I’ve read rather a lot of Janet Wong’s back catalog this year, and today, my second-to-last day of the Sealey Challenge 2021, I read another: Good Luck Gold and Other Poems, originally published in 1994 (I had that shirt then too, btw), and just as relevant today as it was then.
Good Luck Gold is a damn good book of poetry. I’ve said this with everything (this, this, this, and especially this) I’ve read by Wong this year, but while it may have been written for younger readers, Good Luck Gold can be read—and appreciated—by anyone, at any age. It packs a hell of a punch, too, in this time of anti-Asian hate crimes and rising xenophobia, littered with the ghosts of those who came before and the sorrow and pain and anger of those who suffer now.
Wong has a deft touch: she moves between poems that starkly expose the racism and xenophobia faced by Asian Americans to poems celebrating her own Chinese and Korean American heritage. “Jade,” about all the power imbued in a jade, is a mix of funny and tender, a reminder of the deep love surrounding our narrator and the cultural traditions her family carries. (I should add, when I say it’s funny, that I worry about my mother’s fragile bones, and laugh so I will not cry.)
“All Mixed Up,” a meditation on othering, is built around the word “multicultural”—but, really, it’s built around microaggressions. It’s a powerful poem, whether read by kids or by adults, and Wong builds to a crushing climax as she wonders why her teacher calls her “multicultural”: “Why does my teacher love that word? / Is it something she ate— / or something she heard? / Loud drums / beating in the park? / Does she call me / multicultural / because my skin is / dark?” She also tackles the model minority myth in “Math”: “‘Asians are quiet. Asians like numbers.’ / Me, I like to shout.”
Wong doesn’t just explore microaggressions: she gets into violence, too, ranging from slurs to xenophobic aggression. In “Waiting at the Railroad Cafe” she links anti-Asian racism to the anti-Asian violence of America’s past: “‘Consider this part of your education,’ / Dad says. I wonder how long / we’ll be ignored, like hungry ghosts / of Chinese men who laid this track, / never making their journeys back / but leaving milestones and signposts / to follow. ‘Why do they treat us so wrong?’ / I wonder. ‘Don’t they know we’re on vacation?’” It’s a painful line in a painful poem, the racist violence she and her father face an echo of the racist violence faced by the very men who laid the tracks themselves coupled with moments of a child’s innocence.
Good Luck Gold is a powerful book, an unstinting exploration of racism and xenophobia, a celebration of the warmth and depth of familial bonds. In between she looks at the difficulties of family life, at loss and death, at life and its complexities. Good Luck Gold was written for kids, and would be a wonderful discussion piece—but it is a book for everyone, worth more than one reading.