Interview by Jenny Bartoy
In her debut memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (Tin House, 2023), the poet Jane Wong recounts growing up on the Jersey Shore in the late 1980s as the daughter of Chinese restaurant owners. After her father loses the family business due to a gambling addiction and leaves, Wong along with her mother and brother makes do and moves on, thanks to much love, good advice, and delicious food.
In lush, sensory prose, Meet Me Tonight interrogates the attainability of the American Dream, the meaning of family, and the connection between vulnerability and strength. Wong touches on the immigrant experience, domestic violence, parental estrangement, the mother-daughter bond, and self-empowerment. Charm and humor imbue her writing, along with anger and resolve. This memoir sizzles with originality and with heart.
Wong, an associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, is also the author of the poetry collections How to Not Be Afraid of Everything and Overpour. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa and a PhD in English from the University of Washington.
I spoke with Wong over Zoom about her approach to memoir as a poet, her deliberate reluctance toward resilience, craft as it relates to violence, her views on difficult women, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenny Bartoy: Your memoir covers a lot of ground, and it’s written in a genre-bending, nonlinear, hybrid style. Now that time has passed since you wrote it and it’s been out in the world, how would you describe it if you had to pitch it?
Jane Wong: I used to call it a love song for my mom and for working-class Chinese American immigrants, but I guess it’s more of an opera. Like a love opera, because it has a lot of different textures and movements in terms of the nonlinearity and craft risks I took, like making up the character WongMom.com and stuff like that. That’s ultimately what it is. It’s a love opera for my mom.
JB: Yes, ‘love opera’ is a great encapsulation!
Many readers know you as a widely acclaimed poet, but I first discovered your writing in the gorgeous essay, “A Cheat Sheet for Restaurant Babies” (Chapter 3 in the memoir), that was anthologized in This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home. Were you always a nonfiction writer alongside being a poet? What did your trajectory to nonfiction look like?
JW: I did not write nonfiction until semi-recently. Genre for me has always been kind of funky because the lines blur. I began as a fiction writer and didn’t come to poetry until a bit later, mostly because, in my stories, things didn’t happen. I love characters, I love setting, I’m obviously obsessed with language and description and getting situated emotionally in the scene. But nothing really happened in my stories. I moved into poetry because I felt like there was more freedom to write in fragments, and nothing had to necessarily move forward. So I fell in love with poetry. But I think nonfiction in many ways exists in my poetry. Poetry and nonfiction are slippery genres.
I started writing nonfiction around 2017, which was scary. In a poem, you can write something that is “true” or happened to you, but you can write a metaphor and run away. In nonfiction, what really challenged me was to sit in reflection and ask, what does this mean to me now, or what have I learned from this particular moment? I will say I loved writing the memoir, because it was a return to some of my fiction-y background. I had forgotten how much I love scene work and zooming super, super in, down to the oranges that my father brought when he tried to return to the house after he left our family. I really love that aspect of going back to prose.
JB: You write about poetry helping you deal with anxiety, with finding your way: “This is the time when I feel most powerful; poetry as echolocation,” and “Maybe poetry was the portal through which my powers came alive.” I wonder if there is an equivalent or parallel for you in personal nonfiction. How do the two forms compare and contrast for you?
JW: Poetry has always been a space of bewilderment for me, almost ancestral if that makes sense. My poet self knows something that my regular person self doesn’t know. When I write a poem, I never know where it’s going to go. I just start with a line and see wherever language takes me emotionally. I love the bewilderment of a poem.
I like to control certain elements of my life, and I feel like poetry is my wild self. Whereas I think in nonfiction, I try to understand what all these constellated images and moments really mean to me. I may not get the answer, or I may not understand fully, but it’s getting closer to it.
In the title chapter, there’s this image of hermit crabs crawling across my dad’s body after he’s passed out from gambling and drinking. That’s a lyrical poetic image. And then, zooming out, the larger essay is trying to understand the more systemic reasoning as to why my dad had a gambling addiction, which affects so many immigrant communities. Writing this memoir felt like a perfect combination: to dive into lyrical moments, but then also to sit with that nonfiction element of deeply reflecting. If poetry is bewildering, then nonfiction is a deep dive. It’s trying to get to the bottom of the ocean and turns out there’s no bottom.
“Writing this memoir felt like a perfect combination: to dive into lyrical moments, but then also to sit with that nonfiction element of deeply reflecting”. — Jane Wong
JB: Let’s talk about the structure of your memoir. Your book consists of a series of independent essays, each offering a unique exploration of a handful of central themes. And these are interspersed with short prose sections, which are framed in black and paired with photos. These shorter “framed” pieces interrupt the flow of the book visually, but they also help to link it together thematically. In preparing for this interview, I read through all the “framed” bits in one go, and I realized they created their own sort of essay, or train of thought, that anchors the book. How deliberate versus organic was this kind of structuring?
JW: Those sections link together, but I wrote them piecemeal. They’re pretty much in the order I wrote them, so maybe that’s why it feels like there’s a trajectory. Some of them were more specifically tied to each other, and some felt more organic.
The only deliberate decision was that I really wanted to begin and end with fruit. “Dragon Fruit” was the first one I wrote. Ending the book was hard because I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. A lot of the book, including the final “Mangoes Forever” section, was a result of going down rabbit holes of research. I was researching the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and that’s when I found Mao’s mango cult.
Every single time I go home, the first thing my mother does is make sure that I’m gorging on fruit, and mangoes are her favorite, so I wanted to end with her very favorite fruit.
She’s the center of all those “framed” interval pieces and, in those sections, I’m really there too. It’s almost like those sections exist on another plane of existence where we’re just together, which goes back to the love-opera-for-my-mom idea. Those sections are the central spine of the book. For a long time the memoir was just essays and these intervals didn’t exist. But those are now my favorite to read out loud since I’ve been on tour. They’re sweet but also she’s trying to give me this advice. Those sections feel divinatory, like they’re helping me write the memoir.
As a genre, memoir suggests that it has happened in the past, that there’s this memory, a sense of “This happened to me.” And those sections framed in black feel very present-future to me. They exist not necessarily in the same timeline as some of the other essays which do feel in the past, like memory. These sections helped me a lot, in trying to understand that memory doesn’t have to exist in this particular tense, that it actually impacts the future, like there’s something that’s going to come out of writing this book. And it’s kind of true.
I’m still processing the things that this book has allowed me to do. For instance, I saw my father, which was a hard decision to make, but after writing the book, I felt like I needed to see him. And I saw him in Jersey when I was home in June. And I’m making WongMom.com real. So stuff like that. The book is allowing me to do certain things in the present-future.
JB: I love the idea that memory is fluid, or that a book is alive with possibility once it’s out in the world.
In Chapter 7, “The Object of Love,” you discuss what you’re “allowed” to write, and you explain that people in the book industry recommended you focus on the Chinese American immigrant experience, and growing up poor in a takeout restaurant. “Immigrant gold, intergenerational trauma dessert.” To a certain extent, your memoir accepts this directive, but this acceptance is merely a trampoline that allows you to then subvert it. Do you agree?
JW: Oh, yeah, totally. In fact, there’s a reason why “The Object of Love” occurs at the midpoint in the book. My goal was to first be like, “That is my story. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant. I come from a low-income immigrant background.” Like, you know, a restaurant baby, and then, oh look at her now, she’s a professor. I wanted to touch on the discomfort of upward mobility, the failure of the American dream, and the big giant myth of American meritocracy. “The Object of Love” is my personal favorite and was the hardest chapter to write of the entire book: it was a reckoning point in the book, to awaken the reader—and myself. If you thought this was going to be a pretty straightforward narrative in terms of my upbringing as someone who’s the child of Chinese immigrants, then maybe you’re going to be a little shocked by all my ex-boyfriends. But how come I can’t write about that?
It’s interesting to think about a tagline in terms of what a book is supposed to “be about,” especially when you feel that pressure as a woman of color. If I’m really going to talk about whiteness and racism in this country and how that’s tied to my family’s story, then I have to talk about my shitty white boyfriends. And it was really scary, because “The Object of Love” is the first time I’ve written publicly about domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and abusive relationships. it. And I wanted to do it because I can’t separate that hypersexualized violence from my mom’s migration story.
When recording the audiobook, I think that chapter was the only one I hadn’t read out loud—I usually read out loud while I compose. I was so nervous when the day came to record that chapter; I gave a content warning to the producer and the sound engineer. And funny enough, that was the one chapter where I had the least hiccups. It was shocking to me actually how smooth I felt while reading it. That’s the one essay that took the longest to write. I started bits and pieces of it, little tiny fragments of it, in 2015. So it was the longest one in my heart and brain. And I felt deep relief after I read it out loud.
“It’s interesting to think about a tagline in terms of what a book is supposed to “be about,” especially when you feel that pressure as a woman of color.”—Jane Wong
JB: I’m so glad you felt cleansed and relieved. I wish that catharsis for every writer who puts themselves out there like you did. It’s definitely an intense chapter but necessary.
JW: Unfortunately, I could probably continue that essay. There’s no such thing as being healed. It’s always going to be a continual process of healing. But I think that voicing it felt really powerful. I had kept the violence secret for so long. I worry about readers encountering it and being like, Oh, this is really intense. That was a hard decision to make—you know how we are as writers: we waffle back and forth between how vulnerable we want to be. But I really wanted that chapter to be in there.
JB: I don’t think it would have been the same book if you hadn’t included these difficult experiences. They add a significant layer of nuance to your relationship with your mother as well.
Let’s talk more about fear. The interconnected “framed” pieces throughout the book are focused largely on fear and on your mother—or WongMom.com. You ask her, “What do you do when you’re afraid?” and “What are you afraid of, Mommy?” Your mother shines throughout your pages. She’s profoundly herself and, in being that, she’s also a prophet and a poet and a powerhouse. We never get a blunt answer as to what she may be afraid of, but she also doesn’t come across as fearless. Rather, she seems fierce and unstoppable, which is epitomized in her fantastic made-up idiom, “If you can’t crawl, swim; and if you can’t swim, take the bus.” Did the writing of this book make you see your mother in new ways? What did you learn about her?
JW: I think that in writing the book and in real life, I’m beginning to understand more and more that what she’s afraid of is tied to me and my brother. She just worries about us. I talked in the book about having a lot of panic attacks and I remember, when I told her about what that feels like, she was scared. Her fear has always been tied to being a mother. This desire to protect us from what she thinks is going to be dangerous, including our father, is also part of her fierceness or boldness.
She’s read the book, thanks to the audiobook, and she was my conversation partner on book tour. And we talked a lot about her reception of the book or what she was surprised by. She knows all this history about me—I’m very close with her so I share everything with her. But she was really surprised that I was scared about her working night shifts and driving all the way to Trenton. I guess I’ve never said it directly to her. And I didn’t know how much she worried about us. That’s ultimately our discovery: there’s so much love, but also there’s so much at stake in terms of the fear of losing each other.
Whenever I felt stumped when I was writing, I would call her at work. And I would say, tell me something about growing up in the village. For example, in the book, this guy has a huge crush on her and gives her hot bread. I was writing in a café in San Francisco and I was stumped, so I called her and she told me the story. She has so many stories, there’s no way for me to even know all of them. It’s kind of wild to think about. I’m still learning a lot about her and she’s still learning a lot about me. And I don’t want to leave my brother out. He’s a really interesting character/real person because he’s a bit more withholding and more introverted; he keeps his cards close to his chest. I don’t think he’s read the book yet. So we’ll see.
JB: You became estranged from your father after he left the family home and essentially cut contact with you guys. In Chapter 8, “To Love a Mosquito,” you write about this estrangement from your father through the prism of your love for your younger brother. After your father acts in a very hurtful way toward your brother, you write: “I can’t describe to you my anger.” I imagine that speaking through your brother’s experience, through witnessing his pain, created a mindful distance from your own pain, but it also gave space to your anger. Can you tell me a little more about that storytelling choice and perhaps why you didn’t write more about your own experience of your father’s abandonment?
JW: I feel like we don’t talk enough about estrangement. It’s an odd feeling to lose someone like that, when they still exist. It’s very hard. I think that my decision to write it through my brother is to protect everybody from my rage. My brother doesn’t know some things that my mom and I know, and I think that as a result, writing this estrangement through his eyes created a lot more tenderness and empathy for my father, and forgiveness too. The way that my brother sees my father and has tried to connect with him despite estrangement has made me somehow love my father more and feel a tenderness towards him. Seeing this story through my brother was necessary as a craft move, but also necessary in real life.
When I saw my father in June, I went with my brother. I hadn’t seen my father for such a long time; the years start to add up. And my brother being there softened everything. My brother always has a huge well of empathy for everyone. He’s not jaded. He’s not hard. It’s a reminder to still have that hope like, even though all this has happened, as I write at the end of the title chapter, I hope to stroll the boardwalk with my father when he’s elderly. I think that I wouldn’t have gotten there without my brother. My mom’s still very angry. I’m kind of in this middle space of navigating all the very true facets of a person: my father is a real, complex human being. I don’t want to demonize him. He’s not a monster. He’s my father. That’s complicated, and in writing all of these really difficult, oftentimes heart-wrenching moments, especially in writing about estrangement, I wanted there to be humor and lightness and joy too.
JB: My favorite part about your memoir is that it is all of these things: it is heartbreaking. It’s also hilarious. It’s charming. It’s angry. It’s smart. I want more books like that, where you can vibrate along with the rollercoaster of real-life emotions.
JW: It’s definitely not a slow build! I have to embrace the intensity. We all have to embrace our intensity.
JB: Exactly, we need that!
As we discussed, your memoir touches very vulnerably on sexual violence and abusive relationships. You also dissect male perspectives on “daddy issues” and “difficult women” and the connection between these toxicities. I admired your refusal to excuse or lyricize abuse and toxicity. You write, “Don’t write about the etymology of abuse. Don’t try to make sense of it, don’t find its root.” You also have this stunning paragraph about being called “difficult” that ends with “Let me say I want to survive.” Can you tell me a little more about your approach in writing about these experiences with problematic men?
JW: I suppose the way to answer that is to take it back to craft. Writing about being a difficult woman or about intimate partner violence is hard to do craft-wise. How do you put into language that which is so guttural and physical?
That was challenging and I spent a lot of time thinking through syntactical moves. When I was crafting that particular paragraph about being called “difficult,” it was important for me to have that anaphora of “Let me say,” and “Let me say it more clearly.” In those moments where I talk about violence, I really wanted language to get me to a place where I could show all the gears, like pulling out the seams so you can see all the work that went into making a quilt. I wanted to write about writing this. I wanted to use the failure of writing about abuse to help me. I couldn’t poeticize it. I couldn’t dramatize it. I’m a total craft nerd and when I don’t know how to come at something, I will use structure to do so.
JB: You exhibit a deliberate reluctance toward resilience in this book, prefaced in your opening where you tell your mother, “I’m so tired of being strong. Fuck strength, fuck resilience, fuck lessons to learn.” This is refreshing when so many memoirs focus instead on a journey of resilience and growth. But at the same time, in embracing vulnerability you show a willingness to face fear. You write, “There is always this sense of terror in writing, this dip into vulnerability that can unearth something you’ve worked so hard at burying. That’s the risk—the fleshy interior.” Tell me about these oppositional forces of resilience and reluctance, of fear and vulnerability.
JW: I think that in many ways, especially as a Chinese American woman, I’m not supposed to be “rageful” or angry; instead I’m expected to choose resilience and growth. And you know what, I’m mad. Like, how come I have to go through all this? When it feels forced upon you to be resilient, there’s a deep sense of exhaustion, especially for women of color—this expectation to endure trauma. Writing those moments where I refuse that approach is to declare rage and to say, yeah, I’m fucking tired. And when I read that particular section out loud, I think audience members are a little stunned by me cursing like that, but also they’re like, yeah! Those moments in the book come from exhaustion, which comes from rage, which comes from these larger expectations to present a feel-good “resilient narrative.”
Writing this memoir was subversive in the sense that I already knew what a particular audience might want from me and I didn’t want to give it to them. The sentence “I want to survive” is about declaring selfhood rather than resilience. That’s declaring: I exist. I’m a real person. Don’t treat me like that. The idea of always having to be strong is a violence in itself. That whole rhetoric just makes me mad. There’s this expectation that I’ll be very quiet and sweet and whatever—and I think I am quite sweet! But it goes hand in hand: sweetness and tenderness, and deep, deep rage. You need the tenderness to cool the rage.