Food & Drink

Book: Jane Wong’s got the write stuff

Poet Jane Wong finds emotional release in her debut memoir, ‘Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City’

By Rachel Gallaher June 12, 2023

Poet Jane Wong

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Like all poets, Jane Wong likes to play with language. Collecting words, ordering them, weaving ideas and stories together, then depositing them on paper with the hurried, scrawling motion of a pen or ubiquitous, punctuating taps on a keyboard. The results are magnetic — both for their narrative and lyrical quality.

For anyone who has followed Wong’s career during the past decade, her writing is a testament to the old idiom that with age comes wisdom. Not that she wasn’t ever wise, but Wong’s growing maturity as a writer is especially evident in her forthcoming memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, which comes out May 16.

In the new work — which looks at Wong’s childhood as she was raised by Chinese immigrant parents and the lasting implications of that background — the 38-year-old writer ventures into a new genre. She is best known for her poetry, although she has written prose before, including biographical essays, fully committing to the emotional exploration that started in her second book of poetry, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which came out during the pandemic.

“I learned a lot in terms of pushing myself to write about hard things,” Wong says. She’s composed and self-reflective, even as the conversation veers into the violence, heartbreak, and struggle depicted in the text. 

“This book picks up where the last one left off in terms of me being open and outspoken,” she says. “There’s a lot of anger and rage. It’s by far the rawest and most vulnerable book I’ve ever written — or maybe ever will write.”

Book cover for Meet me Tonight in Atlantic City

Cover designed by Jaya Miceli

Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is a poet’s memoir. Wong’s language dances between the lyrical, the straightforward, and the metaphoric. She doesn’t follow strict literary rules but has fun with the prose, making up her own directions as the story unfurls. It’s an extension of ideas she explored during the pandemic when she started to combine art forms: poetry with performance, poetry with food, and language with the physical craft of papermaking.

“There’s a lot of anger and rage. It’s by far the rawest and most vulnerable book I’ve ever written — or maybe ever will write.”

“It’s not so much that the written word is not enough for me,” she says. “I love language; it’s my rice. But I’m interested in these hybrid spaces and exploring the relationship between the author and the reader, the relationship between genres.”

In Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, Wong looks back at her New Jersey upbringing as a first-generation Chinese-American girl trying to find her place in a system that seems rigged against her. Wong’s father has a gambling addiction, and her mother runs a restaurant with him and later works the night shift at the United States Postal Service.

Wong and her younger brother spend their time helping their parents, hanging around the kitchen, and scheming against one another. Eventually, Wong grows up, leaves New Jersey, and starts forging her own path in life (eventually landing in the Northwest), but she can’t ever quite shake the past.

It’s a tangled story without a clean resolution — the idea of the American Dream isn’t straightforward and doesn’t always lead to wealth and prosperity. Sometimes it causes heartbreak, brings about loss, domestic violence, and self-destruction. Wong recalls searching for an identity, spending years feeling out of place, awkward, and othered.

And yet there are tender moments, too. Moments that make you laugh and cheer in triumph. This playfulness of language balanced by real-life experience and untethered vulnerability let the work shine. Wong revels in language — and the deeper she digs into herself, exposing and releasing her anger, self-doubt, criticism, and loneliness, the richer her work becomes.

“This book has a lot of trauma and difficult conversations in it,” Wong admits. “These are things I’ve experienced, but I didn’t want to write a sad book, so I hope that people see that it’s a little funny, a little weird, and ridiculous at times. I hope that people who come to it knowing my poetry are a little surprised because I think another part of my personality comes out.”

The last time we talked, right before the 2021 release of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, Wong, who had recently received tenure at Western Washington University, where she teaches literature and creative writing, noted that even today, she’s still coming up against stereotypes about Asian and Asian-American women: She’s expected to be quiet, sweet, and not outspoken. She admitted that it made her angry. As a writer, she’s found a way to channel that emotion through her words and is no longer afraid to speak up and speak out.

“On the surface, people could say that this is a restaurant baby memoir,” she says, employing the term she uses for her and her brother, as well as the countless immigrant children who grew up in the kitchens of parents and grandparents just trying to get by. “It’s an immigrant story, yes, but it’s also a story about heartbreak, violence, community, rage, fashion, love, and all of the things that make me who I am. I learned a lot about myself while writing this book. There’s nothing like forcing yourself to reflect on the page.” 

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