Primarily a poet, Jane Wong ventured into memoir with the release last year of her book Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City. The book recently came out in paperback, and Wong is celebrating May 8 with an appearance with fellow poet Yanyi at Eagle Harbor Book Co. in Bainbridge Island.

We spoke with Wong ahead of the event about pivoting from poetry to memoir, growing up as a “restaurant baby,” and why the personal nature of poetry means poets won’t be replaced by chatbots anytime soon.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your background as an author.

I am a poet primarily, but also a memoirist. My memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, came out last year and [came] out in paperback [this] week. I grew up on the Jersey Shore in a restaurant, so I call myself a restaurant baby. And I’m also a professor at Western Washington University. That’s pretty much what I do. I like to write and I like to eat.

Since this event at Eagle Harbor Book Co. is centered around the paperback release of your memoir, can you talk about the book and what it’s about?

The memoir is my third book and it is centered around a lot of things, but mostly my upbringing as a Chinese-American immigrant baby and what it was like to grow up in a Chinese-American takeout restaurant. And there’s some stories about my father, who’s estranged from my family, and his gambling addiction, which basically led to the closing of our restaurant. There’s bits about what it was like to grow up pretty low income and working class as a Chinese-American immigrant. And there’s a lot of stories that also have adult-me and what it was like to take this path to become a poet.

I hope the book is a mixture of heartbreak and intergenerational trauma, but also a lot of laughter and a lot of levity. I like to call it basically a love song to my mother. There’s this one chapter where I grew up going to illegal dentists in Chinatown, and it’s looking at communities that we often don’t fully see. That’s a pretty common practice amongst a lot of low-income immigrants, is to seek healthcare the ways they need to, even though they can’t necessarily afford it and can’t navigate the English language when going to the doctor here. So for me, it was a little bit of sociology. I did a bit of research and that is in this memoir, too.

It’s very regional in many ways. Certainly it is a book that’s centered around my upbringing in New Jersey. But there’s a lot of Seattle in this book, because obviously I’ve been out here for a while. It’s pretty funny, whenever I’ve toured in Jersey everyone’s like, “Why is there so much Seattle?” And I’m like, well, I live in Seattle. I’ve been here for a while. So to me it’s very much a New Jersey and Washington state book.

I hope it’s also a book that plays with form and reimagines what a memoir looks like. I certainly wanted to write a book that was nonlinear, to kind of mirror reflect migration and experiences of migration. And I’m a poet, so the book is very imagery-based, very lyrical. I still write my sentences in meter. So I hope it’s also a book that’s lush.

The biggest part of memoir is reflection and thinking about, what does that mean for me now as an adult? What about the future?

I was going to ask if the book included poetic elements. Did it require a big shift in your thinking to go from writing poetry to writing about yourself in a long form manner? 

It definitely took some effort in terms of reflection. I think the thing I loved doing the most was writing scenes, making us feel like we’re there: the tastes, the sounds, the feeling of being on the boardwalk while my father was in the casino. My mom and I and my brother, we spent hours waiting for him to come out, but he had a compulsive gambling addiction. So we would walk that boardwalk for hours. So I was trying to get the scent of the air and trying to get the seagulls squawking, trying to steal our bread. All the imagery there is, in many ways, easy to translate from poetry. 

However, my editor was always like, “You should stay here and reflect about what this meant for you.” In poetry, we do not do that. We actually prefer not to, because we don’t want to explain to the reader how we’re feeling. We just want them to see it. But the biggest part of memoir is reflection and thinking about, what does that mean for me now as an adult? What about the future? So that was a huge part of writing narrative, was just sitting in that moment where you really have to understand, what does this mean for me, but also what does it mean for my family and my larger communities?

You’re writing about yourself and about your family and these sometimes uncomfortable memories, like your dad’s gambling addiction. Was there any tension there where you were like, oh, I don’t really want to put this out in the world? Or was it cathartic for you? What was going through your head as you were writing about those aspects of your life?

I started writing the book in earnest maybe six years ago, seven years ago. And it’s so interesting — I think the moments I found really vulnerable to write came later, right up to the deadline. I almost saved the most vulnerable parts for the very end, which I think a lot of writers do because you have to be emotionally and mentally ready to share something. I also wrote a lot about what it was like to write about being vulnerable and sharing things that I wasn’t sure if I should or could share. So in many ways, I was very honest with the reader.

There’s this one scene where I write about my brother and my father’s relationship. And it always breaks my heart because I have kind of worked through my estranged relationship with my father, but my brother has tried to reach out to him year after year and gets rejected. It’s really hard to watch as an older sister. And there’s this one scene where he tries again and he comes back and he’s heartbroken. And I needed to write in that scene, like, I wish I could describe to you the ventricles of my anger. I want to tell you how I felt in this moment, but I just can’t because it’s overwhelming. And so I tried my best to also be honest with the reader, to let them know that this is really hard for me to write. 

And that was really cathartic, I think, to also admit to the fact that it was hard to write. And hopefully readers can see the process through which I was writing the memoir. It’s a little meta, but to me, that’s just being more honest; it’s nonfiction. If I was going to go nonfiction, I was going to go as well as I could. I’m not sure if I’ll write another memoir, so I decided to be as raw and honest and vulnerable as possible. It was definitely difficult to write some of the scenes, but I went there.

It seems like that kind of vulnerability is almost like the anti-Instagram, Instagram being where people only post the best parts of their life. And for people who have gone through similar things, I imagine it’s good for them to be like, oh, here’s somebody who’s going through something similar. Have you heard from any readers who have connected with your writing because they have a similar story? 

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts about writing this memoir, was what happened afterward. So many people reached out to me about certain moments in the book or ways they connected with the book: “I also have a family member who suffers from addiction and goes to the casino every single day, and we just accepted it in our family. We don’t talk about it because there’s a lot of shame around it, stigma.”

It’s very, very prevalent amongst a lot of immigrant communities. A casino bus is often picked up in Chinatowns. That’s a very, very pointed choice, I think, to sell the American dream, basically. And that leads to family catastrophe. And so many people reached out to me.

I also write a lot about adult-me in this book, and my romantic struggles, and talk about intimate partner violence. And I went as raw as I could. So many readers have come up to me not expecting the adult versions of myself in that book to link with the past. And they’ve shared their own experiences with domestic violence. And it was very powerful. But there’s also moments where readers will come up to me and be like, “Oh, this part was so funny.” There’s a lot of humor in this book centered around my mother, and they will say, “Your mother is almost like a character from a movie. She just seems so ridiculous and fun and tender and loving.” And I’m like, she is all these things. 

I feel like there are also moments where I try to really dig into, how did she become the person that she becomes? It’s as much a story about me as it is also a story about her. So it’s kind of like a memoir of her own, too. In fact, when I had my book launch when it came out last year at Elliot Bay [Book Company in Seattle], my mom came from Jersey to be on stage with me and she started to sign books. And it was hilarious, because it’s like she wrote it!

There is always going to be a human element to writing your personal experiences. There’s always a touch of something there that makes a poet very uniquely them. So I’m not necessarily fearful of AI.

You talked about how there’s a lot of Seattle in the book. What brought you to this part of the country?

I moved to Washington, to Seattle, in 2011 or 2010. I started a PhD program at UW and did my doctorate there. But to be honest, I didn’t apply to other schools as much. I was set on coming to Seattle because all my family on my mom’s side lives in Seattle — my grandma, all my aunts and uncles, all my cousins live in Seattle. So for me, even applying to UW was mostly just a decision to say I’m moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’m moving to Seattle to be closer with family. And I haven’t left.

It’s one of those things where I think I’ll always be, in some way, a Jersey girl. I think anyone from Jersey has a very particular personality. But whenever I’m home in Jersey, I crave certain things about here that I miss so much. A lot of it is the environment. A lot of it is the people, the energy, of the Pacific Northwest. It’s kind of magical out here. And so I’ve been here since, and I actually moved to Bellingham to teach at Western. And then just recently, I moved back to Seattle. So there’s something about the city that I really adore.

And there’s so many amazing artists here. There’s so much to see and do. I can’t get enough. Regardless of where I would live, I needed water. That’s central for me. But the book has a lot of Washington in it because it’s also my home. And in many ways, I bet readers would be like, “Oh, I know that street in Capitol Hill.”

What has your career teaching at Western Washington University been like, sharing your talent for writing with your students?

I really, really, really adore teaching. And I can’t even imagine what my life would be if I wasn’t a professor. For me, teaching goes hand in hand with my own creative practice.

Right now I’m teaching a graduate class called the Ghost Archive. And I’ve been obsessed with archives and memoir and trying to find the research we can’t find, especially since so much of my family’s history has been censored by the Chinese government. My memoir talks about that, too — my family’s history during the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution. And my own process of trying to find out about my family’s history while writing a memoir, and teaching that right now with my students and trying to get them to try to do that kind of digging and that kind of creative reimagining of what their grandma had gone through. And so for me, it’s very, very tied to my writing practice.

Do I write during the academic school year? No. I think I’m just such an intensely rigorous professor that I find myself struggling to do that. Though if I give them writing assignments in class, I always write alongside and share immediately, because I want them to know I’m a practicing writer, just like they are. 

For years now, I pretty much only write during the summer. I started my memoir about six years ago. And when I gave it to Tin House, my publisher, I gave them, I think, only 90 pages. In other words, I had like 200 pages still left to write. And they gave me about a year or so to do that. But I only write in the summer. So I wrote those 200 pages pretty much in three months. And that was very intense. I will never forget that summer. I had been thinking about it all year — more than a year. I’d been thinking about it for six years. So it’s almost like the book was already in my head. I just actually had to sit down and do it. And I basically had three months to do it.

It’s hard to find the practice of how and when to write when you want to give so much to your students. I’m at the point in my career where I’m writing book blurbs for my students. And that is a true honor as a professor to be able to now get to blurb their books. These are dreams that come true, you know?

Feel free to say you don’t have an opinion on this, because it’s so new, but everyone is talking about AI and how it’s going to impact Hollywood and publishing and all these different industries. Have you given any thought to the future of publishing in the age of AI?

I think about this all the time, especially since it’s been something the English department at Western has talked about: What do we do with students writing papers or essays, etc.? As a poet, I don’t know if I fear it, because there is always going to be a human element to writing your personal experiences. There’s always a touch of something there that makes a poet very uniquely them. So I’m not necessarily fearful of AI.

In my memoir, I took as many risks as I could take because I was like, let’s just have fun with writing this book. But in the memoir, I actually make up a character — which is kind of breaking a rule of nonfiction, but why not? — and the character is called Wongmom.com. And it’s my mom that lives in the internet. So this is a different mom. I have my real mom in the book, and there’s Wongmom.com, which is a character in the book where she basically gives life advice to you if you’re feeling nervous about whatever. In the book, she’s giving me life advice as I’m writing this book. And I actually made her real recently. So you can go to Wongmom.com right now. It looks like an old AIM instant messenger box. It’s crafted from the old school internet I grew up with. And you can type in things like, “I don’t know if I should quit my job? Should I?” And she’ll answer you. 

I was talking to my friend, Eric Olson, who designed the site and he wanted to make her AI. And I was like, “Oh, no.” That’s what I got scared of, I’ll be honest. I was like, Oh, no, no, no, no, no. My fake internet mom would definitely become a demon. So I actually turned it down. I was like, look, I can’t make her AI. So she just feeds you lines from the book at random. So I have no idea what she may say, because it’s just random sentences in the book. But usually it’s quite poignant. It’s very strange that it works oftentimes.

But maybe that’s also an answer to the AI thing where I’m like, I’m not afraid of it … but I’m afraid of it.

I feel like there’s a lot of uncertainty about it, because nobody knows exactly where this road is going to lead. It could all be cool and fine and dandy. But it could also eventually wipe out the human race. So I think there’s tension because there’s uncertainty about it.

Yeah, totally. In terms of a lot of my students — maybe this is very particular to Western students — but they often try to go analog. A lot of students are really trying to be off their phone, trying to literally get more into the grounds, like gardening, and trying to be more analog.

I’ve noticed in my students, basically since we returned after the COVID lockdown, that they really want to be more physically present in the classroom. I’ve noticed that shift. I don’t know what that says. Maybe it’s just Western students in particular, but they’ve been wanting to take technology breaks and are very mindful about that. They actually have to say, “I’m going to set this amount of time to not look at my phone.” So I’ve never had to deal with students on their phone, whereas pre-pandemic, I did sometimes. But maybe there is a movement to get closer to something that’s more human.

In conversation, sometimes epiphanies happen

I’m actually talking to you on a ‘dumb phone.’ And I still have a smartphone, but I basically got the dumb phone because if I go out to eat with my family or something, I don’t want to be on my smartphone the whole time; I can leave that at home and take my dumb phone. There’s actually a subreddit called ‘dumbphones,’ so I think you’re onto something. How big is the movement? I don’t know, but I think there is definitely a movement to push the brakes a bit on technology.

There is definitely a movement and I can see it very clearly as a poetry professor — I think they really just want to go notebook, “let’s write in nature,” “let’s go outside.” They want to feel the world versus scrolling through it. I can see it unfold in real time in the last two, three years.

At this event at Eagle Harbor Book Co., you’re going to be speaking with the poet Yanyi. Can you talk a bit about what we can expect from this conversation?

Yanyi is a lovely friend of mine. He and his partner just moved to Seattle, I want to say last year, and I’ve loved Yanyi’s work for years. I’ve taught his book, The Year of Blue Water, in my Asian American literature class.

We’re both poets, so I thought it would be nice if we both opened up with poems, especially since April is Poetry Month; I think it still lingers in May. Maybe I’m just always thinking it’s Poetry Month. But we’re probably going to start with poems, most likely new poems. And then I’ll read a little bit from the memoir. And the paperback is so exciting for me, especially as someone who comes from a working poor background. To have a price point that is somewhat reasonable is important to me. I was really thrilled that the paperback [came] out. 

And we’re just going to have a conversation really talking through some of the major themes in the book. I wanted this to be an opportunity; we’re both sharing new work as well as celebrating the paperback. I’m always trying to spotlight other writers in town and introduce folks to writers who have just moved here. Whenever I think about local Pacific Northwest authors, the people have been here for many, many years, but I’m always curious, who just moved here? Can we say they’re also Pacific Northwest authors? I’m a big proponent of spotlighting local voices, other writers, that I never want to be just by myself whenever I do events. I want to really share Yanyi’s work with everybody. He’s super talented.

And I imagine there’s value to having another person there rather than just speaking by yourself to drive the conversation forward. 

And you never know what’s going to happen. I guess that’s the other thing, is that in conversation, sometimes epiphanies happen depending on what questions are asked. I’ve had the honor of moderating or being in conversation with numerous writers who are from out of town who come to Seattle to read at bookstores and for me it’s such a powerful job to dream up what questions will really give you a taste of what this book is, but also open up discussion amongst the audience of, what’s the process of writing a book? I think a lot of readers in the audience are writers, too, and makers and creators and artists, and I think it’s always great to know the kind of process, and thought process, and what it was like to write this, because we don’t usually get that in the book itself. We always want to know the scaffolding, what happened to you after you wrote the book. 

Like, I hadn’t seen my father in about 15 years and I went to see him after I wrote the memoir. I would not have seen him if I didn’t write the book. I just felt compelled to see him. So surprising things happen and I think that part of that was just the energy around sharing the book. I’m just excited to be able to share it with folks.

Was it a good meeting with your father? Did you get closure or anything?

Unfortunately, I didn’t, but that’s to be expected. There’s a scene at the end of the title essay, “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” where I imagine walking down the boardwalk with him when he’s 90 years old and I dream of reconciliation. I dream of something in that essay or chapter. And then when I saw him, it’s hard to divorce what you wrote from what’s in front of you, what the reality is. And the reality is, he had had a stroke and it was heartbreaking. We couldn’t really communicate with each other. It was a deep melancholy. Still things unsaid, and they will continue to be unsaid. However, I am glad that I saw him. I’m glad that he saw me physically there. And even though we didn’t talk, I think something was passed in the air. Maybe it is just a feeling of, this is how it is. And we hope for change. We hope for certain things in our lives with all our different relationships. But sometimes, it is what it is. And in many ways seeing him was like a confirmation that that longing may still be there. But at least there was and is forgiveness.

It was a very emotional moment. I actually wrote another essay about that moment, which is coming out in Lithub. When you write, it just leads to more writing.

Anything else you’d like to add?

No, your questions are really thoughtful. And I appreciate our conversation.

I’m just really excited for the event. I’m glad you reached out. It’s been a surprise along the way. You never know when people come up to you and share such personal things about their own lives. That’s one of the most powerful things about memoir specifically as a genre. So thank you.

Jane Wong at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

6:30 pm, May 8
Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E, Bainbridge Island.
Buy Wong’s book, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City:
Eagle Harbor Book Co. | BookShop.org | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

In 2015, Bainbridge Island Author Steph Jagger’s mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. About 10 months later, Jagger took her mother on an extensive road trip, mostly through Montana and Wyoming, that included camping, hiking and horseback riding.

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Steph Jagger portrait
Steph Jagger

That trip and her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s are the subject of Jagger’s new book, Everything Left to Remember, which is being released Aug. 26 from Flatiron Press. She’ll be celebrating the release of the book Aug. 28 at Bainbridge’s Eagle Harbor Book Co.

Jagger says she frequently journals to help her understand herself and the things that are happening in her life. That process was the basis of her new book.

“When my mom and I were flying from Bozeman to Vancouver, Canada, at the end of the trip, she was sitting in the seat next to me and I found myself furiously taking notes in the notes app on my iPhone about various different things that had happened in the trip,” Jagger recalls. “It happened really quickly when I was on that plane ride, and started to realize the volume of stuff that was coming out of me, quickly onto the app on my iPhone. And I thought, there’s something bigger here. I wouldn’t have this volume coming forth so quickly if there wasn’t something larger that wanted to be communicated or understood.”

Although it has been difficult watching the progression of her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, Jagger says the experience has also left her in awe.

She invoked a quote from Seattle singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile: “There is nothing more real or more practical in this universe than mysticism … and it’s usually sitting right smack in the middle of grief.”

“I think that’s an interesting doorway in,” Jagger says. “If I am willing to not distance myself from grief — which, again, I think is part of our mental health process — if I am willing to walk into it and befriend it and be curious about it, and allow myself to have those feelings of, say, sadness, rage, sorrow, all of those things that come with grief, then I might also be able to witness other things, like awe and curiosity, connection, and other things on the other range of those emotions.”

Jagger says a person with Alzheimer’s is “living inside of a shifting time-space reality.”

“Sometimes she thinks she’s a teenager,” she says of her mother. “Sometimes she thinks I’m her sister, sometimes she knows I’m her daughter, sometimes she thinks I’m her sister, sometimes she knows I’m her daughter, sometimes she thinks she’s 102, sometimes she thinks she’s 17 years old. It’s a time-space reality that’s very fluid.”

That fluidity can result in interesting — even beautiful — moments, Jagger says.

“My mom had me when she was 37 years old, which means I didn’t know her when she was 0 to 37,” she says. “But because of the shifting time-space reality, sometimes she thinks she’s a 16-year-old, and I get to witness her doing things and acting in a certain way that’s like a glimpse into who she would have been at that age. And that is a phenomenal gift, when you think, ‘Oh, I wish I knew who my mother was at 16.’ Well, there you are. There’s a picture of who she was at 16 years old. So I think there’s some real gifts in there.”

Jagger will read from the book at the Aug. 28 event at Eagle Harbor Book Co. The event also includes a Q&A.

She’ll talk about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, but also tie the book’s themes to larger issues, she says. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve all seen systems we thought would keep us safe — such as capitalism, corporate systems, or communities — be tested under the stress of the pandemic.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of those shift and change and some of them crumble and collapse,” she says. “And I think there’s a really large thread in the book that is the question of who will hold us, and where can we go to seek that safety and comfort when those things go?”

She’s also looking forward to meeting with people in her community after putting off in-person events for so long because of COVID, she says.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to do a lot of in-person events, so I’m hoping it’s going to feel a bit more intimate than some of the other cities and places that I’ll go, because these are people that I share a backyard with,” she says.

Steph Jagger at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

Bainbridge Island author Steph Jagger speaks at 6:30 p.m., April 28, at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island.

Learn more about Jagger at her website.

Purchase Unbound and Everything Left to Remember. (Affiliate links — Kitsap Scene may receive a commission if you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you).

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