When Assistant Professor of English Jane Wong was a little girl, she would run across the street from her parents’ Chinese restaurant in Shrewsbury, New Jersey to the public library to pile up stacks of books and read for hours.
Growing up with the library right across the street, Wong quickly became friends with the librarians and made it a second home. One day while she was reading, she began thinking to herself, “I want this to happen in the story though. Why is what I want to happen not happening?” It clicked for her; she thought, “I can make what I want to happen in these stories by writing them myself.”
Now, Wong, winner of Washington's 2017 James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award from the Artist Trust and Frye Art Museum Consortium, is doing readings of her own book of poems, “Overpour” in public libraries across Washington.
“The book, thinking about its larger emotional themes, is about the feeling of being overwhelmed by the world, interpersonal relationships, and my family’s history. It is that feeling of always wanting so desperately to clear a space for a new self to enter but there is so much happening in the world that it is overwhelming,” Wong said.
In her next book, which she is currently working on, she wants to focus more on how she grew up. Wong feels “Overpour” is about toughness and she hopes her next book can be about the moments of vulnerability that led up to her toughness.
Although her next book is not published yet, Wong has already received the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for excerpts from it. The award is given to “Washington State artists of any discipline whose work demonstrates exceptional originality. The awards are intended to support artistic excellence and the development of new ideas through individual and collaborative projects,” according to Artist Trust’s website. Wong was awarded $50,000 and the chance to present her work in the future at the Frye Art Museum.
Wong knew she was up against a wide range of different types of artists, so she said she felt honored just to be nominated.
“The award means so many things to me. When I found out the news my first thought was ‘I can take my mother on vacation’ which is kind of silly but my mom has never been on vacation and she has worked night shifts at the U.S. Postal Service for so long. I felt relieved. For all the hard work and sacrifice my mom put in as a single mother, I can give her something where she can just relax,” Wong said. “As a kid, I would dream of writing books and I didn’t think it could ever actually happen. The award was also an extra confidence boost. There is a lot of exciting new work that I will doing in the next few years so it will definitely help.”
Since Wong is a literary artist, she said bringing her words to life at the Frye Art Museum exhibit will be a fun challenge. This opportunity is special for Wong particularly because her family does not speak fluent English.
“I published ‘Overpour’ and they were very proud of me. I gave them a few copies but did they read it? I don’t know. If they did, it didn’t translate in the way that was immediately accessible because of language barriers,” Wong said. “The possibility of my family walking into the Frye, a free gallery, and being able to reach my work in an immediately visceral way is really cool.”
Planning for the Frye Art Museum Exhibit will take a few years and Wong said she hopes to have her second book done by the end of this summer. For now, she wants to focus on enjoying her first year at Western and getting to know her students and the Bellingham area.
Wong began teaching English at Western last September. She said she loves trying out new things and is always trying to push herself in the classroom. Currently, her Introduction to Poetry class has an Instagram account where they track their process of writing and post about what inspires them to create their own poems.
Wong said she found a sense of home within the public library across the street from her parents’ restaurant, and she has also found a similar feeling here at Western.
“It feels good that the rest of my colleagues, the staff and students are invested in my future career. My hope is to be here for quite some time,” Wong said.