memories when she's living in a bunker and there's - during the apocalypse. I don't know.
SANDERS: Hey, well, thank you so much for this.
HONG: OK. Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to Cathy Park Hong. Her book is called "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning." It came out earlier this year. I think you should read it. OK. This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Jordana Hochman.
Listeners, we're back on your feeds on Friday with a special episode. It's going to be a little bit different from our usual weekly wrap-ups of the news and such. For this Friday episode, we're going to hear from people young and old, ages zero to 99, telling us how this pandemic has changed their lives. It's pretty powerful stuff. Trust me, you don't want to miss it. All right, listeners, until then, be good to yourselves. Stay safe. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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