Review of Islanders by Teow Lim Goh

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If I don’t tell her story

we cannot see her,

and without a reason for her being,

how will we let her survive?

–from “Her Story,” page 71

As a follower of Conundrum Press—a small publishing house based in Denver, Colorado which specialises in quality, literary titles—I was very pleased to hear about the publication of this poetry collection back in July.

To give some background to the collection, between 1910 and 1940 as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and processed at Angel Island Immigration Station which is just off the coast of San Francisco, California.[1] They had made the long, arduous and often dangerous journey from China to seek a better life in America, only to find themselves imprisoned under racist and discriminatory immigration laws designed to curtail the influx of Asian immigrants. Some were joining family members who had already immigrated, others were arriving with their families in tow, only to find themselves separated upon landing, sometimes forever in cases where one partner was allowed to remain while the other was immediately sent back to China (usually the wife).  Others were single and hoping to find work and create a life for themselves free from the poverty and hardship they’d experienced back home, as so many immigrants to America sought to do.

Many of these immigrants were detained for months or even years under harsh, prison-like conditions. Others were sent back to China, never to see their families again. Between interrogations by immigration officials—supposedly designed to test their credibility but in reality designed to exclude as many Chinese as possible—the immigrants languished in their overcrowded barracks. To help cope with their miserable conditions, many of them composed poetry upon the walls of their cells, some of it carved onto the wooden surface.

All of the poems on record come from the men’s barracks. The women’s poetry was destroyed by a fire which happened in 1940 and which resulted in the closure of Angel Island.

In this poignant and powerful collection, the lost voices of these women are imagined, remembered and brought to life for modern-day readers.

In the opening poem, ‘Angel Island,’ Goh recalls the legacy of the Chinese in America, ‘To the miners who sailed the Pacific / with dreams of golden rivers. / To the workers who built the railroads / over mountains and prairie skies. / To the farmers who made the desert bloom.’ She then contrasts the hardships they endured with her own relatively easy experience as a recent immigrant. ‘This is my history. / I crossed the sea. / I sat on a plane. / I came with the dream / of freedom / to speak / to believe.’

Goh then goes on to structure the collection in five sections.

In the first section, ‘Voices: Angel Island 1910-1940’, Goh imagines the experiences of the women who were imprisoned on Angel Island, waiting to go ashore and separated from their families. In the poem, ‘In a Wooden Building,’ she writes: ‘Each day we knit in silence, / socks for the children, / hats for the parents, / and our words swirl in the sea.’

‘The Waves’ tells a story about a young man whose father dies suddenly. In order to help support the family, he goes to America to work. When he makes enough money, the man returns to China, to marry his sweetheart and bring her to live with him in San Francisco. But when their ship docks in California, she is turned away, ‘There’s nothing / we can do. Foreign wife / of a Chinese merchant, your case / is automatically / denied.

In ‘Between the Sea and the Sky,’ a woman commits suicide while in Angel Island, and another tries to.

The second section is titled, ‘Echoes: San Francisco: 1910-1940.’ Here Goh tells the stories of the family members waiting for their loved ones in San Francisco. Some of these stories overlap, such as in ‘Letter Unsent,’ which is written from the point of view of the same Chinese merchant whose first wife was refused entry and who has now married for a second time, only to find his second wife detained at Angel Island for over a year. Also, in ‘Consolation,’ the husband of the woman who committed suicide, reflects on the experience. He is told she died of ‘causes unknown,’ but he knows the truth as he too has been on Angel Island and is aware of the terrible conditions there.

In ‘Tomorrow’ a man anticipates the joy of finally bringing his wife home. ‘I will hug you and never let you go. /  / I will bring you home to a feast.’

‘Work: Angel Island 1910-1940,’ includes the stories of those who were involved in running Angel Island. These include the privileged, smug and disdainful official whose decision changes lives for better or for worse. Then there are those officials who are the children of recent immigrants and who cannot help but see their own parents in the faces of the families who arrive. ‘In her eyes he sees his mother / fleeing a homeland plagued by famine, / huddled on Ellis Island.’ (‘Daydreams’) There is also the cleaner in ‘Housekeeping’ who tries her best to make sense of the words scribbled on the walls, having only recently learned to write herself.

In ‘Riot: San Francisco, July and August 1877,’ Goh skilfully and sensitively imagines the voices of all those who were involved in the Anti-Chinese riots. The Anti-Chinese riots happened during an economic downturn in the American economy when labourers, including those in trade unions, blamed the Chinese for the lack of available work, claiming that their willingness to work for reduced wages drove everyone’s pay down. Instead of trying to unionise the Chinese workers, they persecuted them instead.

She empathises with both the out-of-work labourers as well as the Chinese immigrants who’ve come to carve out a new life, much as many of those labourers did a generation before. ‘Maybe his wife just left him / in a string of shattered plates. / Maybe he’s looking for / something beyond himself, / a crowd he can become.’ (‘To Chinatown’) But Goh does not shy away from exposing their racism for what it is either. ‘I hear him tell the boy / he should count his blessing: / / unlike those dregs of Asia, / he was born to a worthy people,’ she writes in ‘Nob Hill’. In ‘Immolation’ she tells the tale of a Chinese man who committed suicide by overdosing on opium, unable to bear up any longer. A mob discovers him dying in an alley and stuffs the head of a duck down his throat.

In the final section and poem, ‘Pilgrimage’, Goh reflects on the history she shares with those long-ago immigrants as she herself pays a visit to Angel Island, ‘the borders we inhabit, the borders / we inherit, and in writing this story / / I find my way home.’

Islanders is a beautiful and remarkable collection, as important for the stories it tells as for the restrained and resonant way in which it tells them. Goh brings a little known piece of American history vividly to life and reminds us of how relevant this history is to our modern day experience of living in a world where people cross national boundaries every day in their search for a better life.

Readers can purchase Islanders direct from the publisher: https://squareup.com/store/conundrumpress/item/islanders

From Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Islanders-Teow-Lim-Goh/dp/1942280319/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Islanders-Teow-Lim-Goh/dp/1942280319/

Learn more about Teow Lim Goh’s writing by visiting her website: https://teowlimgoh.com/ 

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My cat, Othello, enjoyed her poetry too.

[1] http://www.cetel.org/angel_poetry.html

 

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