Q & A with Jane Wong about her new memoir, 'Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City’
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Western Washington University Associate Professor of English Jane Wong’s new memoir, “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” was published on May 16 to rave reviews from outlets such as the New York Times Book Review (“[Wong] paints her story with flourish”) and Publisher’s Weekly (“Delightful … this is a winner”) to Kirkus Reviews (“Lyric energy bursts from almost every sentence”).
“Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” allows Wong to move past her usual staple – she is a poet, first and foremost – and into a different sort of storytelling. Her story is the funny, insightful, heartbreaking and joyful take of the immigrant-family experience on the Jersey shore in the book title’s namesake town in the 1980s, where a block or two back from the glitz of the boardwalk and the casinos the real Atlantic City lies. It’s in this setting that Wong details growing up inside her parent’s Chinese restaurant, from sneaking naps on bags of rice to struggling to understand why her mother gave her an “American” name in what she described in the book as “the language of the colonizer.”
Western Today recently chatted with Wong about her book, getting away from poetry for a little while, and what all that introspection can really feel like once it’s complete.
WT: What a book! The reviews have been fabulous. As a poet, what made you decide to venture into prose, let alone to tell your own story in a memoir? It had to feel like a pretty huge undertaking.
Thank you for your kind words, John! Great question! I actually began my writing life as a fiction writer, back when I was an undergraduate at Bard College. Just a few weeks ago, I read with my undergraduate fiction professor and mentor, Mat Johnson, at Powell’s to kick off my book tour. I always promised him that I’d return to prose, and here I am! I will always write poetry. I love how bewildering poetry can be… and I adore lineation, meter, and musicality. I started Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City in 2017, right before I arrived at Western, and felt compelled by the space longform nonfiction gave me. The book has quite a bit of research. It’s both personal and collective. I knew I wanted to dive deeper into the layers of my family’s stories, and I’ve been astounded by the kind reviews the book has been receiving. It definitely was a huge undertaking. Nonfiction is so vulnerable. This was, by far, the hardest creative endeavor I’ve done so far. But I also loved coming back to my roots in prose. I missed writing in-scene dialogue in particular!
WT: I have talked to other authors about their work – for example, your colleague in English, Kate Trueblood – and they have talked about how the process of writing about pain and heartbreak is both cathartic but also painful at times to revisit. Did you feel any of that when writing about your own life story?
Oh yes, I certainly feel the same way as Kate! There is certainly an element of catharsis, which feels transformative. There’s a lot of rage and tenderness in this book. At its central core, my memoir is about love… particularly the love between me, my mother, and my brother – but also love in terms of radical community. I think the emphasis I placed on love and humor acts as a kind of balm for the trauma in the book. I wanted to protect myself as a writer in the act of writing. In preparing for the painful memories to revisit, I turned toward joy. And that often meant the joy of crafting images, syntax, and scenes. As a woman of color, I’m deeply aware of the stakes of writing. I write to undo the silence placed upon me. I write so that the labor of my family isn’t forgotten.
I think the emphasis I placed on love and humor acts as a kind of balm for the trauma in the book.
WT: What was it like growing up inside the restaurant? The smells, the sounds of the food being made, and of course the taste of the dishes …. they all play a big part in your book.
Growing up in a restaurant was like a playground for a budding poet. Still today, the sound of oil hitting a hot wok will send me back to that kitchen, chopping scallions at the prep table. We cooked Chinese American food for our customers like sweet and sour chicken, but my mom would make Toisanese style dishes for us to eat on the side like steamed fish. So many of our regulars were my friends. There was one customer who would bring me a new book each time he picked up an order! I wrote little stories on the back of menus. Restaurant life is hard, though. The book delves into class quite a bit and what it was like growing up low-income (and the failure of our restaurant – in relation to my father’s compulsive gambling addiction).
WT: Not surprisingly, your parents play huge roles in your book; your father because of a gambling addiction that in the end causes the family to lose the restaurant, your mother as the linchpin holding the family together through it all. Many of us as we get older dive deeper into our relationships with our parents to try and make better sense of them, but you have done that in a memoir for all of us to read. Was that hard to do?
I’ve written quite a bit about my family in my previous two books of poetry. In a way, I felt so ready to do a deeper dive into these relationships! I especially wanted to focus on the very special relationship I have with my mother – and share with everyone how hilarious, brilliant, and iconic she is! If anything, the hardest part of writing this book was engaging my past romantic relationships, which is something I didn’t write as much about in my poetry. In nonfiction, reflection is so central; in a poem, you can just offer a metaphor and end the line. Peeling back layer after layer of reflection was so hard to do, but I learned so much in the process.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.
Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"
WT: Your book’s title is a lyric from another quintessential New Jersey storyteller. If Bruce Springsteen had never written his song “Atlantic City,” what Springsteen song or lyric might have also worked as a title for your book?
I adore this question! By the way, I wrote an essay that includes a playlist for the memoir here.
I’m not sure another lyric would work exactly (since “Atlantic City” is so tied to gambling and the American Dream), but probably something from “Jersey Girl” or “Hungry Heart” or “Spirit in the Night”!
Jane Wong is the author of the poetry collections How to Not Be Afraid of Everything and Overpour, and was the 2017 recipient of the prestigious James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award from the The Artist Trust / Frye Art Museum Consortium.