Against a Singular Story: A Conversation with Jane Wong


Written with poetic lyricism laced with rage and humor, Jane Wong’s Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is rooted in her childhood as the daughter of immigrants who ran a Chinese restaurant on the Jersey shore. The braided memoir is told in a series of chapters interspersed with speculative prose poetry-like sections centered on the character of, the website version of her mother who dispenses advice to those in need of direction. What shines through in Wong’s memoir is the beacon of her mother’s indefatigable optimism and trust in others in the face of a multitude of hardships, such as her father’s gambling addiction, the hyper-sexualization she experiences from her white exes, and academic institutional racism.

Wong is the author of two poetry collections: How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James Books) and Overpour (Action Books). The Seattle-based writer is also a proud dog owner and an associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University.

I spoke to Jane Wong by phone about the role of research in her writing, the influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in her work, and her first experience in finding community at the Kundiman workshop retreat for Asian American writers.


The Rumpus: I noticed that many of the chapters in your memoir were first published as essays in journals. What was the origin story for your book? When you were writing these essays did you conceive of them as part of a memoir?

Jane Wong: I’m coming to nonfiction as a poet. My nonfiction essays were singular essays before they were woven into a memoir. I think I reference this briefly in the book, “House of Accident” was the first poem I wrote that was autobiographical. I wrote it in Myung Mi Kim’s summer poetry workshop at Naropa. The speaker in the poem is clearly a younger version of me. That poem exists in three columns for many pages. You can read it down and across and around—it’s meant to be experimental in that it has mixed ways of reading. For some reason, I never wanted to publish that poem. I was averse to it. I think it was because it was so personal. I remember I read the poem once, and Margot Kahn came up to me and asked if she could use the essay I read in an anthology. I explained to her that it was a poem. It was really funny that my dive into nonfiction came about then. I had to actually write an essay. She wanted to include it in This is the Place: Women Writing about Home (Seal Press). The essay was originally called, “A Family Business,” but in the memoir, it’s titled “A Cheat Sheet for Restaurant Babies.”

That’s how I started. I didn’t aim to write nonfiction per se. And then, I fell in love with it because it allowed me more space to do deep dives and research—especially with the title essay, which is now the first chapter in my book. I originally conceived of this book as a nonfiction essay collection. My editor at Tin House Books, Elizabeth DeMeo, told me that she thought the book was a memoir. It was a challenge for me because I had only thought about the book as a collection. If she hadn’t pushed me, I don’t think I would have created the sections featuring that braid the memoir together. is the glue of the book in a way. I’m really glad that Elizabeth pushed me to think about creating a nonlinear memoir.

I recently recorded the audio book. It was really fun and difficult at the same time. I think reading it out loud—especially coming from a poetry background where we oftentimes read out loud—activated something in me. Now that it’s out of my mouth and in the air, it feels real. I know that sounds strange, but it really didn’t become a book to me until I actually read it aloud.

Rumpus: You mentioned doing research for your nonfiction writing. That’s something I really loved in your book, the weaving in of research and the fact that you have a bibliography. What is the role of research in your writing process for both nonfiction and poetry?

Wong: I think nonfiction gave me much more space to do research on a more transparent level. In my poems, there’s research, but it’s oftentimes hidden or in the background. In the book, it’s a mixture of archival research and also internet searches with strange, random memes. The approach I had was that there are all these things I don’t have answers for. I feel that in my search for the answer—especially in the chapter called “Ghost Archive”—I come across strange ways of addressing findings I came across.

I remember distinctly that I found the fact about the ping-pong world record of volleys back and forth somewhere on a website, and then that website disappeared. I had to go and search for it afterwards. In many cases, the internet exists as a mushy space of research. I was confounded by that. Things disappeared all the time when I tried to collate the bibliography. I wrote so many of these standalone essays a while ago, and a lot of the articles disappeared. There’s the “Wayback Machine,” but unless things are saved, it doesn’t exist in that space either.

On a more sociological level, there were chapters that really demanded research in the attempt to answer big questions that felt collective rather than just personal, such as gambling. One thing I was stunned and really moved by was that a lot of Asian American friends and acquaintances who’ve read this book in advance copies or who read the standalone title essay in Ecotone magazine, have said to me things like, “Wow, my uncle, has a gambling addiction, and he lost his house.” I think there are larger collective, sociological, and socio-economic issues where I wanted to draw those larger connections. It’s the same thing with the chapter “Root Canal Street,” which describes my experience going to unlicensed dentists in New York City’s Chinatown. I know that’s an open secret for so many low-income folks in New York City and across numerous cities in the country—for those who can’t afford health care and aren’t able to navigate the healthcare system due to language barriers.

What do you do when you have these questions that are messy to answer? I don’t necessarily even answer them fully in the book, but I, at least try to scratch the surface so that readers are also curious and can relate to them with their own personal and collective stories.

Rumpus: When you were talking about gambling, I was picturing all the buses from San Francisco Chinatown going to local casinos across the Bay. When I lived in New York, I remember seeing buses from Chinatown headed to Atlantic City. And even traveling in Asia, I saw how big it is there. Gambling is such a big part of the culture.

Wong: What I was trying to unravel is that there’s already a cultural proclivity towards the idea of luck in Chinese culture, but then it’s mixed with capitalism and the American dream. They are combined together to exploit that proclivity to a degree that is obviously targeting immigrant communities to take that risk. Because in their daily lives, in terms of the hustle and the grind, hitting the jackpot and making some sea change, socio-economically, doesn’t look feasible for them. All of these factors come together to kind of cause this larger systemic gambling addiction.

Rumpus: I wanted to circle back to the structure of your book and how you have introductions to your chapters. Were those the parts your editor wanted you to work on in the weaving together of your essays?

Wong: Elizabeth gave me a lot of freedom and was very gentle and encouraging. She didn’t necessarily say that I needed something woven, but she was hinting at something that connects it together as a memoir. At an earlier stage when we were brainstorming, she mentioned breaking one of the essays into fragments across the book and to have that be the golden thread. I was like, “I think there’s still something else here.” And I tried to figure out what it was. I don’t even know what to call those sections other than the sections, which are speculative nonfiction sections. There’s another kind of universe that occurs in those sections.

However, what’s interesting to me—which I mention in the book, too—is I tend to write in order for something to happen. This thread of some sort of psychic or cosmic knowledge that my mother has is a major theme in the book. I think writing into a character is an example. Actually, is going to be real. We are working on making it a website that will exist around the time the book is launched. In some weird way, I always kind of knew she was going to be real. Time is very funny in the memoir, and I think there was a desire when I was writing it for some sort of future. And now she’s going be present, if that makes sense.

I realized that I needed to take risks in terms of the woven aspects. Those sections are much more hyperaware in writing the memoir. They exist on a different plane. It’s hard for me to even describe them. But on an emotional level, they were joyful to write even though some of them are hard. I didn’t want it to be a thread that was too consistent or have the same texture each time. I wanted a braid that would grow like a strange, beautiful mold—like slime mold or something. Grow and glow and contract as its own being. Now I’m doing that thing when I’m moving into weird poetry. [Laughs]

Rumpus: I looked at these sections as a type of prose poetry. I also appreciated that they were outlined in black so there’s a clear demarcation for the reader that these sections were different.

Wong: Yes, totally. I do like how you call them introductions. I think of them as a kind of pup plant—the offshoots that sprout off another plant. To me, they feel like propagation chapters in between the longer ones. They are part of a larger mother plant but they also have a life of their own. They are their own organism.

Rumpus: I appreciate the references to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictee, which has been such a big influence on so many Asian American writers and artists. I especially love this passage: “Art made me realize that storytelling was hardly a linear act, when you come from a history of trauma, war and migration. Reading Dictee gave me permission to create constellations of speculative memory, it gave me the permission to break down genre boundaries.” Was Dictee a big inspiration in writing your book?

Wong: Yeah, it definitely was. That book has been so central to my entire creative and academic life. My dissertation was called “Going towards the Ghost: The Poetics of Haunting in Contemporary Asian American Poetry,” which focuses on how Asian American poets conceive of this idea of haunting in thinking about migration, violence and colonialism. So many of these writers were mirroring their experiences through form. They were writing not just about it, but through it.

When I encountered Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s writing, I was very moved by my own reading experience. I didn’t even know how to begin or how to read it. In Dictee, she writes, “Begin where you wish, tell even us.” I have had that phrase in my mind for so long because there’s so many stories that are so hard to tell. I have complicated feelings around telling stories that my family have clearly kept silent for so many years. The idea of beginning wherever you wish as well as the non-linearity and mixture of mediums and art spaces that Cha moves through were so powerful for me. I realized, too, that words can’t do it all.

In my memoir, there is a visual aspect around the sections. We’ve included childhood photographs of me and family photos in pattern grid. I appreciate these small moments of moving off-the-page to a different realm, to the space Theresa Hak Kyung Cha explores in the sculptural and installation work that she’s done. I also do installation work and other art experiments. I feel a like-mindedness or a kinship with her, in that there’s no clear way to do something—it’s going to take a multitude of attempts. And those attempts are going to be confounding to some. If you’re coming from histories with so much historical trauma and migration, there’s this feeling of the repeated story that bobs up again and again in the waves, so to speak.

I realized, too, that in the genre of memoir, I think readers sometimes expect beginning, middle and end—a retrospective of a time in your life. And that they need to have some sort of sense of clarity along the way. I’m really hoping that whoever reads this book comes to it with an open heart and open mind. In terms of how, my memoir conveys the nonlinear tumultuous waves of what it means to come from so much history behind me, specifically with China’s Great Leap Forward and my mother’s arranged marriage to my father. Also, how it moves into the waves of my toxic ex-boyfriends—how my romantic trauma can’t be separated from my immigrant story and the racism I faced in academia. I was really pushing against the telling of singular story. This is an immigrant memoir, but there’s also so much else.

Dictee really was a beacon that reminded me that the reader will have to do the constellation work to some degree. There are passages in Korean and in French, there are images, poetry, prose sections. As a professor, it’s important for me to read Dictee together with my students. I’m trying my best to hold their hands along the way. We read it together and create our own symphony in working through that book. It’s a sublime book. It sounds bizarre, but it does feel that way—both beautiful and terrifying.

Rumpus: I love how you experience Dictee collaboratively, in community with your students. The theme of community is something I wanted to ask you about. I was really moved by the scene at the Kundiman workshop, where you experienced community for the first time.

Wong: I really wanted to emphasize the theme of community throughout the book. That’s what my mother calls “the fertilizer.” In many ways, community is that which allows the heart to heal, and to heal that heart together. It took me so long to get there. In that scene at Kundiman, I was trying to speak to the reality of forced internalized racism, where you feel like you’re the only one, the token, that you must be in competition with other Asian American writers. I hated that. It was a system that felt like we were pitted against each other. That’s in part why I ran away to my room that first night at Kundiman because I didn’t understand why everyone was so nice to me. And that’s heartbreaking. I was so uncomfortable with community and kindness in community, especially coming out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At Kundiman, I realized I didn’t have community in my personal and writing life.

My mom is obviously at the center of the idea of community in the book. She’s taught me how to be in community, how to love—she nourishes her fellow coworkers at the postal facility where she works, she’s there for them and vice versa. There’s this constant back and forth. She’s taught me so much. She’s survived so much in terms of trauma and betrayal. She should be suspicious but she’s not. I need to learn that. I can get interior and fearful but she’s reminding me all the time that there’s so much beauty out there like in friendship.

Rumpus: Who did you write this book for? Did you envision a specific audience when you were writing it?

Wong: I wrote for my younger self, ultimately. I felt like I was writing to Baby Jane half the time. I was thinking about my younger self not having read that many Asian American writers, who had never taken Asian American studies classes. My younger self was hungry to be seen. At the time I was thinking, “Why didn’t I fit into some ‘good Asian’ role?” I felt like such a bizarre anomaly. That’s why I didn’t really have friends growing up. I didn’t have community until much later. I’m also writing to other Asian American folks who are trying to figure out who they are and to be seen. I think some of the aspects of internalized racism I describe will resonate with them.

There are so many audiences I want to reach. This book is so deeply tied to class—low income, working class, immigrant babies, living paycheck to paycheck, being in debt, the struggles of trying to get by and making do with what you have. That’s why the Bruce Springsteen lyric in the title kicks it off. He’s truly the troubadour of the Jersey working class. More broadly, it’s a book that speaks to experiences of immigrant families with language barriers, trying to find healthcare and what it means to feel uncomfortable with upward mobility. And then there are those parts where I talk about academia. I didn’t read much about what it would be like to be a woman of color in the academy. I didn’t know what to expect. But at its core, I wrote the book for my younger self and the Asian American community. Or maybe, it’s just for my mom.

Rumpus: Has your mom read it?

Wong: She doesn’t really read because of the language barrier, but since I’ve recorded an audiobook, it will be the first book of mine she will actually “read.” I worry because there’s some hard language and situations. I warned her, but she laughed and said, “I already know everything.”




Author photo by Helene Christensen

Margaret Juhae Lee is the author of Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History, which will be published by Melville House in 2024. She lives in Oakland, California, with her family and Brownie, a rescue dog from Korea. More from this author →