Jane Wong explores her ghosts and hunger in poetry

Poet Jane Wong taps into her family’s haunted history in her upcoming exhibition “NOURISH,” and provides Asian representation in poetry.

Nourishment through poetry

What does it mean to be nourished? And what does it mean to lack nourishment?

Poet Jane Wong examined these questions through the lens of hunger and the labour of food in the exhibition “NOURISH” at the Richmond Art Gallery, in collaboration with Taiwanese Canadian duo Mizzonk. She paired her poetry with images from her childhood: big bowls often found in Chinese restaurants, and making dumplings from scratch. 

Cold Tea Collective got a chance to talk with Wong about Asian representation in poetry, how food and history haunt us, and the wonder of community. 

Asian representation in poetry

Jane Wong Asian representation in poetry
Jane Wong. Photo credit: Helene Christensen

Wong knows that poetry can be confusing.

“Poetry’s definitely weird, but not hard,” Wong said. She speaks of poetry with a warm passion and gets increasingly excited as she shares what she loves about it. 

“I think that ultimately everyone is a poet,” she said. “If anything, children are the best poets because they have such an open imagination. They just say whatever is on their mind like, ‘there’s a horse inside of an egg.'”

As a poet, she tries to tap into the boundless imagination of a child and combines it with language to play with it. For her, poetry is where she can express herself in a new language. 

But she didn’t always feel like poetry was for her. At first, it felt far away because she was only learning about old white male poets. Not seeing Asian representation in poetry or poems exploring relevant themes made it feel far away from her. 

Now as a professor, she’s very intentional to have a syllabus that’s mainly poets of colour. 

“It’s central to have people know that it’s already a part of their culture,” she said. “Sometimes people forget that storytelling and poetry have always been a part of our culture, especially Chinese culture.”

See also: Unpacking fear of poetry and love of language with Su Cho

The ghosts of modern Chinese history in poetry

As Wong worked on her poetry, she noticed that her work was fragmented. 

She kept on jumping from past to present to future without a clear beginning or end. Her conclusion about why this was happening was because she was haunted. 

In learning about modern Chinese history, she came across the Great Leap Forward and her family’s history with starvation and hunger. The academic work she did for her PhD gave her a framework to understand what she was doing as a poet. 

“What does it mean to feel like you’re haunted by two or three generations prior to you? Sometimes it feels like what they went through happened to you.” Wong said. “How am I haunted by these stories, especially as an Asian American?”

"After Preparing the Altar, The Ghosts Feast Feverishly" exhibit Jane Wong Asian representation in poetry
Installation view of NOURISH, featuring Mizzonk and Jane Wong, at the Richmond Art Gallery, 2022. Photo credit: Michael Love

The central piece of Wong’s installation directly explores the Great Leap Forward and is titled “After Preparing the Altar, The Ghosts Feast Feverishly.” It features a table dotted with large bowls typically found at Chinese restaurants. Fragments of the poem with the same name appear inside the bowls, inviting guests to walk around as they read the words. 

Wong acknowledges that because the poem is about a painful time in Chinese history it will make Chinese people uncomfortable. After all, it is a topic that is censored. But rather than seeing the piece as pushing against censorship, she sees it as a way to honour what happened. 

“I want my ghosts around. I want to recognize and say to my ghosts, ‘I know that you are hungry and I want to feed you. The only way I can, in the afterlife, is through poetry.'” 

Food as another creative language 

"The Long Labors" exhibit Jane Wong
Installation view of NOURISH, featuring Mizzonk and Jane Wong, at the Richmond Art Gallery, 2022. Photo credit: Michael Love

The second portion to Wong’s exhibition is “The Long Labors.”* It is a video in which Wong makes dumplings while reciting a poem with the same name

“My show, in many ways, speaks to labour and food justice,” Wong said. 

She grew up in a Chinese restaurant, and her parents still work in the restaurant industry. Her family members have been impacted by COVID, and she’s been thinking recently about how much of the workforce depends on immigrant labour. 

And yet, Wong didn’t learn how to cook until the start of the pandemic. 

During the pandemic, she badly needed to make food that was tied to her upbringing. She needed comfort, but also wanted to add her voice and her interpretation to the food. And so, finally in her late thirties, she reconnected with her family’s roots by learning how to cook. 

She leaned into cooking as she ran into writer’s block with her poetry. And she reckoned that, although she was hitting a wall with her poetry, cooking was a creative act as well. 

“A dish could be a poem, why not?” Wong asked. 

See also: Focusing on family: How mom and pop restaurants brave the pandemic

Tapping into the larger Chinese community 

After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly at Frye Art Museum exhibit Jane Wong Asian representation in poetry
Installation of After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly at Frye Art Museum (Seattle), 2019. Photo credit: Jueqian Fang

This isn’t Wong’s first installation. She previously had the “After Preparing the Altar, The Ghosts Feast Feverishly” presented in 2019 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

However, her show at Richmond Art Gallery took on a new meaning when the curator asked for her Chinese name. This was a pleasant surprise for Wong. Because of Richmond’s larger Chinese community, the exhibition also has Chinese translations, as well as a bowl of oranges at the front desk. It’s a cultural sensitivity that makes Wong excited for how people will engage with her pieces. 

And in a time where there’s increasingly visible anti-Asian racism, the exhibit takes on another type of meaning. 

“I’m excited to see how our shows [with Mizzonk, the second part of the exhibition] will connect in these ways in thinking about nourishment,” Wong said, “not just physically but emotionally, mentally, community-wise in pushing back against hate and misunderstanding, in pushing back against the stereotype of the inscrutable, unknowable Asian.”

After “NOURISH” wraps up, Wong will continue to push back against being an unknowable Asian by digging into her personal history for a memoir.

Wong’s upcoming memoir is titled “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” which refers to a Bruce Springsteen song. It is set to be released in 2023. While it will be a book that touches on hardships, Wong also hopes that it will be funny. For example, Wong shared a punny title for a chapter called “Root Canal Street” about unlicensed dentists and bribing grandmas with pastries. 

“As much as it’s heartbreaking and about survival, I really badly want people to be like, ‘oh, that’s kind of ridiculous,'” Wong said. “I want that [humour] to come out in my prose, which doesn’t come out in my poetry as much.” 

Her memoir will be her third book, and join the exciting contemporary scene of Asian American memoirs. 

“I guess I’m excited to keep being as Asian as possible at all times,” Wong said with a smile. 

You can learn more about Jane Wong at her website and stay updated with her on Instagram.

See also: Quarantine Qapsule: Archiving the Asian Canadian Experience

*Jane Wong’s poetry piece uses the American spelling of the word ‘labor’. 

Featured photo credit: Michael Love

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