Episode 15: Jennifer Wong

Jennifer Wong

Jennifer Wong was born and brought up in Hong Kong. She now lives in the UK and works as a writer, translator and teacher.

She has published three collections: Goldfish (2013), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl - a pamphlet with Bitter Melon Poetry (2019), and most recently Letters Home 回家 , published by Nine Arches Press in 2020, which was selected as a Wild Card Choice by the Poetry Book Society.

Jennifer’s critical and creative work and her translations have appeared in magazines and journals such as World Literature TodayThe RialtoMagmaPrairie SchoonerThe Poetry Review, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Jennifer won a Young Artist Award from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 2014 and was the runner-up in the Bi’an Writers Awards in 2018.

Having studied as an undergraduate at Oxford, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and then a PhD at Oxford Brookes University about identity, otherness and home in contemporary Chinese diasporic poetry. Jennifer is an Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes and also teaches at The Poetry School and City Lit in London.

Jennifer’s collection, Letters Home 回家 , is split into five sections: ‘the ground beneath our feet’, ‘speak, silence, speak’, ‘Mountain City’, ‘just an immigrant’, and ‘remember to forget’. As these section titles indicate, the book covers a remarkable amount of territory - both literal and metaphorical, and it charts Jennifer’s growth as a person and as a poet. It is very much grounded in real places and down to earth in the ways that it treats real people, such as members of her family or Chinese writers such as Ba Jin or Bei Dao. Yet it is also at times a book about dreams and how dreams don’t always correspond with reality, especially for someone who has migrated from one country to another. These poems frequently offer subtle critiques of prejudice and oppression and explore the challenges of finding a home in the world, and they interrogate the kind of language that we use to describe our experiences.

In this podcast, Jennifer reads and discusses four poems: ‘of butterflies’, ‘Girls from my class’, ‘My father, who taught me how to fold serviette penguins’, and ‘Truths 2.0’. She explores topics such as the relationship between her past and present life, how far the Chinese family might be perceived as ‘a perfect state of happiness’, her use of Cantonese and English languages in the poems, her formal choices for these poems, and the challenges of writing about the recent Hong Kong protests.

You can read the poems that Jennifer discusses below and you can order a copy of Letters Home 回家 from the Nine Arches website, as well as the usual retailers. You can also visit Jennifer’s own website and follow her on Twitter.

of butterflies

Zhuang Zi said             
the man does not know 

if he dreams of a butterfly
or is it the butterfly dreams 

of a man. It is unclear
who awakens first  or from where. 

Neither do I 
know      after all these years 

if I am a Chinese girl who
wanted to go home 

or a woman from Hong Kong
who will stay in England. 

It's British summer time
in my living room 

but my watch in the drawer
moves seven hours ahead. 

The past: is the door still open?
The future: am I a filial daughter, 

living so far away from my parents?
Wearing her marmalade camouflage, 

the butterfly of unknowing
pollinates in one world              and another.

by Jennifer Wong

Girls from my class

The best girls in my class never wore a blazer. Just royal blue 棉納 lined
with camel silk. Carol filled her journal with UFOs and disappearances. At
home Denise was banned from watching 衝上雲霄. If you don’t blow-dry
your hair, you’ll be cursed with lifelong headaches. My first year of high
school, I failed English because I wasn’t sure what an essay was. Mother
never praised me except for my ability to spit out the thinnest fishbones.
For a long time I wanted to be a nun because they looked so tranquil, so
perfect. My classmates knew how I loved my Chinese teacher, my
exercise book filled with her smiles, her dresses. I never travelled
anywhere before eighteen. When I first arrived in England I couldn’t
believe how big the country was, me, who never had a proper country to
start with. Then the day that first man I thought the world of pushed me
down and said I’d love to do it with you on the floor. If you keep digging,
sooner or later you might reach a volcano. And that day you decided to be
a poet, what on earth were you thinking?

by Jennifer Wong

My father, who taught me how to fold serviette penguins

I was eight or nine when I saw you practise / folding
serviette penguins. For a long time, / Christmas was a
matter of watching fireworks on television / mother trying
not to let her feelings show. / And those evenings you
came home / too tired to speak / your voice already spent
with the customers. / Thirteen hours of pacing around
dining rooms / impeccable cutlery well-ironed table linen
other families’ / happiness under the chandeliers / that’s
what work is, has been, for you / since you turned eighteen
/ and for all the fathers in the golden eighties / it’s been
a hard day’s night / a husband must provide /as long as
he is alive. I try to think about / who you really were, a
schoolboy before duty / your father who never offered
your mother / a kind word, a kiss / but he kept a white
shiny statue of Mao / long after the cult was over. / You
never finished high school / because your father said / he
couldn’t tolerate the idea of excessive schooling, a sign
Of moral corruption or 嘥錢. / The day I was accepted for
the school / on 1 Jordan Road, where the school drive
glittered with Mercedes, we knew / we were moving
beyond our league. / And yet, and yet, it suddenly
seemed / as if something was brightening again in you /
something that has nothing to do with table napkins

by Jennifer Wong

Truths 2.0

Incoming: I smell tear gas everywhere. 

Imagine there are no countries. 

Once upon a time I lived in a place where the metro was never late. Everything ran
like clockwork, and it was so safe you could walk to Tsui Wah for a bowl of wonton
noodles at midnight. 

There’s no word in the dictionary for this. 

Someone said to me, young people are the same all over the world. 

He gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell. 

Since June, my screen time has increased by a hundred and fifty percent. I go to the
news as soon as I wake up and right before going to sleep, concerned something
might break out again when I am out in the supermarket or picking up my daughter. 

I think of my former boss, a very wise woman. If she were here, she’d know what to do. 

Karen’s advice: stop torturing yourself.

Think of your parents, think of how much you love them. Smell that fear. 

Incoming: let’s not give up goodness. It is in real danger.

A mosaic of dreamers despite the rain. Despite the heavy rain.


The world will never forget.

by Jennifer Wong