Reading a Roadmap to Resilience

Samm Harris

On a chilly afternoon accompanied by caramel-filled coffee cups, my future roommate and I warmed to the idea of sharing book recommendations and a double room in Daum. As she recited titles, Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 autobiographical essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, sparked my interest. My fingers flew across my phone’s keyboard, desperately searching for Hong’s work online, as she continued to share her ‘To Be Read’ list. Cathy Park Hong is a Korean American writer, poet, and professor. Her brief academic career in Iowa City was spent as a graduate student attending the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hong’s final year in Iowa City, 2003, happened to be the year I was born, and her fourth book was published in the same year I decided to attend the University of Iowa. In short, Hong was a trailblazing poet during the first few years of my life, participating in the program that ultimately brought me to Iowa City nearly 20 years later.

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”

While I learned to walk, Hong reckoned with many minor feelings that now dictate my undergraduate experience. My greatest hesitation when coming to Iowa was the fear of becoming invisible. Unrecognizable past my perpetually foreign appearance, I imagined being a victim to identity politics, xenophobia, and anti-Asian violence on campus. Even when Asian American students are granted access to elite literary communities and are tolerated in social networking spheres, we are never fully welcomed. In the wake of my hopelessness, Minor Feelings became a roadmap to resilience. As a collection, Hong’s book places Asian American joy, femininity, and grief onto center stage. This duality between pain and beauty reminded me even when we are silenced, generations of Asian American artists and writers existed before me who look, live, and create; just like me.

“I remember going to the university’s main library, one of my favorite refuges, and perusing the recent archive of graduate student theses. I saw a few Asian names. Not one of them, from what I could tell, had published after graduation. I was afraid I would disappear like them.”

Specifically in Hong’s first essay, “United,” she details her most hurtful and heart wrenching interactions with her classmates at the UI. As I curated submissions for multiple writing workshops and literary magazines, I subconsciously censored my authentic self that was originally infused into my writing. I had a series of bad experiences where my identity-focused writing was not well-received in class. Instead, I was presented with backhanded, microaggressive comments about my less-than-palatable work. Minor feelings pervaded as I wrote toward an audience of my privileged white peers. For me, poetry is a personal practice in self-discovery, cultural expression, and reflection. Yet, I was repeatedly othered from predominantly white poetry communities because of my subject matter. Despite years of practice and multiple wins in local, state, and international poetry slams, my peers could not see past my use of poetry as a form of artistic liberation.

“The slow drip of racism at Iowa was underhanded. I always second-guessed myself, questioning why I was being paranoid. I remember the wall of condescension whenever I brought up racial politics in workshop…It was made clear to me that the subject of Asian identity itself was insufficient and inadequate.”

While much of Hong’s writing about her time at Iowa was bleak, violent, and racially targeted, it made me feel seen. I write to share my truth in a tangible way, and Hong’s book taught me I am not doing this alone. She reassured me the world does not end after a bad workshop critique or a crushing audience reaction. Unknowingly, my roommate brought a life-changing piece of media to my palms at an integral and vulnerable time in my life. Minor Feelings became a guiding force in my experience as a first-year. I am grateful for the Asian American women who leave a legacy of written expression and I am inspired to join them. When I needed it most, Hong’s writing spoke to my experiences as an academic, a minority, and a young adult.

Author Bio:

Samm is a student from Des Moines, Iowa majoring in Psychology. While at the University of Iowa, she hopes to develop her skills as a poet and photographer.


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