Emma Willard School welcomed Dr. Jane Wong earlier this week to commence the 2023–2024 Speaker Series. Jane is a poet, author, professor, and artist originally from New Jersey, who now teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. Her recently published memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City and her two books of poetry, How Not to be Afraid of Everything and Overpour, detail her exploration of her own identity and family history. She is a first-generation high school and college graduate, and although she has her doctorate she describes herself, humbly, as “just Jane.”
Grace M. ’24 had the honor of introducing Jane to an eager group of Emma students, faculty, and staff inside Kiggins on Tuesday morning. Grace and a few other students had previously heard Jane speak at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey—an opportunity provided to them by Starzinger Writing Center Coordinator Meg McClellan. At the festival, Jane recited her poem After Preparing the Altar the Ghosts Feast Feverishly and Grace was “struck by the sheer intensity of her words.” She goes on to describe Jane’s work as “candidly visceral, raw, and deeply intertwined with themes of family history, personal identity, and grief.”
As Jane took to the microphone, the audience was immediately captivated by her joyous and energetic demeanor. She introduced her memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, describing the feeling of reading this aloud as terrifyingly vulnerable compared to the brevity of poetry. It was powerful to hear her candor on vulnerability, which resonated with our community.
Jane grew up in a working-class Asian American family, within the walls of a Chinese restaurant on the Jersey Shore. In her memoir, she recounts moments of frustration, as rich customers left food behind. Moments of humor, such as trapping her brother in the meat freezer. Moments of anxiety, like bills piling up that she needed to translate for her parents. Moments of understanding, as her mother was in an arranged marriage and shipped off to a strange country. Moments of rage, like her father’s gambling addiction and abandonment of her family. Woven throughout these excerpts of her childhood is a common theme of resilience, and a journey to understand her own identity and family history as immigrants.
During her undergraduate work at Bard College Jane took a Chinese Politics class in which they discussed the Great Leap Forward, when 36 million Chinese people died of starvation. “My family always spoke about my ancestors and my grandfather and siblings and his parents as they had disappeared when in reality, they didn't have enough to eat. I come from a history of starvation and hunger when I grew up in a restaurant of all places. I was so startled by this history of mine.” This resulted in Jane having a fascinating relationship with food waste. She would sometimes eat rotten herbs, as she had this gut feeling that she was consuming for her ancestors, not herself. To put her feelings of guilt into words, she wrote a poem titled When You Died. It was a letter written directly to her ancestors to which she never expected a return message, until…
She was at a coffee shop grading papers, and a voice came into her head: “Stop doing what you’re doing. It’s time to write a poem.” She wrote what came to mind verbatim, with no revision process, and no memory of these words flowing from pen to paper. This poem titled After Preparing the Altar the Ghosts Feast Feverishly—which originally struck Grace—was co-written by Jane and her ghostly ancestors, giving her grace, forgiveness, and closure. As a true interdisciplinary artist, she translated this poem into an installation piece, displayed at the Frye Art Museum in 2019. Plastic ‘Thank You’ bags—generally utilized for Chinese restaurant takeout—were suspended from the ceiling, filled with flowers and oranges. Beneath the floating bags were restaurant bowls, some with the text of her poem written throughout. In order to read the entirety of it, the viewer must walk around the display. The meaning of this piece mirrors her original poem—Jane’s grasp on the intersection of gluttony, hunger, and immigrant life.
After her discussion with the campus community, Jane enjoyed lunch with the students and met with the Asian Student Union (ASU) for a Q&A session. The following responses were summarized by ASU tri-head Hanh N. ’24 and ASU members Isabella H. ’25, Paloma L. ’27, Nigel L. ’27, and Dharaa S. ’26.
How did your Asian identity shape the way that you viewed success?
Jane said that surprisingly her family was very supportive despite her hopes for being a writer. But, besides her mom, the rest of her family didn’t really know about her profession. There was a certain pressure to be a professor, though, since the title is definitely a big deal to her Asian family.
How does being a writer in an Asian community affect your opportunities?
Jane responded that she feels empowered by knowing other Asian American writers, whom she met through various writing associations such as the NYC Asian American Writers Association.
How did being a "restaurant baby" shape you?
Jane spoke about how being a "restaurant baby" had, in a way, led to her pursuing a career in writing and literature. She told us about how living in a strip mall also provided her with a library right across from her house. Because she read so many books, Jane says she was even more inspired to be as a writer. Additionally, living in a restaurant provided her with a lot of opportunities to talk to people with different backgrounds, which served as a source of inspiration. Jane also affirmed that being a "restaurant baby" taught her not to take things for granted. She explained that there was always a task to be done in the restaurant and that she always made sure to help her mother wherever she could.
ASU members also gave an insight into their takeaways from Jane. ASU tri-head Mehar S. ’24 stated, “One thing I learned from meeting with Jane Wong was how true to herself she was. She said that she doesn’t write for anyone but herself, and I really loved to hear about that. She spoke to us about professors who supported her and those who disliked her work, but how she always persisted and just continued doing what worked for her and her soul. She showcased her individualism to us in so many ways, like being vulnerable and telling us about what she struggled with in writing. Seeing another Asian writer being so true to themselves and not what the public wants from them was truly awe-inspiring. This visit was extremely memorable for me, and I will definitely keep it in mind for a while.”
Jane is an incredibly captivating speaker with an inspiring story. We thank her for taking the time to influence and motivate our students. To learn more about her work, check out her website here.
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