REVIEW: Jessica Gigot on How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong

How Not to Be Afraid of Everything

Alice James Books, 2021

100 Pgs, $17.95

Review by Jessica Gigot

The Taste of Longing: A Review of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong

In How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, Jane Wong wakes with curled fists, wonders how she will “not punch everyone in the face.” Wong’s visceral and defiant second full-length collection weaves through rage and remembrance, immigrant experience and identity, and ceases to falter in intensity, imagery, and originality. 

The book begins with the poem “Mad” and Wong, talking about herself in the third person, does not mince words nor does she fill in the blanks for the reader (she literally leaves blanks spaces within several of her poems). “Jane, deceived by _____ time and time again” she begins. This poem sets the tone for the remaining twenty-six poems that vary widely in length and form and jump around in time and space coupling specific and sensorial experience with a complex family story. It seems safe to say these poems are autobiographical, however the narrative is non-linear and regularly crosses boundaries between the living and the dead, the hungry and the fed.

In “I Put on My Fur Coat” Wong writes defiantly “I defrost a chicken/ and chew on the bone.” This poem offers an excellent portrayal of someone simultaneously fierce and wounded. The poem concludes, “Am I the only animal in the room?” A poignant question which resonates with subsequent poems and characters. Later, in “I Haul the House Out of the Bay,” the act of clam digging conjures up images of a grandfather collecting food to “feed his children,” presumably during a time of great scarcity. She concludes “In the murky slough/ of day, I grit and dig, singing our long decay to sleep.” 

Food, in both desirable and undesirable forms—fresh and spoiled—is a touchstone in this book, being both a balm and sharp lens for watching the past morph into the present. In “After My Father Leaves, My Mother Opens a Window” the she recalls her mother’s cheeks were “blistered plums.” In “The Beet,” Wong excavates layers of memory, from her father’s jawline to her grandmother’s feet to her own lover, through the quotidian motion of slicing a beet. “How generous this bloodletting,” she writes. Similarly in “The Egg,” a smell transports the speaker to the scene of a slaughter—a mother with a cleaver beheading a chicken. Wong writes “Her reflection in the shine of it—her yolk-swamped eyes, the speckled luck of her brow, measuring the animal’s past life.” The language throughout this collection is lush and precise and always surprising, especially when food is involved.

The final poem “After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly” is a ravenous adventure in grief and longing. She writes “We smear durian    along our mouths, sing soft/death a lullaby.” The presumable “We” in this poems are the family members that have occupied this collection. Again, food is a central language, even when talking with ghosts. Wong asks, “What is love/ if not knotted in garlic?” The narrator is adored and hassled by ghosts, feeling the push and pull of family obligation, and how to carve out one’s own voice amongst it all. Wong concludes, “Tell us, little girl, are you/hungry, awake,       astonished enough?”

What is most appealing about this collection is that Wong refuses to let the reader walk away with a sense of resolution. There are open-ended questions about trauma, inequity, and deeply-rooted fear that linger alongside stunning imagery. There is unresolved anger and distrust. Audre Lorde writes, “Your silence will not protect you” and I appreciate Wong’s determination to be truthful, to name feelings and memories. This ability to speak, loud and unflinchingly, seems to be at the heart of how not to be afraid.