As a successful writer, recently married, with a beautiful rent-stabilized loft in Manhattan, Cathy Park Hong thought there was “no reason for me to be depressed.” She sought treatment from a therapist who, like her, was Korean American. But the therapist refused to take her on for unexplained reasons, though Hong’s next therapist suggested that the “not fully processed” issues the two had in common might have been the reason.
It’s an incident Hong describes with sharp honesty and humor in her bestseller, Minor Feelings (One World, 2020). There were, in fact, reasons for Hong’s exhaustion and despondence—her experience as a first-generation immigrants’ daughter who, despite high achievement, felt invisible in American culture.
“In the popular imagination, 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 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. They think we have no inner resources. But while I may look impassive, I am frantically paddling my feet underwater, always over-compensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy.”
Hong has a revelation about her own denied and trivialized experience while watching a video of the great Black comedian Richard Pryor. His riffs on the emotional and intellectual absurdities of racism “blowtorched the beige from my eyes” she writes. According to Hong, Pryor does what geniuses do: “They blow up mothballed conventions in their chosen genre.”
That’s also a good way to describe what Hong does in this book, as she blows up the cultural myths and conventions that gaslighted her over a lifetime. She defines “minor feelings” as the depressing disempowerment that occurs “when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Minor Feelings seamlessly connects the personal, public, and political to shine a light on our culture—and reality.
Thi Bui’s memoir, The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, 2017), is a graphic novel that explores her family’s experience of surviving the Vietnam War and coming to the United States as refugees. “I first read The Best We Could Do in 2018,” writes YES! digital editor Ayu Sutriasa, “but reading it again in 2021 during a pandemic and spike in racial violence against Asian Americans, I found it even more poignant. The memoir is a touching and at times heart-breaking exploration of generational trauma and identity. It asks us to consider how the past has shaped our present, and how, in this reckoning, we might heal to build a better future.”
It’s not surprising that Ocean Vuong’s first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was a work of poetry. A poet’s sensibility shapes the prose of his acclaimed first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019). It’s a work of concise elegance he calls autofiction—both memoir and art. The story, in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, goes back and forth in time, evoking war, trauma, immigration, and survival with power and originality.
The narrator, his mother, and his grandmother are Vietnamese refugees who settle in Hartford, Connecticut. With its conditions of poverty, everyday violence, and addiction, Hartford is not an ideal place for mother and grandmother to heal from war, mental illness, and PTSD. But there is connection there, too—in moments when the son sees the world through his mother’s eyes, and in his passionate teenaged relationship with another boy.
In love and desire and beauty, the young man finds a path out of the cycle of suffering. “Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter,” he writes to his mother.
“In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name—Lan—in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter was born, and from that daughter, a son.
All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.
Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
It can take a while to come to terms with history, whether it’s our family origin story or the broader histories and injustices we’ve inherited. Elizabeth Miki Brina was well into adulthood before she began to question why, growing up in 1980s and ’90s America, she turned away from her Japanese immigrant mother and toward her White American dad. To understand that, she researched the history of Okinawa, her mother’s birthplace, and the historical forces that shaped her parents’ meeting there when her father was a U.S. soldier on leave, part of an occupying military force. With chapters about the island itself, Speak, Okinawa (Knopf, 2021) reveals the historical context of the power imbalance that plays out within the family.
With her growing understanding, alienation gives way to healing, mutual forgiveness, and wellsprings of familial love. Brina’s book, a reviewer for the Guardian wrote, “is so warm and honest that you find yourself rooting for her and her parents, thrilled at her ‘adult learner’ conversations with her mother in stilted Japanese, willing them all to find a way to understand one another. This is quite simply a brilliantly original and affecting memoir.”
Marie Matsuki Mockett had fond memories of childhood trips to Nebraska, where her White ancestors farmed wheat for generations. But those visits were mediated by the presence of her father. After his death, Mockett went back to the wheat belt on her own, a half-Japanese, well-educated member of the American bicoastal elite. This time it was a different story.
Mockett wanted to understand the great divide between the two Americas, the worldviews Nancy Matsumoto as “city/country, secular liberal/conservative Christian, White/non-White, book smart/farm smart, organics-loving/Roundup-embracing.”
American Harvest (Graywolf Press, 2020) beautifully evokes Mockett’s journey alongside a White harvesting crew through the Midwest, with much appreciation for the region’s nature and culture. Her quest for understanding is sincere and motivated by love. But her questions, and eventually her presence, strike half the crew as unwelcome, especially when the germ of their cultural conflict emerges: the relationship between colonialism and Christianity. White settlers depended on religion to explain their right to take, and hold, Native land. Many of their descendants still do.
“I am unprepared for the level of emotion and thought that has gone into the architecture of a world that enabled the taking of the land,” Mockett writes. “The architecture of this world feels to me like a psychological prison. … I have no idea how to begin to dismantle it. And in my skin, I cannot pass through unnoticed.”
Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir is an Asian American Arab American story—her Filipina mother and Egyptian father met in Los Angeles after moving to the United States in the 1980s. Both ebullient and touching, I Was Their American Dream (Clarkson Potter, 2019) shows Gharib’s younger self negotiating parental hopes to form a new cultural identity—becoming something more real, and fulfilling, than just an American dream.
Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene, YES! associate art director, writes: “Gharib’s memoir is humorous, honest, and most importantly for a visual learner like me, illustrated. It fully captured my attention, and I finished it within an hour of picking it up. Being invited into her experiences allowed me to reflect on my own life’s journey as an immigrant woman in this country, but through a softer and more appreciative lens than I have had in recent years.
Gharib’s life experiences do not mirror mine—they’re actually almost the complete opposite. Yet I felt deeply connected to the personal observations and interactions shared in this book. It was comforting to see that certain lessons don’t have to be experienced in specific ways to be learned, especially for people who grow up carrying a multitude of cultures within them. I appreciated Gharib sharing hers with me.”
Valerie Schloredt is the books editor at YES!, where she leads print and online coverage of literature, media, and film, with a focus on social change movements. Valerie worked for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London for seven years, has followed the police reform process in Seattle as a citizen activist since 2010, and continues to monitor developments in both London and Seattle. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English.