Minor Feelings are Major Feelings

I first read Jhumpa Lahiri on a plane ride back from my first trip to India. Lahiri is a pulitzer-prize winning author, recognized for how her works address immigrant experiences, emotional adversity, and assimilation in America often from an East Indian perspective. In the cold, black cabin I sat with a reading lamp illuminating her dry but deeply compassionate prose, feeling the weight of her characters. I felt heard—not because I truly identified with any of her stories but because she was Indian and a writer, and I am Indian and hope one day to be a writer. And so, I felt an immediate connection to Lahiri and her way of storytelling.

I was fifteen on that plane. Lahiri stayed with me through high school, as Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies rested on my bookshelf. But, as I began to delve deeper into Asian-American literature, and settle more into my Indian identity, there was something about her style that nagged me. I was still in awe of her stories but I often felt there was something missing from her characters – something that was just out of my grasp. I soon realized it was not her sweeping, compelling narratives that troubled me, but the way her characters were written and the way they moved about their worlds.

When writing as a person of color, there is a constant push and pull between writing to serve the self and writing to serve white audiences, who are, inevitably, the culture critics. Cathy Park Hong, a Korean American essayist and poet, writes in her debut essay collection “Minor Feelings” that “writers of color have to behave better… they have to always act gracious and grateful so white people will be comfortable enough to sympathize with their racialized experiences.” Because white publishers and media tycoons have a general monopoly over what “ethnic stories” are permissible in mainstream culture, there has emerged a concept that Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines as the “single story.” Adichie outlines the danger of the single story—when we only tell narratives from a single point of view, we jeopardize the truths of people and their experiences, and in turn, sacrifice the diversity and breadth of these stories. When you show people as one thing, over and over again, that is what they become. Single stories are not only incomplete, they are untrue. 

I slowly began to see in Lahiri’s work that her understated style of storytelling, her “show” rather than “tell” technique, contributes to the idea that stories about people of color, particularly Asian-Americans, can only be as racially and emotionally charged as white audiences and critics allow them to be. Lahiri’s characters are complacent, not confrontational. Abiding, not rebellious. And emotionally stable, never unhinged. These characteristics perpetuate the notion that Asian-Americans are meant to blend in, be the “model minority,” not cause trouble, be apologetic, and passive – to sit in both pain and silence. Her Asian-American characters do not take up more space than absolutely necessary for survival.

Lahiri’s tremendous literary success can be, in part, attributed to the fact that her characters perfectly fit the mold of the complacent Asian-American citizen. Many of her narratives tread closely along the “single story” idea. Often her character’s trauma is associated with other countries or themselves, not the U.S., and so white and American-identifying readers can be deemed blameless. These characteristics make her stories digestible to the white imagination but disingenuous to the Asian-American experience. 

The genuine form of Asian-American experiences can be likened to what Hong calls “minor feelings”. Minor feelings, according to Hong, are synonymous with “ugly feelings” like irritation, anger, and boredom. They occur “when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own radicalized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Further, when minor feelings are put on display to the public, they are “interpreted as hostile, ungrateful… belligerent.” Minor feelings are not pretty, and they certainly are not appealing to white audiences when displayed in literature and the media. This is precisely what was nagging me about Lahiri’s work: she put aside minor feelings to protect white ones. It may be that Lahiri was trying to convey that coming to this country as an Asian-American is to live a life of constant dull pain and irritability, of identity confusion and loneliness. But all of these inner conflicts are kept internal. Lahiri fails to engage with these complex feelings and so they are forgotten. Without validation through action or reaction, these minor feelings are obliviated.

As a result, we need to shift the way we tell, praise, and mass produce stories about Asian-Americans. We have to illuminate and give space for minor feelings—the feelings of abandonment and anger and confusion that result from internal and external worlds constantly in conflict. We need to tell stories about the implications of minor feelings, what happens when an Asian-American is angry or vengeful or in despair. By reflecting these ideas on pages and on the screen, we give Asian-Americans cultural permission to do the same in their lives: to be angry about how they are being treated, stand up for those being beaten down, and advocate and rally. But most importantly, when we make room for minor feelings, we also make room for Asian-Americans, not just as single-story narratives, token characters, or immigrant success stories, but as fully flawed and complex humans. Accepting minor feelings is accepting an intrinsic part of what it means to be Asian-American.

What happens when we gloss over minor feelings is Asian-Americans begin to take up less and less space in the broader cultural narrative, reduced to the spectacle of pain and hardship and redemption that the white gaze validates over and over again. Creating art within this mold simply gives more power to those who already have it.


Image Credit: Pexels // Enzo Muñoz

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