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.