An Interview with Jane WongInterviewed by Diana Xin, August 2017 · Seattle, WA
Jane Wong grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Washington state. A former U.S. Fulbright fellow and a Kundiman fellow, she holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. She is also the recipient of scholarships and residencies from Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her work has appeared, among other places, in Best American Poetry 2015 and The American Poetry Review, as winner of the 2016 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize. She teaches at Western Washington University.
Describing Overpour, Wong’s debut collection of poetry from Action Books, Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Amid the distances recorded—the space between two continents, or between such fraught terms as natural and unnatural—Wong adopts the voice of her mother in order to further gauge lineage and her own place. In a book replete with juxtapositions, Wong asks readers how to judge a better self in comparison to a flawed one.”
You grew up in New Jersey, and it’s clear from your work that you have a strong sense of place there—but now, in accepting a professorship at Western Washington University, you’re making a long-term commitment to the Pacific Northwest. I know people are excited you will be staying in the region, but it’s no easy task to set down roots. Are there costs to calling a place home?
I like to think about home as always in motion. James Clifford writes about “roots” vs. “routes,” arguing that we are actually in the world of “routes.” Home isn’t a singular place. Home is carried through all the places that have significance to me. What I find in my work is that Jersey is one of those places. It stays with me. I think the Pacific Northwest is like that for me as well. Hong Kong has significance for me, even though I was only there for a year. You carry these places with you as you move.
I don’t know exactly what being a Seattle poet means. I hope that “local” means global. I’m proud to call the Pacific Northwest one of my homes, as someone who is transnational. I don’t know what Bellingham will bring yet. I know for certain that, after finishing my Ph.D. at UW, that I wanted to be in Pacific Northwest. Home resides in people and there are so many people I care about here.
Do you have any hopes or concerns about the region as you’ve witnessed its changes these past few years?
Cities are bound to change, but ghosts are still here. My family on my mother’s side lives in the Central District and Beacon Hill. I want my family to stay in the neighborhoods they feel most comfortable. Gentrification is real. But my family knows that if they have to move, they will have to make do. We can use a fancy term like gentrification, but for many people of color, it’s not about the term—it’s about the reality, the day-to-day decisions you have to make to keep your family alive. You carve a new space in a new community, and that’s all you can do.
As children of immigrants, I think we can lose a certain sense of home and heritage. It can feel as if we have less connection and less access to the place we make our home, yet we’re also strangers to our parents’ memory of their home. In Overpour, a series of poems are written in your mother’s voice and titled according to her age—these poems reach back into your mother’s past as you recount her experience of leaving home and making a home.
I approached the topic of migration through my mother because she took a risk. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave what was familiar, but she made a choice to come to the U.S. and join my father who was a stranger. Their marriage was arranged. She had never travelled outside of her rural village. She didn’t have a concept of travel like I do. Movement is a luxury.
Her stories are half re-created, half-real, but it feels real when I write in her persona. I’m trying to understand her story of migration. In the poem “Twenty-Four,” there’s this feeling of uncertainty. She wonders: was it worth the risk? When she waves at her father, my grandfather, there is a sense of deep loneliness. She is not missing the landscape of “home,” but the people.
In a poem that appears later in Overpour, “Forty-Three,” she has a different understanding of migration. When I move to Hong Kong, she waves again, but this time she waves over the phone. It’s a colder means of connecting. She’s a bit more jaded at this point.
It seems, as daughters, we might have a sense of ownership over our mother’s stories, and the stories that came before them, because these are the stories that create our own identity as well. What was it like for you to navigate between your voice and your mother’s voice, between your story and hers?
In poetry, identity and voice is much more fluid than in prose. Sometimes, I can’t tell where my mother begins and I end. We have a similar kind of outspokenness, a recognition of our power. The poem, “I Put On My Fur Coat” is in my mother’s voice, but it feels like it could be me as well. We are both aware of how people problematically perceive us: as quiet or reserved. We push against those perceptions. Our strength lies in our ability to take risks. We are so similar in this way.
In what other ways is prose different than poetry? I know you’re also working on creative nonfiction that highlights the experience of working class immigrants. Has writing prose changed your approach? Have you encountered your subject matter in different ways?
Since prose asks for more clarity, I feel like I have to have permission from my mother. I just finished an essay about unlicensed dentists in NYC’s Chinatown. My mother doesn’t have any real teeth, and I have memories of finding unlicensed dentists with her. Because it’s such a personal and sensitive topic, I had to seek her permission. I talked to her about why I wanted to write the essay: to explore our relationship, to emphasize the need to make do as a low-income immigrant. When you don’t have health insurance, you make do. It became a mother-daughter ritual. My father and my brother were never there. It was just the two of us.
In prose, I feel more responsibility to honor my family’s stories. I’ve been interviewing my family, particularly my mother and brother, and using these moments to uncover truths, whatever that truth might be. We repeat stories over and over to our family members. We get into the habit of telling those stories. But there are other stories that are never told. These are the ones I want to draw out during my interviews.
The essay form also allows for more space to weave in personal and communal connections within immigrant communities. When I wrote about my father’s gambling addiction, I also wanted to research Atlantic City and the way in which casinos target immigrant communities.
The process of writing creative nonfiction feels very different to me. As a poet, I’m not used to outlining. I love that I need to outline and let my language to sprawl. I do write long poems, and a lot of pieces in Overpour feel like a longer, connected poem. I’ve always loved the ability to expand rather than minimize. Prose has been really fantastic. It feels like a new, airy space for me.
Your dissertation The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry seems to primarily focus on “a matrilineal and literary lineage.” I’m curious about what is at play here in the female experience of trauma. Does the perpetuated silencing of our voices may lead women to carry our ghosts or to hunger in a different way?
I didn’t set out to write about women only in my project. Yet, after I realized my project was all women, I started to think about what we carry as familial storytellers, what it feels like to hold the stories of our families. I was reading Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, and there’s a moment in that book, where she talks about Asian women holding so much pain—down to the jade bracelet that aches along your wrist.
I feel that women tend to hold the most painful stories. This goes back to my mom, of course. She holds painful memories. My grandfather could never talk about what happened during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. There’s silence around that. Women, at least in my family, are more willing to acknowledge what happened, through storytelling, through sharing their memories. My mother, for instance, recounts when her father was in jail: “I was very little. I didn’t know why he was there. I gave him a few baos. The guards would let him come to the door, but they wouldn’t let him inside.”
A poetics of haunting is also embodied. There’s a somatic connection to trauma and these silenced narratives. Again, I think women hold pain, and it’s in our bodies. One of the poets in my project, Bhanu Kapil, engages that embodied sense of pain in her performance pieces and books like Humanimal.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.