Jane Wong’s Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is a stunning coming-of-age memoir.
The title of my debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City, is a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” so of course this book is low key obsessed with music and storytelling. My memoir is a love song for low-income immigrant families. For the storytellers in our families and their wildly gesticulating arms (I see you side-eyed aunties). For those who save the bones to make soup. For those drawers of plastic bags in plastic bags. This book is a rally cry for radical Asian Americans, for restaurant babies, for tender daughters, for rats who want more than to just survive. This list is a mix of songs that are referenced directly in the book, and some of these songs reflect the vibe. I’m always amazed at how songs can bring back memories with such visceral ache, vibrational longing, and overflowing joy.
- “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen
I could add the entirety of Springsteen’s Nebraska album to this list, which is one of my personal favorites of the Boss’s. There’s something about the pared down acoustics where the songwriting really whistles through. The first part of the chorus in “Atlantic City” has stayed with me for years: “Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” When writing my memoir, which begins with my father gambling in Atlantic City, I had this song in my mind. My father’s addiction cost him the restaurant and his family. That second line: “but maybe everything that dies someday comes back” has a bit of hope to it – despite my father not being in my life. The last scene of that title chapter has this imagined future scene with me and my father, walking down the boardwalk together, listening to the waves. This title chapter also speaks to the larger story of how immigrants are targeted by casinos – thinking about how gambling buses pick up from Chinatowns across the country. “But I got debts that no honest man can pay/So I drew what I had from the Central Trust/And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.” What I love about Bruce’s work is how he delves into class, into the daily grind of how to make do with what you’ve got.
- “You’re Me and I’m You,” Black Belt Eagle Scout
I love this song and I’m a big fan of Katherine Paul and Black Belt Eagle Scout – who I’ve been lucky enough to see perform multiple times. This song is off At the Party with My Brown Friends. This memoir is first and foremost a massive love fest for my mom – which all my books are. My mom is everything to me; I joke around that I’m like the knock-off brand cereal version of her. I love the mirrored opening lyrics of this song: “My mother, my mom/My mother, my mom./Just like yours, she’s my mom/Just like you, she’s my mom.” How gorgeous is that? This interwoven matrilineal link. In my book, there’s this one line from “White Hair”: “She cooed to me, my Bao Bao, my Red Rabbit, my Rat Baby. She squeezed me so close to her breast, I felt her organs link with mine.”
- “Misery is a Butterfly,” Blonde Redhead
I saw Blonde Redhead play when I graduated college, back when I was trying so hard to be a baby hipster. They were playing at the McCarren Park Pool – a free show that was full of white hipster kids in cut-off jeans and vintage babydoll dresses. I had really thick bangs at the time. My memoir also interrogates the depths of my internalized racism. In “Give Us Our Crowns,” I try to unravel my relationship to whiteness – and why white men seemed to be obsessed with this vision of me as the Asian pixie dream girl. And how it took me so long to fully see and reckon with this. The song has a kind of buzzing insect quality in the background – a sense of unease. Also, the opening lyrics: “Dearest Jane I should’ve known better.” In Kazu Makino’s solo album Adult Baby (Blonde Redhead was made up of Kazu Makino and the twins Simone and Amedeo Pace), she sings: “I bet you’re salty.” There’s definitely some salt here in reflecting on my internalized racism… salty exhaustion, salty grief, salty longing for the real, full me – beyond constant fantasy.
- “Racist, Sexist Boy,” The Linda Lindas
The Linda Lindas play this song at the LA public library, which feels absolutely perfect. I love the ferocity of this band and holy shit do they rock out. I love this song for its spitting rage – and shared rage too: “We rebuild what you destroy/You are a racist, sexist boy.” Definitely a major vibe in my book, i.e. the litany of what creepy racist men have said to me in the chapter “The Object of Love.” I wish I had this band when I was their age!
- “Independent Women, Part 1,” Destiny’s Child
This song appears in “The Object of Love.” And it was a song that my mom would sing at the top of her lungs after my father left our family. We’d go to the beach after 4pm, when it was free and pretty much empty. In our busted, always-rattling car, we’d drive with the windows down, feeling the salty air on our tongues. She only knew one lyric: “I depend on me.” Earlier, in another chapter, she tells me that, if she had a choice, she’d be alone (she was arranged to marry my father). Yet, when I listen to this song again, I keep returning to shared networks of care. It’s not so much “I depend on me” but rather “we depend on each other.”
- “Be Sweet,” Japanese Breakfast
I teach the memoir Crying in H Mart in my Asian American literature classes and it’s definitely not a secret how much I admire Michelle Zauner and Japanese Breakfast. I love the upbeat, dance-able quality of this song – which I feel is juxtaposed with something a bit more insidious. Sweetness feels sickly here. My memoir also speaks to some of my controlling ex-boyfriends. This line always gives me the creeps: “So come and get your woman/Pacify her rage.”
- “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” Celine Dion
This song appears in the book, in “Ghost Archive (Look Again).” My mom is a huge Celine Dion fan. She loves the absolute drama of Celine’s voice. Each rendition of this chorus builds with intensity. This particular song appears in a scene where my family and I are celebrating Grave Sweeping Day, cleaning our ancestors’ graves and feasting for them in the afterlife. I feel like my ancestors would have freaking loved Celine. It’s a holiday of extravagant remembrance (replete with firecrackers) and I remember this song blaring from the car radio at the (usually quiet) cemetery.
- “Dreams,” Faye Wong (The Cranberries cover in Chungking Express)
To hear a song in your lost baby language is so weird. I tried to learn how to sing this, if only to feel more Cantonese. Faye Wong is known for her roles in Wong Kar-wai films like Chungking Express (1994) and 2046 (2004). I am thinking of this song specifically in relation to the movie, where her character dances around Cop 663 (Tony! Leung!)’s apartment, pouring goldfish in an aquarium, wearing cute yellow sunglasses. I can’t listen to the song without seeing the Chungking Express scenes. This song appears in the chapter “A Jane by Any Other Name.”
- “Reading Rainbow,” Tina Fabrique
Obviously, this is the classic theme song for LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow – a show I watched obsessively, surrounded by my tote bag of library books.The song has a pretty trippy beat. This song sounds galactic. As a kid who didn’t speak out loud in public until the fifth grade, stewing in my silence, reading sent me to so many fantastical worlds: “I can go anywhere.” I know this feel like a random pick for a playlist, but I was at a party once and the DJ put this song on – no kidding – and the crowd went absolutely wild.
- “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me”), Whitney Houston
This song is a shout-out to my mom and stepdad’s USPS night shift carpool. There’s a chapter in the book about night shift and Whitney’s song (besides being a karaoke and wedding classic) is always strategically on – for safety, since you can’t fall asleep with Whitney. At 2am, Whitney keeps them company.
- “Tenderness,” Jay Som
I was having a really difficult week and this song by Jay Som came on, a reminder of tenderness – a major theme of the memoir. This song is off her album Anak Ko. “Tenderness” is dreamy, vulnerable, and powerful in its gauzy softness. In the blunt ache of the lines “Nothing’s ever good enough,” what follows is: “Tenderness is all I’ve got.”And that feels really true. Tenderness is what I have, and it’s hard to stay tender sometimes. And yet, here I am: tender as hell.