Filling in the Blanks of Jane Wong’s How to Not Be Afraid of Everything
Nov 01 ● BY Emmy Newman
“To be a good daughter means to carry everything with you at all times, the luggage of the past lifted to the mouth.”
In the beginning, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything assigns a responsibility to the speaker when it comes to her life: to know where her familial history has been and to have space for the legacy it left. This task is complicated by fear, by erasure, and by the generational trauma that affects the family dynamic as well as self-identity. We open the story with a dedication to Jane Wong’s grandparents and those lost during The Great Leap Forward, which is the basis to the recurring themes of connection, whether it be family or food. The Great Leap Forward was a Maoist movement that attempted to revolutionize the agricultural industry to produce more food in the 1960’s. It ironically led to millions of deaths due to starvation and was later referred to as The Great Famine. Sadly, many family legacies were erased; Wong’s grandparents were survivors. This leaves the reader to consider who has been forgotten in our own histories–how do we remember those who have been lost in the past? The weight of identity in relation to history is given to Wong, and we get to carry it with her—the hope, the food, the fear, the guilt—and reach into the mud together to pull out the rot.
When exploring one’s self-identity in poetry, we depend on our relationship with either the big picture or the microscopic moment—but what are we using to reach there? Do we often take into consideration the process of identifying those relationships and put them under a dissected telescope? In “WHAT I TELL MYSELF BEFORE I SLEEP” Wong says, “I touch/ the wall, these porous lives, this dense understory. Today: I cut/ a telescope in two to see everything inside, out.” This ties to the identity that Wong is seeking and how she got there with genuine curiosity. An interesting commentary on identity as a process is best symbolized in the poem “WHAT IS LOVE IF NOT ROT” where Wong is describing the process of an orange decaying over an 85-day period. Wong’s techniques that are consistent through the sequence are compiled into this image that shrinks down to the speaker with the wreckage, or sludge, that is left. She efficiently contrasts stillness and the movement of time as a parallel to the speaker’s telescope: all of the events of the past have led to slush she can carry—this messy identity.
Erasure is not just fear welling up in Wong’s mind, but is reflected in the fragmented forms of remembering. There are moments the time hopping in the book is discombobulating for the reader; however, this serves to show the fragmenting identity that Wong is pulling together. There is no linear narrative but a constant reflection of self. In “EVERYTHING” and “NOTES FOR THE INTERIOR” the line jumps in time, space, and subject that construct Wong’s psyche. The metaphor of the asymptote is presented here as reaching for the curve but never being able to touch–an infinity of longing for connection. The connection plops on our head like a falling stone fruit from the recurring images of food. Food is consistently mentioned, though rarely the entire subject of the poems. There is food that hits her on the head like a gentle reminder in “THE FRONTIER.” There are dishes she worries will be printed in Food and Wine (which she follows with a warning that this recipe is hers–“Do not look it up”). There is food that goes to waste and is subtly mentioned even though it later reflects guilt. Do not forget: “spoiled meat still counts as protein.” Wong’s family owns a takeout restaurant. One would think it to be a stable source of food, so why all this worry about waste? Because of the risk of dishonoring those who had to starve and were forgotten.
“Do not pause to watch insects ___ like dangling lights. Their soft speckled
bodies, a minutia of buzzing dandelion seeds, have already ___ you in the
neck. Blood on their spindle tongues. This is a metaphor for___”
Wong’s shifting tone of fear, to hope, and back is rooted in the silence of her family history. Wong deals with the loss of grandparents and the dwindling connection to the past. The moments where Wong’s ancestors speak back to her from the altar, in her dreams, or when cutting beans confronts the longing and hunger she carries. They say to her, “It’s time to wake up. Wake up the tapeworm who loves/ his home….Tell us, little girl, are you/ hungry, awake, astonished enough?” Outright and viscerally, the ancestors draw out her anxieties and acknowledge her questions and curling fists. They answer How to Not Be Afraid of Everything with a call to action: wake up, feast, and continue on. The opening poem “MAD” utilizes MadLib style blanks that are not intended to be filled because Wong’s space allows readers to reflect by seeking out their own answers and continue living past fear. What I have learned from Wong is that when one is unsure where their roots begin, one must carry the rot and claim space at the table in the face of erasure.