Photo credit: Helene Christensen
Describe your latest book.
My debut memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
(Tin House) is a love song for working class immigrant families. It’s a book centered around my upbringing in a Chinese American restaurant, the expansive (and hilarious!) wisdom of my mother, and my journey through poetry as a means of agency. It’s a rally cry for radical Asian Americans and dives into the depths of loss, toxic relationships, and the beauty of community. Along with my memoir, I am working on poems and handmade paper inspired by my mother’s Chinese-English translation dictionary, which is full of her notes. I’m intrigued by the narratives hidden in these unexpected archives.
When did you know you were a writer?
I grew up in a Chinese American take-out restaurant in a strip mall and the public library was across the street! I would spend so many hours at the library and wanted so badly to read books that had characters that looked like me (super rare). I knew I wanted to be a writer because I used to write alternative endings and additional characters for the books I was reading… I’d slip my stories into those books! When I was in the fifth grade, I started writing ridiculous short stories (lots of grotesque horror) and got caught passing these as “notes” to other classmates. Getting in trouble for writing was a turning point; it felt totally rebellious to have a voice when my voice was often not heard.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Getting in trouble for writing was a turning point; it felt totally rebellious to have a voice when my voice was often not heard.
I love that this question pretty much just means my bed! Despite the fact that I finally got a desk a couple of years ago, I pretty much just write in bed. I don’t know what it is about being in bed… I don’t know how to write without being swaddled in blankets and with a plate of snacks dangerously staining my sheets with cheese dust. There’s usually a cup of tea on the bedside table. Haphazard stacks of books around my plate of snacks. My notebook and a pen. A lit candle or two. I’m usually dressed up like I’m having a date with myself.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
It’s been so meaningful to connect to readers over the years… and most recently, for the memoir, so many Asian American readers have shared with me their own familial stories of gambling addiction. Which means so much… the title chapter of the memoir explores my father’s gambling addiction, but also the ways in which this is a larger systemic issue. Indeed, casino buses pick up from Chinatowns across the country for a haunting reason.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m not sure if I’m embarrassed per se, but I will tell a funny story involving cheese and writing. I was at Hedgebrook
, a writing residency, and everyone in my cohort was lactose intolerant. I am very much lactose intolerant (definitely can’t do ice cream), but I ADORE cheese. Like, I crave it. I can handle most cheese, but wrote that I was lactose intolerant on the dietary restrictions sheet. In other words, there was no cheese at the residency. No cheese for four weeks! I saw that our lovely chef had a block of cheese… her personal cheese… and might have (okay, I did) stolen it from her personal fridge in the middle of the night. I devoured it. And the next day, she was like, “uh, did someone take my cheese?” I admitted to the thievery. And, along with reminding us that we can’t go into personal fridges, she promised to get me cheese. Was it worth it? The answer is yes.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
My plant collection! I have so many plants. I have around sixty plants now since I’ve had to downsize. My Bird of Paradise and Alocasia Regal Shield are among my largest plants. Whenever I’m home in Jersey, I always take some cuttings from my mother’s plants.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I’ve had so
many jobs over the years. I guess one strange job was being a participant in numerous psychological experiments during my time as a graduate student. I was on a listserv and pretty much took part in every experiment I qualified for. Once, I did an experiment where I was supposed to be paired up with another participant to solve some math problems (the other participant was in the room next door). Turns out: they didn’t exist! Even though I heard sounds coming from that room next door… that boggled me for days. I totally agreed with whatever “my partner” suggested. Turns out it was just the computer’s randomized suggestions, ha!
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This appears in my memoir, but this line keeps returning to me, via Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in Dictee
: “Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.” How nonlinearity mirrors the experience of migration, of war, of transnational upheaval.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“They’re so hungry for immigrant trauma, they lap at blood before blood can even exist.”
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
Oh my god. I have reoccurring dreams where I have to go back to high school to finish my math classes. And in those dreams, I keep saying: “But I’m a professor!” and they always reply: “No one cares.” Sad. Maybe this relates back to that psychology experiment I mentioned somehow…
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
In those dreams, I keep saying: “But I’m a professor!” and they always reply: “No one cares.”
My pet peeve are grammatical pet peeves! I’m so over grammar and the tyranny of English!
Write a question of your own, then answer it.
What kind of adventures would you send your book on? I ask this question because it makes me happy thinking about my book having a life of its own, living in the sensory world. So, I’d really like to send my book down a waterpark slide (I can’t swim, but maybe my book can). I’d like my book to have a soak in a Korean spa, in mugwort tea. I’d take my book to some Hong Kong night markets, use it as a fan on a hot summer night.
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is the author of the debut memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City
(Tin House) and the poetry collections How to Not Be Afraid of Everything
. An associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, she grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in Seattle, Washington.