Books in Conversation
Bodega by Su Hwang (Milkweek, 2019)
and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (One World, 2020)
 
 

To read Bodega by Su Hwang is to immerse oneself in a world, but to read this debut poetry collection in tandem with Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong is to deepen one’s understanding of what it means to be raised in the United States as a Korean daughter of immigrants. Both offer prismatic sides of living in a racialized nation where “Asian American” is a box to check off on official census documents, and another way to categorize human experience. To distill down Hwang and Hong’s work through the single lens of the content alone is too easy of a read and provides only a myopic lens. Reviewers when assessing writing by people of color often apply this misstep; their stories reduced to stereotypical tropes of struggle, or trauma porn. To only discuss the content of these two books is to commit a crime against the craft, technique, and effort employed to produce them. However, for this reader, a Korean American adoptee, these two books do offer solace through their content—it is what draws me in—providing intimate portraits from writers who, for me, are role models. Their work and their commitment to rendering the autobiographical are sharp blades meant to cut through the fog of ignorance.

In his essay, “Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry,” Carl Phillips describes the pitfalls of writing about identity:

once it become either the focus of the poem’s content and/or the primary
lens through which the poet both sees and deploys the poem’s content, the poem
becomes charged with the possibility for conspiracy and exclusion, and this
accordingly charges and challenges the relationship between poet and audience.

Su Hwang’s collection Bodega, recent winner of a Minnesota Book Award, tackles the “boon and burden of identity” by adding her voice to the burgeoning wellspring of Asian American contemporary poetry. Her book is in direct conversation with other collections by poets E. J. Koh, Sun Yung Shin, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Franny Choi, and Emily Jungmin Yoon, to name a few.

“Asian American,” a term coined in 1968 with historical origins in identity politics, is also a designation for a subset of contemporary literature. What does it mean to be actively “re-thinking the canon” for Asian American literature? On this subject, in her essay appearing in The Massachusetts Review’s special issue on Asian American Literature (2018), Franny Choi writes, “these poets and their peers are creating new territory of their own by challenging traditional boundaries of syntax, form, and subject matter, by drawing from fresh lexia and building strange new language-worlds.” Bodgea achieves this and much more.

Divided into three sections, Bodega opens with a letter translated into Korean by poet Emily Jungmin Yoon. To a native English language reader this letter is, obviously, unreadable; it jars the reader, an initial disorientation. This letter does create the “exclusion” effect of which Phillips describes above. Hwang gestures towards a Korean American readership, first, her opening move, and does not care if the gesture excludes the dominant English reader. It is a wink and nod to her community—those “in the know”—and it also signals to the reader (we are reading in English after all) that this journey we are embarking on begins in language and imagery, tools to evoke foreignness, alienation, and an attempt to convey an immigrant narrative.

The opening section sets the scene and grounds the reader in the titular place—a bodega in Queens, NY, run by a married couple of Korean immigrants. We meet the bodega as a character in and of itself, along with the people who populate, own, and patron it. The speaker provides intimate, luminous details of her family’s life: latchkey kids scurrying to “turn off the Nintendo / console while I hung up / on my best friend” to avoid angering their parents who “stagger in from their hour-long / commute, their clothes reeking / of chemicals” and to appease their mother who:

               silently made
dinner: rice, kimchi, Spam,
as we three listened
from different corners
of the house
to a tiny white ball
greeting iron.

In lucid confessional moments, Hwang does not let the speaker (herself) off the hook; she writes of herself in “Conjure: Daughter” confessing in the final lines: “Unworthy of martyrdom—to think, the many / Years I held my poor parents’ lives for ransom.” On the other hand, what does it mean to assimilate without the trope of confessionalism? In “Assimilation Bouquet,” one of the collection’s early poems, Hwang relies on an extended metaphor as the answer. To “assimilate” means you “open / your fist // like a nesting / flower”. A perfusion of flowers, each part named so the words resound in short dropped lines—cup calyx, filament, stigma and stem—extends the metaphor to move “your neck / like garlands // & gorge / your cheeks // full of anthems”. Even what gets lost in translation can still become a note of song.

Hwang quickly adds layers to the narrative: a daughter of Korean immigrants, raised by the absence, and at times anxiety-fueled presence of bodega-owning parents. She writes image-driven lyrics, evoking what it means to embody the racialized descriptor fresh off the boat in “Fresh Off the Boat: An Iconography,” a theme reprieved later in section two in the sequence “Fresh Off the Boat: Five Sonnets.” Language, for the speaker, Hwang describes as:

Tongue unfurls in ruins, low
& guarded as if each syllable unsheathes
a fresh wound. Severed: foreign bodies
clutch foreign limbs. No place
for proper burials, only
tacit uprisings.

One sonnet is not enough to adequately describe the precariousness of navigating a new country, a place where one is seen and labeled as fresh off the boat (i.e. dumb, stupid, ignorant, a nuance). Deploying poetic forms can almost become a political stance for poets writing from the margins. Poets can subvert, re-appropriate, deconstruct, or work within the frameworks provided by traditional poetic forms. In this case, Hwang utilizes the sonnet form (and later the sestina in section three) as an act of claiming traditional poetic forms to show, in sharp relief, moments like this racial slur, which opens the second sonnet in the sequence of five:

Leaned across the counter, called us stupid
chinks
. Go back to where you came from:
as if it were that easy. My parents stood like
totems, stone-faced. In defiance, they said
hugj-in, a word for darkness—a distancing.

 

As Cathy Park Hong writes in her essay in The New York Times Magazine, “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020,” the use of the racist slur “chink” is alive and well. She writes, “The word was supposed to be as outdated as those sinister little Chinamen saltshakers I saw in thrift shops. It still thrived among bottom feeders on the internet, but I hadn’t heard it directed at me since I was in my 20s. But now I was encountering that word every time I read about an anti-Asian incident or hearing about its use from friends.” This is one example of how Su Hwang’s Bodega and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings intersect and dialogue with each other, making nuanced inflection points, illuminating the much needed opportunity to discuss racism and the construction of Asian American-ness.

If identity is a “boon and a burden” as defined by Phillips, then Hong goes all-in on both. Mentioned in the Commonplace podcast in an interview with, Rachel Zucker, Minor Feelings has been a long time coming. It is not overreaching to claim that Minor Feelings breaks new ground. Although this hyperbolic accolade might create eye rolls for some, for me, and those within the Asian American literary community, Minor Feelings is an anthem, a song, a validation that our minor feelings matter, are real, and, finally seen. To say that this book of essays does what Citizen by Claudia Rankine did for the African American community might not miss the mark. Both Hong and Rankine provide searing commentary on contemporary racialized American life, which is vital to moving the discussion on racism in America forward.

“In the popular imagination,” writes Hong, “Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status; not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down. We are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world. We are the math-crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheels greased but who never get promoted since we don’t have the right ‘face’ for leadership. We have a content problem.”

There is no solution to this “content problem” and part of the difficulty lies in finding the language to adequately describe it. Both Hwang and Hong tap their Korean language lexicon and offer a word to describe a Korean emotional condition: han, a combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and U.S. supported dictatorships that have never been politically redressed. “Han,” writes Hong, “is so ongoing that it can even be passed down: to be Korean is to feel han.” Minor feelings are defined and described in Hong’s essay “Stand Up” as “non-cathartic states of emotion” with a “remarkable capacity for duration.” They are the emotions we have when we are accused of deciding “to be difficult—in other words when we decide to be honest” about our racialized experience. These feelings linger long after the fact of when racialized interactions occur and can result in deep long-term trauma.

In Bodega, Hwang embodies these minor feelings and also utilizes the word han as a thread weaving through the entire collection: a poem in each section separately explores the verb, noun, and adjective forms. She writes in the “Han” poem on the noun form:

Such karmic sorrow—thrashing
one’s arms like drowning or
immolation at the proverbial stake—
mewing lambs for systematic
 
               slaughter. This must be kismet:
 
unbearable lightness of being
a ceaseless flicker—the smolder.

Where Bodega leans into the autobiographical confessional lyric, Minor Feelings offers an alternative structure and form for both, because as Hong writes, she “never felt comfortable writing about personal racial trauma, because I wasn’t satisfied with the conventional forms in which racial trauma is framed. The confessional lyric didn’t seem right because my pain is more banal than that.” Hong’s prose offers clarity, unapologetic cultural criticism, and room for her agile mind to roam and confess in ways that the tyranny of lineation does not.

Confession: I may be guilty of assessing these two books by their content, which is what I proclaimed from the start as taboo for reviewers, but, honestly, I cannot help myself. In both of these books, I feel seen. What I feel is a word that I never had in my lexicon until now, a word from my country of origin, what Hong describes as the Korean word, jeong, or “an instantaneous deep connection.” Bodega and Minor Feelings both offer nuance and complexity to the discussion on Asian American identity. For me, they embody the “boon and burden” of identity, and I am grateful to have them beside me as companions on my desk, reminders of how I, too, may proceed in writing my experience as a Korean American adoptee. There are no solutions to systemic racism in America. What we have is the power of language and the act of writing experiences down for others. We can send out the call to action in response to our “collective rage,” says Hong. Second confession: I still believe in the autobiographical – the first person “I” – to be a searchlight, cutting through the fog of ignorance, shining outward from within so that others can see more clearly, just as Hwang writes in the final lines of her collection:

               I trace                     the eye                   within
an eye     within  an eye  in perfect    concentric
circles   & await     its succulent                   growth

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