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Exploring the art of prose

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Author: Amber Wong


Author’s Note

Food, for my extended family, is a cultural mainstay. We are that family who plans for dinner while eating lunch. We mark time by meal memory, as in, “The last time I saw you was when you cooked sticky rice meatballs!” We revel in taste and texture, eager to share new gustatory delights.

When we eat soup at banquet dinners, we hold our Chinese spoons with an index finger down the crease. I’m not sure why, other than I’m sure our grandmother made us. Ma-Ma—born and raised in the San Francisco Chinatown of the early 1900s—was quick to rap our tiny hands with her chopsticks when she caught us breaching any kind of table etiquette.

For this essay, I excised the short descriptions of soups that I’d written as bookmarks for my memoir-in-progress and used them as the backbone of a short essay that highlights formative stages of my life. Each soup represents a theme on opposing sides of the spectrum: scarcity vs. wealth, unfamiliarity vs. comfort. I chose soups to open each chapter of my memoir because soup, the first course in a traditional Chinese banquet, tantalizes the palate and portends the meal to come.

This essay begins in childhood, with basic themes: resources are limited; respect your elders. Over time, rigid Chinese family values give way to nuanced American family values, just as the strength of stone is weathered by water. The narratives lengthen in the last two parts when these themes converge into an imperfect whole.

In a way, my evolution as a writer mirrors the unfolding in my essay. I’ve been influenced by Philip Lopate, who told me, “Remember—essays should track the writer’s consciousness; they don’t need to have a point.” Left unsaid, but critical to the genre, was that the interrogation was the point, and it needed to be robust enough to elevate the prose above simple journaling. At first, the idea of posing unanswered questions clashed with my engineering training. Leaving things unexplained, up to the reader’s interpretation, felt lazy and unfinished, almost glib. What was the right answer? It took time—and the realization that in many situations, there are no right answers—to free myself from forcing an argument through to its “logical” conclusion.

Fortunately, that change in outlook made a huge difference in my writing style and in the breadth of topics I choose to write about. I can breathe a sigh of relief; I don’t need to be a subject expert. That ambiguity provides space for me to explore and discover, to test the boundaries of facts and feelings, to accept that I’m just one of many who seeks, through writing, to make sense of the world.

 


AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites, although usually not all in the same essay. Recent work has been published in Pangyrus, Creative Nonfiction, Stanford Magazine, The Plentitudes, and The Sunlight Press, among others. New work will appear in Fourteen Hills, under the gum tree, and the anthology The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University. She is currently working on a memoir.