Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Albert J. Bell" and Unlikely Friendship

I've had many really neat experiences and opportunities because of my work as an author. Two of the most memorable experiences were being featured in a "Remembering Your Spirit" piece on Oprah and going to the White House. Number 3 on my own personal list of Pretty Neat Things was having "Albert J. Bell" (page 17 of A Suitcase of Seaweed) chosen for the NYC MTA program. I don't think they're still doing it, but they used to pick a handful of poems each year, print 5000 posters, and put them on the subways and buses. The other two poems (during the cycle when "Albert J. Bell" was up there) were Theodore Roethke's bat poem and William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright..." I felt enormously lucky to be #3 in that group.

Apart from being honored, what I loved most about those subway posters is: many people who aren't necessarily "poetry fans" (but who apparently read subway signs) told me that they saw my poem and loved it. And lots of people, I guess, have an "opposite friend" or "unlikely friend," the way Uncle Al was to my grandfather (and vice-versa).

Here's that poem about my grandfather's old friend (not my uncle; we just called him "Uncle Al"):

Albert J. Bell

Forty years of friendship
with my grandfather,
and still Uncle Al cannot eat
with chopsticks.

Forty years of friendship
with Uncle Al,
and still my grandfather forgets
to offer him a fork.

copyright 1996 by Janet S. Wong; all rights reserved


A question for you: do you have a friend who is very different from you in some way? How about your parents or grandparents and their friends? Write a poem about it! You don't have to post it here; just write a poem for yourself, for fun, to empty out your mind sometime when you've got 5 minutes with nothing to do.

If you do post it here, please make sure that it won't be misunderstood and there won't be any hurt feelings...otherwise, best to use it for "wastebasket basketball" practice...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Obligatory Jeremy Lin Post

Every blog that has anything to do with Asians needs to have a Jeremy Lin post this week, right? I'll start mine with a quote from Eric Liu's article at (2/13/12):

"Lin has made millions of Asian Americans feel vicariously, thrillingly embraced. Not invisible. Not presumed foreign. Just part of the team, belonging in the game. It’s felt like a breakout moment: for Lin, for Asian America and, thus, for America." (

And that was written BEFORE the last-second jumper in Toronto, a shot that brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched it (and the second time, and the third time, too).

"Not presumed foreign": I don't know how many times near-strangers have asked me, "What ARE you?" When I was 5 years old, with very short hair, I would answer "a girl." Of course this was not the answer they wanted. They wanted me to identify my heritage, to answer "I am Korean and Chinese." They did the same thing to Jeremy Lin: "What are you? Chinese or Taiwanese (or what)?" The answer: Lin's paternal side is Taiwanese, going back to the 1700s, while his maternal grandmother moved from China to Taiwan in the 1940s. Take a white basketball star; in the first week of his stardom, would people ask if his grandparents were from Germany or France? Would they care?

Moving on: Why do I, not even a basketball fan, get so choked up when Jeremy Lin leads the Knicks to a win? (I never got excited about Yao Ming.) 

I think the answer can be found in my poem "Other." But if I recognize my Asian American self in one quick glance when I see Jeremy Lin, how can I possibly object when people lump me together with all Asians?

The answer is: self-determination versus determination by others. Please don't lump me together with all other Asians. It's different if I do it myself. It's the difference between trying out a new diet and being starved as a prisoner-of-war; between hanging out in your room, enjoying some quiet time, and being grounded. While sometimes I might think of myself primarily as an Asian person, other days I will answer the question "What are you?" by saying that I am a writer, or a mom, or an Audi driver, or a potato chip eater, or an American who is very worried about our country's future and wants you to visit

Thinking more deeply about this now, I realize that I see Jeremy Lin as more than a fellow Asian American. I see him as a person who believed in himself when others did not, who patiently waited for his big chance and did a great job when he got it. As a person who generously shares praise with his friends and teammates. And you know what? I like to think of myself--the best parts of myself--in the very same way. (One of these days I'm going to write the next Goodnight Moon--I just know it!)

Let's hear it for believing in our unproven talents...three cheers for Linsanity!!!

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Note about Identification

Sad to have to say this...but some parents and others seem to be concerned about teens posting their last names at my blog. I find this to be funny because this is not exactly (or, rather, definitely NOT) the kind of blog where a stalker would hang out. "Library Lover on the Loose--watch out!"

Indeed, I doubt that anyone knows about this blog except for the teachers, librarians, and teen readers that I've directed here--and I think we're a pretty safe and trustworthy crowd.

But this is a creepy world, so: please think twice about what you're posting and how you identify yourself. No need to leave your last name when you post a comment here (or at any blog). No need to put your real name(s) at all! I welcome a post from Pippi Orangepeel, The Potato Chip Monster, or A Fan of JW. (I would love a post from A Fan of JW!!)

If you'd like your post deleted because you used your whole name, just let me know. Unfortunately I don't think I'm able to delete only your name; I have to delete the whole post.

If none of this concerns you, hooray! And please post on!!

Questions, Anyone?

What would you like to ask about the poems in A Suitcase of Seaweed? Post your question in a comment!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Your Own Stories and Poems

I really love it when readers are inspired by my work. Did any of the poems or prose pieces in A Suitcase of Seaweed inspire you to remember a family story or to write a poem of your own? If so, please tell us which poem inspired you, why--and post a short excerpt of your poem or story below!

Your Favorite Poems from the Book

Which are your favorite poems from A Suitcase of Seaweed? Tell us 1-3 favorites in a comment below. At the end of the week, I'll tally the nominations and put the top 5 in a survey poll. I have my own definite favorite poem from the book (not because it's the "best" but because it has a strong personal meaning for me). Maybe it's your favorite, too? I'll put it in the survey, and we'll see!

Who Are You? Labeling Ourselves

I sold the manuscript for my second book, A Suitcase of Seaweed, in 1994. At the time, it was an unstructured, unthemed, and unillustrated collection of poems due to be published in Fall 1996.

In Summer 1995, I was one of the writers-in-residence at the USC Writing Project (part of the National Writing Project). Each day I joined a group of teachers to write and talk about writing. One of our daily projects was a journal that prompted me to want, desperately, to have illustrations in A Suitcase of Seaweed. I called my editor Margaret McElderry to ask if this was possible. She explained that my poems "didn't require" illustrations and, in fact, illustrations would interfere with the reader's imagination. I begged. She said I could have "three, black-and-white, very small; you can draw them yourself; and they must be finished next week." Three! How could I choose only 3 poems to illustrate?!

And then it hit me: my identity was clearly divided into 3 parts--my Korean self (from my immigrant mother), my Chinese self (from my immigrant father), and my American me (born and raised in California). I wrote three prose introduction pieces for each section, did three line drawings, and then sorted the poems quickly, trying not to think too much, and indeed putting some poems in one category versus another for purely whimsical and even arbitrary reasons.

Pretty ridiculous, really--but the way we choose to define ourselves (and the way others choose to define us) one day versus another can be a ridiculous thing, too, sometimes purely whimsical and arbitrary.

How do you define yourself? If you had to limit your whole self to 3 black-and-white drawings, what would you draw? If you had to divide all of your identity and experience into three categories, how would you label those categories?