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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Feature on Claire Askew’s debut poetry collection, This changes things, published in Lothian Life

This week I spoke with the talented, prizewinning poet, Claire Askew about her debut collection, This changes things, which was published by Bloodaxe Books earlier this year. You can read the article here:

http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2016/05/this-changes-things-claire-askew/

Review of Mark Haddon’s poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea

 

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In truth, the dwarf worked in a betting shop / and wore an orthopaedic shoe. / The ugly sisters were neither sisters, nor, indeed, women, / nor were they remotely interested in the prince. –‘The Facts’

Haddon’s subject matter is wide-ranging and, characteristically, quirky. He deconstructs the everyday, thereby raising interesting questions for the reader. Such as in ‘The Penguin,’ which is about a trip to Cotswold Wildlife Park, where he muses, ‘A whole world and every part of it / a short walk from the tea-room.’ In ‘Nuns’ he speculates on the personal histories, and potential futures, of women who choose to live such a chaste, ascetic existence. ‘The Model Village’ is written from the point of view of an old man who has lived in the same village all his life.

These brief moments, which Haddon reveals, are both simple and profound, as well as being highly amusing at times. Take the poem, ‘Woof,’ for example, written from the point of view of a dog speaking to his human: ‘You bite me, everybody wants to know. / I bite you, no one gives a damn.’ Or in ‘Poets,’ where he writes, ‘There are whole streets / where their work is not known.’ My favourite poem in the collection is ‘This Poem is Certificate 18,’ which is a humorous assemblage of references to poets and poems both modern and traditional.

Although I’ve read (and enjoyed) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I was unaware that Haddon also published poetry. I came across this collection in my local library, while searching for another book. The title instantly attracted me and, seeing as it’s such a slim volume, there was no reason not to borrow it. And I’m glad I did. The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea is an enchanting assortment of poems, full of the same imaginative intellect which created The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

If you’d like to learn more about what lies behind these poems, you can visit Haddon’s website: http://www.markhaddon.com/poetrynotes.htm

Follow him on Twitter: @mark_haddon

Buy the book from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Talking-Horse-Girl-Village-Under/dp/0330440039

And don’t forget to pay a visit to your local library. You never know what treasures you might discover there. 🙂

 

Interview with Miles Salter: Writer, Musician and Storyteller

KIPPA MATTHEWS - COPYRIGHT NOTICE

Welcome, Miles! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your work, especially your latest novel, Howl: A Small and Heavy Adventure. Those who follow this blog will remember reading my review of Howl: A Small and Heavy Adventure.  For those who haven’t, you can read my review here: https://kendraolson.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/review-of-howl-a-small-and-heavy-adventure-by-miles-salter/

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Firstly, how did the story come about?

About six years ago, I was at home one day and I had this little moment of inspiration. What if I could write an updated version of Little Red Riding Hood, but with a modern flavour? That was the start. It was very much influenced by some of Roald Dahl’s writing. I wanted to write a book for kids that they would love. The book I would have loved when I was ten years old. But it took six years to finish it, mainly because I kept changing it as it went along. The wolf became a werewolf and the ‘Grandma’ character changed into Mrs Winters, the mysterious old lady in the story. I must have written  60,000 words but the final thing is only about 30,000 words. I am pleased with it, though, and I think I’ve kept to the spirit of that initial idea – a fun story with a frisson of something scary. The reaction from kids has been fantastic, so far – it really works as a kids book, which is great.

Have you always enjoyed writing or is writing something you came to as an adult?

I’ve always enjoyed it, but in a strange way, the better you get at writing, the harder it is, because you become much more self-critical as time goes by. I still enjoy it but writing a long project is a kind of work. You have to be very self-disciplined to make a long piece of writing hold together. It’s much harder than it looks. Apparently Fred Astaire once said of dancing:  ‘If you don’t make it look easy, you’re not trying hard enough.’ (Or words to that effect.) And that is exactly right – to make it seem casual, you have to work really hard!

What inspires you?

All kinds of things. Friends. Good conversation. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Van Morrison. Great writing. Funny stuff – old comedy things like The Young Ones or Monty Python. Tintin. Sacred places. The outdoors. A walk in the woods. Train journeys. Sunsets. Films. Poetry. At the moment I’m listening to a CD of Dylan Thomas reading his work from the 1950s. It’s on when I’m in the car and it’s fantastic.

I understand that you do a lot of work with schools. Could you tell us a little about this? Did your experience of working with children in a school environment help you with the writing of Howl?

I’d been doing creative workshops in schools for a few years, and kids kept asking me what books I had written. I’d written two books of poetry and a book for Young Adults, so I was really keen to write a book for the 8-10 age group. I’m doing quite a few schools things this year so I’ll tell them about the new book. When I asked children why they liked a particular book they often said ‘Because it’s funny’ so humour was really important to writing ‘Howl’ – it had to be as funny as I could make it.  So yes, the work in schools was a big help.

You’ve also written a series of picture books called Zip and Pop, as part of a medical research project with Queen Mary University in London. Could you tell us a little about how you became involved in this project and the purpose of it?

A friend of mine sent me a link to a job advertisement. Queen Mary University in London were looking for a writer and researcher. It was an unusual project. They wanted to research children’s bedtime routines, and I had to write some children’s stories that would encourage kids to brush their teeth. So as a team, we came up with these fun stories involving two frogs called Zip and Pop, and they had various adventures. They were always brushing their teeth. I was pleased with how the books came out. And I made some new friends – Sai Pathmanathan, the researcher, became a friend, as did Olivia Boutrou (the illustrator) and Niall Sweeney, the designer. Niall had a wicked sense of humour, we had these hilarious conversations about what diet the frogs should be on. The books were circulated in schools in London, where the research took place. I have a few copies of the books at home. The books haven’t been made available to the wider public. We also made a DVD with animations on it.  

In what ways does writing for children differ from writing for adults?

Writing for adults you can do much more in the way of characters’ lives, atmosphere etc. With children, you have to be more direct. Children aren’t so interested in ambiguity.

What are the greatest challenges in writing for a young audience?

There was a superb article written by Michelle Paver, the children’s writer, which appeared in The Writer’s Handbook in 2011. Michelle wrote about how hard it is to write for children because young readers won’t tolerate getting bored. You can get away with stuff for adults that you can’t with children. Before Howl was published, one publisher suggested we take out nearly 10,000 words. It was hard to take, but I think in the end it made it stronger. Waste nothing. Cut, cut, cut. The same is true of poetry and journalism. Know what you want to say, and say it. Roald Dahl’s work is impressive here – he keeps it pithy, and he’s always in control of the material. The story must skip along when you are writing for children.

Your website states that you are a ‘writer, musician and storyteller’. Do you see these roles as going together? How does music enter into it?

I’m lucky that I get to do lots of things around communication. I do often think that I should do one thing very well, rather than several things, but I enjoy the variety. I adore music, and play gigs with friends when I can. When I was younger I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen but the job was already taken! Yes they do go together. I take the guitar with me when I go into schools, and sometimes do gigs with poetry and music.

Could you tell us a little about some of your other books?

My first book was ‘A Song For Nicky Moon’ which was self published in 2010. It was shortlisted for The Times / Chicken House Children’s Writing Award in 2010. Only 100 copies were pressed and it’s not currently available. I’ve written two books of poetry – The Border in 2011 and Animals in 2013 – both with Valley Press. Howl is my most recent book.    

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’ve just started working on a follow up to Howl, as people are already asking me when the next book is coming! Also I’ve been working on a book for Young Adults, but it’s not ready yet. I’m hoping to finish it in 2016…everything takes an age!

Do you have any advice for budding children’s writers? Or indeed, children who would like to learn to write?

It’s not complicated. You only have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot. Immerse yourself in books. Read all the time, and lots of different things – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism, short stories. Everything! And write as much as you can. It could take a long time to become a decent writer, so be willing to keep going, and keep going, and keep going! Start young! The younger the better. So many writers were bookworms as kids, or at least they were interested in books. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to come and speak with us about your work. Best of luck with Howl: A Small and Heavy Adventure, and with all of your projects!

Kendra, thanks so much, it’s been great!

Howl is available from Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Howl-Small-Heavy-Adventure/dp/0993300014/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1452701413&sr=8-1&keywords=Howl+Salter

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0993300014

Visit Miles’s website http://www.miles-salter.co.uk

Follow him on Twitter @MilesWrites