Author: Cathy Park Hong
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Summary: A great essay collection, blending memoir with thoughtful social critiques.
“Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country, a tenuous alliance of people with roots from South Asia to East Asia to the Pacific Islands, from tech millionaires to service industry laborers. How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition—if such a thing exists?” (source)
The first essay in this book was my least favorite, making me worry whether the collection would live up to the rave reviews. All of the different elements in this essay – “memoir, cultural criticism, and history”(source) – felt disjointed. I wasn’t sure what the topic of this essay was or how the parts connected. This weakness in the first essay became one of my favorite parts of the essays that followed. I’ve always admired authors who can take their own experiences and use them to talk about other, broader topics. Cathy Park Hong has joined my list of authors to turn to for these personal observations on culture, history, and race. Every essay after the first had one topic that the author kept circling back to, using it as a jumping off point for a wide array of moving, personal anecdotes and incisive observations about race in America. I’d basically read on any topic she wants to write on, she has such a thoughtful perspective.
I did pick this book up because I wanted to learn more about a specific topic – how being Asian American can shape someone’s experiences. This author’s personal observations on this topic were fantastic. What surprised me was how much I also loved her pointed observations on art and female friendship. A number of the author’s more general observations on being Asian American echoed sentiments I had just read in Interior Chinatown. I liked seeing the connections, because I find that helps me remember what I’ve read. However, I enjoyed her observations on being an Asian American writer even more. Most of her observations in this section were new to me. I also took a lot away from this section personally, because I was mentally evaluating her work for this review while reading her thoughts on our expectations of Asian American authors. It was a good chance to evaluate my own reasons for picking up books like this and to get a little introspective.
Although I would say this wasn’t trying as hard to be clever as Leslie Jamison and wasn’t as stiffly academic as Zadie Smith, I think fans of either author are likely to enjoy this collection. Neil Gaiman’s View From the Cheap Seats might be the best tonal match I can come up with, but I’m less confident in my memory of how his nonfiction feels (time for a re-read!). I’d also recommend this to anyone who’s enjoyed the trend of books being memoir plus something else as much as I have. It was a great example of that subgenre.