What Stories About Racial Trauma Leave Out

The poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong depicts the everyday effects of prejudice in a way readers can’t leave behind.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In Minor Feelings, her first book of nonfiction prose, Cathy Park Hong reflects on learning to write about race. Throughout, she describes herself as working against an unfortunate archetype: the narrative that presents racial trauma as a kind of catalyst for personal growth. In Hong’s telling, this framing falsely portrays racism as a force that individuals can surmount if they work hard enough. It also capitulates to a perceived white audience that seeks to feel some of the pain that racism inflicts without ever getting too uncomfortable.

In a conversation for this series, Hong discussed how she struggled with the process of representing her own pain on the page. She described how Susan Sontag’s remarkable book Regarding the Pain of Others helped her understand that depictions of suffering can be almost pornographic in nature, a source of complicated pleasure for readers who want to feel ennobled by encountering them. And she explained how she learned to represent pain in a way that precludes voyeurism and implicates the reader. Combining aspects of memoir, history, and cultural criticism, her resulting book is artful and rigorous, powerful and profound, but never to be mistaken for “enjoyable.”

Hong’s term minor feelings describes the everyday terrain that she reclaims in her exploration: emotions such as shame, envy, embarrassment, and boredom that Americans of color are routinely encouraged to suppress, in both literature and life. She is the author of three poetry collections, including Dance Dance Revolution and Engine Empire. The winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and other awards, she is the poetry editor of The New Republic and teaches at Rutgers University–Newark. She spoke with me by phone.

Cathy Park Hong: Susan Sontag’s work was a lifeline while I was writing Minor Feelings. Her words kept me company, gave me inspiration, and prodded me to think more deeply, unpacking platitudes that we unquestionably accept. I first began reading her obsessively years ago, at a time when I was thinking of switching genres from poetry to prose. I’m a poet, and poets tend to feel it’s essential that every word isn’t wasted. When we think of aphoristic writing in nonfiction, we think of Sontag, and I was just trying to drink in her style—the ability she has to take complex ideas and express them with such clarity and authority.

I first read Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in its entirety when I was commissioned to write an essay on Doris Salcedo, the artist who makes installations about Colombians who disappeared 20 years ago. At the time, I was thinking about the idea of art as witness, or poetry as witness. But thinking about Salcedo, I started to wonder what it means to be a witness when we live in a surveillance culture where we’re being watched all the time, and where we’re also watching all the time, and when eyewitness accounts are tweeted seconds after a disaster. In art, I started to wonder, is bearing witness enough?

That’s when I turned to Regarding the Pain of Others. One quote, in particular, stayed with me: “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.”

For me, the quote crystallized the notion that we as humans have this irresistible desire to see violence because of the adrenaline sensation of horror it gives us, without any of the consequences. I was thinking about that idea in relation to myself—as a poet of color, as a person of color, as a woman—because as someone who writes in American culture, my talent is measured by how much I hurt on the page.

From a young age, I was always aware that racial trauma is aestheticized and celebrated. And when I first started writing poetry, there was this pressure to write about my family history. But there was also this expectation that there would be this hurt that needed to be explored. And my question was always, why this hurt, and who is this hurt being written for? When I was grappling with these questions, Sontag always provided answers, or mapped out my confusion in a way that I found gratifying. Because throughout her whole oeuvre, Sontag was always wrestling with the moral question of what it means to see. For her, representation of pain is not enough.

When I was working on the essays in Minor Feelings, I was conscious of the fact that there would be an expectation that I would write about my own racial trauma as an Asian American woman. And so in writing about my own lived realities, it was very important for me to question what I was reproducing these narratives of racial trauma for. Was it to satiate the appetite of a broader American audience, or a white audience—to allow them to take a ride in my reality before arriving at some kind of self-affirmation?

Sontag was instrumental in defining this approach, helping me outline my thoughts behind this book. In Chapter 3 of Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes that “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” In a sense, Minor Feelings was not so much writing about racial trauma, but about the way racial trauma has been framed and what has been excluded from that framing. Of course, it’s necessary that you write about your pain. But if that story has been shaped for you again and again and again, how do you go about writing outside that mold towards something that’s closer to your lived experience?

In my book, there’s one essay where I write about the L.A. riots and the conflict between Korean Americans and African Americans. I write about Rodney King’s beating and how its circulation has made it almost too easy to look at a black body in pain—that bodies become a spectacle to be consumed. A lot of race scholars and brilliant black thinkers, like Saidiya Hartman, have already written about this phenomenon. Though Sontag isn’t posing this as a complete solution to the problem of us as voyeurs when we look at images of violence and atrocity, she asks what it would mean if such looking were made more difficult.

I thought a lot about that as I was writing—I didn’t want to tell a story, or a series of stories, about historical atrocities that a reader can get in and get out of easily. I wanted to also make the viewers put themselves in the same map of the suffering that’s happening. The goal was to go beyond bearing witness, and instead make the viewer accountable.

How does one do that? I don’t know if I succeed in my book, but I write about other writers and artists who do—like Salcedo. She has these installations of tables and chairs and dressers, and they’re all kind of marked and weathered. It’s about the belongings of people who have been murdered by the Colombian paramilitary government. But what makes her work not sensational is that there are no bodies. The viewer can’t be satiated by the presentation of visual pain. Instead, what you feel is an uncanny sense of loss because of that absence. Photographs cannot capture the full impact of the work. You really have to be there in person. And yet she creates the artwork so that you feel the distance between you and the victims. You understand that you can never really understand the loss these family members went through.

It’s difficult to create that same painful distancing effect in writing. One thing that I critique is this whole MFA “show, don’t tell” orthodoxy that has dominated fiction. To me, that approach enables a form of voyeurism, where you’re just sort of in the cockpit of the character’s consciousness and you get to kind of cinematically see what they’re seeing without being interrupted by their editorializing. It allows the reader to have a kind of catharsis at the end, before exiting the book.

I questioned that approach as I wrote about, for example, the racism that I faced as a kid. Rather than just show the reader what happened—letting the reader see the pain and marinate it in and then put the book down—I do a lot of telling, dissecting, and analyzing. Instead of just describing it evocatively, I have to analyze it to death, and put it in a larger historical context. There’s a lot of exposition. It’s about turning the inside out.

I’ve tried to show in my book that some experiences of racial trauma are actually quite mundane. Racism is a typical, everyday, even banal part of the structurally racist society we inhabit. Depictions of exceptional racial trauma can sometimes suggest to readers that racism itself is extraordinary and rare, and not an everyday reality for millions of people.

Narratives that end in some kind of individual triumph or reclamation don’t leave room for all of these other, more nuanced, not quite legible feelings—feelings like shame, suspicion, melancholia. But those feelings are huge for people of color, for anyone in marginalized positions, living in a country where their realities are constantly gaslit by a dominant culture who tells their stories for them. Or doesn’t allow them to tell their own stories.

Most Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle. What’s not represented enough is the constant stress of its anticipation. That’s what I wanted to make real here: the everyday, psychological effects, rather than “This happened, and I am a victim.”