Discover more from Mad Woman
"I really wanted to resist expectations of what a memoir looks like"
A conversation with Jane Wong, author of Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
Hi friends. I’ve been away from this space for a bit, as you may have noticed, but I’ve been thinking about you. I have lots of thoughts about where I’ve been on this break, about women and homes, about summer and kids, about writing and publishing, about work and life. TOUCHED OUT comes out in just two short months (!?!). I’m excited and overwhelmed. I also have lots of thoughts about that. I’ll say more soon.
For now, I’ll just say that whenever I take a break from this space I think about what it is I do here and why and what it is I want to do more of. And one of my consistently favorite things to do here is talk with other writers and thinkers and activists and academics who illuminate the world for me and, I hope, for you.
So it’s fitting than I’m returning this week with a conversation with the writer Jane Wong, whose gorgeous and funny and powerful memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, is out now. Jane’s book is the kind of memoir that reminds me why I write memoir, and also how utterly uncontainable the genre really is. Her book talks back to “memoir,” to its expectations, its formal constraints, its possibilities. It’s a book that plays with language and time and memory and fact, while remaining truthful and serious and political and revelatory. It’s the kind of memoir that says, here is the narrative you’ve tried to place on my life, and here I am, writing a new one. It’s also a love letter to Jane’s mom. Basically everything I want a memoir to be!
Jane is also the author of two books of poetry, How Not to Be Afraid of Everything and Overpour. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa and a PhD in English from the University of Washington and is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University. We talked about poets’ memoirs, resisting the demand for resilience in memoir, some of Jane’s influences, and of course, her mom.
Your book is a “poet’s memoir” in all the best ways—it’s formally inventive, full of sentence-level precision and imagery and surprise turns of phrase. But the book also has a pretty clear and strong narrative backbone running through it. How did the writing process for this book differ from that of your previous poetry books?
Ah, thank you for these kind words about the playfulness of the form and language in the memoir. I can’t escape my poet self, even if I tried! Though, yes, I definitely wanted to make sure the nonlinearity constellated into clear themes and storylines. It felt like making a big soup – gathering each individual ingredient/scene until it became something else, with time and heat. Writing in long form prose certainly asked me to outline (something that never happens when writing poems). And also conduct quite a bit of research. Writing nonfiction, I also stayed longer in moments of reflection; indeed, I can’t quite write a metaphor and run away. I had to dwell on what certain moments meant for me. I loved writing in-scene too. I secretly began as a fiction writer (shout-out to my fiction writing mentor Mat Johnson from my undergraduate days) and it was a total joy to return to certain prose elements I didn’t realize I craved, even in nonfiction: character, pacing, dialogue. I will say, I wrote poems while writing the memoir. That helped offer a balance in my writing life.
In one section, you write about realizing that “difficult women” might just be women who love themselves and don’t “lessen” themselves for men. I wonder: did some element of this idea inform the experimental structure of this book? Some might experience the formal inventiveness and resistance of traditional memoir tropes as “difficult,” but for me, your writing in this book exudes an kind of ecstatic love for language and for the people you represent, as well as a clear refusal to “lessen” your story.
Oh yes, thank you Amanda! The book is certainly a love song for radical women, which of course includes my mother. I really wanted to resist expectations of what a memoir looks like. And, in turn, resist the problematic expectations of what an Asian American memoir looks like. I make it pretty clear to the reader that this wasn’t going to be intergenerational trauma porn. I wanted all the parts of myself to be on the page… and I refused to write in a linear fashion or simply tell a singular story about my childhood in a restaurant. Migration isn’t linear. And I’m more than my ten-year-old self, cleaning shrimp. From “The Object of Love”: “I was told by several people in the book industry to focus only on the Chinese American immigrant experience, on growing up poor in a strip mall take-out restaurant. Immigrant gold, intergenerational trauma dessert.” If this makes me “difficult,” then great, haha! If anything, it makes me real. And surprise, surprise, I’m real.
The book also has some really wonderful visual design elements that play off the structure of the chapters/essays. There are also images from your childhood throughout the book. Was the design of the interior of the book a collaborative process or did you always have some sense that the book needed these visual elements?
Yes! These are family photographs! I originally had manipulated some of these images with other visual elements (such as dragonfruit, etc.), but through my collaborative conversation with Tin House, we decided upon letting the photographs speak for themselves. It was definitely a back and forth about the interior. I’m so grateful to Beth Steidle for listening closely; she treated these photographs with such care and vision. I absolutely love the repeated images, which mirror the repeated themes and phrases of the book, i.e. when my Wongmom.com says “Look at you and me! Look!” There are photos of me as an adult and my mom toward the end of the book, where we actually wear the same jacket. I’d like to continue this photography series, where we both wear iconic outfits from her past.
Relatedly, you draw in the book on the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and your book really feels like a contemporary version of Cha’s Dictee, which similarly explores the life of her mother and the violence of linguistic colonization using both text and image. Can you share a bit about how Cha’s work informs your own?
Wow. What an honor to be placed next to Cha in this way! Cha’s work was fundamental to my creativity and spirit as a young Asian American writer. When I read Dictee, I was stunned and bewildered by her use of poetry, prose, visual art, and documents. Cha asked us, the reader, to find our way through the book, without telling us how to do so. As she writes, “Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.” This quote also informed the majority of my dissertation which looked at the poetics of haunting in Asian American poetry… I am still clearly obsessed with how we storytell, how we attempt to say what is sometimes un-sayable. An interdisciplinary artist too, Cha has pushed me to explore performance, installation, and visual art too. Now, I’m pulping handmade paper, playing with ceramics, and eating my poems (cut from rice paper). With the memoir, even though it’s published and “done” of sorts, I want to keep giving the book new lives… I am working on making Wongmom.com real! I bought the domain. You’ll be able to talk to her later this year! I’m going to dream up more ways to play with text, image, and performance as a means to keep the text moving…
Your book also explores your mother’s and your experiences with abusive men and toxic relationships. In one section you write about resisting the urge to “write about the etymology of abuse.” Rather than “make sense of” the abuse or search for “its root,” you say abuse is rootless and feels more like “legs, dangling over the edge of something.” Can you share a bit more about how you applied poetic sense to the experience of abuse and embodied trauma, and why that approach felt so necessary?
The chapter “The Object of Love” was the hardest chapter to write by far… I started the seeds of this chapter many, many years ago under a different title. It started as an essay about the Bad One, reflecting on finally leaving that abusive relationship. I was terrified to share it. I was terrified he would find it. A few of my poems from my first book Overpour spoke to my experience of verbal and physical abuse, but only a couple of my closest friends knew that. When writing this chapter, I wanted to speak to my toxic relationships with men both bluntly and viscerally, which took me back to poetry and the body. The smells, the tastes… that garlic underneath his fingernails. Terrifying. And yet, in some ways, language was the only way I could come out alive and be seen.
You write about how you bristle when women who leave violent partnerships are called “brave,” which made me think about the tug of bravery in memoir—especially in the Bildungsroman, a form you explore in the book, and in the immigrant memoir, a genre that often demands a narrative of overcoming a la the American Dream. But this book has a tender, reflexive, and vulnerable metatextual thread throughout—for instance, when you share anxieties and uncertainties about art and writing. As you worked on this book, were you thinking about the demand for bravery and resilience as it applies to memoir?
Absolutely. I knew the book was going to be framed as “resilient” and the opening interlude, “Dragonfruit” immediately speaks to that, in which I tell my mother I’m tired of being strong. I really wanted the thread of exhaustion to rise to the surface of the memoir, as a woman of color. I tried to speak to my fears, anxieties, and expectations via those metatextual moments. In a way, I address everything I’m nervous about (in terms of the book’s reception) head on. So much of memoir, as we think of it, is considered as the past, as memory. Yet, I wanted the present and future to be a part of this book too… and that metatextual element was one way to complicate time.
I want to close by talking about Wongmom.com, which I was sad to find is not active! In the book, Wongmom.com is a kind of oracle-like website set up to reflect the wisdom of your mother. Can you talk about your perspective on the immigrant mother as clairvoyant, and as poet? This book feels in many ways like a love story to your mother.
Oh, I made her up! She was never active to begin with, but was a way to write a future. I bought the domain and am making her real with my dear friend and web designer, Eric Olson. Wongmom.com was another risk in memoir – to make up a character in nonfiction! I adored writing her scenes. I wanted this memoir to be funny as much as it is heartbreaking. And she added a lot of levity. She’s kind of a cheeky play off of the I Ching and stereotypes of the “wise” Chinese person. But… she is actually pretty clairvoyant, haha! She really does know, if you know what I mean. And she speaks often in metaphors when giving advice, a true poet. My mom is the love of my life. At its central core, this book (and everything I write) is for her and her wildly glowing brilliance.