Hong’s book is not the typical childhood-to-maturity memoir. It has a subtle kind of chronological progression to it, but the chapters tend to center less on an era of her life than on a topic, a focus for analysis: the situation of Koreans and Korean-Americans in the US; the standup comedy of Richard Pryor as an inspiration in Hong’s artistic practice; whiteness in our culture; Hong’s relationship to the English language; the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and the way discussions of that work have tended to occlude the terrible way she died; a meditation on indebtedness and its supposedly obligatory attendant moral phenomenon, gratitude.
Hong’s take on gratitude reminded me of what I once heard Jamaica Kincaid say in a commencement speech: “Bite the hand that fed you.” That is, yes, you may owe things to various people, but that does not mean they get to make your important decisions for you, so don’t let them.
If you have read any of Hong’s poetry, you would probably expect her to give a quick boot to any talk of Asians being a “model minority” (hard-working, self-denying, education-focused, family-oriented, quick to assimilate) and an even quicker boot to stereotypes of Asian women as demure and docile. You won’t be disappointed.
My favorite chapter may be the one closest to conventional memoir—“An Education,” about her time at Oberlin and her friendships there with a couple of other young Asian women artists. There’s a great screenplay in here, I suspect, a Damsels in Distress with the cuteness dialed down and the angst dialed up.
But just as remarkable is “Portrait of an Artist,” about Cha. With Dictée now emerging as a contemporary classic, Hong’s chapter on Cha deserves to become a must-read.
In her chapter on Pryor and stand-up, Hong mentions occasionally trying out a standup routine on people who came to her poetry readings, which I imagine met with as much puzzlement as (but probably less heckling than) a comedian reading poetry at a comedy club. (I kept thinking this chapter was going to mention Margaret Cho, who like Hong is ready to blow up the demure-and-docile Asian woman stereotype, but it does not.)