Memoirs Exploring Family and Identity

Cathy Park Hong expertly blends memoir and cultural criticism. Bettye Kearse skillfully weaves personal and oral history. Lan Yan carefully traces family history.

Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World. Feb. 2020. 224p. ISBN 9781984820365. $27. BIOG
Poet and essayist Hong’s family history beautifully details how her life and art have been shaped by her Korean American identity. Among the many topics the author explores are the violent history of Korea and how that heritage has impacted generations of her family, her discomfort and confusion navigating her race as a child in the Los Angeles area, and how race affected friendships and mental health throughout her life. She also dissects popular culture, from Richard Pryor’s stand-up to the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Every page is packed with details and reflections on the myriad ways that Americans’ lives are shaped by race. The author has a particular talent for bringing a moment to life, inviting readers to confront the raw emotions of a given scene. She does not shy away from complication or bluntness, but presents her truth with all its complexity.
­VERDICT An extraordinary blend of memoir, cultural criticism, and history that will invite readers from all backgrounds, though especially those who identify as Asian American, to consider the complex relationships between race, family, heritage, and society that shape American lives.—Sarah Schroeder, Univ. of Washington Bothell

redstar Kearse, Bettye. The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. Houghton Harcourt. Mar. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781328604392 $28. BIOG
As Kearse was growing up, her mother told her many times, “You’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” Historians have always presumed that President James Madison was infertile and had no children, but ­Kearse has done a remarkable job of revealing another side of this story. Kearse became the next family griot, one of the storytellers that had passed on this story through the generations, starting with Mandy, an enslaved woman. According to the family legend of the Black Madisons, Mandy fathered a daughter, Coreen, with James Madison, Sr., and President Madison fathered a son, Jim, with Coreen. Kearse has spent decades researching Madison’s family history and her own genealogy to prove this connection, uncovering remarkable stories of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. Since the one direct male descendant of James Madison’s brother will not do a DNA test, Kearse ­acknowledges that this story cannot be proved definitively, but that does not change her sense of family identity.
­VERDICT A moving, beautifully told story that adds to our understanding of Madison along with African American genealogy and oral history.—Kate ­Stewart, Arizona ­Historical Soc., Tuscon

redstarYan, Lan. The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History. Harper. Jan. 2020. 432p. tr. from French by Sam Taylor. ISBN 9780062899811. pap. $17.99. BIOG
With this debut, investment banker Yan relates her family history from 1895 to 2015. The author’s grandfather, Yan Baohang, grew up poor during the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). He managed to get an education, enabling him to befriend members of China’s elite. He served the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1930s, but later joined the Communist Party and was one of the leaders of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949. Yan’s father was a Russian language translator for Chairman Mao, and her mother was a diplomat. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), her grandfather and father were arrested, and her grandfather died of abuse he suffered under interrogation. At age 11, Yan and her mother were accused of being counterrevolutionaries and were sent to a reeducation camp. After the revolution ended her family was rehabilitated. Now based in France, Yan has her story expertly translated by Sam Taylor. VERDICT A touching, essential account for anyone interested in 20th-century Chinese history and highly recommended for fans of personal family ­memoir.—Joshua Wallace, Tarleton State Univ. Lib. Stephenville, TX

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