Hong went to high school art camp hoping to become a cool kid instead of a geek. But she found herself upstaged by an intimidating goth Taiwanese girl named Erin. They struck up a friendship in class and then decided to paint together one night. Working in front of someone else, Hong felt like a real artist for the first time. Erin turned out to be friendly; she and Hong bonded over their similar upbringings and painted all night together. Decades later, Hong and Erin go to a New York gallery opening together. The artist, Jim Shaw, has filled the gallery with amateur paintings from thrift shops—including, astonishingly, one of Erin’s paintings from art camp. Erin, now a professional artist, is too embarrassed to say anything.
Hong explores the roots of her vocation as an artist. American culture often portrays artists as solitary geniuses who develop their interests and style in a vacuum, but Hong rejects this narrative by putting the story of her lifelong friendship with Erin in the foreground. By doing so, she shows that artists truly become artists because of their everyday lives and relationships. Indeed, as this chapter will show, Hong’s friendships with other Asian American women enabled her to believe in her potential as an artist. Erin’s painting in Jim Shaw’s show represents how their friendship and vocation have come full circle—but also the way that white artists often profit from reproducing the work of artists of color.
In her twenties, Hong had an artist friend named Joe. At one of his shows, he just hung raw canvases with faint, childish drawings on them. He became a sensation. “Bad-boy white artists” have long been able to sell this kind of low-effort transgression. Indeed, critics, patrons, and other artists often befriend them early in their careers and invest in their apparent potential. Women and people of color generally aren’t so lucky. Yet Hong’s relationships with Erin and a woman named Helen ended up giving her a version of this same supportive artistic friendship. She and Erin unexpectedly both ended up at Oberlin College, where they met Helen, a talented but troubled violinist who quit to study art and religion instead.
Hong’s emphasis on how people become artists through particular relationships and life events—and not solitary genius—enables her to highlight how social dynamics create systematic inequalities in the art world. In short, wealthy white men dominate the art market, and they generally invest in artists with whom they identify—who tend to also be white men. Hong argues that women and artists of color simply would not be taken seriously if they tried to do “bad-boy” avant-garde work like Joe’s or Jim Shaw’s. (Hong made a more in-depth version of this argument in her popular article “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.”)
Most of Hong’s peers in Koreatown spent their careers working hard to satisfy their parents—either to pay off debts or fulfill unrealistic expectations. But fortunately, Hong’s father ran a successful business and supported her interest in poetry. In contrast, her mother was deeply troubled, to the point of often threatening her life. Hong’s mother is one of the keys to her story, but she isn’t ready to write about her yet.
Hong notes how family expectations and pressure also influenced her trajectory as an artist. While a sense of indebtedness is central to the experience of most Asian American immigrant families—a point that she will emphasize in the book’s final essay—she also recognizes that she was unusually lucky to have her father’s support. Her reluctance to write about her mother also foreshadows the other moments of deliberate silence throughout this chapter—especially when it comes to Helen and Erin’s life stories.
In college, Hong, Helen, and Erin would sit for hours at an Ohio diner and discuss art. Their friendship was the foundation for Hong’s development as a poet. Helen was peculiar: she spent every night in friends’ rooms but didn’t sleep, and she easily surpassed them at anything they did, from writing poetry to running on the treadmill. Erin and Helen became the art department’s best students, but their classmates resented them and started calling them “the Twins” because they were both Asian. Often, white people feel “overrun” when multiple nonwhite people of the same ethnicity enter a white space. At Oberlin, Erin and Helen’s ambition scared the underachieving white boys who dominated the art department.
Hong’s friendship with Helen and Erin shielded them all from the pervasive racism that surrounded them in Ohio. If they didn’t have one another’s support, Hong suggests, they may have internalized this racism and never developed the confidence to pursue art as a career. Instead, they served as both a source of motivation and an audience for one another’s work. Meanwhile, Helen may sound like a classic “mad genius” artist, but readers should also ask which kinds of “mad geniuses” are celebrated and which are dismissed—and whether this has something to do with race and gender.
Erin did minimalist landscape art, which was in part a way to reinterpret her family trauma. Years later, Erin asks Hong not to include the details of her trauma in this book. Hong complains that Asians too often keep their trauma private, but Erin insists that, as a female artist of color, she constantly runs the risk that her audiences will view her work as nothing more than an extension of her autobiography. Hong no longer knows Helen, but Erin encourages her to think about how much of Helen’s story it’s right to tell. Hong replies that writers always tell other people’s stories, which makes them inherently “a bit cruel.”
Hong considers the ethical implications of storytelling. She and Erin both prefer to keep some details to themselves. They’re both motivated by a combination of privacy and professional self-interest: they’re uncomfortable sharing the worst details of their lives publicly, and they recognize how these details will strongly shape the public response to their work. Meanwhile, just as Hong wondered if and how she can write about groups to which she doesn’t belong, she now asks if and how she can tell Helen’s story. After all, while Helen’s story is first and foremost Helen’s, it’s also a central part of Hong’s own story, so leaving it out would mean limiting herself. Put differently, Hong asks how she can “speak nearby” Helen—or write about Helen without imposing her own meaning on Helen’s life.
As a college first-year, Hong convinced the art department to put her straight into an intermediate class. The professor complimented her technique but questioned her aesthetic sophistication. Hong thought her work was far better than her peers’ uninspired drawings; instead, she had to accept how utterly subjective art can be. She hoped that art would be meritocratic, like the spelling bee in the documentary Spellbound—the more she worked, the better she would be. But instead, she learned to meet her teacher and classmates’ expectations by putting in less effort.
Once again, the art world’s dynamics are like society’s in miniature: Hong’s class shows her that art is no meritocracy, just as her life experiences have shown her that society in general is not a meritocracy, either. Elsewhere in this book, she highlights how the concept of meritocracy has long been central to American life and politics, because it suggests that people’s social and economic status depends solely on how hard they have worked. Indeed, it’s a central part of the model minority myth: mainstream culture praises Asian professionals for their success and then argues that, if members of other racial groups haven’t become successful professionals, too, it's their own fault. But the empirical evidence shows that that race, gender, and class deeply influence people’s outcomes, and truly understanding and improving society requires first understanding these dimensions of it. This story about art class reflects the same truth: Hong advances not by working harder, but by carefully analyzing white people’s expectations and then learning to meet them.
Unlike Hong, Helen never gave up on beauty. For one final project, she created a vast web of pipes and filament in homage to the famously obsessive installation artist Ann Hamilton. As soon as she finished, Helen attempted suicide. Soon, Hong and Erin became her caretakers; frightened of setting Helen off, Hong retreated into herself. But Helen’s rages continued: she once pushed her roommate down the stairs. In fact, Helen reminded Hong of her own family. The next summer, Hong met Helen in Seoul. While Hong dressed like a typical, conservative Korean woman, Helen wore her usual revealing clothes and masculine haircut. Helen had moved back home and was seeing a psychoanalyst—her mother thanked Hong for being her friend.
In one sense, Helen embodies Hong’s dream of artistic authenticity: she entirely throws herself into her art, insisting on pursuing her own vision and refusing to cave to other people’s expectations. In another sense, though, Helen is also Hong’s artistic nightmare because she loses sense of the world around her and retreats entirely into her own mind. Hong’s challenge in Minor Feelings is to find a middle ground between these two perilous extremes—or, in other words, to do justice to both her own artistic vision and other people’s needs. Of course, Hong is careful to avoid imposing such rigid and broad interpretations on her friendship with Helen: she believes that it would be unethical to seize the authority to decide what Helen’s story means, and she recognizes that her own memories are less than perfect.
A year later, Hong and Erin moved into a dilapidated, old, ant-infested house at Oberlin. Their roommate, another art major, turned the living room into a studio. Hong had spent the previous semester studying abroad in London, where she had a boyfriend and lived with a group of sexual libertines. She wasn’t excited to be back in Ohio. Helen started doing heroin and lashing out at Erin’s new boyfriend. Erin did deserve better—her boyfriend was a mediocre white slacker who spent all day in bed, complaining and making Erin do everything for him. He and his artsy white friends were frightened of Helen.
Hong’s friends in London show her a different version of freedom and creative ambition—one far less tumultuous and destructive than Helen’s. Indeed, their sexual liberation contrasts with Erin’s stale relationship with her boyfriend, which takes traditional gender roles to an extreme. Hong points out how the combination of race and gender dynamics makes this possible, elevating mediocre white men while sexualizing and objectifying Asian women. But Helen breaks with these dynamics by refusing to give Erin’s boyfriend and his friends the respect they think they deserve for being white.
One day, Helen went to Hong and Erin’s house after a “heroin bender” and sprawled out on their armchair. Hong remembered her London roommates and decided that she, Erin, and Helen should take off their shirts. They did, but then Helen started mumbling about hearing voices and accusing Hong of laughing at her for being fat. Hong told Helen she was beautiful and deserved love, but Helen physically attacked her and Erin.
This incident bolsters the contrast between Hong’s two visions of art and freedom: Helen’s, which is rooted in self-hatred, and that of her libertine roommates, which is born out of self-affirmation. Hong also uses this juxtaposition to question American culture’s romantic fixation on the stereotype of the tortured artist—which, she suggests, is both destructive and unnecessary.
Hong grew tired of her art class and realized that Erin and Helen were far better than she was, so she switched to poetry. Years later, she admits to Erin that she was jealous of Erin and Helen’s work. She also asks if Erin has any less extreme memories of Helen. They reminisce about the study group they formed to read Martin Heidegger’s notoriously difficult Being and Time. Erin and Helen seemed to get it, but Hong didn’t understand a thing. Erin argues that Helen was actually jealous of them because, unlike her, they had a clear sense of who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted.
Hong isn’t criticizing Erin and Helen for leading her to give up on visual art—on the contrary, she’s recognizing their pivotal, irreplaceable role in her journey to becoming a poet. Hong’s memories about the Heidegger study group show how Erin and Helen pushed her to grow—even if she often felt that they left her behind. Of course, Erin’s comment about Helen shows that the same thing was also true about Erin and Hong’s influence on her. Finally, Erin’s comment also underlines Hong’s insistence that her own perspective on Helen is limited and incomplete—again, she does not wish to “speak for” Helen (or define the meaning of Helen’s struggles), but only to “speak nearby” Helen (or bring Helen into her own story).
Hong also switched to poetry because she was “too neurotic for art”: she wanted to reproduce her ideas perfectly, something possible in poetry but not in visual art. So she took a class with Myung Mi Kim, who taught her about the role of silence in poetry and showed her that she didn’t have to change her voice just to satisfy white audiences.
Hong’s “neurotic” desire to bring her vision to life as faithfully as possible helps explain her central goal in Minor Feelings: to find the right authorial voice through which to explore herself, Asian Americans, and race in the U.S. Specifically, she wonders how she can balance personal experience with broader political considerations, as well as write about other groups without speaking for them. Myung Mi Kim’s class served as the foundation for her lifelong exploration of these issues.
Hong is lucky to have studied in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was the norm in college curriculums. She, Erin, and Helen fed off one another’s creativity. Hong once staged a poetry reading in a flooded, abandoned basketball court—which the university cleaned up and she re-flooded. While Hong, Erin, and Helen related their art to their identities, their art wasn’t entirely about identity. At exhibits like the 1993 Whitney Biennial, artists of color presented bold, provocative, political work that challenged the art world’s white-centric norms. Hong sees a similar energy in the early 2020s, and she hopes that it spreads rather than disappears, as in the 1990s.
Hong points out that the cultural norms in schools and universities strongly influence how students of color learn—and what kind of creative voices they develop. Fortunately, Hong’s college environment pushed her to explore her identity and develop her creativity. But on white-dominated campuses where multiculturalism isn’t welcome, students of color do not have the same opportunity. This is why Hong wants to make sure that future students have the same opportunity. However, this doesn’t mean she thinks that everything in colleges should be about identity, or that white and nonwhite artists can’t coexist. Rather, she focuses on changing the norms and dominant perspective in academia and art.
In college, Hong didn’t want to share her poetry with Helen: she was afraid of Helen’s judgment, and Helen already dominated everything else in her life. After Hong finally gave Helen some poems to read, Helen disappeared for a week. Feeling abandoned, Hong grew anxious and bitter. She spent days searching the campus for Helen. Eventually, they randomly ran into each other on the lawn, and Helen told Hong that she loved the poems.
Helen may have been crucial to Hong’s development as a poet, but this doesn’t mean that she was a uniformly positive influence. Not only did she wreak havoc on the people around her, but she also completely failed to understand what she was doing. In fact, Hong’s feelings when Helen reads her poetry are similar to the “minor feelings” that arise in her when she has to write for white audiences who simply don’t understand her perspective.
A few months later, the college accidentally reported that Helen had graduated, and the administration emptied her studio, destroying all of the art she had made in college. Hong worried that Helen would commit suicide—but she also resented Helen for the emotional chaos of their friendship. To Hong’s surprise, Helen spent a month painting around the clock instead. Her show dazzled the whole art department. She put together a separate installation in her studio—and covered the walls with poems plagiarized from Hong’s collection. When Hong confronted her, Helen angrily accused her of sabotage, and Hong left.
Helen’s final project demonstrates her ambition and vision—the same traits that inspired Hong to take herself seriously as an artist. Yet the plagiarism incident shows that their friendship could only go so far because Helen simply had no empathy or respect for Hong’s autonomy. Of course, this incident can help readers understand Hong’s emphasis on doing justice to other artists (including Erin, Helen, and the subject of her next essay, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha). But Hong’s concern for other artists’ autonomy doesn’t mean that she feels like she has adequately respected them—on the contrary, she feels guilty for violating Helen’s privacy in this essay.
Hong wasn’t planning to write about Helen—just Erin, who stayed her best friend for many years after college. In contrast, Hong and Helen fell out of touch after college, and Hong “didn’t miss her at all.” Yet Hong feels that she has betrayed Helen by writing about her—even more than Helen betrayed her by plagiarizing her work. Helen made her miserable, but she also convinced her that her art could make a difference. Helen gave Erin and Hong faith in their work and “the confidence of white men,” at least for a time. This experience helped them keep their “creative imagination” alive when others underestimated them throughout their careers.
Hong concludes by emphasizing her ambivalence about writing about Helen. She regrets exposing unsavory personal details about Helen’s life, but she has striven to paint Helen in as fair a light as possible, without distorting the facts. Most of all, she feels that she could not tell her own story without mentioning Helen’s. This is a testament to how deeply Helen influenced Hong’s development as an artist. After all, while Hong admits that she was happy to end her friendship with Helen, she never says that she regrets starting it. She emphasizes that Erin and Helen gave her the support and confidence that conventionally successful white male artists tend to get from people with formal authority, like teachers and art collectors often do for white male artists.