Essays, Recent

Unmastering English: On the Work of Cathy Park Hong

by Paul Hlava Ceballos | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, January 28, Cathy Park Hong will read and discuss her work in conversation with Ijeoma Oluo at 7:30 pm Pacific time. Tickets to this in-person and online event can be purchased at the SAL website.

An ambitious ask: can an artist innovate language formally and challenge American aggression?

Essentially, does poetry have power versus empire; does prose?

Is writing against imperialism impossible while living inside it?

O how to account for our country’s immoral onset, born of monied sordor, of sundown counties, of courts’ bloodthirsty, constitutional horrors, considering one’s othered or group opts to other others too?

Because formal prowess is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Cathy Park Hong’s work, I begin this essay with questions that borrow their form from ballads Hong has written in which every word includes the letter a or i or o. Within her three books of poetry—Translating Mo’um, Dance Dance Revolution, and Engine Empire—as well as Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (a book of essays that won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award), Hong has explored fiction and autobiography, sonnets and abecedarians, as well as an entire book in an invented creole. Yet within in this range of forms, I find harmony in Hong’s narratives and how she cares for people. The poet speaks up—and out: “I’s unpeel mine insides fo one clean note / tru all de marshy crowd sounds, tru all de trademark / cowed libel.”

What struck me rereading Hong’s poetry and Minor Feelings is her mastery as a storyteller. Narrative is often found within the linguistic leaps and formal innovations of her verse. There are revolutionaries and refugees of war. A young sharpshooter grows callus to killing in the American west. Patterns arise that speak to each other across forms and genres. In the essay “The Indebted,” Hong writes of American GIs storming her grandfather’s home looking for communists. Her family survived because the interpreter recognized her uncle. “My hut was trampled by American troops,” she writes in Dance Dance Revolution. “But then I recognized their translator / an old school chum. I begged him, / ‘You know me, why are they doing this?’ / He recognized me and took the Officer aside, / and whispered to him in English. / Like a miracle, they rested their guns and walked out the door. / Me fadder sees dis y decide to learn Engrish righteo dere.”

To understand Hong’s formal and linguistic innovation, it’s important to understand who sits at the focus of her storytelling. They might be Black people and Korean immigrants living under the conditions that caused the 1992 Los Angeles riots, workers living in unfinished high-rise apartments in the fictional city of Shangdu, or an Indigenous child in the era of American westward expansion. Hong’s essays and poems ask how to write about a country’s murderous onset, when the bloody order continues? When writing about tour guides in a fictionalized DMZ desert, Hong shifts her critique beyond America’s border to American empire abroad, as well as empire everywhere, a trajectory that reaches toward global solidarity. And within this reach, language arises. In her essay “Bad English,” Hong writes about mistranslations sometimes posted as jokes by tourists visiting Asian countries: “It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.”

Moving between Hong’s nonfiction and poetry, I am moved by how deftly she brings her critiques of empire and praise of those who use “bad English” together in ways that highlight the complex hierarchical order of violence within the United States. When she writes about the LA Riots, also known as the Los Angeles Uprising, Hong questions her own place in the history of an event that was born from aggressive policing and antiblack violence. As she writes in Minor Feelings, “I didn’t know any of the Korean families who, like frontier settlers, encamped in South Central to open up liquor stores and laundromats. When the fires from the 1992 L.A. riots spread north of South Central to K-town, my family didn’t even see a curl of smoke.” Later she asks, “Can I write honestly? Not just about how much I’ve been hurt but how I’ve hurt others.”

As a child, I remember watching the L.A. riots on TV as they happened mere miles from my home. I was horrified by police violence—both as I witnessed it on television and within real life in my neighborhood—while simultaneously feeling some safety of distance. As a non-Black person of color, I recognize Hong’s feelings of responsibility, and anger and shame at my own group. I consider members of my own family, old classmates and neighbors, when she writes, “I have to address whiteness because Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy of this country. We are so far from reckoning with it that some Asians think that race has no bearing on their lives, that it doesn’t ‘come up,’ which is as misguided as white people saying the same thing about themselves, not only because of discrimination we have faced but because of the entitlements we’ve been granted due to our racial identity.”

Maybe I feel so connected to the work here because of similarities in our othered groups—both being vast multiethnic, multiracial collections of people, spanning continents and languages, yet viewed as a single unit in the American mythology. Or maybe I feel that way because that’s what good writing does. She is showing us ourselves. Through pidgin and creole, through dreamscapes and across continents, through the uniquely personal and specific, Hong measures the world: “To falling currency / of American fragments / I don’t want to be a niche / I want to be a yardstick / become the voice.”

Paul Hlava Ceballos is the author of banana [    ] (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and coauthor, with Quenton Baker, of Banana [    ] / we pilot the blood (The 3rd Thing, 2021). He lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.