Loose Canon: Cathy Park Hong’s advice to young writers of color

Nov. 6, 2023, 12:27 a.m.

Author Cathy Park Hong held a candid conversation with creative writing lecturer Hieu Minh Nguyen on Thursday as part of the “What Is a Public Intellectual Today?” speaker series.

“Embrace discomfort and write the stories that fill your voids,” Hong told the dozens of young writers and readers that filled the basement of McClatchy Hall.

Hong is known for various literary accomplishments, including her critically acclaimed poetry collection “Dance Dance Revolution” and Pulitzer Prize-finalist essay collection “Minor Feelings.” At Thursday’s event, Hong read from “Minor Feelings” and shared her personal experience with identity, writing and publication.

Daania Tahir ‘24 opened the event with a heartfelt introduction. 

“I’ve never had an author so eloquently, authentically and hilariously put my ‘minor’ feelings into words,” Tahir said. To Tahir, Hong’s work encapsulated the experiences of many young people of color, demonstrating the power of literary representation.

In the conversation, Hong delved into her relationship with genre. Being “very restless,” Hong approaches writing and genre in a fluid manner. She is fascinated with how narrative genres can evolve with time and experience. For example, she found that writers of color approach science fiction differently from white writers, and she attributes this difference to BIPOC writers’ unique lived-experiences with diaspora, enslavement and structural inequality. 

The conversation between Nguyen and Hong touched upon ethical considerations of writing about others and respecting personal boundaries. Hong advised writers to keep writing about human relationships, as they form the “backbone of compelling literature.” She encouraged writers to start with “the emotional truth” and flesh out the factual details later, writing first as if the subject will never read it. 

Hong read from her essay “Education” from “Minor Feelings,” which dove into many of these emotional truths. Many of the experiences are shared by Hong’s readers, leading some to deem it one of the most foundational texts on the American minority experience today. 

The essay also described the experience making art with fellow Asian-American women as grounding, despite being toxic at times. In the discussion with Nguyen, Hong called attention to an emerging “Asian-American renaissance,” a literary movement spearheaded by contemporary Asian-American writers like Divya Victor, Grace Park, C Pam Zhang and Ed Park. Hong found herself a place in this lineage under the guidance of her professor, poet Myung Mi Kim, and within the writers’ community she discovered during her undergraduate years, which she humorously described as a “four-year pressure cooker.”

What sets this “Asian-American renaissance” apart from other movements, according to Hong, is its innovative approach to form. The diaspora experience has introduced new cultural narratives by authors such as Ocean Vuong, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jhumpa Lahiri, according to Hong. 

As the event concluded, Hong described her personal journey to publication. She submitted her work to journals that she resonated with after leafing through them on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.

Hong encouraged women writers of color to express their emotions freely. Society expects them to be constantly earnest and restrained in writing about their experiences and perspectives, but this is an unjust constraint, according to Hong. 

“Be obliviously bold. Just send your work out and keep sending your work out,” Hong said. “Don’t get discouraged by rejection.”

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