Jane Wong’s highly anticipated second collection, How To Not Be Afraid Of Everything debuts this October. Jane Wong, alongside also-not-to-be-missed co-readers Anastacia Rene and Chen Chen, will celebrate her book’s launch at 6 PM on October 16, 2021—a virtual event presented by Elliott Bay Book Company. Register here.
[Full disclosure: Jane Wong is one of my dearest friends. I collated and collaged this interview from texts, DMs and emails in which I harassed Jane about her latest book. We use a lot of emojis.]
Michelle Peñaloza: How To Not Be Afraid Of Everything, starts with the poem “Mad” — What do you think anger has to do with fear? Can rage be an offering? A gift? A curse?
Jane Wong: Wow, love this first question cuz it cuts right into the heart of it. Anger orbits fear with so many complex rings. Anger can lend itself to fear, fear can lend itself to anger, and so on. For me, especially in this book, rage is a means of reckoning. A means of resistance. Anger is also more than that red hot heat of fury; it’s also the tenderness that follows, the breath when it comes back. Especially as an Asian American woman, I’m not expected to be angry, not expected to speak out. I have so much to say. I feel so much. I am learning how anger evolves into joy, into safety. The book ends with “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly,” a poem where my ancestors nourish me. The book feels like a journey in this way. What fuels us: anger, nourishment, love.
MP: Yessssssssssss! The tenderness that follows! I love the idea of how anger can evolve into joy and safety; that evolution seems like something we must find in our histories, reinvigorating/reuniting in order to imagine and move into a truly joyful, truly tender future [3 heart emojis]. Been thinking about these words recently:
JW: “But I move in community, in relationships that are visionary and loving at the root.” Yeah, Adrienne Maree Brown!!! It’s also powerful to share anger and tenderness with someone. I feel like we’ve been in that space together so many times, holding these visceral feelings and letting it out. Holding that space for each other [Sparkling Heart Emoji]. I’m grateful for that cuz that holding is that transformation [Sparkling Heart Emoji]. That includes reading each other’s poems.
MP: Oh lord yes. I feel like shared anger and tenderness are so empowering— such power in that collective acknowledgement of vulnerability. We’re never alone. [3 Purple Heart Emojis]
JW: [Three Heart Emojis + screenshot of picture of MP via “Your Memories on Facebook.” MP is smiling and eight years younger]
MP: Lol omg – I was once young and cute! [Face with Open Mouth Emoji]
JW: Omg still cute! But yea we both old [Laughing With Tears Emoji] Hahaha the oldening has happened but we are both still hella cute lol.
MP: Lol the oldening [Laughing With Tears Emoji + Brown Old Woman Emoji] haha – *clumsy segue way lol* – I was literally eating eggs (which landed in your ARC) when I read these lines from “Notes from the Interior” – “I ate an egg and cheese sandwich today and it fell onto my chest. / Embarrassment lessens when you get older. / No side step from the mud, no turning away from road kill and its soft clumped fur. / These days I welcome the mere fact of it all.”
What else do you think lessens with oldening? What gets magnified? How do you think your writing has changed in your oldening?
JW: Lol not gonna lie, I have deep nostalgia for that sandwich and wish it was in front of me right now. I’m obsessed with egg and cheese, which is really hard to find on the West Coast – it’s a bodega deli special. I make mine with cream cheese too. Anyway! I care less about what other people think as I get older. Especially people who think I’m supposed to impress them. Expectations lessen. Self doubt lessens. What magnifies: love, grief, understanding, friendships that matter to me, my skin care routine, haha. I love taking care of my skin now. Back then, I never washed my face, just let the mascara seep into my pores. I’m proud of being able to take time to care for myself by nourishing my skin. My writing must change with me, yes! I think I’m taking more risks, throwing more mud out there and sloshing it around because who cares if I’m messy. I’m also looking forwards and backwards even more so – thinking about generational leaps. I have a bit more humor, I think.
MP: You started and finished this book well before the pandemic, but do any of the poems in How Not to be Afraid of Everything feel even more pertinent? Do any feel eerily prescient?
For me these lines from “The Frontier” really (still! ugh!) resonate: “What ends in this country / simply does not. Onward / and onward and so forth. / Thus declared. In the half-light / of a mosquito’s bite, we keep / moving. Each mountain / rinses the sky of its crimes.”
JW: Oh my god, yes, I was thinking about this when I was reading through my book again/editing it. So much of it is very now – which, in a way, reminds me that that fear has always been there. And it’s more of a question of: who put it there (okay, we know the answer to this – white supremacy) and how does that fear manifest itself? I wrote the bulk of this book during Trump’s presidency – and thinking about the word “pandemic,” the feeling of panic is pervasive throughout. But also, now and then and in the future, I know there is also ancestral love and community in battling such fear. The book blooms with that, despite the fear that leaks through.
MP: We’ve talked before about how your family doesn’t talk about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Throughout the poem, “When you Died,” you directly reference research (“I went to the library to find you” and “36 million deaths from 1958 to 1962. / Estimated. What no one talks. / About, called ‘epidemic,’ not starvation”); and you directly address your family, your ancestors (“What I want to tell you: in another life, there is a button to press to / cook and warm rice. A circle glows as red as a growing army, just to / reassure you: // you will eat.”)
What did you do to try to take care of yourself as you researched this painful history, especially considering your family’s silence around it? How do you imagine your ancestors receive your addresses to them? Your embodiments of them?
JW: Damn, haha, I’m pretty sure I texted you and we’d like share photos of food we made or something like that. I took care of myself by surrounding myself with people I love. I called my mom a lot and didn’t talk to her about the GLF. We talk about cool boots we saw, the food she’s eating, etc. In other words, what arose out of such grief and poverty. I spoke a lot to my ancestors and listened. Research can’t just be in books, can’t just be in interviews (which, I didn’t truly do, since I didn’t want to dredge up that history; instead, I listened around what was *not* said, i.e. when my mom said she grew up as a “vegetarian” meant there wasn’t meat to eat). I think my ancestors are proud of me – I can feel their pride. I think they are proud to be seen in this way. Especially in the last poem in the book, I think they’ll find their embodiment hilarious. My family is hilarious – we like to poke fun at each other/troll each other. By having a massive party, they’re pretty happy.
MP: If How to Not Be Afraid of Everything came to my house for dinner, what would it bring? What’s this book’s dream outfit?
JW: Lol ok, if this book came to your house for dinner, it would bring a lot of pork and chive dumplings and also some starfruit and a Country Crock tub (aka Tupperware) full of red lipstick and the tears of ex-boyfriends. My book’s dream outfit is a blood moon jumpsuit, with big slits on the sides, and patent leather boots encrusted with Jersey Shore sand. My book would most definitely be wearing a pair of Ating Earrings (cough: plug for Michelle’s Etsy store).
MP: Hahaha [Laughing with Tears Emoji] – Yesssssss! Country Crock tub of red lipstick and the tears of ex-boyfriends. I think we will need two, hahaha. Aw and thank you for the plug! Now, I’m hungry for pork and chive dumplings. Sigh. I miss you! [Inserts meme]
MP: Lol – love you! [Red Heart Emoji] So excited for your book to be in the world! Congrats, congrats! So, haha what snacks would How to Not Be Afraid of Everything like for me to bring to your book launch on the 16th?
JW: My biggest wish for the launch is for EVERYONE TO PLEASE BRING SNACKS. You know this lol. If you’re a raccoon, I’d like you to bring something stolen with great ease. Something salty. Something juicy. Something with a gem hidden in the middle. Trash pizza please, Michelle. Totino’s only.
MP: Already got ‘em in the freezer. [Pizza Slice Emoji + Sparkling Heart Emoji]