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This West Chester Doctor Tackles Mental Health and Identity in Her Newest YA Novel

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Photo By Tessa Marie Images

Unfortunately, there are no pot stickers. And given the prominent role they play in Dr. Ilene Wong’s new novel, it’s a bit disappointing that she’s not holding a tray of them when she opens the front door of her West Chester home. Wong herself is like a pot sticker—a tiny package filled with layers of flavors.

A surgical specialist with Academic Urology, a wife to an accomplished composer and the mother of two kids, Wong practices at Chester County, Paoli and Brandywine hospitals. And while medicine is her profession, writing is her passion. She pens young adult fiction under the name I.W. Gregorio, using her initials and the last name of her husband, Joe.

No matter what you call her, Wong is in the midst of a fascinating literary career. April marks the release of This Is My Brain in Love (Little, Brown, 384 pages), a novel that mixes teen romance with racial identities, socio-economic status, mental health and food. In A-Plus Chinese Garden, the tasty but unprofitable restaurant run by Jocelyn Wu’s family, the main character meets Will Domenici. A high school journalist with a head for business, Will also has a palate developed by the home cooking of his Nigerian-born mother. He falls in love with Jocelyn and her grandmother’s pot stickers simultaneously. But family tensions and their own mental health struggles threaten to keep them apart.

If that sounds like a heady brew, it’s par for the course with Wong, whose first YA novel, None of the Above, features a high school heroine grappling with her identity after a failed tryst with her boyfriend. Released in 2016, it was one of the first books to tackle the topic of androgen insensitivity syndrome, an intersex medical condition resulting in genitalia that don’t fall into stereotypical male or female categories.

Kristin Lattimer, None of the Above’s princess protagonist, looks like a beautiful young woman—and she is. But she’s also genetically male and has testicles secured deep inside her body. “It’s incredibly common,” says Wong. “Some studies
say that as many as one in 2,000 people are intersex.”

Now in its fifth hardcover and second paperback printings, None of the Above has sold more than 20,000 copies. A Hollywood production company also optioned it for a potential TV series.

Sitting in her well-appointed living room, Dr. Ilene Wong reflects on the yearlong whirlwind that followed None of the Above’s release. She credits part of the book’s success to an increased awareness about LGBTQA issues and gender fluidity. “It was the year gay YA took off,” she says. “It felt like I was part of a movement.”

Wong helped foster that movement— at least in its literary form. She’s a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit coalition of authors and booksellers advocating for increased representation in the publishing world.

Wong came face-to-face with that lack of inclusivity when she tried to sell her first book, a thinly veiled autobiography about a first-generation Chinese American girl in upstate New York. It was good enough to land her a literary agent, but not a book deal. “Publishers said they already had one Asian female YA writer and there could be only one,” she says.

Months after that, Wong met the real-life 16-year-old intersex patient who inspired None of the Above. During the fifth year of her medical residency, she surgically removed the girl’s gonads, but couldn’t find adequate post-op support for her patient. “The medical community was failing to provide adequate care for an entire population,” Wong says. “They are stigmatized and struggle every day to have people acknowledge their identity. As a writer and urologist, I wanted to
tell this story.”

Wong hasn’t always had faith in her other career choices—or herself. Although she followed an academic yellow brick road from the University of Pennsylvania to Johns Hopkins University, Yale University School of Medicine and Stanford University Medical Center, those years were darkened by Wong’s struggle with depression. It first hit in her senior year at Penn. She sought professional help but soldiered through without medication and without telling her family. “It would be a sign of weakness,” Wong says. “I think a lot of Asian kids hide their depression. My family would’ve told me to just work harder.”

The depression lifted, only to return years later. “During the research year of my medical residency, I got severely depressed,” she says.

Wong recalls being moody, feeling hopeless and crying a lot. But hope was actually abundant—Wong was almost finished with her medical education. “If you spoke to 8-year-old Ilene Wong, she’d say she’d grow up to be a writer,” admits Wong. “The medicine came second.”

Photo By Tessa Marie Images.

Then 32, Wong sought the care of a psychiatrist, who put her on Prozac. It wasn’t Wong’s first attempt at medication, but this time, it worked.

They’d been dating for a years before Wong talked about her depression with her husband. Knowing that he’s a holistic advocate, she was hesitant to tell Gregorio about the Prozac. “He was concerned it would change my personality,” she says. “Joe questioned why I would put medication in my body.”

Then he saw how much Prozac had helped Wong, and he endorsed her decision. To this day, her depression isn’t something she discusses readily.

Now, she’s writing about it.

In many ways, This Is My Brain in Love is a revamped version of Wong’s unsold first novel. It’s set in her hometown of Utica, N.Y., and the heroine is first-generation Chinese American. Both protagonist and author are descendants of physicians with high expectations for their progeny. And the story includes mental illness, the disclosure of it and the role it plays in romance and life.

Not surprisingly, This Is My Brain in Love wasn’t easy for Wong to write. The manuscript went through several changes, and Wong ended up leaving her publisher in the process. She and her literary agent made the risky but potentially lucrative decision to sell the manuscript at auction to the publishing house that made the best offer.

In spring 2018, Wong was about to remove a kidney at Chester County Hospital when her literary agent called to tell her the results of the auction. There was a patient on the operating table, so Wong let the call go to voicemail. “It was a bit of a cliff hanger,” she says with a laugh. “In that case, the medicine came first and the writing came second.”

Little, Brown and Company bought This is my Brain in Love for an undisclosed but tidy sum that reflects the publisher’s confidence in the author. The book’s April release marks a new chapter in her literary career. As she did with None of the Above, Wong plans to use her new book to shine a spotlight on an underserved population.

As Wong knows all too well, teen mental health is little discussed among Asians, blacks and other people of color. Wong wants to host seminars that bring mental healthcare to people who need it, removing the stigma and the shame from conversations about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. She’s now ready to discuss her own experiences, turn them into advocacy for other people and bring awareness to a little-discussed topic.

“In addition to being a good story, I hope the book is a conduit to honest conversations about teen mental health,” says Wong.

An Excerpt from This is My Brain in Love

This is a mostly happy story. It’s important for you to know this because if there’s anything I hate the most, it’s a book that makes your emotions feel like a child’s overloved comfort toy being flung around a washing machine. The ones where it seems like the story’s all beautiful and nothing hurts, until someone kicks the bucket at the end, tearing a hole in your belly and removing organs that you didn’t know existed.

I’d rather know ahead of time whether to bring tissues. It’s just better for your heart,
you know?

I say this to you because I want you to be reassured. I want you to know so when the story ends with me staring at a pill bottle, wrestling with what to do with it, you’re prepared.

It’ll all be okay. I promise.

This is My Brain on Bankruptcy

JOCELYN

Irony: The year I decide that central New York isn’t a total dump after all, my dad finally admits that it was a mistake to move here.

It’s one of the rare days that my whole family gets to spend together. Usually my parents trade off running the register downstairs in the restaurant, because they’re incapable of trusting anyone else to do it, but when our water main breaks in the middle of the lunch rush, we can’t get a plumber to come in until dinnertime.

Image By Michele Melcher.

My brother and I greet the news like it’s a snow day. Family meal! Amah, our grandma, won’t be doing prep work, so she can help Alan with his algebra! We won’t need to help with cleanup after we’ve finished our homework, so maybe I’ll finally have time to work on the screenplay I’m writing with Priya!

The excitement dims pretty quickly, though, when I see that my mom’s almost at the point of tears when she writes the CLOSE FOR REPAIR sign that I edit to read CLOSED FOR REPAIRS.

I start to get really worried when I watch my dad pour PeptoBismol for his dinner instead of his usual chrysanthemum tea, so I pay more attention than usual to the heated conversation my parents have in their bedroom. I basically speak Mandarin at the thirdgrade level, never really having applied myself at the Mohawk Valley Chinese Association’s weekly language school, but even I can pick out the words “expensive” and “no money” and “back to New York City.”

After a long phone call, my dad finally sits down at the din ner table. It’s littered with the usual hodgepodge of microwaved kitchen leftovers. The moo shu pork looks particularly deflated.

My mom looks at him expectantly, almost hopefully. He nods and looks at the rest of us. Amah and I look at him, but my brother is too busy stuffing his face with a dayold egg roll to actually notice that my dad’s joined us.

“Alan,” my dad says sharply. He waits for Alan’s fivesecond attention span to focus before he says, “Second Uncle says man ager at Queens branch of his restaurant go back to China. May be time to go back to the city.”

The silence after his announcement is suffocating, like someone’s hoovered away all the life in the room. Living over a restaurant, you get used to a constant soundtrack of activity underlying your life. There’s always the sound of chopping, or the clank of a wok banging against a stove, or someone shouting or cursing in Chinese.

My amah is the first one to make a sound. It’s a soft, noncommittal hum. Two notes, questioning, neither approving nor disapproving.

Alan, still chewing, manages only a shrug and a “Huh,” which makes no sense because he’s the one who’s spent the majority of his life here.

So it’s up to me to say loudly, “No.” Because we can’t move. Not now, after I’ve found an actual bubble tea place in this god forsaken backwater. Not now, when I’ve finally got a chance to take a film class at the local college. Not now, when I’ve painstakingly identified a group of people I can tolerate as friends, and even found a best friend.

My mom’s looking down at her hands, and my dad’s glaring at me, so I elaborate. “Dad, please say you’re kidding. I’ve literally spent the last six years of my life complaining about moving to central New York, and you want to give up the restaurant now?”

My dad bristles at my tone (I swear, there are actual hairs at the crown of his head that stick up when he’s agitated). Alan’s eyes dart back and forth between my dad and me. With his cheeks still full of food, he looks like a squirrel watching a tennis match.

“Xiao Jia” is all he says, his voice low and warning.

I back down and try a different tack. “But … what about the schools? They’re amazing. You know I’m already set up to take a college class in the fall. And the restaurant has a following now.” Not a big one, but there are definitely regulars. “What if Alan takes over my deliveries so I can work the counter more and we, like, start a Facebook account or something. For free advertising. Checkins, you know. It’s a thing.”

“Why are you only thinking of this now?” Dad asks. “You have been working at restaurant for forever, and never do no thing.” The worry lines on his forehead have morphed from frustration into suspicion. It’s a subtle shift, but a familiar one.

I don’t say: “Because the place sucks the soul out of the living.”

Instead I say: “I didn’t realize how desperate things were. I thought we were doing okay.” Looking back, I can see the signs. When Mr. Chen went back to Kaohsiung to be with his family, we never replaced him. My mom worked double shifts instead, and my dad started to do his accounting and ordering at the restaurant so he could lend a hand when things got busy. Suddenly a lot of little things make sense: why my mom would scold me when I’d leave the light on after leaving a room, why Alan couldn’t go on his sixthgrade field trip to Great Adventure, why they canceled our Netflix subscription so I had to “borrow” Priya’s login information to feed my prestige TV and film addiction.

“Has this been going on for years?” I ask my dad, horrified. His bowed head, and his silence, are my answer.

A few years ago, there was a 5.0 earthquake on the East Coast, with its epicenter in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was a pretty big deal and caused some minor property damage (coming from the West Coast, of course, Priya rolled her eyes and sent out a meme about lawn chairs being knocked over). I’ll never for get how my body felt in that brief moment of shift: paralyzed yet at the same time pushed by an outside force terrifyingly beyond my control.

I feel the same sensation right now. And I think: This is it. This is the “Nothing Is the Same Anymore” trope.

When I started hanging out with Priya and really started getting into film—not just watching movies, but analyzing them—it was kind of a buzzkill to realize that so many of the movies that gave me joy as a kid were actually pretty formulaic. Priya and I would have “Name That Trope” movie nights during freshman year (I usually won, because her parents majorly limited her screen time, whereas mine were so busy with the restaurant I could usually sneak in some TV with my amah). But as our game evolved from a joke into a way of seeing life, I realized that tropes are more than just clichés. They’re neither good nor bad. They simply are, like earlobes and WinniethePooh. They’re a reminder that all stories are cut from the same cloth, with pat terns that are recognizable, even when they’re unique and surprising. Seeing these patterns helps us make sense of the world, helps give us a framework for navigating what might come next.

What comes next for me is the “Big First Choice” trope. Am I going to go gentle into that good night, or am I going to be dragged kicking and screaming from the life I’ve finally built for myself?

Come on, like you really had to ask.

I start off with appealing to my dad’s natural tightwad tendencies. “You can’t really want to move back to New York. Didn’t you mention last week that Second Uncle’s parking space costs more than our rent?” We left the city when I was pretty young, but I remember him constantly complaining about the traffic, the rude customers, and how Second Uncle lorded over him. “Where would we live? Alan and I are too old to sleep in the same bedroom anymore.”

“You think I haven’t think of this?” my dad grits out. “You think you so smart?”

“Aiya, Baba,” my mom murmurs, putting a hand on my dad’s arm before things escalate. “Ta xiang bangzhu ni.”

Dad’s nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath, and he rubs his hand over his eyes.

I regroup and try a different approach. “Baba. Mom’s right. I’m sorry I haven’t been more involved in the restaurant. I just want to help. Let me look at the numbers, brainstorm some strategy—that commerce elective you made me take has got to be worth something, right?”

Even as I say it, I get the sinking feeling that my dad’s right. It’s arrogant for me to imagine that I can swoop in with ideas from a high school Intro to Business class and turn around a restaurant that’s been floundering for years. It’s a measure of how desperate the situation is that my dad just throws up his hands and mutters, “Haoba, suibian ni,” which is the equivalent of “Fine, try it your way.”

I take it as a win. For now.

Excerpt courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.