When you get to know someone, you aren’t presented with their life story in a linear narrative with well-timed beats. Instead, anecdotes and feelings bubble to the surface irregularly; clear personal development is established in retrospect, if at all. Jane Wong’s debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, resembles the latter, creating what she refers to as “constellations of speculative memory.” Like the stars in the sky, all kinds of shapes and stories can be crafted through the non-chronological format of the book, which made rereading sections of it after finishing all the more powerful.
Wong flits between recollections of her childhood as a restaurant baby on the Jersey Shore, bleak memories of past romantic relationships, her evolution into a poet and professor of creative writing, reflections on the poverty and hardship her family has endured, and the historical context of her life that gets flattened by the crude stereotypes that every Asian American has heard.
Wong recounts accompanying her mother to find an illegal dentist in Chinatown, cognizant of her presence as a witness to make sure her mother was okay. Following an opaquely affiliated friend-of-a-friend grandmotherly elder through the winding alleyways of Chinatown, she sees how the questionable quality of these dentists are outweighed by the brutal costs of uninsured dental care and the alienation of being treated by a health care provider who doesn’t speak your language, who might shame you for not making it to every annual visit.
There are some experiences that only fully register years later when you understand that not everyone had to go through what you did. You find yourself arranging and rearranging the piles of memories in your head, turning each one over and looking at it in a new light. In Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, Wong welcomes the reader into this endless process.
The most poignant and humorous moments are those shared between Wong and her mother, a fiercely loving and exceedingly wise woman. Wong’s friend Brandon wishes there was a Wongmom.com, where you could enter your query and receive exactly what you need to hear in Wong’s mom’s voice. Her mother sends ripe dragonfruit after a particularly bad breakup, and often assures Wong that, “I’ll be your boyfriend forever and ever. I will take care of you and tell you how special you are every single day.” before closing: “But no sexy stuff.”
Wong’s writing is full of whimsy and charm. She envisions her fetus self, “not as a watermelon, but as a hot air balloon filled with fire and a basket of perishable snacks.” For the most part, subjects that are beginning to feel overwrought in Asian American writing like the importance of food or the constancy of empty-headed microaggressions are buoyed by Wong’s prose. She includes “all the parts, all the tentacles, all the mycelia,” regardless of their fit in the immigrant trauma narrative box.
The direct inclusion of Zoom chat text celebrating her mother drinking plum wine during Wong’s book launch, the childhood photos that pattern the pages between some of the chapters, and the contextualizing of Wong’s own poetry adds intimacy as the reader follows Wong’s jumps between events and memories.
There is no need to fixate on toxic ex-boyfriends or to bend over backwards trying to explain her father’s choice to leave her family. Wong understands that healing doesn’t come from receiving a sufficiently thorough explanation. Like the poetry that Wong writes, the point is not some rigid one-to-one definition. From poetry on the page and the poetry of our own tangled, sometimes uninterpretable lives, “We need bewilderment. We need transformation.”
Healing is not some enlightenment where the anger evaporates and the universe is magically in balance. Instead, it’s an allocation of energy towards care and real love. The agitation might shine through, but in a banal way, like when Wong’s mother would wash Wong’s hair: “She’d lather roughly, her red nails digging into my scalp with a rage I wouldn’t understand until I’d also experience toxic men and their chemical needs. Pure Pantene fury, the suds thrashed around my bony shoulders.” There is practicality to this, a type of moving on that feels incredibly self-evident to people whose lives have been at the mercy of unfathomably gigantic forces. Members of Wong’s extended family died in Mao Zedong’s Great Famine and her parents are a part of the Asian American working class, invisibilized on behalf of the American Dream’s publicity team. There are endless people to be angry at, but only so much time for Wong and her mother to eat ripe mangoes together, for Wong to love and to be “tuned into all that came before and its thick, sugar-gilded deluge.”
It’s not hard to imagine why Devi’s books were once so hugely revered. They give snapshots of a life that India went through, and still—in many parts—aches through. The greys are non-existent, and the blacks and whites are paper-thin. Yet Devi suspends them in a concentrated world and compels us to think about the nightmarish quality of this world that isn’t very far from us.
Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
by Jane Wong
Tin House Books
Published on May 16, 2023