Tenderness and Ferocity Go Hand in Hand: A Conversation with Jane Wong
By Sean HooksMay 16, 2023
Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City by Jane Wong
Wong’s debut collection of verse, Overpour, came out in 2016, followed by How to Not Be Afraid of Everything in 2021, and now Meet Me Tonight this year from the venerable indie press Tin House Books. The setting is that contentiously nebulous (or nebulously contentious) region known as the Jersey Shore, in the 1980s and ’90s: broken families, failed relationships, Chinese restaurants going under, the triumphs and shortcomings of Generation X, racisms and sexisms endured, all conveyed in an abiding tone of provocation. Wong is a writer unafraid to unearth the scabrous and ugly while simultaneously presenting unsentimental hope via the story of a woman who endeavors to learn from past mistakes and reinvent herself through art.
Wong is associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, with an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from the University of Washington. Her poetry and prose feature an unapologetic air of uncensored self-expression and resistance to conformity. Like her titular town, from one angle she’s a wreck and from another she’s utterly enchanting. For some, Atlantic City will conjure images from Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City (1980) or the 2010s HBO series Boardwalk Empire; others may align it with mega-casinos branded with the Trump moniker, a cheaper and scuzzier Las Vegas where more than 35 percent of the residents live in poverty. As Wong writes early in the book, “This is the story of lost enterprises. Of boarded-up pizza joints, lonely stuffed animals sans tipsy game operators, echoing parking lots with floating trash, and neon lights toppled over like sand castles.”
SEAN HOOKS: Your title riffs on Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” a song released on his notoriously introspective, poetic, DIY, punk-spirited album Nebraska (1982). The song foregrounds a character at the end of his tether, and your memoir certainly plumbs, dredges, and excavates personal trauma. Interdisciplinary influences also feel very germane and thus a natural place to start. Care to speak to this impressive mélange of the personal and the external?
JANE WONG: Thank you for this lovely question, Sean. I’ve always loved Nebraska and Springsteen for his storytelling. The first part of the chorus in “Atlantic City” always gets me: “Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” When writing the title chapter, I kept thinking about my father gambling in Atlantic City, about how the American Dream died there by the blackjack and roulette tables. His addiction cost him the restaurant and his family. It’s heartbreaking. I worry about him often. But that song also speaks to me in terms of hope. I’m still his daughter. Despite everything, maybe there is still love there, a way to amend things—at least in my imagination. The first chapter speaks to that—an imagined future scene of me and my father, walking down the boardwalk together.
I’m also deeply invested in interdisciplinary making and inspiration, and I did quite a bit of sociological research. I speak to my personal story but also the larger collective story of how immigrants are targeted by casinos—buses oftentimes pick up gamblers in Chinatowns across the US. There are many layers to a gambling addiction, and I wanted to unravel them with tenderness and care.
Various writers who’ve influenced your life and work are noted throughout Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, so this leads me to ask how you see the idea of “influence.” It also has me wondering about your opinion regarding the steps that still need to be taken toward achieving fairness in the literary world.
The book details my journey as a writer and poet—which started at the restaurant, since the public library was nearby and I’d spend hours there (a.k.a. the librarian became my babysitter). Growing up, I rarely saw myself reflected in the books that I read. I wanted so badly to be a writer, even at a young age. But I also questioned that desire from the start. How could you not if you didn’t see other Asian American authors on the shelf? As a whole, I’m not interested in the poetic canon. I want to tear the idea apart. The canon is a boundary; it declares who is read and who is not. I want poetry to refuse such gatekeeping. And I want poetry to actually be equitable—beyond the shiny titles of prestige/publications.
My memoir speaks to how it feels to be tokenized—that moment when you realize you’re the only person of color on a panel. Or when you get an e-mail that says, “White Bellingham needs you,” asking you to read a poem on starvation for an event the next day. And when you say “no,” they want to read that poem for you. It takes a mobilized BIPOC community to truly answer this question in terms of anti-racist change: tearing down existing structures and decolonizing leadership roles. I am really grateful for the power of collective rage, justice, and re-envisioning. A kind of “fertilizer,” to use a term from my memoir.
A perhaps related question. I found the Bibliography and Credits section that concludes the book intriguing (and a great resource). Why feature this eclectic and esoteric array of allusions?
My memoir, though personal, also engages research—from gambling addiction studies to episodes of Top Chef. It definitely grew and became a significant part of the book thanks to my editor Elizabeth DeMeo. It was important to cull these sources and offer a space where readers could go down their own rabbit holes of research. The internet is wild; there were definitely times when a source would just disappear. On a sidenote, when I got back my style sheet from my copyeditor, it was amazing to see all the brand names I referenced. It was like a story in itself! [Laughs.] Very ’90s. Fruit Roll-Ups, Frosted Flakes, Furby, Gap, GapKids!
Your skepticism, perhaps even disdain, regarding formal education is a recurrent theme throughout Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (a disdain for lazy “it’s always been done that way” traditionalism that I share). Are there any exceptions?
I speak to many mentors and ways of learning in the memoir. The last chapter mentions Mat Johnson—who gave me the confidence I needed to keep going. He has mentored many incredible writers! I’m really honored to be reading with Mat for my Portland launch at Powell’s. I definitely critique the “Iowa method” and some of my learning experiences at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, yet I also learned so much from fellow poets there—and had some wonderful visiting professors. During my PhD at Washington, my advisor Brian Reed was so encouraging and let me take wonderful risks in my dissertation via the digital humanities. I learned about poetry through my mother—who tends to speak in metaphors (hence the character of Wongmom.com in the memoir!). As an educator, I’m really passionate about making learning felt—about trying new and strange experiments (i.e., my graduate students and I wrote poems and then blended them into handmade paper last quarter). I believe in community encouragement, empowerment, tenderness, and rigorous craft with care. I give my students shout-outs throughout the memoir!
I was moved by the plangent sections that concern your brother Steven, particularly his failure to achieve a desired reconciliation with your estranged father. Siblinghood is such a complex relationship, and I’m sure you could’ve gone on at greater length. Most books have material on the cutting-room floor. Was that the case?
Thank you for this generous question. That chapter, “To Love a Mosquito,” is one of my favorites. It was an essay in the journal Shenandoah and I remember the wonderful editor Beth Staples asking if there was something we could do for the blog. My brother recorded himself reading the most difficult and emotional scene of the chapter and then reflected on it. He spoke about how he felt in that moment—his deep sadness for the loss of that relationship, but also a vast hope for the future as a potential father himself one day. It moved me so much; honestly, I was crying. It was so vulnerable that I couldn’t post it for the blog. I think this captures our loyalty. We’re always looking out for each other’s hearts.
As for the second part of your question, yes, there were many scenes I could have added—maybe I still can when I read from the book on tour! In terms of siblinghood, what I cut was my brother’s reactions to my exes. I remember a scene where he, his wife, my ex-fiancé, and I were playing a boardgame. Afterwards, he told me that he didn’t trust my ex-fiancé, based on how he was playing. I brushed it away, but he was really trying to tell me about hidden layers of control and arrogance—something even my mom didn’t pick up on. I took it out since it didn’t seem necessary, but damn, that’s a hard decision.
Sally Wen Mao calls your book “full of tenderness and ferocity.” The last question touched on the tenderness of siblinghood (there’s plenty of mother-child tenderness as well; the hermit crabs, so evocative), so let’s move to the ferocious. You certainly don’t hold back in this memoir. It could even be called a book that expresses a good deal of (righteous) anger, as befits subjects like sexism, racism, abandonment, and abusive relationships. How do you make sure that anger doesn’t devolve into rage or hate?
Yes, lots of tenderness—those hermit crabs! I love how a hermit crab graces the cover of the book, designed by the amazing Jaya Miceli. And I am so grateful for Sally’s words! Tenderness and ferocity go hand in hand. Rage is different when experienced alone. Rage in community can bloom into tenderness. There’s one scene at the end of “The Object of Love” (the most painful yet flourishing chapter for me, about abusive relationships) where I write about what it means to fertilize community. I also am thinking about anger in relation to the stereotypes that come with being an Asian American woman. I am expected to be quiet, deferential. I think people tend to be shocked about how outspoken I am (okay, this is definitely part of me being a Jersey girl too). I call upon fellow writers, friends, and family to share that rage with me—to transform it into joy and ferocity, like a roar gurgling up from the gut. There’s resilience and power in ferocity. Poetry—and the poetic language of the memoir—is also a means to transform that rage. Into something viscerally felt through sound and image, to have the reader join that community.
A couple of mints on your way out the diner, Jane. Food and cooking are big parts of this memoir. Any dishes for which you’ve developed a fondness?
The memoir has so many references to food: Chinese tomato and egg, steamed fish, pizza, shrimp chips, jook, mangoes. I made mung beans with coconut milk for the first time today. That was pretty damn delicious. I wish I had included the scene where my brother and I made pretzels from scratch. They were super puffy! [Laughs.] Like little knotted pillows. We rolled the dough with crispy fried onions and togarashi from our mom’s cabinet. I also have a deep love for Pocky and want to have a Pocky tasting one day, all the different flavors.
How are your dive-bar ping-pong skills holding up? Still in practice up there in the Pacific Northwest?
You know it. You’ll find me at Jules Maes or the Eastlake Zoo. I don’t bring my own paddle. I like the cheap broken ones. There’s a SPIN in Seattle that I haven’t tried out—seems so fancy!
Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He has a BA from Drew University, an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA from Loyola Marymount University. He resides in Dallas and his website is www.seanhooks.com.
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