“I’m always asking: what are we learning from the past?” – An Interview With Jane Wong

When I first met Jane in a virtual space for a class where we wrote about food, an instantaneous bond formed. While discussing why I’ve joined the class, I let everyone know that I’m often thinking about the next meal, and love to prepare food for loved ones. Jane guided the class with wisdom and knowing, and we have kept in touch long after. It has been a joyous experience to read How to Not Be Afraid of Everything and imagine new worlds together. In a series of exchanges over email, we converse about ancestors, food, and sharing a meal someday.


Sneha Subramanian Kanta: How have you been, Jane? I wanted to begin by bringing attention to the title of your book “How To Not Be Afraid Of Everything”, which in itself is a sermon. There have been an increase in the crimes against Asian people across the world, particularly North America. I believe poems engage the historical, which includes the current which will be the history of tomorrow. The titular poem has several intervals where a fierce vulnerability meets the page. I’m including a few lines and sections from your poem for the reference of our readers.

The lines “At night, my subterranean eye…”, “To gut her work out, to work / her guts out. Can we talk about privilege? / Can I say I always look behind me? I always / alook would you confirm the word ‘alook’ is correct? behind me.” There is also a reference to a horse at the end, and the image of a neck snapping because of carrying too much. This aligns with both; memory and what is stored in the body. In what ways did you arrive at this title for your collection? Would you let us know the process of writing this vital poem, which carries anger in a different form?


Jane Wong: Sneha, I’ve been well! How have you been? It’s been such an honor to read from How to Not Be Afraid of Everything since it came out last October. I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity, kindness, and ferocity toward the book, which is a vulnerable one for me. Thank you for pulling these lines out and for your words about how the body knows the fear and rage it carries. This is one of the oldest poems in the book– written around when Trump was elected. I kept circling around everything that I was afraid of — and realized how much rage is tied to fear (especially when it came to the precarities of my BIPOC community). I titled my book How to Not Be Afraid of Everything because I knew that such a guide was impossible. Writing this book was an attempt to heal, to work through the familiar muscles of fear. That moment in the title poem that you mention (“Can I say I always look behind me? I always / look behind me”) laments the fear that has been placed in me. That I always have to be on guard, especially around white men. It’s that feeling of having your porcupine quills at-the-ready. And this poem speaks to that– and what happens to the body, to the heart, when you’re always prepared to fight to survive. This poem also directly speaks to class too, and growing up in a low-income, working-class household. My mother, a single mother, fought to get that food on the table, to care for us. The end of that poem speaks to that desire to loosen that weight of survival. That, perhaps, I could offer some breath, some lightness, through poetry.


Sneha: In your poem “The Frontier” (the second poem with the same title, as the title makes a continued appearance through the book), there are moments I pause where there is endurance, and which I, as a first-generation immigrant know.

“Each mountain / rinses the sky of its crimes. / My father empties his pockets, / stunned and stalled in Atlantic / wreck. No business, no job, no two- / for-one peaches, and “Each day, I translate / documents and bills and / government forms for my family.” and “Your rights, do you know? / To not let in. To speak / to whom? To sign over / nothing?”

In these lines, there is a subtle differentiation between what it means to belong to a place and creating a world within this world to, in material texture, settle in.

There are moments of tenderness in the defiance of the mother in refusing to be silenced. The stereotype, which I know most Asian women know well, is that of silence. It is true of our world, isn’t it? These are most apparent in the lines

“There is also a moment that keeps drawing me in. One instance, where a stranger yells “at my mother from behind / her screen door, a partition for / mosquitoes, flies, liability. / She tells my mother: _You can’t / walk here_. My mother is all breath / and moon smoke through / grit and grids: / _I live here too_.”

There is a solid refusal and disobedience here, which lets another person know that I inhabit this place as well. There is a constancy in the lines

“In the shower, / my mother wrings out water / from her hair, growing wavy / as she grows older. We can / all see. Her hair, how / sound travels. And the ocean, / waving back, terror / tucked away for now.”

All three instances speak of pervading through, of resisting in ways the world may not understand as resistance. Would you speak to our readers about your usage of form in this poem? The narrative is a storytelling, and has elements of prose. Your lineation is exceptional in how it highlights the chronology of occurrences. Also, how does storytelling play an important role in your work?


Jane: Wow, thank you Sneha for such a generous reading of my poems!

And yes, tenderness has been a key word for me, in writing this book. How to return to tenderness after so much harshness— as you note, my mother’s refusal to be silenced and how I also refuse silence in later poems. That insistence (“I live here too”) felt so important to note. And that my mother won’t be pushed around by constant Othering. My mom told me that this white woman kept telling her that she couldn’t walk in “her” neighborhood, from behind her screen door. I find it infuriating that this white woman couldn’t even really say it to my mother’s face, directly. All of these moments are moments of storytelling for me — the stories behind the poems. And perhaps my vision of narrative in poetry is more akin to drawing constellations of narrative. That “terror/tucked away for now” links to my mother’s words “I live here too”— that she made that woman quiet by standing up for herself… for now. There’s always this sense that racism, bigotry, will always be there, lurking behind the screen door. “The Frontier” is definitely one of the more narrative poems– and it’s been interesting working on a nonfiction memoir right now. I feel like stories are small portals of connection– and we only need to touch tiny details for them to blossom into scenes!


Sneha: I want to converse about how your book engages memory. You dedicated the book to your grandparents and those lost during the Great Leap Forward. “After My Father Leaves, My Mother Opens The Windows” juxtaposes two timelines with specific image-frames. The lines

“to let the smoke out, to air out / each promise, each day my father / disappears in Atlantic City.”


“Decades before, in another country, / in 1967, my grandmother has no windows / to open. / No pigeon, no basement, no / daughter to call her own.”

bear an analogy. There is a reference to the disappearing in the lines

“Her husband will disappear / soon in Hong Kong, in the rattle of trams / and trash heaps.”

As someone who writes, thinks, and navigates to work in holistic ways through intergenerational trauma, I want to ask a question. In what ways do you outline the chronology of writing about history and experience?

I have an additional question as well. The poem titled “why some people be mad at me sometimes” by Lucille Clifton comes to mind in thinking about the fractures in remembrance. What thoughts would you offer to people specifically writing through memory?


Jane: Thank you for this lovely question about memory— wow, yes, memory is such a complex theme for me. We tend to think of memory as something in the past, but for me, it resonates into the future. Especially thinking about intergenerational trauma, my poems break apart a linear sense of time and move toward something messier, something non-linear and transtemporal. Even though I try to name certain years (like 1967 in the poem you referenced), there’s also a sense of paralleled time in the present. That poem zooms back and forth between the 90’s and the ’60s and the now (and even the future, as the stone fruit ripen). Migration complicates our sense of time.

Also, I love that poem by Clifton! I keep returning to “and i keep on remembering/mine” and how “mine” is on its own line–holding that power, that weight of agency. And how women in particular are called to be the story keepers in a family– but then again, whose stories? Clifton centers her memories, her life, her vision. Writing through memory is such a personal matter — and trying to get a memory exactly right is not going to happen. For writers who are working on memory, I’ve found it really helpful to write with that knowledge that you might get things “wrong.” And to admit to that faulty memory, that collapse of time. Rather than focus on the details, I like to focus on the sensory matter — the sounds, the smells, the tastes. Food especially brings us back– a soupy portal!


Sneha: I completely agree. Food has an association with not just memory but also heritage. How To Not Be Afraid Of Everything opens with

“For my grandparents / and those lost during the Great Leap Forward”.

Through experience, I know our families sharing their stories are a form of untextual history— more important as what may belong in the margins. In what ways does history intersperse with the poems in this book?


Jane: Yes, the dedication to the book is close to my heart– the book is dedicated to my grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to those touched by the experience of the Great Leap Forward, especially as a silenced history. I weave history throughout the book in varying ways– from personal history to collective history. In “Tenants,” there are references to particular years during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and my family’s story of immigration, i.e.: “1985: we slept in/a split-level attic” and “1967: to make//the. body dance with sticks and stones to break/alone.” Even though time and history is warped in the book, as time shapeshifts, I felt the importance of naming these years. History is also part of the future, part of where we are headed — and I’m always asking: what are we learning from the past? I’ve been working on speculative poems lately, thinking about the next generations down the line. Even the ghosts in the final poem of the book, “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly” speak to a future child (me): “tell us, little girl, are you/hungry, awake,/astonished enough?” Knowing their history, knowing what they survived and didn’t survive, teaches me that strength in the future.


Sneha: Your poems encapsulate a structure that slow releases tension. This unravelling is achieved in several ways such as through storytelling, litany, and direct questions to the reader and yourself. In the lengthy poem “When You Died”, there are several sections, unmarked, that go through leaps in form and narrative. From a standpoint of craft, how did you create this poem which includes an entire section of the book? Please take us through your ideas from conception to completion.


Jane: I love that point about releasing tension. I think long poems do exactly that — build and release, build and release, etc. I started this longer poem as a means of communication– epistolaries or letters to my ancestors. I didn’t necessarily plan for it to be a serial poem, but then I couldn’t stop writing to them. I had more questions— for them, but also for myself. It felt important to include those questions to myself and my reader — showing the seams of what it meant to communicate with ghosts. My failures, my attempts, my yearning. I did want to make sure that I had numerous textures and timelines in this long poem— offering variations in space and time. That’s how intergenerational trauma feels to me — nonlinear, hard to clarify and pin down. I changed the order of these sections often; in many ways, I wonder if you could read them out of order! I wanted it to feel like I could go back in time. And, likewise, that my ghosts could transport into the future.


Sneha: An important part of your formative years was growing up in a Chinese American takeout restaurant on the Jersey shore. It would be until college when you learn about the largest famine in history in China from 1959 to 1961. Food and nourishment are interwoven in your poems, and you also teach writing related to these subjects. Would you please share more about arriving at this juncture of incorporating food and heritage in your poems?


Jane: Yes, it’s funny–I’ve always been surrounded by food and the importance of food in relation to culture, family, and ancestral connection. Yet, I avoided writing about food for so many years. I think there was a lot of internalized racism embedded within me. I didn’t want to be “that” Chinese American writer who wrote about noodles and dumplings. Yet, it took me until after graduate school to really embrace it. To embrace where I come from. And that, yes, I should be proud of my family’s foodways. And my messy and complicated relationship with food. Food is absolutely central in my daily life, and if poetry is also central to my daily life, shouldn’t these obsessions cross paths? I want even more food writing these days. I dream of writing food reviews in verse. I dream in kitchen sounds!


Sneha: I remember conversing about the granularity of experiences in food, and sharing a similar passion for food. This is a fun question. If we were to share a meal, where one cooks for another, what would you include for me? For you, I’d prepare an amalgamation. We’d begin with Koki and Mitho Lola, Chickpea and spinach rice with a side of crisp baked potatoes with sea salt and rosemary. The dessert would depend on the season. In winter, it would be gajar ka halwa, and in summers, I’d make a variation of a semolina based ladoo.


Jane: I love this so much, Sneha! I am so excited to see what you’d make for me! I would totally make something special for you– vegetable dumplings. I’d like to make a chive and tofu mix. But also would like to make an spicy edamame mix. Or maybe a glass noodle and watercress one. I think it’s important to have at least 3 types of dumplings to try! I’d serve this with a simple ginger soy vinegar sauce. And a side of yu choy. And maybe some woodear mushrooms!


Sneha: How was the process of tracing the publication journey of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything? What advice would you give to our readers who write towards vulnerability, juxtaposing their experiences and creating a new interconnected network of history?


Jane: Wow, it’s been such a journey– I honestly didn’t know what path publication would take me on. It’s been beyond my dreams. I’m still in shock that it was reviewed in the New York Times! What! More than anything, I’m so honored by readers’ responses — especially Asian American youth coming up to me and sharing their own stories of what they know/don’t know about their family’s history. It’s been so moving. Vulnerability is met with vulnerability. That’s been pure magic. I think the advice I would give would be to be true to the writing process of diving into one’s history. If you’re struggling with research, write about that struggle. Give yourself time and space. You have to be ready to be vulnerable. This book, when I really think about it, took 15 years to exist. And I needed all that time to ready myself for it.



Jane Wong

Jane Wong is the author of the debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, out now from Tin House (2023), and two collections of poetry How to Not Be Afraid of Everything from Alice James (2021) and Overpour from Action Books (2016). She holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University. She grew up in a Chinese American restaurant on the Jersey shore and lives in Seattle.

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