Jane Wong is the author of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything from Alice James Books (2021) and Overpour from Action Books (2016). Her debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, is forthcoming from Tin House in 2023.
Jane Wong’s How to Not Be Afraid of Everything is a shot across the bow at the fantasy of what America stands for. From the “The Frontier” series of poems to “Notes for the Interior,” Wong strikes out at the mythos of the American West, through the prism of the modern Asian American immigrant experience. In the first “The Frontier” poem, Wong writes:
Every immigrant has that one
drawer full of plastic bags in
plastic bags. We open them
when we knock a wall down.
Tessellations of the frontier:
bags floating off in Great Northern
air. Go forth—my thank-yous,
my pocked plastic cheeks,
my lunch money
hunkering down in clouds.
The phrase “Go forth” seems to intentionally reference and even mock Whitman, perhaps America’s most famously American poet, obliquely pointing out that he most certainly wasn’t thinking of Chinese American women going forth and establishing themselves on the country’s frontier.
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything also explores how generational trauma affects our lives today. Wong lost most of her extended family to the famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and after her family immigrated to New Jersey, somewhat ironically, she grew up spending a lot of time around food, in the Chinese restaurant her parents once ran.
Wong and I met during a residency at Willapa Bay in 2018, where she wrote some of these poems. We caught up over email recently and discussed the concept of the American Dream, growing up as a working-class immigrant, and how she keeps her students hopeful in these difficult times.
Leland Cheuk: In “Everything,” you write: “I am the type to go to bed with my feet dirty.” This image of dirty bare feet is evocative of so much, like one thinks of poorer nations where people don’t have shoes. There’s, of course, the Asian aspect, where most households don’t wear shoes in the house, concerned about dirt from the outside world being brought into the home. To say you’re the type to go to bed with your feet dirty is kind of a bold statement, an act of rebellion. Do you see this book as being an act of rebellion against preconceptions of who you are as an Asian American woman?
Jane Wong: Absolutely! Yes, I grew up in a household where we definitely took our shoes off/put on slippers, but I also grew up in a Chinese American restaurant where my brother and I ran all over the strip mall and played in the rubble and dirt and mud behind the restaurant. We were messy kids. I remember once that the circus set up in the abandoned lot next to our strip mall—and I found my brother playing around in elephant poop. Our interior/exterior worlds always collided. That line in “Everything” also speaks to notions of filth and cleanliness in terms of race. I recently taught Monica Chiu’s work Filthy Fictions in my Asian American Womxn Literature class, alongside Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s one-star review found poems. We spoke a lot about the fear of the Other as “filthy,” as gross, diseased, unpleasant. If you look at one-star reviews of Chinatowns across the U.S., you’ll see a lot of the same racist rhetoric around uncleanliness in relation to morality. There are a lot of layers there to unpack, especially in light of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate. I’m definitely pushing back on that obsession to appear “clean” (thinking about its problematic proximity to whiteness), especially as an Asian American woman.
LC: In “The Frontier,” one of several “Frontier” poems in the collection, you ask your grandmother “Is it worth it?…To live in this place where you fill your pockets with stones.” The “it” you’re referring to is America and it’s not a welcoming place. It’s a place that “refuses to look you in the eye” and keeps you “alien always.” More and more, we’re hearing stories from immigrants who say that the journey from their home country to America might not have been worth it. What’s your view? Was America worth it for your family?
JW: Wow, what a question. As the child of immigrants, I have conflicted feelings. On one hand, thinking about what my paternal grandmother said, I have to say yes. I know the risks they took in coming here. And that weight is heavy, thinking about what it means to escape poverty. And yet, as we all know, the American Dream is a hoax. My mother wasn’t prepared to be treated differently, to have her own worth questioned. That’s painful to watch and experience as a child. My parents were arranged to be married and my mother came to the States without knowing my father (who is not in my life). And yet, she still believes it was worth it. Because she believes that, I must too.
LC: In “Lessons on Lessoning,” against the backdrop of your family’s home in Jersey where you have ants coming out of the sink and rats, you write, “No one told me I’d have to learn to be polite,” and “What I’ve learned, time and again—get up. You cannot have what they have.” In what ways has growing up working class in an immigrant family shaped you?
JW: I’m starting to realize that there are so many rats in this book! I was born in the year of the rat. And yes, I am familiar with being around rats. How can you be in a restaurant without ever seeing a rat? That last line that you pulled out really gets me each time—that feeling of “we can’t have nice things.” And what it means to make do with what you have and/or try your best to seem like you can have nice things. We always wore hand-me-downs from someone, always shopped red line clearance at seventy-five percent off. (I’m still convinced that’s why my mom wanted me to work at Marshalls so badly in high school—for that extra discount). Growing up working class has shaped everything that I do. Upward mobility is really hard for me—i.e. being a professor now and coming from where I come from. I still struggle with that shift—knowing my mom is still working night shift at the USPS. It makes the stakes of writing even higher for me.
LC: But that’s exactly the story of immigrant success, right? Your mom sacrificed so that you don’t have to work the night shift at the USPS, so that you can do what you love. Isn’t that the part of the American Dream that’s not a hoax?
JW: Great question! I certainly feel the weight of that sacrifice, which is maybe part of why I take issue with the American Dream—that it’s not a dream at all. It’s a daily, aching reality. That sacrifice is bodily felt. I don’t think the American Dream accounted for my mother undergoing bouts of vertigo and arthritis. And I don’t think the American Dream accounts for the cruelty some of my colleagues have put me through, to make me feel unwelcomed and constantly anxious. On paper, maybe there is this success story—the child of restaurant workers becoming a professor. But that’s too simplistic; it’s the story they want to hear. Especially in my memoir, which is forthcoming from Tin House, I want to dig into those daily realities, that waking truth.
LC: The shadow of The Great Famine in China and Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward looms large over many of the poems. In “When You Died,” you’re writing to your dead ancestors, many of whom starved to death: “Half a century later, I am checking and rechecking an egg to make sure it’s still good.” There’s the irony of you growing up with your family running a Chinese restaurant, and now, living in a time when urban “foodie” culture is everywhere—where the poached egg has become this fetish object. Were these poems a way of processing your good fortune?
JW: That deep relationship between hunger and gluttony definitely haunts the book, yes. It wasn’t that long ago that my family felt the ache of hunger and starvation. What does it mean then to grow up surrounded by food in the restaurant? And more so, to watch customers leave food on their plates? Even though I was surrounded by food, I was taught early on to never waste food. And I know it was still a struggle for my mom—a single mother—to grocery shop on a budget. In these poems, I wanted to reach out to my family members who did not survive the Great Leap Forward—I wanted to touch them and speak to them and feed them. I want to let them know that I’m thinking of them. I wanted so badly to give them the food I have today. So yes, definitely processing that cavernous gap. And oh gosh, foodie culture. Don’t get me started. I have a lot of feelings about the word “elevated.” It makes me cringe. Please don’t make tomato and egg fancy.
LC: In “How to Not Be Afraid of Everything,” the poem starts with “How to not punch everyone in the face.” It reflects the anger in the book—at racism, at sexism, at inequality in all forms. What’s your advice to your students on how to not punch everyone in the face?
JW: I wish I knew! Haha. Yes, there are so many layers of anger and fear in this book—and I wanted that feeling of rage to be viscerally present, especially since—as an Asian American woman—I’m expected to be silent, demure. I suppose the advice I’d give my students (and myself) is to be in community in terms of that rage. To be angry together is different than being angry alone. I have found so much love and joy in community, in our shared ache. That’s something I know is essential to transforming that rage into love.
LC: “Unkindly Kind” starts with a caterpillar that’s seemingly watching you, and you use it as a springboard to explore lovesickness (“to love that which does not love me back”). “This is not where I thought I’d be / Roaring in a room where something is about to heal.” I love this poem because it actually ends on such an optimistic note. That something that is about to heal is you. What was going on in your life at the time that inspired that poem?
JW: Oh, that’s most definitely a heartbreak poem! I love that you pulled this one out, Leland, because I wrote this one when we were in residency together at Willapa Bay!
LC: Why do you think I asked? I remember the caterpillar well.
JW: It was a very handsome caterpillar! The poem does end on an optimistic note, which is funny because when you’re in the muck of heartbreak, it feels as if there’s nothing that can bring you out of it. And yet, with every heartbreak (and I’ve had many shitty men in my life), the heart heals somehow. And it’s always my mother who begins that process for me. She reminds me that there are sutures out there, that the heart still ticks.
LC: In “Notes for the Interior,” you return to a lot of motifs in the rest of the book: family, food, a country where no one looks you in the eye, and then what seems to be your recognition of your place in this family line: the person who is supposed to bellow, to not “speak too quiet.” Do you feel a burden or responsibility to speak up and stand up for your family and yourself in a country that you love, but is often hostile to people like you?
JW: Yes to the bellowing! I don’t know if I see it as a burden or responsibility, but rather a means of self-love. And to extend that, love for my community. I have been told all my life to be quiet. And for the first part of my life, I was silent. I didn’t speak out loud in public spaces until the fifth grade. Because I didn’t talk, my teachers put me in ESL because they thought I couldn’t speak English (which is hilarious because I was also reading novels by then). In my silence, I was angry. I honestly didn’t want to talk to anyone because of how they saw me: as other, as weirdo. I read a lot as a kid, as the public library was across the street from the restaurant. Reading, I realized that writing was that means of expression I’d been looking for. I wanted so badly to speak out, even as a six-year-old. I wanted to yell at customers who made fun of my mother’s accent, but I never did. It wasn’t until I fully dove into writing that I realized it was a space that I could create—a space where I could love myself and my family and honor their stories and experiences.